Rob Katz

BoP Career Paths: Interview with Justin DeKoszmovszky, SC Johnson

“How do I get a job working with BoP strategy?” I get that question all the time. The truth is that there is no one answer – everyone’s career is different. However, we can learn from those who have successfully transitioned into a career working with the base of the pyramid. This series – BoP Career Paths – will interview BoP practitioners to learn how they became involved in the space, what worked for them and most importantly, their advice to job seekers at the nexus of development and enterprise.

Our inaugural post is an interview with Justin DeKoszmovszky. Justin leads Strategic Sustainability for SC Johnson’s Developing Markets Platform. He has spent nearly a decade advising, supporting and catalyzing change within major corporations and the last six years focused on accelerating the growth of sustainable enterprise.

I first met Justin in December 2004, when he volunteered at the “Eradicating Poverty Through Profit” conference convened by my then-employer, World Resources Institute. Justin was a MBA student, and he agreed to help us take notes during the track sessions – anything to get a free ticket to a $1500 conference, right!? Of course, Justin has come a long way since his days as a conference note-taker – first, he was on the BoP Protocol pilot team in Kenya. After earning his MBA from Cornell, he took a job with SC Johnson. According to his bio:

At SC Johnson, DeKoszmovszky is leading Base of the Pyramid (BoP) initiatives aimed at delivering business results while supporting the company’s advancement of social progress, public health and environmental leadership. These initiatives include non-traditional deep distribution, sustainable supply chain, anti-malaria programs and new business development at the BoP. While a graduate student at Cornell University in 2005, DeKoszmovszky was part of the original BoP Protocol pilot team that tested the protocol’s applicability as a business development and innovation catalyst. He earned his MBA from Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management in 2006 with a concentration in sustainable enterprise. Prior to getting his MBA, DeKoszmovszky was a Managing Consultant at Kaiser Associates advising technology and consumer goods clients on a variety of strategic and tactical issues.

Sounds about right. So, without further ado, let’s ask Justin a little bit about his career path.

Rob Katz, When you were 18, “what did you want to be when you grew up”?

Justin DeKoszmovszky, SC Johnson: I wanted to be a forest ranger, and build trails for the forest department. What about when you were 22?

Justin DeKoszmovszky, SC Johnson: At 22, I had just applied to – and decided not to join – the Peace Corps. Instead, I decided to be a strategy consultant; I wanted to be the best darned strategy consultant a 22-year old could be. Looking back, I guess I was more confused at 22 than when I was 18, but deep down I was always hoping to get back to my forest ranger roots. What changed between 18 and 22?

Justin DeKoszmovszky, SC Johnson: I went to Cornell, and started my degree there as a natural resources major. I was very focused on the environment. But as I took more and more economics courses – especially environmental economics – that became more interesting versus the science-related environmental work. As I was getting ready to graduate, I went through the process of applying to the Peace Corps, which mapped well against my desire to get out and see the world in a real, deep, different way. It also satisfied my interest in having an impact on the world. Between 18 and 22, I had a big increase in pragmatism and humility – I realized that I could make an impact on the world, but to do so, having good intentions wasn’t enough. I needed skills and experience. What was your first job out of college? How did you get it?

Justin DeKoszmovszky, SC Johnson: My first job was at Kaiser Associates, a small strategy consulting firm headquartered in DC with offices in London and South Africa. This was in 1999, at the height of the dot-com and telecom bubbles; unsurprisingly, I worked on a lot of telecom and internet projects. I did a stint with them in London as well as in DC. Why did you decide to go to business school? Why Cornell?

Justin DeKoszmovszky, SC Johnson: After DC, I moved up to the New York office of Kaiser. When their office in New York closed, I found some work doing consulting in the beverage industry – specifically milk, of all things. At the time, I was in my mid/late twenties and finally had a little time to read. I picked up books by Hawken, Hart, Lovins, Prahalad, Elkington – my forest ranger meets strategy consulting light reading.

