It’s a humbling moment to see my life, work, and sense of hope condensed to 14 minutes and a small circle of red carpet on a stage in Santa Cruz. I invite you to take a look at my talk, “The Future? Yes…And. Business As a Force for Change.”
Call it Capitalism 2.0. Call it “post-capitalism.” Whatever you call the future of commerce, it will be driven by purpose. I believe in the power of business as a platform for disruption and mobilization to help customers, investors, communities, and employees create a regenerative and equitable world.
According to Brene Brown, our level of belonging requires times when we are willing to stand up and be our most authentic self, even if that means saying the hard thing, and being willing to be the lone wolf setting a new path or clarifying a truth. It takes a wild heart, a Yes-& heart — tough and tender, brave and vulnerable. One that requires us to, sometimes, stand alone.
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” This is based in a spiritual practice or belief that we are all connected. In her new book, Braving the Wilderness, she takes her work on vulnerability and shows us how we need openness — and each other — in order to cultivate true belonging in our communities, organizations, and culture.
As we look at our world today, we keep defaulting to information, activities, entertainment and even live/work choices that keep isolating us from each other — especially those who are the least like us. Research continually demonstrates how much we self-select our own echo-chambers of like-minded people, continuously sorting ourselves into neighborhoods and work that match our own world view I get this. I live in Santa Cruz CA, work for an agency that is centered on purpose and spend my days helping corporations find, live and tell their purpose-beyond-profit, their contribution to society. Many of these companies are waking up to the reality that the world is literally on fire and all of us have a collective responsibility to action.
Which puts visionary executives and consultants in a lonely place of being the voice in the room that speaks for something other than profit. For saying the hard truth about the need to step up even further. To be bold in setting a course that accepts responsibility for the creative destruction needed to reinvent a business line or manufacturing process.
I am still surprised when I find a person inside the corporation who sees the world the way I do. Who really gets that we are at a significant crossroads and all of us need to be all in. It makes me feel less alone in the work.
According to Sebastian Junger in his book, Tribe, we have lost our connection to the deep truth about who we are as a species — tribal. We’re now living in a culture with values that are antithetical to who we really are as members of the human tribe. In reality, humans have survived as a species precisely because, and especially in times or grave danger, we have valued cooperation rather than competition, affinity rather than alienation, and a spirit of sharing rather than one of rugged individualism.
I believe that we are seeing the rise of this realization, as part of the rise of the feminine. The rise of cooperation and collaboration. Of creativity. As we face the challenge of strong-man regimes, climate chaos, the diaspora of displaced environmental refugees, we will need our tribal connection — one that is true across the entire globe and not isolated in countries or villages — to come together with and for each other.
On December 9, 2019, I took to the Rio Theater stage at TEDxSantaCruz for my first ever TED talk., in the third act of The Art of Hope. In the past, I’ve presented at conferences, moderated panels and pitched enough new business in front of large gatherings of executives, to assume I was ready. for this.
The thing about a TED talk is that it requires two things that were new to me. The first is that you have to memorize your entire speech. No talk track, no copy points on the slides to guide your speech. Nothing. Just you and a few slides and 16 minutes of memorized narrative that flows, arcs, and delivers an emotional connection to the audience. I hadn’t memorized anything since Edgar Allen Poe’s El Dorado poem in fourth grade.
The second aspect of a TED talk is that this must be a personal story connected to your own idea or insight. This is not about some other company, concept, or trend that I am accustomed to synthesizing and presenting. The good TED talks start with a personal anecdote or moment in time that gives the presenter the ability to see something new or come to a fresh perspective that then leads to a greater body of work. I almost never share my personal story in a public setting. And there I was, on stage and live streaming telling everyone my coming out story.
Throughout my career, I’ve done lots of public speaking on communications and storytelling, and the arc needed to reach people when you’re trying to sell an idea or product. I’ve presented on trends emerging around climate chaos and social change and how we need our stories to include emotion and authenticity about the challenges we face as a society. But my story is never included. I’ve just never been comfortable saying much about me — I’d rather lead with someone else’s anecdote, some pithy quote sourced from a recognizable name, facts and figures that encapsulate the trend I am portraying.
