10 Things We Learned At Unilever Business Week 2016

Justine: Hello there, dear readers, we’re back from taking our longest hiatus yet to participate at Unilever Business Week 2016 and then to catch up on everything we missed at school because of BW2016. It was a profoundly wild ride that caused me, to not only be super behind in school work but also, dropped me to a 1.7 aka a D in my Theology class because my prof gave 2 quizzes knowing I’d cut.

10/10 would do it all over again though, because Business Week 2016 was amazing.

And I’m not just saying that just because they gave me fresh watermelon slices at every free meal in the Marriott for our 4 days and 4 nights stay.

Betina: Just to be clear, Business Week doesn’t have to be detrimental to your GPA, provided you talk to all your professors and provide the right excuse letters, you can get excused from your academic requirements. Personally, I ended up passing some requirements and taking a few LTs early, but it wasn’t too difficult with good planning. So don’t let that be what holds you back from applying next year 🙂

While we received a bunch of wonderful perks, we definitely learned a lot from what is probably the most intense week of our lives. Hence here are the

10 Things We Learned at Unilever Business Week 2016

One of our fellow Business Weekers took a pic of all the goodies we got!

J: A word about this post’s featured image before we begin: it’s a homage to our friendship. I usually say “Let’s do something stupid!!!!!!!” and Betina always humors me. This results in wacky, fun adventures. Like this blog! So we should all be thankful that Betina’s always game to humor me.

If reading about our exploits at Business Week isn’t your thing, then feel free to tour our archives and new website(!) for internship, resume, and interview tips! We write 2 regular series here on The Border Collective. The first is the Internship FAQ’s where we answer all your questions on interning. The second is called Intern-view, where we interview people who’ve interned at other places about their internship journeys and they give equally solid advice too!

And for those who really don’t know who or what we are, this is The Border Collective, I’m Justine, she’s Betina and we intern a lot.

We’ll also be debuting 2 new series here soon so there won’t be as long a gap between posts when we’re busy, so watch out for that! If you can guess what those series will be, props to you then!

Won’t keep you waiting any longer. Thanks for reading and hope we wrote something useful for you!


  1. Good companies work hard and play harder. Great companies work and play equally hard.

Justine: The culture at Unilever was immensely different from what I was expecting; you don’t see adults inviting college kids to join them for drinks later on the veranda everyday.

Betina: Drinking. Every. Day.

I don’t know how on earth they did it because we would all go to sleep past midnight and I would see them at the breakfast buffet full dressed and ready to work the next morning at 7am the next morning.

I remember on one of the few nights that we didn’t have a deliverable due the next day, I went downstairs to the veranda and ended up talking to one of Justine’s group mates (hi Alvaro). He gave me his beer to drink and I was holding it when I saw my boss approaching us. I was like “Sir, it’s not my drink!!” then shoved the glass back in Alvaro’s direction. Sir told me that it was totally cool, we all needed to chill, and then ordered me my own glass of wine. HAHAHA

Going into Unilever I was already well aware that they didn’t have a whole lot of work-life balance. I’d heard of the horror stories of people going into the company and becoming workaholics with zero time for a social life outside of Unilever. What I wasn’t counting on was that the employees probably don’t mind putting in all those crazy hours working because they weren’t always “working” 9-5 jobs behind desks; they also made it a point to have fun.    

J: Everyone looked so genuinely happy to be there to help out with Business Week, that it seemed fake. Tons of people had their laptops and were typing furiously while we were doing our modules but when it came to activity time, those same people were helping us out and cheering us on too. It was jarring to find a company that was so outwardly supportive of a project intended to find interns who are future ready leaders. Aka people who might take over their jobs.

Thankfully, I have the good fortune of always saying what’s on my mind (even though it causes a ton of trouble too), and someone from Unilever overheard me. Her reply paraphrased was,

Here, we know everyone wins if a project succeeds. There are no losers. So, it’s really in everyone’s best interests to be supportive and besides, we get to go out on the field too!

Is there anywhere else on Earth that thinks like this???????????????

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The chairman and CEO of Unilever Philippines, Rohit Jawa, talked to us during our first night!

B: I actually grew up in Unilever cause my dad was pretty high up in global headquarters and I’ve always known that they have a warm company culture for a gigantic multinational, but it’s super rare to see a company that keeps that distinct culture all the way down to the management trainees in local offices, so that was really cool to see.

A lot of my favorite moments, beyond working with the coolest groupmates ever, were when I was hanging out with the managers and trainees. It felt a lot like hanging out with older org mates. They’re more experienced and you definitely look up to them, but they’re plenty approachable too.  

