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8 Pieces of Advice on Sustainability Entrepreneurship

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 13, 2014 9:00:32 AM / by Cynthia Figge

CSRHub Cofounder Cynthia Figge shared her thoughts at Founders’ Friday sponsored by Women 2.0.

Relentless, Filled With Hope
I have been an entrepreneur since I could first conceive of business. I cofounded my cynthia_figge at Sustainable Brands '13college’s Coop and with the consulting firm New Ventures, wrote the business plan for dozens of nonprofits starting for-profit subsidiaries. I was early-in to saving the world through business, which we now call “social impact” enterprise. I also worked for large companies starting new businesses. As an officer of LIN Broadcasting (owned by McCaw Cellular), I developed new mobile data services. When McCaw sold to AT&T, I felt it was time to be an entrepreneur, for good.

In 1996, I began a journey toward blending my two passions – startups and sustainability. I cofounded the consulting firm EKOS, a pioneer in helping companies integrate sustainability into their core business strategy. While that may sound a little “so what’s new” today, 18 years ago most businesses did not embrace the notion that they needed to integrate human capital and natural capital with manufactured/financial capital into a single system. EKOS calls this “operating at the nexus.” Then in 2007, I cofounded CSRHub, a sustainability big data platform. CSRHub has built the largest database of sustainability ratings and information in the world. We cover nearly 9,000 companies in 103 countries, and aim to be the go-to source on every company’s social and environmental performance data.

I’ve grown in my understanding of being an entrepreneur, and will share eight insights.

First – do the work you are called to do. You must feel that somehow the world will fall apart if you do not apply your unique set of skills, passion, knowledge and intuition to the work you do. During this difficult economic time many of us are just grateful to have paid work . Can we afford to worry about hearing a call for our lives? I think the answer is we cannot afford to ignore finding our true selves and the vocation that we long for, especially in this liminal time. The earth and people on it are at a crossroad.  The global population is predicted to grow to about 9 billion people. Social equity, climate change, the need for clean water and clean energy, and planetary survival offer us lots to do in answering our unique call.

Second – there is no such thing as immediate gratification. Even if you are doing engineering time studies for a thunderous piece of equipment in 100 degree+ heat in a tiny northern Michigan town, if you think you are on the train track to the work you are called to do, hang in there. Entrepreneurs build progress one hard day at a time, and it adds up.

Third – celebrate early and often. Despite the absence of immediate gratification you must celebrate whatever small and large victories come your way. You have a graduate student use your service and publish their PhD thesis using your data – celebrate. You raise $100,000 from an angel – celebrate. You raise it from a woman – celebrate enthusiastically. There will be plenty of bad days when the memory of the good moments tide you over.

Fourth – pursue partnerships with would-be competitors. This is like making love, not war. At every turn, figure out how to collaborate with the competition and develop partnerships wherever possible to leverage the collective work. Who I do business with is deeply guided by my intuition as well as analysis, and desire to expand the pie for all. We are one big system.

Fifth – own your ability to “see ahead”. You would not be an entrepreneur if you didn’t see ahead the trends and shifts that others cannot see. I realize that my gift is seeing ahead, coming back to tell the story, and continue co-creating our world. You will make bets on what you see way down the road and others will think you are crazy. You may be crazy, but stay the course, because you may be right. Think Elon Musk and Tesla.

Sixth – when the going gets rough, find like-minded angels. Angel investors can be angels – they support and guide you. Put time and effort into finding the right sources of capital to grow your business. And when you are wildly successful, join an angel network and give back.

Seventh – humility is the new swagger. Swagger is very important, but not the old school type.  Thomas Friedman wrote a NY Times Op-Ed recently on how to get a job at Google. You need learning ability, emergent leadership, humility and ownership. He says you can be a zealot about your point of view, but when a new fact arises, you say ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ “You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.” As a Harvard Business School grad with years of being an entrepreneur, I love this advice. BTW, women are really good at this!

