That's how I found myself about 3.5 hours away from my home late last month (with the latest IPCC draft report due out in a few days) hosted by UVM's new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA Program surrounded by sustainable business, social justice, alternative economy, and local-advocates. I could practically feel the goodness (or good intentions) all around me - and I liked it. I felt, if only for a few hours, that I was with my tribe, a tribe I first found and connected with for the two years I attended BGI.
I was ready for my dose of Wholesome Business Goodness Kool-Aid...and I got it.
So, here's who was there (I've included links to the event page on the VBSR website as well as to the participant's BIOs for those that would like more information):
- Jo Confino (Moderator): Executive Editor, The Guardian; Chairman and Editorial Director of The Guardian Sustainable Business
- Jostein Solheim: CEO, Ben & Jerry's
- Henry De Sio: Executive Team, Ashoka
- Andrea Cohen: Executive Director, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility
- Cheryl Dorsey: President, Echoing Green
- Jay Coen Gilbert: Co-founder, B Lab
- Daryn Dodson: Consultant to Board of Directors, Calvert Funds; Board Director, Ben & Jerry's
Wow! On top of this stellar line up, I noticed people in the audience from organizations that I've had the good fortune to learn about over the past 10 years or so (some more recently) -Suncommon, Preserve Products, VT Resilience Lab, Vermonters for a New Economy, Shelburne Farms, AllEarth Renewables, Renewable NRG Systems, and many more.
So, what did I learn? Good question. With all the tweeting I was doing (multi-tasking), and not sitting still, I noticed that my listening, though-synthesizing, and note-taking suffered. Regardless of this fact, here are a few tidbits I gleaned from the panelists that I found interesting, if not revelatory:
- The people on the ground experiencing a problem and the repercussions of the problems, are the ones most passionate about solving them - and possibly the best able to solve them (with the right resources). While I am sure there are passionate people solving problems they have not experienced, direct experience provides a level of engagement and systemic understanding that someone just a few steps removed will not understand. There are other people or organizations that can surely support this person in solving the problem - since it will align with their own interests. Cheryl Dorsey prompted this thought as she shared Echoing Green's "Darwinian qualification" process for evaluating early-stage on-the-ground social change initiatives for investment.
- We've come a long way, and there is still a long way to go Daryn Dodson mentioning the 50th anniversary of the Walk on Washington, and asked for a show of hands for how many people paused to remember it. I felt the air go out of the room - did we forget? Have we solved the social justice problem of racism? I don't think so - and it's gotten better...right?
- The high-minded mission statements and values charts so many leadership teams agonize over may go misinterpreted, sporadically followed, or simply forgotten when filtered down through the organization to the people "getting things done". That's not to say that organizational leaders don't get things done - it's different. We witnessed a great example when a - some would tweet "brave" - long-time supplier of Ben and Jerry's quizzed Mr. Solheim, "How do you define "shared prosperity" for your suppliers; 10% gross margin, 20%?" It was a great question, illuminating the reality of a purchasing department's goal to reduce costs colliding with a company mission of sharing success.
- Wit and laughter is a good way to deal with what seem to be insurmountable problems. Jo Confino and Jay Coen Gilbert demonstrated this well, with what could have been deemed "cutting" banter in the typical across-the-Atlantic-UK-v.-US way as they talked about species extinctions, weather extremes, and sea-level rise.
- If you have a belief - stand up and advocate for it because nobody else will. Andrea Cohen, VBSR's Executive Director reinforced this as she addressed business leaders in the audience. If a business has a "personality", perhaps echoing that of its founder(s) and/or employees depending upon its size, does it therefore hold "beliefs"? And if so, why wouldn't it advocate for things aligned with those beliefs?
- Is "scaling" anything a symptom of our current thinking and therefore counter to solving the problems we're working on? I can't help but think that we're missing something when we seek to "scale" a solution. Yes, we need big ideas and world-changing actions, but just "going bigger" seems misguided. I was glad to see a member of a COOP ask the panel about COOPs' place in our brave new sustainable and socially just world.