Within 4 days I met over a dozen managers and got to talk to high-level employees. Given our crazy-productive year (P&G, Inkompass, Coca-Cola, L’Oreal. etc.), Justine and I are fairly unfazed by talking to such senior executives, but of the dozens of managers we’ve met in the past year, I can say that the Unilever managers were the most hands-on and the people I was least intimidated by.

J: My time on the veranda was spent in a heated argument with Unilever HR on what is the best white sneakers to wear with joggers or a dress. (Stan Smiths are the best but they’re not as comfy for walking in the long run, apparently.)

 

2. No matter how good you think you are, there’s always something new to learn. And that’s great!

J: Today’s society is a knowledge based one, and the best companies on Earth know that. So their focus isn’t selling products; it’s developing their people. GE does it, Google does it, P&G does it, and Unilever most definitely does it. That’s how amazing companies will survive the earth-shaking shifts happening in the workplace, thanks to millennials and Generation Z deciding they’re not going to play the workplace game the way our parents did.

Now how the hell does that connect to learning? Throughout our stay at the Marriott, all our activities were facilitated by Business Week alumni and notable members of Unilever Philippines. All introduced themselves with their career timeline, and I could feel my jaw drop so hard that I had to hold it shut for the rest of the day to keep anything from flying into it.

Everyone had a one-of-a-kind experience at Unilever that pushed them way out of their comfort zone, which I find exciting because learning new things is my vice.

In big FMCG’s like Unilever, you never stay in the same position for more than 3 years. You always get promoted vertically or laterally and it makes you a category expert in your field, which is key to an amazing, personalized career within the company.

(My current goal is to always have less than 5 people reporting to me, to be able to go off on international assignments plus be able to explore the city, and to be around great mentors no matter how old I am. Becoming a category expert is important for me to take on new projects, to keep future young people from thinking I’m a fossil, and lastly to keep senility at bay.)

People who thrive in the global stage are people who are OK with the fact that they don’t know everything. But they’re willing to learn the basics or better yet, find someone more knowledgeable to teach it to them. And that humility takes them farther than everyone else.

B: Justine covered almost everything, but I really emphasize that at Unilever, you will never be the most brilliant person in the room.

One of the core strengths of working with people from different backgrounds/ nationalities/areas of expertise is that everybody is brilliant in completely different ways. Unilever knows this and makes it a point to push your own brilliance even further through formal learning (as in classroom setting training/seminars) but more importantly, by placing you in teams with people who will push you and your ideas to greater heights and not letting you get too comfortable, lest you get complacent.

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The winning team from BW2016!

 

3. Amazing companies, like Unilever, take care of their own.

J: For my group, Pond’s Stars’ last dinner at the Marriott, we were fortunate enough to have more than 5 members of the ETS team sit and talk to us about their Unilever journeys. (ETS is a brand new function here at Unilever Philippines, formally created last December; they deal with pioneering tech solutions to everything they come across. It’s also the department I’m entering this August.)

One of them was an easily bored director for ETS; he gamely told us that every 6 months he’d be itching for a new job, so he’d go looking for something new, and Unilever took note of that. That’s why every 6 months he gets a different set of assignments on his plate to spearhead while simultaneously training his successor in every project he leaves behind.

Another regional director told us how he spent the first 1/3rd of his career in the UK, until he realized he was probably going to die there if he didn’t do something about it. He told Unilever, “I want to travel (with my wife coming along.)” And now, he’s gone to over 20 countries in the last 20 years with Unilever.

Again, this is crazy. These people spoke up about a personal preference, and Unilever took note. What’s even crazier is, Unilever delivered above and beyond what they asked for.

It’s proof that Unilever really listens to its employees and takes note of their wants too when charting out their careers. They take “a happy employee is a productive employee” to a whole new level.

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Another team from BW2016, Kung Fu Ponds-A! Do you get the pun??

B: Unilever was one of the first companies in the world to adopt a ‘pick and choose’ style compensation package for their employees. (Eg. If you don’t have kids, then free childcare is a useless benefit, so instead you can choose to put the budget into health insurance for your parents.) Their HR practices really are world-class and their attention to individual preferences is so consistently on point.

When I was a kid, my dad decided to leave Unilever because he wanted to come back home to the Philippines (at the time we were living in Europe). To make the transition easier for our family, my dad got transferred to and worked at Unilever Philippines for 6 months first, before officially resigning.

My schooling was shouldered by Unilever since my dad was an expat. I had only been in my school (International School Manila) for one year when my dad officially left. Unilever noticed this when they were making the resignation official and because “It’s not in the child’s best interest to leave a new school and new friends after only one year” they decided to pay for an extra year of tuition. For free. No strings attached or anything.

I went to the most expensive private international school in the country (tuition payment for one year goes into SEVEN digits PHP) and Unilever did this as my dad was quitting the company solely because it was in my best interest.

