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Bill Clinton Talks Fragrance and More

“Fragrance Foundation Talks” is a program designed to use outside speakers to inject fresh perspectives into industry thinking.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, sitting in a auditorium full of fragrance executives Wednesday, faced a question that was described as “the elephant in the room”: What scent do you wear?

The answer shocked them into giving audible gasps: nothing.

“When I was younger, a long time ago, I always wore some sort of cologne or aftershave, and I don’t anymore,” Clinton, who founded the Clinton Foundation after his terms in office, told 850 fragrance executives and 150 students from Marymount High School, Trinity High School and New York University. “Although I’m sure you have some good suggestions. Really, I don’t think about it. I just try to be hygienic. I’m more worried about picking the right kind of toothpaste.” Then he quipped, “Actually, I do use [cologne], but the ingredients are secret, and if I told you I’d have to shoot you.”

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Presumably the fragrance companies will be falling into line to offer the former president some olfactive solutions. Along the way, in his 42-minute speech — which was honeycombed with facts, figures, anecdotes and historic asides — Clinton spoke about several topics, ranging from global interdependence and the future of humankind on earth to why the Secret Service made him stop jogging.

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“I jogged 25 miles a week till they stopped me when I was President — I think they were afraid someone was going to shoot me after I banned assault weapons,” he said with a laugh. But Clinton steered clear of the biggest elephant in the room — the political aspirations of his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

He was the key speaker in the inaugural program by the Fragrance Foundation. Dubbed “Fragrance Foundation Talks,” the program was designed to use outside speakers to inject fresh perspectives into industry thinking. As Jill Belasco, chair of the Fragrance Foundation, pointed out, the fragrance industry is relatively small. “We are so isolated; we talk among ourselves.” The program also included Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business; Caryl Stern, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, and Stefan Sagmeister, creative director and cofounder of Sagmeister & Walsh, which has designed for clients as diverse as the Rolling Stones, HBO and the Guggenheim Museum.

“I am particularly grateful to be here because of the work that several of you have already done in Haiti,” Clinton said, singling out Donna Karan for her work with Haitian artisans and the fragrance houses for purchasing vetiver from more than 30,000 earthquake-stricken farmers. He repeatedly hit upon the themes of global interdependence and the importance of collaboration over conflict. “It’s now commonplace for people to say we are the most interdependent age in history. It is, and it’s way more than economics.” Drawing from history, Clinton pointed to the period before World War I, when trade by the richest countries was slightly higher, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than it is today. People at the time were so well-off they thought there would never be another war — until Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and World War I provoked “unparalleled slaughter.”

“That is a metaphor, in some ways, for the world we face today. [Today’s world] is full of benefits, and virtually everyone in this audience is a representative of the positive impact of the 21st-century world.”

Clinton wryly pointed out that sweeping advances in technology and communications mean that “an eight-year-old can get on the Internet and learn things I had to go to the university to learn.” As well, “If we had had this meeting 30 or 40 years ago, there would be an overrepresentation of people who look like me — old gray-haired white guys in suits. Looking out into the audience, I’m glad to see my demographic has not been entirely eliminated, for which I am profoundly grateful,” he said with a laugh.

“I think the world falls into three baskets,” continued Clinton, who emphasized the themes of sharing and inclusiveness. “For an interdependent world, it is too unequal, it is too unstable and it is not sustainable because of climate change and the destruction of local resources, including the soil, the water, the fishing stocks of the world and many others. In spite of everything China has done, moving more people out of poverty, there still are 125 million people in China living on less than $1.25 a day. About half the world’s people go to bed hungry every night.”

He drew a sharp contrast between Nelson Mandela, who invited his jailers to his presidential inauguration and made a place for his enemies in his government, and the Shiite factions of Iraq and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, who followed a noninclusive course. “The world is highly unstable in ways that are apparent. Look how fast the financial crisis spread from America all over the world. Look at all the troubles you see internally when you get rid of an autocracy in a country with a lot of diversity. People think democracy is just who won the next election, instead of how you have individual rights, minority rights and inclusive decision making. This is a hard business, dealing with the instability of difference, and it is one of the things to remember about the modern world: How will we accommodate our differences, and how should we evaluate our differences as compared to our common humanity?”

Clinton also spoke of the growing problem of climate change. “We simply cannot continue to grow on the energy and resources model that carried through the Industrial Era. More and more people are aware of that. And ironically, a lot of the insurance companies are leading the way in forcing more responsible climate policies on people who would prefer to remain in denial, because they are pricing the risk. We are in a race against time. So no one knows when — to use Malcolm Gladwell’s phrase — the tipping point will be reached. We could buy ourselves another 20 years to find more technological fixes that are economically easy, simply because all the non-carbon sources dissipate out of the atmosphere more quickly.

“In simple terms, the clear responsibility of every citizen is to build up the positive forces of interdependence. To build a world that has more shared prosperity and more shared responsibility for managing the problems,” said Clinton.

He also drove home what he considers one of the most impactive developments of this young century — the rise of nongovernmental organizations. He admitted that the NGOs have to learn to navigate the political terrain, but added, “America has more than one million foundations, and more than half of them have been founded since 1995. China has 250,000 registered there, and at least that many unregistered for obvious political reasons.

