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Kristoffer Gandrup-Marino. Chief, Innovation, UNICEF Supply Division, Copenhagen

Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in a hippy family and went to a hippy school where a key theme was the need and vulnerability of the underprivileged. I later studied organisational sociology and philosophy of leadership. After my studies, I worked in a consultancy, started companies, worked on venture capital investments, and a variety of other hard core business related activities.

Then I landed the position with UNICEF. Starting at UNICEF was a bit like coming back to my roots, just with a deeper experience and a greater understanding of how the private sector works, including the amazing rationality and efficiency as well as the limitations of this.

What do you do?
I lead our Product Innovation activities. This has included outlining the scope of what this involves, building the processes and structures, as well as the overall responsibility for managing the portfolio of approximately 20 PIPs (Product Innovation Projects).

What’s your working day like?
Meetings, emails, meetings, emails, flights, meetings and emails. In other words, a lot of communication about strategy goals, alignment and coordination of projects, as well as general management stuff. As we are a cross-sectoral unit, we not only work with UNICEF colleagues from diverse fields but also with people from the private sector and academia.

How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?
UNICEF helps those children who have the very least in the world with things that can improve their lives. Whenever there is a product we would like to buy to help these children and we can’t find anyone who can sell us this product, we get involved. We collaborate with companies to get these products developed so that we can make children’s lives better.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
What I am now 🙂 Kidding aside, I actually always dreamt about being an innovator. From when I was very young I came up with both technology ideas as well as businesses (usually involving trading something). With the role I have at UNICEF, I have found a way to combine the best of the business as well as the humanitarian world.

How/when did you join UNICEF?
I joined in August 2013. My way in was via a standard application. My wife, who works in UNDP, came home one day and threw the posting in front of me and said, “This job is made for you. You are too young to get it, but why not give it a try.” So I did!

What are the most satisfying parts of your job?
Feeling you are on the way to making a real difference. I often say, it takes one good meeting a day to make it a good day. We have the potential to make such a difference. Having discussions with people where rationality and content-knowledge brings you closer to making that difference, gets me extremely excited.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Working with Innovation at UNICEF involves driving projects within a number of different areas. Neither me, nor my team are experts in any one area. I am a firm believer that knowledge is the basis for good innovation. Thus, we strive to get input from the experts within the respective areas. However, this is not that easy. Firstly, they are not always easy to access, secondly, different people have different perspectives, meaning that when you as an ignorant (at least to some degree) try to synthesize across the different perspectives, it can be quite challenging.

What’s your best UNICEF experience/memory?
My best experience is in some way the worst. My first time in the field included a visit to a refugee settlement in Uganda. There, I encountered a number of unaccompanied minors.

Seeing those kids, while thinking of my own little daughter brought tears to my eyes. As Jessica Tribbe, a person from the team said afterwards, “I could sense I had to get you out of there quick if we were to avoid a UNICEF adoption case.” As a philosopher, you never stop reflecting on what’s right and wrong, however when you encounter such matters or discuss issues such as FGM (not the least when having two little girls), the world becomes binary. That is wrong, simply wrong and the world deserves us doing whatever we can to stop these things. These situations give meaning to our job like nothing else.

What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?  

As an entrepreneur and someone who has done a lot of investments, risks has been an essential component of my job. I have lost significant amounts of money, both of my own and of others unfortunately, on bad investments. However, I think the biggest risk I have ever taken was proposing to my wife at 5 o’clock in the morning, sitting on the floor in her apartment in the US (I lived in Denmark) 5 days after we kissed for the first time. Despite the challenges of having a relationship with her family and friends on the other side of the Atlantic, it’s been amazing. I still love her a ton, and now not the least we have two little angels (a 3-year-old and a 5 month-old daughter) as fruits of our marriage.

What are your passions?
A lot – there are few things in life that do not interest me. However, two things are extraordinary. The first is conversations that really matter. It does not happen every day, but when you have these conversations with people who are both smart and able to get a distance to their own ego, it is like time can stand still. I can go into tunnel vision, where my focus is so intense that I lose sense of time and space and the most incredible learning experiences. The other thing is skiing. When you hang on a wall not knowing whether the next turn will put you on ice or whether the snow pack will slide, but seeing rocks below you, that realistically could kill you if you fall, you have to focus like nothing else. The sense of huge mountains around you, adrenaline pumping and your thighs screaming from acid build up, puts you in a flow where physical intuition fully replaces cognitive reflections.

What advice would you give others who are seeking a similar job as yours?
Become an expert – never go for being mediocre. Find something you are passionate about and also something concrete that is of real value (could be science, medical, financing, law, engineering or alike). It can be good if it is a bit boring and requires huge dedication (this will give you an edge). Life will only allow you to do this once, during your education. From there on you need to focus on building reflective as well as people skills. As they say, people get hired because of competencies but fired because of lack of people skills. Lastly, always push yourself – put yourself out where you feel uncomfortable and try to stay reflective and always the tendency to have your ego take over (whether it is that of fear or self-protection).

Who do you look towards for inspiration?
People who really know something about something and have an edge. I have had several mentors who have mattered a lot. I always try to find people with an edge, someone who can really offer reflection beyond the standard text-book responses. Those you can read in a book.

My colleagues don’t know that…
I had a short career as a child actor. I worked at the city theatre for a period in a very recognised play based on a famous novel about a guy seeking happiness, dying without ever really understanding what happiness is, exactly because he was seeking it too much. I guess, the same point as John Lennon; “”Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans” – something that you need to remind yourself of constantly if working with innovation at UNICEF!

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