But this talk — thanks to my friend and TEDx licensee and curator Irene Tsouprake — pulled something more from me. She helped me dig into my own journey and link what I know to be true to the overarching reality that I am seeing in the world today.
What I understood was how my own marginalization when I can out in my mid thirties gave me the gift of insights. I saw the systems and institutions that I had sort of taken for granted — like marriage and a heteronormative workplace — for the false social constructs they really are. I became a non-binary thinker. That’s what I’ve meant all these years when I say that Yes-& is my life philosophy and the ampersand my favorite symbol.
This ability to be outside of the system and see the truth about what is broken is going to be an important attribute as we look at all of the instututions and structures that need reinventing. From commerce to culture, we are seeing that our assumptions about how the world works are being challenged.
This YES-&, non-binary way of thinking is emerging everywhere. And I can see it because when I came out, I finally understood how I could hold my own masculine and feminine expression inside myself rather than see it as an external gendered reality. Once I experienced the truth of that experience, it opened my eyes and I saw how all of reality is on a spectrum. Once we stop organizing into the binary, as hierarchical structures, we are free to explore and participate in systems thinking. And that gives us the space we need to reimagine a different world.
The greatest gift of my TED talk is the freedom I now feel to bring my whole self into my work and allow it to guide my insights in helping accelerate the great transition that is underway everywhere.
My friend “>Renee Lertzmanhas been studying the psychology of the environment and climate change for more than 20 years. She tells us that we need to establish a way of acknowledging and making space for what we are feeling, not just what we know about the climate crisis. In this time of increasingly stark reports about the global climate, Lertzman believes it is important to develop a literacy when it comes to how we are feeling or responding to our climate crisis and to environmental threats.
In fact, as you look back over the last 20 years, we have seen the language and terminology shift and change. First, it was global warming, then climate change, and now we are seeing the rise of climate chaos and climate crisis as how we frame the reality of catastrophic weather events, species decline, and the environmental diaspora of those most affected. Words matter. So do feelings. Renee’s work is specifically about how important it is as communicators to create the space within our work so that humanity can express feelings of anxiety or ambivalence before we turn to the creativity and innovation needed to mobilize and change the direction we are headed.
A beautiful piece in Ecowatch by Erika Spanger-Siegfried expresses beautifully how to move from anxiety and despair to hope – because in the end, hope is rooted in love. “However poorly we tend it, however fragile we think it, this hope thing will not-really, cannot-quit. We might feel anguish, but despair just won’t stick because it’s not over. Maybe it’s an evolutionary impulse to save our own skin and our loved ones’; to quote a friend, ‘Hope is a discipline for survival.’ But I’ll call it love. I’m not sure they’re different. And therein lies hope’s unstoppable power: if you love-anything-you hope.”
I think love’s hope is behind Extinction Revolution and the climate marches, and all the action we are seeing in the world. From Gen Alpha to Boomers, people are starting to act. And there are signs that we are making progress. This April, for the first time ever, renewable energy supplied more power to America’s grid than coal-the clearest sign yet that solar and wind can now go head-to-head with fossil fuels. In two-thirds of the world, they’ve become the cheapest forms of power. Solar and wind will power half the globe by 2050, based on Bloomberg forecasts.
Two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is either a crisis or a serious problem, with a majority wanting immediate action to address global heating and its damaging consequences. “Americans are finally beginning waking up to the existential threat that the climate emergency poses to our society,” said Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Climate Mobilization Project which fielded the recent polling. “This is huge progress for our movement – and it’s young people that have been primarily responsible for that.”
Isn’t it interesting that some of the sharpest minds in the climate dialogue are psychologists and behaviorists? Because the facts are clear. An emotional, soul-level response to this data is what’s needed next. What activists are showing us is the authentic expression of rage, sorrow, disbelief, anxiety and….. in the end, hope. Just follow Greta Thurnberg on Instagram – she is the personification of the emotional and intellectual response to the climate crisis. As she winds her way across North America, you can see the full range of human emotions on her face as she speaks at the UNGA or sits in stoic solidarity every Friday for the climate strikes. Her later visit to an animal sanctuary clearly evokes love and hope if the smile on her face is any clue.
