When Myriam Sidibé says she has spent her entire career “trying to get rid of sh*t,” she is not speaking figuratively. First as a social mission director at Unilever, where she oversaw efforts to get 1 billion people washing their hands with soap in the developing world, and now as “chief mission officer” of her own company, Sidibé has been devoted to reducing death and disease caused by inadequate sanitation and hygiene.
In a 2014 TED Talk, Sidibé used the analogy of 60 airplanes full of children crashing every day to convey the scale of infant mortality around the world. More than 5 million children under the age of 5 die every year. “Most of those deaths are preventable, and that doesn’t just make me sad — it makes me angry, and it makes me determined,” Sidibé said in her talk. Hand-washing with soap would dramatically reduce early childhood death, but supplying the soap is only part of the issue, she says. A coordinated effort involving companies whose brands can reach into impoverished places is required to make large-scale impact.
Sidibé three years ago founded Brands on a Mission, which works with corporations to meet sustainable development goals that address health and well-being. In essence, she wants to help companies walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
“If you go to the roots of where obesity is coming from, it’s because of some of these brands and the marketing they’ve done,” she says. “What if we flip this on its head and see if those billions of dollars that are spent in marketing could be used to drive positive change? How do we bridge the divide between what those brands are saying versus what they’re doing, in a way that really benefits communities and consumers?”
Originally from Mali, Sidibé moved with her parents to Congo at age 12, when her father took a new job working for the United Nations. She was educated in Canada and the United Kingdom, and has lived in more than 20 countries, most recently in the United States — she finished a senior fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School last December. Her book, Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth Through Purpose, won an AXIOM business book award in 2021. She is focused now on scaling up her company’s efforts. She joined the Stanford Seed Transformation Program last year to strengthen the fundamentals of her business and enable “a transformational company.”
You had a traumatic experience as a child that presaged your advocacy as an adult. Can you tell us about that?
I fell into a septic tank when I was 10 years old. I thought I would die. There’s probably nothing worse than dying in a septic tank. But I was rescued, and it was a real awakening that having access to these very basic systems such as safe sanitation and toilets are the foundation of social justice.
Programmatic initiatives can help, but how important is infrastructure in improving health in developing countries?
I’m an engineer; I started my career working in refugee camps in Burundi and East Timor building infrastructure that nobody was using. The reality is that you’ll still find 70% of schools in Africa and Asia with no hand-washing facilities and no running water. We need infrastructure and a more holistic partnership that is also about good government and policies to encourage good habits. The behavioral aspect, the anthropological aspect, around the use of this infrastructure was much more my calling than building it.
You could have chosen a different route, working for an NGO, for example. What led you to a consumer products company like Unilever?
I fell in love with a word: consumer. Consumers were so much more powerful for me than beneficiaries, because that Kenyan woman that we were trying to pull toward us to be able to buy that bar of soap had a choice, even if she only had 50 shilling in her pocket. I mean, I do understand the limitations of consumers. But I saw in the private sector something that was very empowering, that was very dignifying, that was looking at this rural woman in Africa as an individual whose 50 shilling really mattered. I spent 15 years in marketing there, trying to understand what those “four P’s” were about. What would be the right price point that this woman would use to go buy the soap? What kind of packaging and promotion would make her want to wash her hands? And the place where she would buy the soap to protect her family?
Why is hand-washing such a powerful and effective intervention?
It’s not just about people dying. It’s also about people being debilitated by diseases. If you can get a woman to remind her kids to wash their hands before they eat and after using the toilet, the kids won’t get diarrhea that would keep them out of school, for example. So it’s about all the secondary consequences of not practicing those good behaviors.
What responsibility do corporations have to help solve global problems?
When they decide to adopt a social purpose, it needs to be holistic, and we need real advocacy and policy change accompanying that. I know that there is an opportunity to connect with marketing, but also with government and partnerships that are going to enable the environment for which these new types of business models can thrive. It’s not realistic to expect the brands to be able to build this infrastructure for free, but it is realistic for them to get involved in partnerships that will help make a difference. Not every brand or every company knows exactly what their social purpose should be, or how that’s aligned with their business model. The social purpose might even seem to run counter to the business model — like encouraging smart drinking with non-alcoholic beers. Where would they keep spending, even if things were tough? And I think that is the hardest part to do, right? Because it’s easy to just adopt any social issue, but then the moment that your business is challenged, that’s the first thing that goes out of the window. And that’s not fair for the social purpose you’ve chosen, or for the communities that are expecting you to stay there.
Your company offers a kind of playbook for corporations that want to have social impact. What’s important for them to get right?
I think inspiration is very important. I give a lot of talks on what it takes to be a world-changing brand. We are also hoping to create the very first ranking of brands with purpose, so that we can really see the difference between brands being able to understand, is my purpose driving impact? We have developed a tool that we’re calling Purpose to Impact, which we will launch this year, so companies can come to us and get diagnostics on what their impact is likely to be. We want brands to have purpose, but, most importantly, we want them to drive that to impact. And even help to transform existing business models to improve well-being.
How has your Seed experience helped?
Seed is a gem of a program. It is helping us build the basics of a company with purpose that is also profitable. From building better financial balance sheets to setting up more ambitious goals and reviewing our assumptions linked to growth, the sky is the limit for us, and we love that Seed believes that, too. That vote of confidence gives us the energy to keep at it.
So, are your kids good hand-washers?
No! And the funny thing is they’ll tell you, “Mommy isn’t either.” And my husband, who is an amazing hand-washer, will say, “I cannot believe your hand-washing habits.” I try to say that I know where they’ve been, so I know what they’ve possibly touched, but that’s just a poor excuse. But it also shows that there is a need for nudging. It isn’t like some people are hand-washers and some people aren’t. And this is where brands can really play an important role, to just nudge you at the time when you need to be practicing hand-washing.
Photos by Elena Zhukova