(I’m not even sure if I told my boss this story, but that is why Unilever is my dream company. They’re incredibly generous on a macro-scale, but they also make sure that the hard work of their employees is amply rewarded.)

 

4. There is nothing more empowering than being surrounded by equally high performers.

J: Ever been in one of those groups where you’re the only sensible, grade-conscious person, ergo, you’re the one who has to do all the work? Business Week wasn’t one of those times.

B: Definitely not.

I hate slackers. I can’t stand people who don’t contribute anything to the group. It can suck being the strongest link, because you end up having to compensate for everyone else’s weaknesses. It’s also a burden knowing that the most dependable person in your group is yourself. I’ve actually done individual projects instead of working with groups in some of my classes because unless my groupmates are dependable, I can usually come up with a better output on my own.

So my amazing Business Week groupmates were like a breath of fresh air. We came from different functions and had different strengths to bring to the table, but EVERY SINGLE PERSON WAS BRILLIANT. Everyone was a high performer so at no point did I feel like I was wasting my time. I also 1000% trusted their outputs, which took away so much of my stress.  I also felt like I didn’t have to doubt my decisions so much, because I completely trusted my groupmates to tell me if my ideas weren’t great or to come up with better ideas.

Getting to experience what it’s like to be on a team where everyone is brilliant, talented, skilled, hardworking, and consistently dependable was so life changing. It just makes me want to strive even harder so that I’m constantly surrounded by people who are that level of excellent.

J: Everyone was responsible. Everyone was incredibly efficient. And in my group, I was the slacker. Betina may have been with people she counts as “equally high performers” compared to herself, but I know for a fact that I was the weakest one in my group. I had the worst work ethic, and the least amount of useful technical knowledge in my group.

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Justine’s amazing, lovely, and hilarious group full of high achievers. Team Pond’s Stars.

Being with people whose normal work exceeds my maximum level of effort made me feel small. At the same time, it forced me to confront a lot of issues I have with raising my opinions in environments where I feel I’m the weakest at the table.

Business Week was a very real growth experience for me. That kind of insight is invaluable to my development into a better version of current me. Nowhere else would I have learned this part of me other than Business Week. But most importantly.

It renewed my sense of purpose for The Border Collective.

If I, who is a consistent C+ student with no extraordinary talents or skills to speak of, can get into a program made for future ready leaders, then what is stopping you from achieving your dreams?

B: Experiences and programs like this are incredibly motivating because it reminds you that you have to keep striving in order to keep working with such amazingly inspiring people. The people I got to meet are truly #lifegoals.  

 

5. My concept of time is changed forever.

J: I don’t know if we’ve said this before but 24 hours is a LOT of time. All you need to utilize those 24 hours effectively is

  • to learn how to compartmentalize it right,
  • have amazing work habits that stem from years of intense self-discipline,
  • have deep insights towards your work ethic that allows you to take advantage of your biases, and
  • create a supportive work environment to your efforts.

Easy, right??

I’m kidding. it’s incredibly hard and I haven’t even come close to mastering it. My self-discipline is notoriously low, just ask my blood sugar intake. So, working with high performing peers on a collapsed time frame project was incredibly difficult and empowering at the same time. Compound that with the nagging feeling of all the school work I’d left behind to be there, and you have a recipe for a nervous breakdown.

But I didn’t break down, because of 2 things. First, my wonderful, funny, and extremely different groupmates fed my competitive spirit. And second, time in Business Week is not an abstract concept.

Business Week applied the idea of collapsing a MBA program down to 4 days extremely well. Every hour spent there was well-utilized. From classes, called modules, to activity time, where we immediately applied what we learned, to brainstorming sessions, in our own conference rooms, snacks and drinks provided. And most especially to those few, precious hours of sleep we got.

I never felt like we weren’t given enough time to produce amazing output. And I think that just indicates that time is never an excuse for mediocrity. It’s all people and skill levels. If you have a low skill level in writing, you need to allocate either more time for you to write or find a great editor to elevate your piece. Find solutions.

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Near the end of the day, Business Weekers listening to whatever module was happening.

B: The day after Business Week I had to go to Ateneo to give a presentation at 4pm. Ordinarily, the idea of doing a major presentation from scratch and having 0% progress the night before would give me terrible anxiety. After Business Week, a full day to work on a presentation felt like a luxury.

When you’re forced to come up with brilliant ideas, debate them, plan them out, and present them in a span of 1-2 hours, suddenly every single minute has to be ridiculously productive.

One key takeaway is to set deadlines, not just to-do lists. I push for perfect, but when time is an element, sometimes perfect really isn’t feasible within the allotted time. Accepting that and saying “I will do the damn best I can within the next 4 hours then I will move on and work on something else” really helped me work not only with more purpose, but also with far less stress.

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