“I am grateful for the opportunities that I have had with Diesel Canada and my philanthropic endeavors; being involved in so many projects I am passionate about opens up all kinds of new opportunities to collaborate and learn.”
-Joelle Berdugo Adler, President and CEO of Diesel Canada, Founder of ONEXONE
Joelle Berdugo Adler, along with her future husband Louis Adler secured Canadian exclusivity for the Italian-based Diesel fashion label in 1987. Their leadership and entrepreneurial savvy helped grow the brand into one of the most sought after labels in the country. Joelle’s life took a tragic turn when her husband passed away at age 55 after a long illness. It was this life-altering event that led her to create the non-profit foundation ONEXONE, which aims to improve the lives of children in Canada, the U.S. and around the world with programs dedicated to five fundamental pillars: water, health, education, play and food.
In this exclusive Captivate Profile, Joelle shares what keeps her motivated in business and in life.
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Captivate: Diesel Canada Inc. and ONEXONE are two very different organizations, how do you successfully juggle both?
Joelle Berdugo Adler: I am grateful for the opportunities that I have had with Diesel Canada and my philanthropic endeavors; being involved in so many projects I am passionate about opens up all kinds of new opportunities to collaborate and learn. It is through the incredible teams that help run these two organizations that we are able to accomplish so much, and are able to continue to work towards each vision.
But, Diesel and ONEXONE are not mutually exclusive; we have been able to leverage Diesel’s marketing and business savvy with ONEXONE, while the respect and goodwill ONEXONE has earned has, in turn, helped the Diesel brand through their partnership.
I relish the opportunities I have had working with both brands – but I also believe that I haven’t slept much in the last 10 years!
C: What inspired you to create ONEXONE?
JA: ONEXONE was founded on the belief that every single life is precious and that as individuals, we have the infinite power to make a profound change in the life of another person.
This epiphany came to me in the middle of the night, right after Sept 11, 2001. I had been sleeping in the hospital since August 26, when my husband had been rushed in with a catastrophic illness. At that time, the doctors had made it clear to me that he was not going to survive long. They also made it clear that they were not going to “waste resources” on a man who was not going to make it. Sept 11 brought more horrific news as I grappled with the news my sister was describing to me about the terrible tragedy taking place in New York. That night, I watched the towers come down. During a commercial break I saw an ad for African relief, and at that moment it became clear to me that in this world there was little value for one human life. Every day we were making decisions – either economic or ideological – to sacrifice lives. I promised myself at that moment that I would spend the rest of my life promoting the value of one human life.
After the loss of my husband, with the help of several close friends including Edward and Suzanne Rogers, I established a foundation in 2005 in his memory that soon became known as ONEXONE (one by one).
C: ONEXONE strives to improve the lives of children around the world. Are you seeing progress
JA: There are still so many issues around the world, and so many still in need. As the developed world faces increasing challenges, our ability to help the developing world will become more and more difficult. With 7 billion people on this earth, poverty is on the rise and our domestic problems are becoming more acute. That being said, we are feeding over 3,000 children a day in Canada through ONEXONE’s breakfast programs and we are making a difference in many other areas of the world through our other projects. I see great progress and potential in Haiti as well. ONEXONE has helped raise millions of dollars in donations and supplies. We have helped support the creation of a new pediatric ward at a hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti, which will provide 5,000 in-patient and 35,000 out-patient medical services every year to children.
I know that even with all the work we are doing, we are part of a very large movement. I also fervently believe that the power of one person is infinite but the amalgamation of many individuals is exponential – we all need to work together more to make a positive impact.
C: How did you get high profile celebrities, like Matt Damon, to become involved with your organization?
JA: Matt is an incredible individual who works tirelessly for many causes. He is truly a man of honesty and integrity who puts the cause first. We were very fortunate to be introduced to Matt and his production partners in early 2006, when they were getting ready to launch their H2O Africa foundation. Through this organization, they were dedicated to the cause of bringing water to the more than 1 billion people in the world without water access and the more than 2 billion who are water insecure. We decided to partner up at our ONEXONE event in 2006 in Toronto and the rest, as they say, is history. I personally became involved in the movie “Running the Sahara” which was produced by Matt; it was a documentary which we were all proud of, that served to highlight these water issues.