According to Gen Z research recently release by Porter Novelli (my place of employment), this place of hope and love is the power behind the new generation of activism we see all around us. They’re tired of the divisive narrative that has taken over the national news — 94 percent of Generation Z believes our country needs to come together to make progress on important issues. In fact, 85 percent would rather focus on the positive progress we’ve made rather than the negative.
Because it is the power of hope, based in love, that drives all of us to keep trying. It will take all of us, everywhere, trying everything, if we are going to create the world we want.
I’ve been in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability for the last eleven years. The pace of change in the last year has been astonishing. While we’ve moved from climate change being the phrase-that-shall-not-be-named in the early days to it now being included in business risk analyses and an integral part of CDP and GRI reporting, the change that is the most significant is the expectation that brands and CEOs take a stand on social issues.
Im sitting here at my desk on a cold Friday night in January, settling paperwork for the new year and trying to get organized for the coming tax time. I’m my parents’ financial person and this means while they are living out their days in a memory care facility in Ohio, I am in California making sure their bills are paid and matters are in hand.
For me, that means logging into their gmail to make sure there are no missed yearend statements and continuing to unsubscribe from all the progressive, humanitarian causes and newsletters they subscribed to but never read anymore. It means checking the credit card statement and bank balance and then getting out my mom’s check book and files.
And then my throat tightens and tears prick. Because I see her handwriting in the checkbook ledger and remember what a stickler she was for balancing her checkbook every month. Even though she also checked her account online too. She had technology skills, she sure did. And I also see the cryptic notes written on scraps of paper in the files and on back pages of the ledger, on little post-it notes — reminders of passwords and what to do to login in, and what each account meant. Not your usual tips and tricks, but shards of thoughts from someone who was losing her ability to stay in charge — my mom’s favorite place to be.
I may be 3000 miles away, but who she is — and who she was — is right in front of me every day. Her memory loss. My loss. My memories.
Everything changes during the moment when you wake up, realize that things need to be better, and understand that you have a role to play in the story. Companies are beginning to understand that they must internalize and articulate a purpose beyond profit. This usually takes what Ray Anderson called his “spear in the chest” moment, when he saw the power/devastation industry can have on the world. He realized his life would never be the same. As a revolution of real change unfolds, what happens is a change of heart for the entire organizations.
The communications implications for this are significant. How a brand is understood and expressed must now reflect a deeper purpose. First, alignment around and commitment to that purpose must be created. The challenge is for businesses – who are facing growing activist consumers as well as employees – to clearly and credibly express a new dimension of their business. A dimension that is not held hostage to short term profitability but rather integrates service to greater good alongside financial well-being.
We as sustainability communicators understand the power of the narrative to help organizations’ achieve their goals. After more than 30 years, I see the role that communications plays in five distinct co-creation areas and believe that this is the core of what we – the storytellers of commerce — are working toward:
1. Establishing credibility. From branding initiatives to corporate reputation campaigns, brands are creating a new series of communications that provide the detailed transparency for telling a complex sustainability story. Truth-telling and hero’s journey are the themes here.
2. Removing barriers. There is a range of stakeholders whose buy-in is essential in successful sustainability implementation. Employees, supply chain, distribution partners, governments and NGOs, local communities must all become part of the team and be persuaded to set aside self-serving agendas and biases. A call to community is at the heart of this effort.
3. Accelerating acceptance. Clarity can speed goal attainment when players in the system understand how their contribution and connection contributes to success. Participation in a greater goal that is a both-and proposition is the key theme.
4. Operationalizing intention. Vision, heart, and purpose are all lofty concepts that need to come down to earth in order to gain real traction. The place where programs can break down is on the factory floor where those in charge of actually delivering progress on environmental or social impacts are left out of the process. Cross-functional teams are critical.
5. Empowering evangelists. Businesses now rely on a host of advocates who share the narrative – they tweet, post, like, share and rate. Everywhere you can read about how business as we know it has changed – that social media and the new connected customer require a new way of doing business. This means creating narratives that are distinct, sharable messages designed so that others can say-it-forward.
Co-created communications with stakeholders can only come from a strategic approach and the realization that it must be carefully constructed for every transaction. Sustainability communication gives people on all sides of the revolution a voice. And that beautifully expresses a change of heart.