Nonfiction Review

The Disruptors’ Feast: How to Avoid Being Devoured in Today’s Rapidly Changing Global Economy, by Frits van Paasschen ’83 

Toward a Global Future illustration
When my now-4-year-old twins are sitting in their Amherst seminar on “Globalization at the Dawn of the 21st Century,” they may well be assigned Frits van Paasschen ’83’s The Disruptors’ Feast. This book takes readers on a tour through the big topics of the day: the Arab Spring, urbanization, technology, climate change and more. 

The Disruptors’ Feast is a Greatest Hits of popular thought leaders: Hans Rosling on global trend data, Clay Christensen and Richard Foster on disruptive innovation, Jared Diamond on the evolution of societies, and of course Thomas Friedman on the world being flat. Van Paasschen watched their TED talks and read their books so you don’t have to.

Throughout The Disruptors’ Feast, van Paasschen sprinkles in anecdotes from his time as CEO of Starwood and Coors, and before that as an executive at Nike, Disney, McKinsey and BCG. With an Amherst-worthy eye for character and detail, he shares vignettes from cities around the world and meetings with the Davos set: He brings us to Damascus for an evening feast of tabouleh and kebabs in the spacious home of a local real estate developer; we see the snow-capped Andes, slums in Mumbai and VIP lounges in China through his eyes.

I found myself hungry for van Paasschen to draw more deeply on his background to illustrate the global trends he describes. For many topics he mentions relevant data points from Starwood or another former employer; I wanted him to not just present the trend but walk me through his experience of it. What did you do about it? What did you get wrong? What did you learn?

Take climate change. Van Paasschen writes, “By the time I arrived at Coors in 2005, climate change no longer felt theoretical,” citing how water usage was carefully monitored in Colorado. That would have been the perfect moment to discuss Coors’ water efficiency initiatives: Today MillerCoors aims to reduce its water-to-beer ratio to 3:1, so it would have been fascinating to hear what, if any, conversations the company was having on the topic 10 years ago.

The Disruptors' Feast book cover
In the same chapter he says that “it is hard not to be concerned about employees at the more than 200 Starwood properties next to harbors and beaches.” I then wanted to hear whether Starwood is shoring up or shutting down any of those properties or incorporating climate vulnerability into developing new ones, like so many companies planning for a hotter planet.

Similarly: He sees extreme poverty in Guinea, and says their construction partner there “brought in Turkish workers led by an American project manager”; he sees a man yelling at the edge of a hotel construction site in Libya because his land had been appropriated; and he notes gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia. 

For me, those observations begged discussion of whether Starwood accepted the status quo or sought creative ways to abide by local laws and norms while advancing human rights, as an increasing number of companies are attempting to do. Van Paasschen positions himself as an observer of global trends—but CEOs play a critical role in shaping those trends. For a multinational corporation (and, frankly, for all of us), there is no such thing as neutrality.

The examples he does share are compelling: Taking inspiration from edX and the rise in online education, van Paasschen rolled out online training for Starwood’s global workforce. Seeing that four of five new Starwood openings were projected to be outside of the United States, he temporarily relocated the company’s global headquarters to Shanghai and then Dubai. 

These are the kinds of firsthand case studies that I wanted to see more of—for van Paasschen to provide more answers to the book’s subtitle that are uniquely his. Van Paasschen writes, “If we prepare ourselves and make the right choices, anything is possible.” Connecting the dots between data, action and impact will enable that preparation and decision-making, and unlock a brighter future for us all. 

Christine Bader ’93 is the author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil (2014).