The pace at Sustrana is fast. At a start-up, every second counts. Co-founders, Nancy Cleveland and Jennifer Anderson spend their days (and often nights and weekends) running the business and perfecting the company’s sustainability management software. As a certified B-Corp, they are deeply committed to ensuring the company’s positive impact on the world. Nancy and Jen sat down with me to talk about their journey and vision for the future. This blog represents highlights of our conversation. What better time than when a year comes to a close to reflect about your journey? We hope these reflections about a more sustainable future for all will inspire you during this holiday season.
> On shifting from a more traditional career to the world of social impact…
Jennifer: I had an exciting and fast paced start to my career. I spent nine years in financial services working for a company that afforded me a lot of opportunity as a young professional, but I couldn’t get excited about the subject matter. Seeking more purpose, I got my master’s degree in public health. This work was more fulfilling, but I eventually missed the pace of the private sector. I started seeing opportunities everywhere for companies to “do well by doing good” and have a tremendous positive impact. My kids were born around the same time and then a concern for their future reared its ugly head. The confluence of circumstance and reflection propelled me to discover corporate sustainability.
Nancy: I was in a profession (law) and a career focus (real estate development) that highlighted for me a lot of things that were not so great about the way we do business and the conditions that result from the way we do business. With a bit of effort, and a newly minted LEED AP accreditation, I found an opportunity to be the chief sustainability officer of a commercial real estate development company that wanted to focus on green building. This started me on the path to the broader social impact work we do today.
The take away: Finding work that you are passionate about is often a process. Retool and redirect until you find what’s right for you.
> On the challenges business leaders face in embracing sustainability in a truly meaningful way…
Nancy: Early on, we understood that it is hard to get your head around what sustainability management is and how to implement it. Despite this, it is a very powerful tool. It inspires and engages people. If you can empower people to focus on protecting the environment and helping people thrive, you make it possible for human nature to follow its better path.
Jennifer: Sustainability for businesses isn’t always easy to communicate. The complexity and variety of issues that fall under the topic make it hard to put into a 140-character sound bite. The complexity feeds into a perception that there isn’t measurable business value. That perception also has a lot to do with timeframes and our chronic short-termism. You can ascribe value to almost any sustainability initiative if you are willing to extend the period of return.
The take away: Sustainability has great power to engage, but communicating about it can be challenging.
> On pivoting from the consultant model for corporate sustainability to the world of start-ups and software…
Jennifer: Either route has its challenges, but the process of building software to help companies do this work faster and more effectively has been an eye-opening, fun, and creative exercise. We knew that mid-size and smaller enterprises would struggle to invest in consultants or software to help them with sustainability. But they still needed accessible and affordable resources to help them get quickly to the business value sustainability management can create. The combination of tools and content held the answer for affordable capacity building.
Nancy: The shift from consulting to creating our sustainability management software was a very natural one. We realized early on that we needed to dramatically speed up access to sustainability information, guidance, and tools, and the only way we could see to scale that access and impact was and is through an online software platform. The platform has evolved out of a creative process of listening to what our consulting customers were saying and trying to empathize with their pain points around sustainability. What we saw was a market need for a system that could give companies the tools they needed to create a sustainability strategy and implement it.
The take away: Technology can be a great catalyst for wide-scale, complex change.
> On the role of “disruption” in creating a sustainable future…
Nancy: We are not trying so much to get companies engaged in sustainability activities as we are trying to change the way companies think about doing business. If we continue to externalize our use of natural resources, and allow behaviors that damage the planet and people to go unaccounted for, we are surely headed for some very difficult times. Many leaders in the business community have already recognized that disruption is essential to survival. The market is searching for new ways to effect change. We understand, as Nelson Mandela says, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.“ Incremental disruptions are what make the seemingly impossible possible. We have created a better and faster way to get change done with software that enables communication, innovation, and the power of organizational intelligence.
Jennifer: We do need to think dramatically differently. We are faced in society with “wicked problems”. The only way we are going to solve them is to give people with a variety of different opinions, viewpoints, and backgrounds the tools they need to come together to hash out solutions. That will breed positive disruption. Let’s get people in the same room, virtual or otherwise – people who have information about different parts of a company – to hypothesize about creative “what if’s.”. That leads to really cool conversations about new products or services. Our platform facilitates this kind of disruptive collaboration, bringing people together to solve for wicked problems.
The take away: Finding solutions to wicked problems requires the creativity and innovation that emerge from connecting inclusive and diverse groups of people.
> On being optimistic about the future and the role of business…
Jennifer: In the U.S. and elsewhere, people are motivated by the power of capitalism. In many ways, it’s been the foundation of greatness in our culture and in our history. Yet, the areas where capitalism has failed to solve (or has created) problems are becoming more apparent. As these realizations are better understood, true business leaders and entrepreneurs see opportunities. There are emerging leaders who are already doing things that are so forward thinking and so out there that we can’t even fathom what they are going to come up with next. So, yes, I am very optimistic. Optimism is not only absolutely necessary in today’s world, but it’s warranted. These leaders prove that.
Nancy: I think the business community and civil society today are like a scrambled egg; you cannot unscramble all the ways they are connected and impact each other. With outsourcing and globalization, many businesses have created systems and networks that have advanced far beyond traditional political and geographic ways of organizing society. Businesses are primary players in creating many of the problems we are facing today. They will need to be solution providers in a shrinking world where we can no longer escape or export our way out of problems. I do not know exactly what the world will look like in the future, but I am optimistic about how the world will function. A one-planet perspective is taking hold, and commerce always plays a central role in any community. If a business wants to thrive in the future, it will have to see, understand, and act based on an interconnected global community.
The take away: Highly networked, global markets fuel a one-community reality that make businesses key players for finding solutions to the world’s most wicked problems.
>On starting something new …
Jennifer: Working for any start-up is not for the faint of heart. It’s tenuous all the time. Doing something disruptive is even more daunting. Most people don’t have an appetite for that kind of “normal”, but the people at Sustrana are mission-driven, continually trying to improve what we do, to make the world a better place for generations to come. Plus, the creative element and the fast-paced, dynamic environment are so fun. They make it worth working through the challenges.
Nancy: A big part of the vision that we have for businesses is to be the evangelists for a better world. Our core values are very much about the change we seek as we relate to one another, not just within our company, and not just with our customers, but with the world at large. As hard as it is to start something new, when the guideposts are ways to build strong, healthy relationships, what could be more rewarding? When work has a positive purpose, you just do not sweat the hard stuff so much.
The take away: When challenging work is work with purpose, its rewards far exceed its burdens.
> On inspiring companies to embrace sustainability…
Jennifer: When looked at thoughtfully, intentionally, and strategically, sustainability is transformational for a company. There is nothing but upside when employees at all levels feel that the company is doing the right thing. Embracing sustainability best practices enables companies to identify and capitalize on opportunities that pay dividends today, tomorrow, and for generations. It is a really powerful way to accomplish much, much more with what you already have.
Nancy: The question I would pose is what is the alternative? What is it that we are trying to achieve as human beings? Our planet is so small and so fragile. Are we going to be stewards or are we going to be locusts? Are we going to live with open and generous hearts or are we going to close our hearts, hoard and be self-centered? What is it that we want to be known for? I think that sustainability is an inherently unique and inspiring concept. It is so simple: the capacity to endure and thrive. This is a fabulous time to be alive. It is full of challenge and opportunity to rise above; to elevate the most wonderful and positive things about what it means to be human.
The take away: Amazing and good things come to the fore when businesses support and promote all that is good in the human spirit.