Note: this is the music I was listening to while writing this post.
Earlier today, I was looking for something and stumbled upon this video of the highlights of the Global Competitiveness Forum I spoke at in 2011 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. My panel was called “The power of Unreasonable People” and I come at around 4:46.
It reminded me of a horribly scary situation I found myself in at the same Forum 2 years prior to the 2011 one. Something happened that could have aborted my speaking career on such prestigious stages.
So what happened? I am very embarrassed by it, but I am one who likes to laugh about and share my misfortunes once the stinging stage has passed.
When I received my invitation and saw the list of speakers, I first thought there was a mistake in my being invited. I mean the list was full of titles like CEO of Airbus, Chairman of Goldman Sachs, CEO of 3M, Former Prime Minister of Canada, Former Prime Minister of Great Britain, and so on and so forth. And then me, Magatte Wade, this very young woman, barely out my 20s, President of a small company, with my name on a list of the Who’s Who of world leaders. I remember turning to M and saying “Could they not find a better African token? This is ridiculous!”. To which M responded: “I do not think that is what is going on. You need to give yourself more credit. And even if it was, you will show them that you earned your presence there”. I liked that!
And then, I learned I was set out to debate Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the Chairman and former CEO of Nestle, on the importance of Organics. It turns out that the organizer was 100% sold to my commitment and engagement in sustainability.
I remember coming on stage full of confidence. After all, I had nothing but disdain for Nestle and most of their practices. They were one of the reasons I started my first company. I remember how in front of a crowd of several hundred of the world’s leading movers and shakers – at one point, in the midst of a passionate debate on organics, I turned and pointed to him saying “I believe in criticizing by creating. You are one of the reasons that I created Adina,” a line which pleased the crowd greatly, putting him on the defensive from there on out :). I was doing good until our moderator, Riz Khan (prominent BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera journalist) asked me the question that almost ruined everything. He asked a minute long VERY technical question on water. Water is one of Nestle pet peeves and Brabeck’s specialty. M had wanted to prep me on that topic and I brushed it off because I found it too technical. Poor M, he was listening on via Skype through my computer that I set up next to me. He was cringing, but there was nothing he could do for me anymore at that particular moment.
In any case, and as Riz Khan was finally finishing his question, I realized that I had no viable answer for him. I felt a horrible feeling of disappointment growing in me. I had no place in being there in the first place. The fact I had no relevant answer to this question was the proof. Big swollen tears started to form , and as I was getting ready to get up and leave the stage crying, the miracle happened. Brabeck, who had been stung by what I told him earlier, lost all his manners and did not let me answer the question, but instead went into defending himself from my attack of him earlier. Riz Khan tried, as a gentleman, to give me a chance to answer his question, but then the same thing happened again. By then, I just told him :”It is okay, Riz! Let’s move on.”
And from there on, I just picked up the ball and pulled them all back into my turf, one that I knew I controlled very well, because Organics and sustainability is something I live for and believe in in my core. Brabeck was so mad he blurted out “Organics is just a marketing gimmick!” Wow! Really?!? From the man who had declared that his Chairmanship would be under the sign of “Organic & Fair Trade”. He was lucky Twitter was not en vogue yet…
A few years later, the Forum’s Director emailed my husband the following:
“You know, the highlight of my 5 years doing this GCF was the year Magatte spoke and just before she went up on stage, on a session in which I had deliberately placed her and the Peter Brabeck-Lethmate, she looked at me and said something like, “Ray, this is real drag. I’m going to liven it up a bit.”
That was even scarier than the day I ran into a pride of lions on the Okavango. And just as beautiful.
Sometimes, all you need is luck!