Eighth - hope is an entrepreneur’s asset. I believe hope and dreams are inextricably linked. There’s some combination of belief, knowledge, foolishness, and persistence that leads one to radical hope. Hope is not optimism. Optimism is moving toward a positive outcome in ways we can see. Hope is the fulfillment now, hope is realized by making the life giving choices - every day we can do this. Hope is not measured by an endpoint. We are moving into hope every day as we live out our call and dreams. There’s something in the dream - the ambiguity, uncertainty, unknown outcome, giving something you’ve imagined some real form in the world.  There’s no promise of success. But it is the work of the entrepreneur to be relentless, filled with hope.

Best wishes on your path of being an entrepreneur.


Cynthia FiggeCynthia Figge is a forerunner and thought leader in the corporate sustainability movement. She is COO and Cofounder of CSRHub, the world’s largest database that aggregates and organizes data and knowledge on the social, environmental, and governance performance of 8,900 companies to provide sustainability ratings to the marketplace. In 1996 she co-founded EKOS International, one of the first consultancies integrating sustainability and corporate strategy. Prior to founding EKOS, she was an officer of LIN Broadcasting / McCaw Cellular, and led new businesses and services with Weyerhaeuser, New York Daily News; and with New Ventures. Cynthia is Board Director of the Compassionate Action Network International. Cynthia received her bachelor's degree in Economics and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. She lives in the Seattle area.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 8,900 companies from 135 industries in 103 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 300+ data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

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Obama Energizes Debate With Focus on New Energy

[fa icon="calendar'] Oct 17, 2012 10:49:38 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Watching the first Presidential debate on October 3, I kept waiting for Obama to bring up

climate change and clean tech

climate change. Yes, climate change is this election’s third rail. But it makes many of Obama’s strategies work. In fact, climate change may be at the center of his vision for a new economy. Old “cash cow” industries like oil are being “harvested;” low growth low return industries like coal are being allowed to be put out of business by low-priced natural gas, and new, fast-growing industries like wind and solar are “stars” where investment return will be highest.

Without climate change, Obama is open to charges of using taxpayer money to play with the sun and wind and counting on imaginary jobs to save the unemployed. A delusional demi-God claiming he’ll change the world.

Climate change can change the playing field for Obama, but he’s got to bring it up without saying those toxic words.

So why not instead couch climate change in bipartisan poll-sanctioned terms such as “clean tech” and “green jobs”?

And sure enough, at Tuesday night’s debate, Obama did just that.

While post-debate pundits focused on Romney’s through-line on jobs and Obama’s victories on women and immigration, my gut feeling told me that Obama had repositioned the debate most in the energy area.

Obama reset Romney’s positioning of oil and gas realism vs. alternative energy dreaming — as Romney framed it in the first debate, oil subsidies vs. Solyndra — to a new inclusive paradigm of “energy sources”:

“…we’ve got to make sure we’re building the energy source of the future, not just thinking about next year, but ten years from now, 20 years from now. That’s why we’ve invested in solar and wind and biofuels, energy efficient cars.”

When asked about high gas prices, Obama brought up higher fuel efficiency standards, positioning them not a “traditional source of energy” but another “look to the future.”

Obama used clean energy as a competitive weapon against Romney as short–sighted, ceding energy innovation to other nations:

“So he’s got the oil and gas part, but he doesn’t have the clean energy part. And if we are only thinking about tomorrow or the next day and not thinking about 10 years from now, we’re not going to control our own economic future. Because China, Germany, they’re making these investments. And I’m not going to cede those jobs of the future to those countries. I expect those new energy sources to be built right here in the United States.”

The two candidates went at each other about whether Obama had increased fossil fuel drilling on Federal lands, a fight Romney won, but after Candy Crawley got the two back to their corners, Obama continued to steer the debate to new energy :

“What I’m not for is us ignoring the other half of the equation. So, for example, on wind energy, when Governor Romney says ‘these are imaginary jobs.’ When you’ve got thousands of people right now in Iowa, right now in Colorado, who are working, creating wind power with good-paying manufacturing jobs.”

Obama’s mission was complete when Romney, the candidate who said “I like coal” in the first debate, became himself an advocate for an more inclusive definition of energy resources:

“ROMNEY: Candy, I don’t have a policy of stopping wind jobs in Iowa and that — they’re not phantom jobs. They’re real jobs.


