Be an entrepreneur with purpose, like Yuan Longping

Yuan Longping, the Chinese agronomist innovator who revolutionised rice production, died recently, aged ninety. He spent his life wandering rice fields with entrepreneurial endeavour. Yuan’s purpose was simple: to feed the world. His plants were tall as sorghum, taller than the average man. Their panicles hung full as brooms, and each grain was as big as a peanut. His hybrid high-yield rice wonder-plants helped alleviate famine and poverty, enabling farmers to feed a growing planet with fewer resources.

He was a city boy, born in Beijing, though he enjoyed the countryside, but what settled his vocation and lifetime entrepreneurial journey of purpose was famine. Between 1959 and 1961, in Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward to collectivise farming, he saw country people dying of starvation in the fields. He dreamed of bowls of steamed fat pork, but woke to chew on rice bran. From that point his mission was to make sure people were fed.

Before the famine he had worked on grafting, because that was the Soviet model and Mao’s command. Crossbreeding of plants was forbidden and genes, ludicrously, were dismissed as ‘metaphysical’. He grafted moonflowers on sweet potatoes, tomatoes on potatoes, but found that any inherited traits vanished in the second generation. Then he secretly read Gregor Mendel’s book Experiments on Plant Hybridization on plant genetics, and after 1960 he turned his full attention to China’s staple, rice.

Yuan began his pioneering research on hybrid rice in 1964, concluding that male-sterile rice plants were key to producing a vigorous, high-yield hybrid strain. He recalled looking through tens of thousands of ears of rice, often while walking barefoot through the paddy field, before he and his team located the right wild-strain plant besides a railway line on Hainan Island in 1970. Using the Hainan plant and a new technique for transferring genetic material into commercial strains, he and his team developed the high-yield hybrid in 1973. Large-scale cultivation began in 1976.

The rice plants he tended for decades, sowing and nurturing them, visiting daily on his motorbike to inspect them, deserved their name of super rice. The leaves were straighter and taller than ordinary, and the grains plumper. Yuan and his team developed hybrid strains that yielded 20% more rice than conventional varieties, transforming Chinese agriculture after years of famine and scarcity. Had he not been there, China would have starved. He transformed China from food deficiency to food security, feeding nearly one-fifth of the world’s population with less than 9% of the world’s total arable land.

Yuan spent his life researching rice and was a household name in China, known by the nickname Father of Hybrid Rice. Along with American scientist Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who developed high-yield varieties of wheat, Yuan was frequently cited as a leader of the Green Revolution. His hybrid strains now account for 20% of world rice production – rice nourishes half the world’s population to put this into context.

Rather than limit his rice technology and growing techniques to China, Yuan shared them with the world. He sent seeds to the International Rice Research Institute and travelled widely, across Asia, Africa and America, teaching farmers how to grow hybrid rice, as well as inviting foreign students to the Hunan Hybrid Rice Research Centre in Changsha. He partnered with the United Nations, and was awarded the World Food Prize, credited with helping ‘create a more abundant food supply and more stable world’. Yuan spent the five decades improving hybrid rice, which has now progressed to its third generation.

Even in his later years, for the sake of the people, he kept on working to make rice better: cross-bred with maize to be more nutritious, enriched with Vitamin A to improve eyesight, a strain of low-cadmium indica rice for areas suffering from heavy metal pollution. His more recent achievements included developing varieties of saline-alkali tolerant rice, which has transformed 6.7 million hectares of saline-alkaline land in China.

Outside the funeral home in Changsha on the day after his death, crowds came to lay a mountain of yellow and white chrysanthemums. Several of the mourners said that whenever they sat down to a meal, or merely smelled the fragrance of rice, they would remember ‘Grandfather Yuan’. Among the flowers were the traditional bowls of boiled rice, super-food for his journey.

Yuan had purpose to his entrepreneurial endeavours, it was personal. I think purpose can be explored on two different levels. There’s the big, transcendent ‘capital P’ Purpose — the ‘Why?’ as outlined by Simon Sinek, the mission-driven work that needs no further explanation, like Yuan. But there’s also the ‘small p’ purpose. This purpose is all about reframing our everyday tasks as contributions towards the bigger purpose.

Often, startups lose their sense of ‘P’ purpose in their day-to-day routines because conversations focus on execution — the ‘how’ to do a task, rather than the ‘why’ the task is being completed. By connecting these smaller tasks with a larger purpose, the work begins to feel holistic.

