YPO is the premier global leadership organisation for more than 27 000 chief executives in over 130 countries

Leadership sat with the YPO Chairman, Pascal Gerken, a renowned entrepreneur who has been a member of YPO for more than 13 years


Leadership sat with the YPO Chairman, Pascal Gerken, a renowned entrepreneur who has been a member of YPO for more than 13 years. We took a deep dive into how the organisation has been so successful, with member-run companies employing more than 22 million globally and generating US$9 trillion in annual revenue.

Gerken discussed his entrepreneurship and YPO journey, YPO’s structure and the direction the organisation is heading in terms of being more impactful, especially on the African market, as its future looks bright.

Each year, business leaders from around the world gather for the YPO EDGE, the organisation’s premier visionary showcase of thought leadership and innovation. For two days, members and their spouses/partners from more than 130 countries convene with world-renowned thought leaders to address key issues in business, politics, science, technology, philanthropy and the humanities. The event is hosted in a different city each year; in March 2019, the YPO EDGE was hosted in Cape Town for only the second time in history. This was a major highlight for the City of Cape Town.

Can you tell us more about why the YPO EDGE was in Cape Town this year?

Gaining the right to host the YPO EDGE is a thorough process for many reasons. As you can imagine, there is an economic impact for the host city as well as great exposure to the country. South Africa is a fantastic and dynamic country that proved to our selection committee to be the best choice to host the 2019 YPO EDGE.

Was what was presented about Cape Town the same as what you are seeing today?

Absolutely, the city is amazing and South African hospitality has always been legendary. While I did not attend the first YPO EDGE held in Cape Town, what I heard from other members about it was extraordinary. For 2019, Cape Town once again has been an amazing host city for YPO.

Can you share with us about your business background?

I am an entrepreneur in a family business. My family business background is carbon fiber and graphite, which we produce in the United States and transform in plants in both Europe and Asia. Our business also works in industrial parks in Germany and residential and commercial real estate in Europe.

In my early forties, I started a company that builds sustainable resorts in emerging markets.

When did you join YPO?

I joined YPO in 2006. I was beginning a new leadership journey, from being a family business leader to also being an entrepreneur. Joining the organization helped me to become a better leader because of what we do at YPO. Connecting with other family business leaders, entrepreneurs and hired guns helped me to reach out, not play it safe and be disrupted.

What would you say YPO stands for, what does it represent?

YPO is a community of leaders who are all about learning and exchanging ideas, leaders who are action-driven.

YPO leaders are creating a world of impact; in fact, the organisation is truly shifting in order to become more impactful. YPO, which was founded in 1950, immediately began making an impact throughout the world. Today our focus is on how we scale impact. We embrace the idea that business is a true force for good and each of our members is creating impact.

In Africa, we currently have about a thousand members. We believe that Africa is a continent of the future. Our focus in Africa this year has led to amazing results. We have always been in traditional YPO markets in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana. However, just in the last year, there have been a lot of new members joining from Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast and Senegal. We just held our first recruiting event in Madagascar.

When we create chapters in African countries where there have not been chapters before, it is an opening for YPO members not located in that country to come in because we trust each other. The number one value of YPO is trust.

So, when we have members who are in a new country, and who share the same DNA, we tend to collaborate and potentially develop new businesses.

What is your organizational structure like? How is YPO structured in terms of leadership?

Our Board of Directors has 20 members. We also have leadership through committees, networks and regions comprising approximately 150 members.

Are members categorized by region or by country?

We have 14 regions that comprise more than 130 countries and more than 450 YPO chapters, which tells you that there are many countries where there are several chapters, especially in the United States. In South Africa, we have two chapters in Cape Town, a chapter in Johannesburg, a chapter in Pretoria and a chapter in Durban.

What are the requirements for becoming a YPO member?

The requirements are you have to join YPO before you are 45, and be the leader of your organization, meaning the individual who holds the top position of a qualifying company or division and is directly responsible for all operations of the business or division. More information about becoming a YPO member can be found on our website at ypo.org/why-join-ypo/membership-criteria/.

How has the global reach benefitted YPO members?

We are very unique in that members initially connect through their own local chapter, but we have 44 different types of interest-based networks and a cloud-based platform that gives members access to the 27 000+ members. We use AI to help us quickly scan through a member’s business segment and interests. There are networks members can join depending on their field of expertise, be it a family business, media, manufacturing and more, making the global reach absolutely unique. Members can also join a network based on their personal passions and social entrepreneurial networks enable members to gather around a particular cause.

In terms of the new era of tech and innovation, how is YPO making it work within the organisation? What are you doing to keep up with the times?

YPO is committed to using technology to connect our members and enhance their membership journey. We recently launched a new mobile-first, omnichannel, member-only digital platform that will act as a single contact point for members and their chapters, networks, regions and forums.

Would you say that YPO also has an ecosystem of business leaders who can feed into each other and create a strong community of thinkers who strategise on how they can work together?

YPO members are diversified among industries and types of businesses. Our members are at the forefront of business in cities, countries and throughout the world. Each member is an extraordinary leader in their industry, working each day to create positive impact.

Is there no space for those who are not as successful? Not everyone has a business with a massive turnover, especially when you look at South Africa, there are a lot of small businesses that are active. Is there a platform for YPO to incorporate such businesses?

More and more, we are looking at how we can identify the leaders of the future, we are looking at their value to others globally. We are presently trying to work on how we can inspire and interact with people who don’t qualify yet by providing learning, mentoring and connectivity. Many of our members like to coach young leaders in order to grow their businesses, and to develop and invest in their companies.

What are your plans for Africa? Where does YPO see Africa in the near future?

As a leader, the possibilities this continent presents are amazing.

For instance, the U.N. predicts that by the end of the century, Nigeria will have a population of 1 billion making it the third-largest country in the world after China and India. There will be a need to create jobs and opportunities and grow the local market. As an organisation, YPO does not give lessons, we do not influence. We focus on creating impact. Our question wherever we are is what can we do, what do you need? I think Africa is empowering itself more and more. I was truly inspired by the speech of President Ramaphosa at the YPO Presidents’ Dinner when he discussed the opportunities for growth in Africa. As I mentioned, we are working to grow our presence in Africa and facilitate Africa’s access to YPO. Our YPO Africa Regional Chair Craig Kiggen has done a fantastic job leading our growth effort in Africa.

Could you tell us a bit more about your family?

I am married and have two children, ages 14 and 15. My family was with me in Cape Town and had a great time. They visited Robben Island as my kids had studied about Nelson Mandela in school. Nelson Mandela is a hero in Europe and an absolute icon throughout the world. I believe it is very important for children, from a very young age, to understand about the importance of helping others in the global community and it is our duty as parents to teach them this.

Do you have any final thoughts on the value of entrepreneurship? Do you think there is room for it in Africa?

Entrepreneurship is so evident in Africa. In my travels throughout the continent, I’ve met many creative African entrepreneurs creating business at all levels. When it comes to entrepreneurship, the energy and excitement in Africa is unmatched. 

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