Q&A: Rupen Desai – ‘We Want to Build Businesses Our Conscience Can Live With’

Rupen is CMO & Venture Partner at Una Terra and Co-founder of The Shed 28.

In June of this year it was announced that Una Terra Venture Capital Fund would partner with The Shed 28 in a move that would see TS/28 cofounders Rupen Desai and Ranjit Jathanna taking on the roles of Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Communications Officer both for the fund and its constituent companies.

Una Terra Venture Capital Fund, which focuses on sustainability, has set the lofty goal for 2030 to save two gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (2GtCO2e) and remove one million tons of plastic waste that would otherwise end up in our oceans. The path to this goal is to actively invest in like-minded organizations in six key areas: packaging, waste, sustainable food, agri-tech, apparel, and sustainable finance.

To learn more about this ambitious venture, we caught up with veteran marketer, Rupen Desai. The former Global CMO at Dole Sunshine Co. and a figure on Forbes World’s Most Influential CMO list, has taken the role of outside-in CMO and Venture Partner at Una Terra, responsible for scaling the impact and growth of the fund, the companies it invests in, and the broader movement addressing climate change and the loss of biodiversity.


 

Over the course of our conversation, Ruben talks about the goal of building businesses where “people, planet, and prosperity thrive interdependently,” the roles and the challenges faced by marketers in building more sustainable businesses, sustainability trends he is excited about, and much more.


Una Terra and The Shed 28 formed an ‘outside-in’ Chief Marketing Office. Tell us more about that and what inspired this approach.

The Shed 28 is a purposeful growth company that uses the power of marketing, creativity, and innovation to help unlock new value models that benefits multi-stakeholders and scales impact. While a typical consulting model stops at counsel, The Shed 28’s “outside-in” model ensures the conception, development, and execution of strategic plans are in the same hands, bringing the accountability and empowerment needed for transformation.

“Through this partnership, we want to create a model where the companies we invest in, and scale will access world-class marketing leadership from day one.”

This is not new for us. In April, we wrapped up being the ‘outside-in’ Chief Marketing Office for Dole Sunshine Co. This partnership lasted 4+ years, where we helped architect and drive purpose-driven business transformation to impact all three – people, planet, and prosperity. This blueprint has been recognised and awarded across the world including the Grand Prix for Business Transformation at Cannes Lions, client of year awards at Clio Heath, D&AD Impact, to name a few.


 

Una Terra is an Impact Fund that focuses on the connected issue of climate change and biodiversity loss, whilst positively impacting businesses because they prioritise the long-term wellbeing of people and planet. Through this partnership, we want to create a model where the companies we invest in, and scale will access world-class marketing leadership from day one. This presents a unique offering for investees and investors, as well as the opportunity to accelerate their growth and commercial agenda.

We want to build businesses our conscience can live with and are looking to be a part of as many organisations that are serious about impact. When Una Terra and the financial markets came calling it was such a natural fit, with a shared purpose that drives both Una Terra and us.

Una Terra aims to build businesses where “people, planet, and prosperity thrive interdependently – never one at the cost of another.” Can you tell us more about this ambitious path?

It has now been 50 years since economist Milton Friedman stated his view on the role of business in society: “There is one and only one responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits for shareholders”. Driven by this singular shareholder primacy, for decades business has prioritised short term profit, at the cost of people and the planet.

This myopic, prioritisation of profit for the shareholder at the cost of people and planet have accelerated our climate crisis and loss of biodiversity, whilst leaving the society far more unequal and polarised. Here are some stats to prove that we need a systemic change. At current rates it will take us till 2073 to reach the SDGs, or 130 years to reach gender equality. We can’t accept that 91% of the world’s plastic does not get recycled or that we breached 1.5°C this June.

“Our opportunity lies in creating a new language of Marketing, a humanised language of value creation story that uses a regenerative mindset, where purpose does not stop at a two-minute advertising film…”

Our children do not deserve the planet that we seem to be leaving behind for them. Sustainability is, and has to become, everyone’s business. To achieve this, we start from accepting the fact that people, planet and prosperity are all interdependent. And unless all of them thrive, interdependently, together – systemic change will either be slow or not take place. The world is facing a number of pressing challenges, from climate change and environmental degradation to poverty and inequality.

Una Terra was born out of a common desire: to create financial prosperity, whilst creating prosperity for people and the planet – make the world a more sustainable place. We believe the connected challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss are the biggest economic opportunity of our times. The founding partners know the only way to deliver on this goal was to help grow technologies and solutions that create impact the world needs, at scale and speed.

What are some of the challenges in achieving these goals?

We need to overcome ‘short-termism’ and stop looking at growth from a singular lens of ‘shareholder prosperity’.

This begins with changing how we view and measure success – where we generate a positive return to financial, human, societal and planetary capital, ensuring well-being for all. This will fuel the creativity, the innovations, solutions needed between individuals, society, governments, and companies to move towards a well-being economy, in which everyone thrives, not just a few.