These books helped show me a path to link my consulting skills and my interests in having a positive impact in the world. Before I even thought about business school, however, I went to Costa Rica to work with some eco-tourism organizations helping them green their operations even further. I realized that the impact I could by joining a small organization was more tangible, but limited. So I strategized about what to do – and started looking at business schools, and applied to Cornell and the University of Michigan. When was the aha! moment when you decided that BoP could be a career for you?

Justin DeKoszmovszky, SC Johnson: I went back to school to merge career and interest – consulting and sustainability. So I tried my best to get on Stu Hart’s radar. I got onto his calendar and gave him my best pitch about how I could help him and how he should help me. It was pretty audacious, looking back. Stu was really generous with his time – and his advice was to focus not necessarily on the environmental aspects of business, but rather the social side – the “base of the pyramid” aspects. It was a younger, more interesting, less developed field and therefore more of an opportunity for me as a young business school student.

I came out of that meeting somewhat crestfallen – I had really wanted to green companies, to work on the environmental side of things. I wanted Stu to help me find the way there, not point out some new field of study. But at the end of the day, it was some of the best advice I ever received. What do you do on a day-to-day basis at SC Johnson?

Justin DeKoszmovszky, SC Johnson: My title is Manager of Strategic Sustainability at SCJ in the Developing Markets Platform. This means that I am guiding the company’s activities in the grey area between purely for-profit (our “base” CPG business) and philanthropic (non-profit) initiatives.

It was an uncoordinated space when I joined, with lots of smaller projects. My job at first was to create a real strategy – in and beyond Africa – on how SC Johnson can operate in the nebulous area between business and philanthropy. Moving along the spectrum, I work on distribution of key products and services to low-income communities with new models/technologies. This example is very close to our base business, so here I serve more as an advisor to our local teams. We do a lot in terms of malaria prevention – which is of course related to our consumer insect control business, but also the sustainability interests of the company. We’ll soon be announcing several new partnerships with major anti-malaria players – stay tuned!

What originally brought me into the company is the BoP Protocol project, in Nairobi. This began in 2005 with a BoP Protocol pilot test – working to apply the Protocol with community-based partners and local consumers, with whom we co-created a new business that married the community’s and SC Johnson’s objectives and capabilities. Out of this Protocol pilot, and a lot of subsequent work, came a company called Community Cleaning Services. Now, almost 4 years later, the company focuses on cleaning shared toilets – which is an attractive cost-benefit proposition. At the local level, we have co-created a successful social enterprise that is delivering new entrepreneurial opportunities, incomes twice the official minimum wage, cleaner toilets in slums and doing so with an operational model that reuses packaging, closing the loop on waste. At the corporate level, we will be testing scalability and profitability as we shift from a pilot project to a business over the next 12-18 months. What advice do you have for a prospective employee of BoP initiatives?

Justin DeKoszmovszky, SC Johnson: The way I got my job was to take a bit of a risk. I came into SC Johnson on contract; it was not a guarantee. To get into this space, especially considering the economic realities and the challenges that companies are having investing here, you will need to take some risks to create an opportunity rather than finding a perfect job description.

Skills-wise, among many other things, you need humility and empathy.

Humility: these are massive issues [poverty, sustainability, gender, etc] and we’re not the first people to work on these things. Professionally, you need to tap into a broad network of people who are already working in this area (academic, development, etc.) You have to assume you have no answers, as well, which is really hard. You, the outsider, do not have any answers. We might have skills, assets, tools and a new perspective but thinking you are riding in on a white horse is dangerous.

Empathy: you need to understand the objectives, motivations and challenges of the people with whom you’re working. Working with the BoP, requires asking lots of questions – active empathy – to really understand those who you are working with. Outside the BoP, empathy is also crucial when working with large organizations (your own or partners) to catalyze change. It is a key skill in getting buy-in and engaging people.