ROMNEY: I appreciate wind jobs in Iowa and across our country. I appreciate the jobs in coal and oil and gas. I’m going to make sure –


ROMNEY: — we’re taking advantage of our energy resources. We’ll bring back manufacturing to America. We’re going to get through a very aggressive energy policy, 3 1/2 million more jobs in this country. It’s critical to our future.”

Were these quotes indicative of a real shift? I checked the numbers.

In the first debate, the word “taxes” dominated, followed closely by “jobs.”

In the second debate, the most-used word was “jobs.” But the second? Energy.

Yes, oil and gas were mentioned five times as much as wind and solar. And Obama came nowhere near condemning the fossil fuel industries, as climate change activists would have liked. But he moved the discussion to clean energy jobs and the energy resources of the future. And that’s a good place to start.

Thanks to ABC News for the October 16 debate transcript and CNN for the October 3 debate transcript.

Photo courtesy of cwwycoff1 via Flickr.

Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on nearly 5,000 companies from 135 industries in 65 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from over 170 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.


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What BP Can Teach Bill Gates About Sustainability

[fa icon="calendar'] May 30, 2011 11:34:05 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

About 10 years ago, I wrote an article about the role brands could play in driving social responsibility. My argument was that social change was needed on a massive scale, but that the institutions that had addressed societal ills in the past — government, religion, education, even the family — were no longer trusted. Therefore, brands were the only forces capable of changing human behavior.

The example I gave was BP, now unfortunately an exemplar of failed social responsibility (though still rated well above its industry average on environmental issues). Then-CEO Sir John Browne was the first to publicly commit the oil giant to alternative energy sources. Browne used both promotion — a name change from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum” — and action, moving into solar power in a major and public way to solidify the company’s commitment.

Then BP put its mighty brand to work to convince home-owners to switch from fossil-fuel heat to solar. The company partnered with local utilities to sell and install its solar panels and ran consumer ads that focused on cost savings. This action, made believable to consumers because the company made profits from solar business, convinced consumers of the validity of solar power and moved them to install solar panels in droves. BP added giants like Costco, Home Depot and WalMart to its solar solution distributors and made BP Solar the third largest producer of solar panels in the world.

When I heard that Bill Gates, who has notoriously distanced his foundation from environmental issues, would speak at the Climate Solutions fundraiser last week, I was thrilled. The idea was so enticing: Gates was joining corporate leaders like Jeffery Immelt of GE, Walmart’s Mike Duke, and Bill Ford of Ford Motor, all of whom are creating awareness of climate change by promoting environmental fixes from their own companies. After all, the Microsoft story is just as powerful as GE’s Ecomagination, Walmart’s “Green Power Broker” and Ford’s electric car business.

In fact, Microsoft is pretty far down the curve on its energy conservation technology. Working with local utilities, Microsoft’s Hohm service provides automated feeds to let consumers analyze their energy consumption and track their improvements over time, a proven method of getting consumers to be green. Hohm also manages charging electric cars. It’s exciting stuff, though Microsoft has not really promoted it and consumers have not been quick to adopt.

Picture 12

As I listened to Gates talk, I realized he would continue to distance himself from Microsoft, even though he chairs the company and owns about 8% of the stock. And indeed, he never mentioned it. Instead, he talked about his investments in huge scale energy breakthroughs such as TerraPower, whose reactors promise to run on nuclear waste.

Though I loved what he said, it was sad to watch Gates waste a huge piece of his potential influence by not building awareness for Hohm. It’s not a heroic effort like TerraPower, but it is one that is designed to get citizens to change their behavior vis-à-vis energy use. And once behavior changes, our consumerist values could change too. Even if we don’t stop buying stuff just for kicks, the outcomes are significant: Our cars and homes make up over 50% of the energy used in this country.

That seems like an improved outcome of pretty heroic proportions.

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.


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[fa icon="comment"] 1 Comment posted in corporate social responsibility, CSR, Uncategorized, sustainability, Bill Gates, BP, Carol Pierson Holding, clean energy, clean tech, CSRHub

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