Generation “Yes”

Millennials are best placed to deliver the UN’s sustainable development goals, but only if their collective sense of purpose is channelled, says Darshita Gillies. The consultant, coach and CSR advocate tells Lawrie Holmes how this can be done.

Darshita Gillies is the embodiment of what can be achieved by harnessing the power of purpose. Born in Mumbai to a poor, lowcaste family, her rapid mastery of accounting enabled her to advance to a senior management role in a global investment bank – a remarkable tale of an individual’s determination to succeed against the odds.

But that is only half of the story. After quitting banking in 2007 and honing her skills in disciplines such as coaching and leadership development, Gillies has used her achievements as a platform to help individuals and organisations connect with their own sense of purpose. In the process, she has worked with a wide range of organisations around the world.

She is now devoting herself to championing the role of generation Y in delivering the 2030 sustainable development goals (SDGs) published by the United Nations in 2015. Endorsed by 193 member states, the 17 goals range in their scope from tackling poverty and inequality to providing clean energy and good-quality education for all. Together they constitute “a framework that addresses pretty much all of our social, political, economic and personal issues”, according to Gillies.

To this end, the SDGs need to be integrated into financial reports, regulatory disclosures, listing rules and funding requirements. And those best placed to do this? Millennials. These members of generation Y, born between about 1980 and 2000, will represent at least half of the world’s working population by 2020, as well as the largest consumer group.

“For any business to be sustainable, it’s important to understand the dynamics of this generation and how it thinks, works and wants to work,” she says. “So a lot of my work centres on the SDGs, primarily because I see these as a binding framework that can bring everyone on the planet together for purpose with action. Every organisation, from small, family-owned firms to large corporations, should look at the SDGs and ask themselves: ‘How does my business activity address these goals – in a positive or negative way?’”

Gillies’ work in this area has brought her in contact with a truly eclectic mix of clients, including some of the world’s biggest companies, communities of low-wage workers and even religious institutions such as the Vatican.

“My purpose is to connect people with their purpose,” she says. “I work with all these organisations to find out how we can come together to achieve something.”

Using a facilitative approach that she calls “intensive immersion”, Gillies helps individuals, teams and whole organisations “to manifest their true purpose. When we look at the core of every being, we realise that we all want to make a difference in this world.”

She continues: “I work one on one with leaders on organisational change, purpose, culture and values. This is about looking at the intangible value that exists within an organisation in terms of human potential and about how to tap into the purpose of every single employee so that they can all give their best to their organisation rather than passively accepting targets and just hitting them. Basically, I help people to connect with their passions and enliven the soul of their organisation.”

Rich tapestry

Gillies recently worked with Jaipur Rugs, India’s largest rug manufacturer, which has a network of 40,000 female weavers across the country. “It was a fantastic journey in getting them to arrive at what their real purpose is and summarise it in a sentence or two,” she recalls. “They said that they exist to co-create. Simply having that as a mantra has generated so much energy in their organisation. It allows everyone to share this sense that everything they’re doing is a co-creation. It’s not only a celebrated few who gain that reward; the whole ecosystem is honoured.”

This type of work has developed into something bigger and more ambitious, as Gillies explains: “Helping organisations to get better and better was still not resolving some of the global challenges that need to be addressed. That thought naturally moved me to take a broader view and ask myself how I could use my skills to connect a number of big institutions and help them. Most of these organisations were created at least four decades ago and their purposes have changed since then.”

Talking about her own experiences serves as a powerful way to connect and communicate with others. “When I share my story, it makes me more approachable. It makes people see that I am at one with them. They can relate to me and see that there is a way forward,” Gillies says. “My journey has been from the ‘small me’ to the ‘big we’. When I say this, I’m talking about being born in the bottom 1 per cent in the back streets of Mumbai; studying to become an accountant; and working at Standard Chartered, where I felt a sense of achievement and empowered to choose where I wanted to go.”

That achievement also prompted her to examine how her actions were affecting those around her and consider how she could be of service “rather than just take, take, take. I asked myself: how can I give and how can I create platforms on which people can connect with a shared purpose and achieve things that make a difference? How do I activate the potential of everyone on the planet in a way that we all feel part of, doing different activities but going in the same direction?”

To this end, Gillies is campaigning for millennials to be granted senior roles on corporate boards and key decision-making bodies that are focused on the future.

“A millennial representative in some shape or form at board level must make their organisation accountable for delivering the UN’s goals,” she argues. “We can connect millennials to find out what systemic issues are preventing us from achieving these goals. We can then work together as a team to address all the issues.”

If you build it, they will come

An optimist by nature, Gillies believes that the technologically connected world will provide the necessary solutions. “I have a visionary sketch of what is possible,” she explains. “It is feasible to create computer algorithms that would enable everyone to describe their key strengths – qualities they were born with and skills they have learnt – and the impact they intend to make in terms of their organisation, community, country and planet. The technology would then be able to connect them with people who possess similar or complementary skills, enabling them to come together and form a team to give effect to this.”

Gillies thinks that an effective way of enabling people all over the globe to engage with others with a shared sense of purpose is “within the realms of easy possibility. And people will respond to that,” she says. “If you build in the additional focus of the SDGs for the next 15 years or so, this is where we want to go – with the best technology, the best people and the best purpose.”

Millennials: Who do we think we are?

A millennial is anyone aged 35 or under who has the spirit of contributing to the planet’s regeneration and making it a sustainable home, writes Darshita Gillies.

Gen Y has been the subject of a huge amount of research – more than that afforded to any previous generation. For every study arguing that we are the lazy, self-entitled narcissists of the “me, me, me generation”, there’s another that refers to us as “generation we”, painting us as responsible, tech-savvy and interested in collaboration.

I believe that the key factor that binds people of our generation together is that we are hungry to learn and keen to experiment and challenge the status quo. We do not follow norms set by our predecessors. What we really want to do is be entrepreneurial and make an impact on the world.

Gen Y’s stake in sustainable development

Gillies believes that millennials will be highly motivated when it comes to delivering the UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals. This is largely because the goals match their priorities – in descending order, the “four Ps” of planet, people, purpose and profit – she says, referring to recent research by Deloitte, KPMG and O2.

“Climate change, biodiversity loss and other macro issues of planetary sustainability are of primary importance to young people,” Gillies observes, adding that any organisation found to be harming the environment is likely to attract the ire of millennials in particular.

The people aspect focuses on tackling social injustices such as inequality and discrimination. “Young people want these issues to be addressed,” she stresses. “They don’t want to live in an environment where such differences exist – and they do want to work with organisations that are trying to bridge these gaps.”

When it comes to purpose, “self-development is also important to young people, as we choose whom we want to work for. We are more inclined to seek out the most transparent and ethical organisations,” she says.

Millennials generally consider profit to be the lowest priority of the four Ps, according to Gillies. “It’s only important to the extent that the job or endeavour we choose meets our cost of living,” she says. “It is certainly not the primary reason why we do what we do.”