The precursor to action is embracing the emotion and complexity associated with hard work on purpose. There is no simple, input/output equation, which makes it hard to address purpose in the context of prevailing day-to-day activity. Founder-driven companies, such as Starbucks find it easier to put purpose at their core, because their leaders connect with and shape purpose emotionally as well as logically. Elon Musk is doing this with Tesla, working to make renewable energy and transportation available to the masses. There are other admirable businesses too:

  • Danone, the French food multinational, has achieved materially lower capital costs by meeting a set of ESG criteria, including the registration of certain brands to B Corps. This move is backed by a syndicate of banks committed to rewarding purposeful business with cheaper capital.
  • To Good To Go from Denmark sells cheap leftover food from bakeries, restaurants, hotels and supermarkets. Their product is basically an app, but what they’ve really done is raised a movement against food waste.
  • Einhorn, from Germany, produces vegan designer condoms. Their website reveals a purpose-driven start-up with this quote: We are tired of complaining about unsustainable, harmful and greedy and ugly products and as entrepreneurs we only have one choice. Do a better job ourselves.

So as a startup founder and innovator, what are lessons from Yuan, why follow a route of purposeful entrepreneurship? 

1. It identifies your North Star

When you are clear on your startup’s purpose and what you stand for (and don’t stand for), it’s easier to make decisions and assess opportunities. This could range from the employees that you bring into your team, to the partners you collaborate with, to the clients that you are trying to attract. Having that compass to guide you towards suitable opportunities you want to explore means that you have liberty to experiment, and through doing so find out what to have a laser focus on.

2. It shines a light on your innovation focus

One of the drivers of success for an entrepreneur is to ask questions and identify market needs, not simply building new gadgets. An inventor who was also an entrepreneur saw things this way – Thomas Edison famously said, I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others. I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent.

Yuan was curious, agitated and restless, he never believed that he knew as much as he should know. He learned from his innovation experiment failures and successes, adapted, evaluated and evolved this ideas. To be truly great and successful, you have to continue to stay dissatisfied and hungry. Apple’s iconic Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish campaign reminds us why this is important.

3. Purpose puts risk into context

Entrepreneurs use the time between coming up with a new idea and a start-up to experiment. High growth entrepreneurs have a clear, deeply held vision, and realise this starting period is the most valuable time because you can create tremendous value out of practically nothing. They are driven by their purpose, it shapes the long-term vision and over rides any near term disappointment or turbulence. It provides the values and culture of their organisation, giving them permission to do stuff as it is focused on their long-term outcomes.

4. They listen to their heart as much as their head

To be a successful entrepreneur, your goal has to be more than just making money. Growing your business idea into a startup venture is more about making a difference. Your goal must be tied to your story, your sense of destiny for yourself and your business. Success is about creating a legacy, and having an impact.

Innocent Drinks was launched by three Cambridge University graduates who quit their jobs. The idea behind Innocent is authenticity, as their tagline says, The fruit, the whole fruit, and nothing but the fruit. Its brand personality is playful and interesting, and in the early days Innocent experimented with labels listing ingredients such as banana, orange and a lawnmower that got them tremendous publicity. Inner and self- directed, they listened to their intuition and the world around them became secondary if it didn’t accord with their inner purpose.

5. Customers love a purposeful company

Think Apple. Apart from being hugely successful, they have a clearly defined purpose: Think Differently. By actively showing their commitment to purpose gives companies who do it well a competitive edge. Purpose leadership expert Jim Stengel’s ten-year growth study determined that organisations whose purpose is to improve the lives of their customers, outperform their competition and the market as a whole. In Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, Stengel documents how fifty of the highest-performing companies harnessed the power of ideals to tower over their competitors. 

Organisations whose primary focus is on their own financial performance do not create the competitive differentiation or emotional engagement required for lasting success. An over-emphasis on profit points the organisation inward, focus on short-term gains, there is little innovation, silos build, and mediocrity eventually prevails. Meaningful competitive differentiation requires an outward focus on the people who actually drive your business: customers.

Purpose doesn’t always mean saving the world. Wal-Mart, for example, when Sam Walton was asked about the legacy he hoped to leave said, Well, at the end of the day, I hope I could save people a little money so they could live a little better. That’s a pretty good purpose! 

Purpose is like your mission on steroids, it’s your meta mission. Peter Drucker famously said, Profit is not the purpose of a business, rather the test of its validity, cautioning against making profit the endgame saying that it was not only meaningless, but also potentially dangerous. As Drucker asserted many times, the true purpose of a business is to create and retain customers. You cannot spreadsheet your way to passion.

Every startup wants a competitive advantage, lack of differentiation results in continual price concessions and decreasing customer loyalty, over time profit and market share erode. Differentiation is determined through the eyes of the customer. A purpose-driven strategy can win you customers for life because the focus is on helping them be successful, by adding value to them with your solution, not just getting them to buy it. With the lens of purpose, sales messages go deeper, and the messages themselves add value. 

Clarity of purpose prompts product developers to focus on impact – like Yuan. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone because his wife was deaf, and he was trying to find tones she could hear. One of our greatest inventions would never have happened if he’d been trying to hatch a scheme to simply make money. Founders want to make money, but also want to make a difference. Holding a noble purpose enables you to do both. Remember Yuan, the drive to improve people’s lives produces the best innovation.

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