The Bay Area… Silly by Design

I grew up in the Bay Area, and returned there after grad school to start my family and my career. I’ve been in start-ups, working in design, analytics, data science, and product management. A little over 3 years ago, my family got off the increasingly insane Bay Area train, and moved to the Seattle area, where we’re looking forward to another glorious summer in the PNW.

So much about the Bay Area is amazing. From the now well-known success stories of start-ups launched in garages, to the incredibly fast-paced culture where no idea is too far-fetched, too far-reaching, or too ambitious… If you’re not proposing something nearly absurd, then you’re not pushing the envelope enough.

The Bay Area is a unique, inspiring place. Truly a land of opportunity. It can also be a rather ridiculous roller-coaster ride. If you haven’t experienced it, you should consider getting on for at least one loop around the track. It’ll stretch you in more ways than you expect, and amidst all the twists and turns you just might find your own sweet spot.

“My perception is that much (but not all!) of Silicon Valley is riddled with these sorts of people. Smartest in their class, impressive degrees, ability to ace whiteboard interview problems, but very little ability or desire to relate to teammates or even customers as human beings.”

via Three Years in San Francisco — Discover

Capitalism at the Crossroads: Aligning Business, Earth, and Humanity

I remember the day I came home and told my parents that we needed to put a brick in the toilet. We should also get a new showerhead. And we should recycle too, and start a compost in the backyard. We did all those things, and much more.

It was 1990, and as a Jr High student, I was riding my bike to downtown Palo Alto, CA, to volunteer every week at the Earth Day 1990 headquarters. I made photocopies, I assembled informational packets, I researched a variety of environmental topics, and I wrote an article about dolphins getting caught in tuna nets. I asked a lot of questions, I learned a great deal about the environment, and I developed a passion for being environmentally conscious.

I recall that at the time I wanted to deliver a greater direct impact through my volunteering. I wanted my contributions to carry more weight.

Looking back more than a quarter of a century (!) on that Spring of volunteering at Earth Day 1990, I realize that my biggest and most meaningful contribution was the investment that I made in myself. As an eager and impressionable youth, Earth Day 1990 changed my outlook on the world, and that has been far more valuable than any number of photocopies or articles I might have produced in the hours after school. In truth, that’s what the movement was always about anyway – increasing awareness, generating participation, and inspiring action. I remember that my mentor at the volunteer headquarters, Peter, seemed very aware that my involvement was less about what I was producing, and more about how the experience could forever shape my view of the earth, and of my social and environmental responsibilities. Peter, wherever you are, thank you.

On April 22nd, 1990, my family took the train into San Francisco, and we made our way to the Earth Day festivities at Crissy Field. It was the 20-year anniversary of Earth Day, and the first year that the grassroots movement went international. Some 200 million people gathered that day, across 141 countries. I’m proud to have been one of them.

EarthDay1990.png

It’s been so long since that day that I can barely find a trace of the Earth Day 1990 logo on the internet. Since then, the environmental dialog and the consumer options have evolved significantly. Recycling is no longer a novelty, products everywhere are labeled as “Green”, “All-Natural”, “Eco-friendly”, and “Organic”, and we have more options than ever when we shop for light bulbs, paper products, water filters, etc. And while somehow there’s a controversy over global warming, it seems that there’s nonetheless general agreement about certain seemingly insurmountable global changes. As the planet’s population continues to grow, the air quality is getting worse, pollution is on the rise, species are going extinct, and the global competition for resources is increasing.

Where there are problems, there are opportunities. The business world has responded in a variety of ways, and many of these initiatives are encouraging. Consumers have access to so many options these days, from hybrid vehicles, to installing solar panels for their homes, to smart refrigerators, and so on. And yet, the environmentally appropriate, health-conscious, socially-aware options are still generally offered at a premium. As consumers, there’s typically a trade-off. To get the “right” product, you have to spend more.

Businesses seem to face a similar trade-off. Making the “right” decision for the environment, or for society, is rarely at the forefront of the company mission. Rather, corporations tend to focus on making money first, and then in some cases they give back later through philanthropic programs.

How can environmental and social initiatives be converted from expensive problems, to strategic business opportunities? How can multi-national corporations simultaneously profit and serve the largest but poorest socio-economic group in the world? What is the role of corporations with respect to accelerating the growth of global sustainability, and what is foundation for a business framework that champions sustainability as a model for success?

In Capitalism at the Crossroads: Aligning Business, Earth, and Humanity, Stuart L. Hart argues that environmental and social responsibilities need not be expensive corporate activities that disrupt core business lines. His framework is centered on win-win opportunities to serve the Base of the Pyramid (BoP), the four billion poorest people at the “bottom” of the global economy. Hart provides many case studies to illustrate how companies have successfully pursued and established corporate models that are innovative, profitable, and inclusive, as well as socially and environmentally responsible. These examples are intriguing and inspiring, and Hart leverages these accounts to articulate strategies and insights that apply to any and all companies.

As individuals, as employees, and as entrepreneurs, we should all challenge ourselves and each other to put our social and environmental responsibilities first as much as possible, and to create win-win opportunities rather than compromise with trade-offs.

Saving Chocolate

CacaoPod

In 1997 I was backpacking deep in the rainforest of Costa Rica’s Parque Nacional Corcovado, one of the most breathtaking places I have had the good fortune to explore. On this trip I was traveling with a local guide who, for much of our journey, led us on a path that only he could see. I recall vines as thick as my leg, a tiny yet highly poisonous green snake curled up tightly on a single small leaf, a family of monkeys crossing a river by leaping effortlessly from tree to tree, a sloth curled up high in the canopy, and colorful toucans and macaws passing by, among so many other incredible memories.

It was also on that trip that I was introduced to the cacao plant for the first time. In the thick of the rainforest, the guide stepped off his trail, and walked us over to the tree. He cut open a bright leathery pod, and revealed the cacao beans cased in their fruity pulp. A chocoholic all my life, it was fascinating to hold a cacao pod, the source of so many tasty treats.

I had no idea at the time that the world was running low on chocolate, that demand was far outpacing supply. I’ve since learned that environmental factors including diseases, and economic factors such as competing crops, have pushed the chocolate industry to pursue new breeds of cacao. It’s an intriguing story of trade-offs between quality and quantity, of breeding varieties that are not only resistant to diseases such as frosty pod and witches’ broom, but that also deliver the flavors that the world so craves.

One of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s Planet Money, produced an entertaining show on this topic that I recommend, called The Chocolate Curse. It’s interesting and fun; check it out.

The first cacao plant I was introduced to, years ago on a magical trip through the rainforest, held the key to a rich story I had always taken for granted whenever I’d taken a bite of chocolate. I’m eager to learn more about the bean’s journey, from cacao pod to chocolate. I’d also like to better understand the plant’s historical origins, and how it has spread throughout the globe. Ultimately, I’m curious to learn more about how the recent environmental and economic factors have influenced the business strategies in the modern chocolate market.

If you have any favorite resources to recommend on this topic, please share!