We have been very fortunate to have had much support from great ambassadors like Matt and Frank McKenna (Deputy Chair of the TD Bank Group and former Canadian ambassador to the United States); they have both lent their incredible voices and energy in support of ONEXONE.
Their support has allowed to us reach an even greater number of people with our message, and has helped turn the world’s attention quickly to those in the greatest crises. I remember travelling to Haiti in 2008, just after they had been hit by a fifth hurricane in a short period of time. There was no sign of relief funds, food or water; we could not explain how the world seemed to be turning a blind eye to the suffering of this nation. Matt and Frank led the mission, and were able to use their tremendous media relationships to attract the attention of worldwide press. Together we were able to shine a spotlight on the situation. It allowed us to bring the floods and devastation to the forefront throughout the rest of the world.
C: When you encounter hurdles in business, what drives you to keep moving along?
JA: I am unquestionably an optimist; I live by the motto “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. I travel often to some of the world’s poorest nations, often just after major disasters have struck, and I firmly believe that no matter what the situation, we can make things better. Did you know, for example, that the Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as the one for opportunity – this is a belief that I live by.
I know that no matter what the issue, something good is going to come out of it or the journey will be a profound one. I don’t let myself get stressed about things I cannot control; I never quit and I believe that if I focus enough and really work hard at something I can make it happen. I don’t dwell on where I have been or what I have accomplished because in the whole scope of life it isn’t important. I don’t look too far down the road because I know life changes in an instant. So I live very much in the moment. I believe life is a constant set of cards that we are asked to play out as best we can. I do believe in dreams and working today to overcome obstacles to make them a reality.
C: What do you think is necessary to succeed in business today?
JA: What is needed to succeed in business, or any other endeavor, is simple: an incredible team at the table to help achieve our goals. More and more it is becoming clear that the drive for the bottom line is creating a lack of respect for the most important asset we have: human capital. You cannot achieve anything without a great team of people working alongside you; I don’t have employees, I have my team members, or partners or associates. I have heard the CEO of Chrysler say that he would never have attempted the massive revitalization of the automotive brand had it not been for the team he met when he arrived there.
In business, it is also very clear that team members who are truly engaged in social change as part of their jobs feel better, do better and are more proud to represent their organization. Companies not incorporating social responsibility into their business and financial models will lose out; we are a family and as such we have these shared values.
A business is a living and breathing entity and its core values have to represent not only its product or service, but also those of its employees, shareholders and everyone else involved. The brand that is seen publicly must be authentic in this respect – people very clearly can see right away who is in it for the right reasons and who is in it just to sell product.
C: How do you keep your teams motivated?
JA: I believe that people have to be empowered and given as much responsibility as possible in order to thrive. People also want to know that they can grow within an organization. Stagnating in the same job for too long can be demotivating, and this is a big issue within organizations.
We are facing some very important challenges in today’s economy. Big corporations are so focused on the bottom line and their returns to shareholders, and can sometimes lack long term vision. I see the same issue of short-sightedness in our governments; long term decisions are simply being avoided. The decisions made today are about delivering profits now, because tomorrow it may not be their problem; long term visions are no longer appreciated or accepted.
I believe employees in all organizations are seeing this and, to some extent, they are losing their passion and drive. This is what I see in all walks of life. That is why for me it is critical that whatever I do is driven by decisions which put the cause, idea, vision and dreams first – profitability is obviously important, but I believe that it will inevitably follow because we are all working together for one common visionary goal.
C: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs hoping to create positive change?
JA: My advice to entrepreneurs is simple: understand how you can leverage your business model to affect positive change. There are always ways to give back, and since so many new companies often struggle with limited financial resources, I don’t believe it must always be monetary.
I believe that simply allowing your employees to volunteer once or twice a month can have a huge impact, but there are other ways too; companies just need to get creative. For example, an entrepreneurial software company could ask its employees to donate their old computers and time to a local school to teach computer skills. A small restaurant or grocery store could seek out a local food bank and see if supplier s can be engaged to help out with food donations – it doesn’t take much to help feed a family. These small steps add up to make a difference, and help to positively change the world.
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This interview is part of Captivate’s series called “Exec Thursdays.” For more of our interviews, click here.