“We need to overcome ‘short-termism’ and stop looking at growth from a singular lens of ‘shareholder prosperity’”.

Financial capital with a conscience will play a huge role in this, where the financial markets don’t just deliver returns but fuel action in the form of solutions we start scaling today, and deliver tangible results for all three – people, planet and prosperity, never one at the cost of the other.

What’s also not helpful is, unfortunately, climate doom-ism is becoming as harmful as climate deniability. We need a new narrative, an enthusiastic one, a positive one – one that sparks images of a future worth having. We need actions to spark this future, one that helps write a different narrative, one that is shaped by a collective movement that connects and inspires the world, steering it towards a future where the human race and the planet thrive.

How does marketing play a role in building more sustainable businesses?

I believe sustainability is the biggest opportunity, of our time, for Marketing.

In the past, Marketing had a seat on the table, as we were leading value creators. Over the last few decades, we have lost our way and started celebrating extractive value creation, concepts like ‘fast fashion’, ‘planned obsolesce’, ‘upsizing’, ‘premiumisation’, without thinking about the extra packaging and plastic thrown in the mix, celebrating penetration and consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks. Our opportunity lies in creating a new language of Marketing, a humanised language of value creation story that uses a regenerative mindset, where purpose does not stop at a two-minute advertising film – but changes what the company makes, how it makes it, how it packages and ships it, how it makes consumers feel and behave – and how this leads to less waste and more well-being – not just for society, but also the planet.

Our opportunity lies in going back to value creation, where this value is prosperity for all stakeholders, not just profit for the shareholder at the cost of others. Business growth should have a positive impact on people and the planet, not an extractive one. The Shed 28 was born, almost 5 years ago, to help businesses grow at the intersection of People, Planet, and Prosperity. We know that when this is done right, the more these companies grow, the larger the “purposeful” effect prosperity will have on both people and planet.

“Whilst most companies are trying to become ‘sustainable’, most companies get caught between an extractive language of growth and sustainability efforts that try and do less harm.”

We have created a new language where purpose and sustainability sitting at the heart of the economic model with Dole Sunshine Co., and now as both Chief Marketing Office and Venture Partner, we will help Una Terra and its investee companies define their go-to-market strategy, accelerate growth, or get ready for the next stage in their journey, scaling their impact and making investee solutions more accessible.

What opposition does the “sustainability” brand in general face and what are some strategies to overcome it?

Whilst most companies are trying to become ‘sustainable’, most companies get caught between an extractive language of growth and sustainability efforts that try and do less harm.

Imagine selling sugary water in a plastic bottle. The extractive language of growth celebrates selling more of this to the world; whilst another part of the same organisation is catching up to reduce the impact of added sugar, increased plastic, water scarcity and more….and now imagine who wins this race when success is defined, singularly, as ‘profit for the shareholder’.

For brands to be truly and genuinely sustainable, purpose and well-being for the society and the planet will need to be integrated into the economic model as a driver for growth not a ‘nice to do’ on the side, whilst extractive business grows. We realise this is not easy, and we are talking systemic change, here. We know we need rapid adoption of sustainable solutions and brands at both speed and scale to tackle 1.5°C and climate change.

Adoption faces a few challenges. The ‘cost’ it comes at, sometimes it is more expensive for people to incorporate it into their daily lives or from a business perspective, it may impact the bottom line to implement.  This leads to what we call ‘in-action’. Inaction is not the result of a knowledge deficit, but rather a deficit of both creativity and realism in solving problems.

What we, at The Shed 28 come in to do, is find innovative and realistic ways where we can scale adoption of sustainable solutions – by baking ‘impact’ into the business model, the more we grow the more people, planet and prosperity thrive interdependently, and together. Una Terra allows us to ensure the financial markets don’t just deliver financial returns but fuel climate action in the form of these impactful solutions we start scaling, at speed, today.

What are some companies Una Terra is currently working with and what do they do?

Our recent portfolio includes:

  • Tumelo – a global fintech specialising in pass-through voting technology.
  • GreyParrot – which has created an AI-powered waste analytics system to increase transparency and automation in recycling.
  • iCLIMA Earth – a minority, female-led green fintech firm focused on redefining climate change investments.
  • Pulpex – a unique, first-of-its-kind pulp packaging solution that delivers deliver sustainability through renewable eco-packaging. Pulpex is the only investment we have exited so far at 7x.

Una Terra also works with a variety of partners and advisors in the areas of academia, asset and fund management, banking and finance, corporate governance, risk and compliance, sustainability, and supply chain, among others. Some of our partners include:

  • World Economic Forum’s Uplink, an open innovation platform that creates bridges for entrepreneurs to connect to the investors, corporate partners, experts, and governments they need to scale.
  • B-Corp Europe
  • Victoria Hurth (Cambridge CSL, ISO); Rob Opsomer (Ellen McArthur Foundation); and Karl Burkart and Justine Winters (One Earth founders), who are part of the Una Terra Sustainability Impact Committee
  • Sophia Kianni (the youngest UN Climate Advisor to the Secretary General), who is part of the Una Terra Gen Z Board
  • Dame Tessy Antony de Nassau of Luxembourg, who is an Una Terra Advisory Board Member.