“What I have found is that these NGOs basically have two roles,” he continued. “The entrepreneurial spirit that creates successful businesses has also made a very large difference in NGOs. But what they do normally depends on what the needs of the countries are.” Describing how his foundation works, Clinton said, “We try to figure out how to do things faster, cheaper and better. How to work with government and with the private sector — solve problems that will eventually enable us to put ourselves out of business. That’s how we got the price of AIDS drugs from $500 per person per year down to $90.”

He also commended the fragrance houses that purchase ingredients — such as vanilla from Madagascar, basil from Indonesia and citrus from Brazil — from disadvantaged countries. “These added-value products are critical for the development of poor countries, or for poor areas within no-longer-poor countries like Brazil.”

A few lighter topics surfaced during the short question-and-answer period following his speech, when Elizabeth Musmanno, president of the Fragrance Foundation, posed questions contributed by the member executives. Among them: how the former president structures his days, what drove him to run for the Arkansas gubernatorial role again after he had been voted out of it after his first term and the importance of relaxation.

Clinton took inspiration from another former president, Abraham Lincoln, when discussing what drove him from his humble country roots — where entertainment consisted of talks around the dinner table, as the Clintons got their first TV when the former president was 10 years old — to the most powerful political post in the world. “When [Lincoln] was a very young man, he said, ‘I will work and get ready and my chance will come.’ So when young people ask me about it, I always tell them, ‘Get caught trying. Don’t be afraid. And do what you believe in. Even if you’re rebuffed, even if you fail, you’ll be in a far better place than you would if you didn’t.’

“My family didn’t have enough money to go on vacations,” he said. “But we were raised to believe that if in a day you have a decent meal, clean clothes on their back and a warm place to sleep, you could find something to do to earn some money.”

Another bit of family wisdom surfaced after being voted out of office after his first term as Arkansas governor. “We’re not big on quitting in my family,” he said with a laugh, noting that his family’s plain-speaking ways inspired him to examine what had gone wrong. “I was young, and what often happens is that when young people get positions of great influence…if you’re not careful, you spend all your time doing what you want to do and not enough time listening to what other people think you have to do and you can become isolated, and that’s essentially what happened to me. I did a heck of a job doing everything that I wanted to do, that I was elected on, but I was sort of tone-deaf as to how it was being received, particularly in the year I had to run for reelection. We had the worst drought in Arkansas in 50 years, we still had nuclear weapons on American soil, a Titan missile site blew up and popped a nuclear warhead into a cow pasture in my state. We had everything but a plague of locusts.

“I think working hard is very important; I have a good work ethic,” said Clinton. “But every big mistake I’ve ever made in my life I made when I was too tired. So I think the idea of never taking time off and never resting your brain — I may sound self-righteous, but it’s dumb.…I hate to go to sleep now because before my time on Earth runs out, there are still so many things I want to understand.”

After Clinton left the stage, Stern took her turn. With a rueful laugh, she related the perils of following charismatic politicians before underlining the importance of global interdependence. “As we sit here today, 18,000 children, all under the age of five, will die, and they will die of causes we already know how to prevent. Not the disease we don’t have a cure for, not the earthquake we can’t predict, but things we can prevent like diarrhea, like a lack of [clean] water, like lack of food, or children who are refugees from Syria who are freezing to death because they don’t have blankets, coats and mittens today.…I have held the hand of a mom watching her baby die of tetanus, a disease that 70 cents would have prevented and $3 would have cured but we were in a place where neither existed, and in that moment I understood that that number 18,000 is unacceptable and we will not stop until that number is zero. It is my job to give you the voice of children, to tell you the things that I hear from their mouths.…The children do not see themselves as victims, they see themselves as survivors of some pretty horrific things, and I believe we can all be part of making that better.”

Touching on cognitive therapy and medication, Sagmeister asked the audience how happy they are, on a scale from one to 10. “As a designer I asked myself is it actually possible to become happier in my field,” said Sagmeister. “And the easy answer is, of course. I should do more of the stuff I love to do and less of what I don’t like to do.” Sagmeister, who is creating a documentary called “The Happy Film,” spoke about how he measures happiness and the factors that affect him, including thinking about a subject without a deadline and working with clients that live far away so he can travel to the destination. To finish his speech, he bluntly admitted, “Listening to me talking about happiness is not going to make you happier.”

Before delving into what plagues the educational system, Robinson revealed to attendees, “I wear Armani [fragrance]. I just thought you should know in case you get close enough.”

His lively presentation — while peppered with one-liners — covered a weighty topic: the role of innovation and education in tackling economic and cultural challenges such as inequality, instability and environmental issues. Robinson, who wrote “Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative,” emphasized the importance of creativity and championing the individual, as opposed to applying the same standards to everyone.

“Diversity is the heartbeat — the pulse — of human culture. Our education [systems] have not conformed. They wash out the differences to a narrow sense of achievement.”

In his view, diversity of thought yields creativity. “Education is the key to the future, and if we don’t get it right, we run a terrible risk. H.G. Wells once said civilization ‘is a race between education and catastrophe.’ And there is real truth to that,” said Robinson. “One of the key problems of population growth is education. The more educated a population becomes, the fewer children they have and the more sustainable their economy becomes.”

He believes that transforming the educational system will inevitably ameliorate certain economic issues, such as inequality.

“The key to the war against inequality is not aid programs but education programs,” he said. “But our current systems — particularly in the West — are driven by an insane culture of standardization and conformity, not collaboration,” despite the simple fact that every human life is “unique and unprecedented.”

He said, “We’ve cultivated material well-being at the expense of spiritual growth.”