Gayle Peterson: 'You will know you have found your passion when you are awakened at 3am with a new solution'

Gayle Peterson is director of the Women Transforming Leadership executive programme at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School in the UK.

Ms Peterson completed an MSc at HEC Paris via a joint programme with Saïd that focused on business and social-sector strategies for global change. She also has a master's degree in law and social policy from the University of Illinois and is co-founder of an international philanthropic consultancy that has evaluated and managed more than $10bn in investments to address poverty, food, education and economic insecurity.

In her spare time, Ms Peterson enjoys reading, writing, hiking and managing a wildlife sanctuary she created in memory of her father.

The Women Transforming Leadership programme launches in September 2013.

1. Who are your business heroes?

My great aunt, who died in her 90s, was tough but fair, with a razor-sharp mind and a wonderfully disarming sense of humour. At her funeral, the minister described her as a “successful businesswoman living in a man’s world”. She was my first great role model.

Others include Indra Nooyi, chief executive of PepsiCo, pushing business to adopt multiple strategies to improve sustainability of profits, people and planet. And Pearl Buck, a remarkable writer who gave me my favourite quote and approach, which I use in the classroom: “To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth.”

2. What is an average day at work like?

It is unpredictable. I am currently undertaking the last 250 out of 1,000 interviews with social investors from the Bric countries and social innovators in Africa, Asia and Europe. There is no typical day – other than exploration and discovery and weaving my research findings on leadership into new programmes.

3. What would you do if you were dean for the day?

I would have all faculty work as manual labourers for a day. For example, as a worker in a Bangladesh textile factory, a subsistence farmer in sub-Saharan Africa, a maid in a London hotel. It would give all of us a more well-rounded perspective on our lives, our work, our visions and dreams and those of others.

4. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

Love what you do. You will know you are in “flow” and have found your passion when you are awakened at 3am with a new solution, a new idea, a new opportunity. Over the past 20 years, I have been lucky to have had many sleepless nights.

5. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

Launching the world’s first Impact Investing programme at Oxford with 42 students from 20 countries, of which almost half the class were women. The students were remarkable – many launching new impact funds to help move women and children out of poverty in Egypt, Indonesia, Italy and Ghana. Their enthusiasm for building funds to support business and powerful social change was humbling and energising. Moreover, it was a true learning partnership and a model for our future courses.

6. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

Steve Jobs said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” My teaching position blends the best of my experiences in social investing and social change with market development and business. I feel that my varied life experience and research has allowed the dots to find their way of intersecting and creating a rich and satisfying pattern.

7. What advice would you give to women in business?

I would repeat the core premise behind our new course, Women Transforming Leadership: women offer a new global paradigm to tackle complex problems successfully. Several strategic characteristics are required to do so: courage to take risks; ability to collaborate across continents and cultures; ability to build strong community; candour to speak the truth about what is and what isn’t working and recalibrate; creativity to push the limits of innovation by thinking beyond the boundaries; compassion to not be driven by your ego but by the empathy of others; and capital to recognise and tap the financial, social and environmental assets of your organisation. These seven C’s are the power women need to not just survive, but thrive.

8. What is the strangest thing you have ever done when teaching?

I begin one of my lectures with a series of remarkable images of deep space and then proceeded to quote TS Eliot – “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” – and the opening monologue from the movie Star Trek and ask students to join me. The point: learning is continuous and not linear, we are small in a big world and let’s have fun while we are learning.

9. What is the last book you read?

Last night I reread Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by children’s author Dr Seuss. I am giving it as a gift to a new college graduate. My favourite quote: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go …”

10. What is your plan B?

Writing a book which discusses my mother’s experience with care at the hospice while she was dying from cancer. Another plan B is opening an art gallery for aspiring artists. My son is a young artist and early on as a family we began collecting art from budding artists around the world. Art is transformative and what joy to be able to contribute to this process.

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