We will also announce further partnerships in the coming months, so do stay tuned to our website.

Tell us about your own journey that led you to take a career path emphasizing sustainability.

My journey to live my personal purpose (building businesses that my conscience can live with) is a combination of serendipity and being intentional, for the right opportunity.

Unilever was Mullen Lowe’s largest client and their journey on the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan and building purposeful brands shaped a lot of my formative years around the power, the real change purpose done well can have.  In my time with my time at Edelman, multiple stakeholder action and communication played a role in shaping my views on creating the right conditions for change.

This journey became less serendipitous and more intentional with having girls of my own, 10 years ago. Mia and Mae, who are 10 & 7 now, force me to want to change a world where we cannot wait for 2073 to reach the SDG’s nor wait 130 years to reach gender equality. I realize that I must use my ‘superpowers’ to create a new language of growth, one that is not extractive but humanized & regenerative.

My co-founder, Ranjit Jathanna, and I set up The Shed 28, so we become better fathers, not just better Marketers & communicators. The transformation blueprint for a 170-year start-up, called Dole Sunshine Co., the work we are doing in making the beauty business regenerative with Unilever’s house of Elida, accelerating sustainability with Zespri, creating swimwear from left over plastic in the oceans with Copenhagen Cartel, or the new movement we intend to create with Una Terra is our effort to using our superpowers towards what we leave behind, for our future generations.

I am a firm believer that creativity & technology has a huge responsibility on the people and planet it serves. So, while I am – and will continue to be – an accidental marketer, as I never expected this to be my career trajectory, sustainability and partnering organizations to thrive at the intersection of people, planet, and prosperity has become our full-time obsession.

What are some sustainability trends that you are most excited about?

Our work and thinking around Dole’s partnership with Ananas Anam on Pintaex was quote exciting in shaping how we, as a world, think about waste. After all, waste is not waste till we decide it is waste!

But the area that excites me most is Climate Optimism. We are at the crossroads of two equal evils – climate doom-ism and climate denial. We need a new narrative around climate change. A new set of images and stories that will unleash our positive emotions about the transition. That show us what it would be like, inspire action and create a sense of purpose. This narrative must create an emotional activation that will help us to overcome our polarisation and anger. Optimistic activism is a movement I am excited to be part of, because it embodies hope, innovation, and positive change.

“Optimistic activism is a movement I am excited to be part of, because it embodies hope, innovation, and positive change.”

By celebrating success stories, innovations, and planet-positive initiatives, optimistic activism motivates others to adopt sustainable practices, instead of “scaring or bullying” them into it. This creates a sense of optimism and possibility, fostering a collective belief that we can overcome environmental challenges. It mobilises people towards more sustainable thinking and behaviours, ultimately contributing to a more resilient and harmonious relationship between people, planet, and prosperity. I think it was David Attenborough who said the below in COP26 that sums it up best, “If working apart we are a force powerful enough to destabilise our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it.”

What can we expect to see from Una Terra in the future?

By 2030, Una Terra Venture Capital Fund aims to save 2 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (2GtCO2e) and remove 1 million tons of plastic waste that would otherwise enter the ocean through actively investing in likeminded organisations in six key areas of focus: packaging, waste, sustainable food, agri-tech, apparel, and sustainable finance. And the fact that half of the fund’s carry is linked to how we impact the connected issue of climate change and biodiversity loss provides proof toward how serious we are about achieving what we have committed. Putting people, planet and prosperity even into how we are remunerated.

However, we do realise that climate change and loss of biodiversity need systemic change. So, in the near future, do expect Una Terra to be a larger movement getting into education, media platforms, positive activism, using catalytic capital as well as philanthropic capital to help scale solutions that meet these challenges, with speed and at scale. We’re constantly looking for innovative partners, scaleups that can collaborate with us to address the world’s largest problems, specifically within the areas of climate change and biodiversity restoration.

We’d love to meet any potential partner that is interested to collaborate with us, be it as an investor or a partner. After all, #purposeful is what #purposeful does.


Quick Hits:

Book everyone in the industry should read:

I suspect that all of life’s lessons are in The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson.

Favorite show you’re watching lately:

The Newsroom created by Aaron Sorkin

One album you would take to a deserted island:

Chants of ‘Om mani padme hum’. They have a magical impact on me.

Something you want to learn or wish you were better at:

I am a work in progress and will always be. I guess I will always want to be better – a better father, a better friend, a better partner, a better marketer et al.

 

Read More

Creative Work

subscribe & get more brand in your diet

newsletter

get more brand in your diet

We never share your info,
we only share ours