William Benthall, the general manager of Glovo is Zoom-ing from his home. A wide and dark glass window looms behind him while a pesky and idle crow occasionally caws loudly in the background.
With most people now working from home, it might have been a great time to be a general manager of Glovo, an on-demand courier service app with 5.5 million users, 16,000 partners, and operating in 125 cities, across 22 countries.
William’s career is eclectic; he has worked as a director at the Clinton Health Access Initiative in Nigeria, Sony Music as a director, and Adam Smith International, a strategic development consultancy.
He studied— wait for it — History of Art in undergraduate and an MBA from Esade Business School in Barcelona. He later did a postgraduate exchange programme at Indian Business School. He, JACKSON BIKO, and the crow had a Zoom call.
History of art, health, Sony Music…and now Glovo. Are you sometimes surprised at your professional journey?
I think the one thing that ties all these together is an important philosophy; do things that you are passionate about. If you are pretending or following your parent’s dreams, you will not find true satisfaction in a career, or even be good at it. All my roles have been led by my passion for the things they represented. Passion should lead you wherever it leads you, for different and diverse experiences. I don’t imagine that we should all have carefully planned careers unless you are a doctor.
At the Clinton Foundation, I learnt something about failure; that if you are not failing you are not pushing enough. They instilled the culture in me that failure is fine.
What did you learn as a graduate of history of art?
I always loved photography. I had my first camera at eight years old and I went everywhere. But I was never an artiste even though I had an interest in art. I learnt that you can learn a lot about history by looking at and studying art.
Growing up in the UK, did you ever imagine you would come to Africa, working and raising children?
I can’t say that from a young age I was pulled to Africa. However, my grandfather was a well-known musician who travelled the world. And he’d come back with stories of his travels. I think that opened my horizons unknowingly. I saw the world differently through his lens.
When the final gong finally sounds today at midday, what will you wish you did?
(Chuckles) During this Covid-19 season, we are learning new things about life. The things we knew before have been challenged and now we have to think of bigger questions; have we balanced our work and home correctly? Have I focused on my career too much? (Pause) From where I’m sitting now working, I can see my daughter playing in the garden. Four months ago this would be unimaginable; spending time with family and working at the same time. So Covid-19 has helped.
In terms of achievements, if I picked one sector and stuck with it, would my career progression have been quicker? You might ask. I think the richness in diversity shaped who I am.
How did you meet your wife?
On a bus. (Chuckles) And we developed an almost instantaneous dislike for each other.
How do you instantly dislike someone you just met on a bus?
(Laughs) It had been a long day of study and we were on a bus, a whole bunch of students. I was tired and focused on going home and she was a bit too chatty for my liking, she’s Colombian. And she thought I had the British aloofness and maybe a little too stuck-up. I wasn’t, I just wanted to get home. Anyway, many months later we dated and here we are.
What are you learning, in this moment of Covid-19, as a businessman?
The best-laid plans can go out the window. Things will change instantly. The strategy we laid last year, in some ways, is what people want now. The needs of customers have changed dramatically. Before it was convenient to order food as you leave the office, as you beat traffic, and get home with the food.
Now there is no traffic but nobody wants to venture out or jostle in queues. We have learnt a lot about human psychology and we are still learning. We are trying to adapt our business to this ever-changing landscape.
How many children do you have?
Two daughters; aged 5 and 8 months.
Learning anything profound about raising children?
Yeah, patience! And I don’t say this like people would say in a job interview when they are asked what their weakness is and they say, ‘perfection.” (Chuckles) But fatherhood teaches you immense patience. I was not known to be patient and having children has helped me with that. It has improved. Children are constantly looking at the world through fresh eyes, it’s the one amazing thing about children.
The questions they ask come from a blank canvas being worked on daily and it makes you look back at your own life and all the assumptions you made and you are forced to look at things afresh.
What is your wife’s passion?
Salsa. She loves salsa! She’s Colombian. She loves dancing, culture, and music. She comes from a city called Cali, southwest of Colombia. It’s the Salsa capital of the world.
Interesting because you don’t look like a dancer yourself, I can tell.
(Laughs) I danced at our wedding. I had to learn salsa very quickly and I think it went okay. Since we have been married I have developed my skills even though I might not be a world-leading dancer.
I’m curious, and this I’m asking as a man to another, not an interviewer. How do you convince your wife to leave what she knows, what’s familiar, even her career and follow you to Africa? What do you have to tell her to make that idea attractive?
She was working in Brazil at that time. I was in Nigeria. After a year long-distance, we decided that we had to be together. So it was either Brazil or Nigeria. She liked the idea of Nigeria. Being an economist, she also got a job in a venture capital firm in Nigeria. She’s always got interesting jobs. She’s a brilliant and amazing wife, very balanced.
But I constantly reflect on this and realise that it’s not always easy for her. It’s very hard for career women in general and moving countries makes it even harder. In 20 years when my daughters will be starting their careers, I will still be reflecting on this.
If you think of your time at Sony Music, is there one song that aptly captures this season you are on in life?
With a five-year-old girl in the house we have the ‘Frozen’ soundtrack pretty much on repeat but when I’m with my younger daughter, I can influence her. I’ve been listening to a lot of classic souls. Our worlds and our social interactions have shrunk completely so I feel grateful that ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ feels relevant in my home. Listen to the two Aretha Franklin takes from her Rare and Unreleased album. It is raw and beautiful.
What is happiness?
(Laughs) Hmm. (Long pause) Happiness is a mental state. I know that’s a boring answer but I have been doing meditation recently and reading on it. It has made me realise how important our mental state is. How do we look at the emotions that make us feel unhappy, for instance? Most times it only takes a different mental outlook and self-awareness to correct a state like that.