News & Views

CHANNELS    |    Behavior Change      Leadership      Products & Design      Supply Chain      Marketing & Comms      New Metrics    |    MORE

Presidio Graduate School Commencement Address

Image Credit: Sustainable Brands

Thanks so much for the invitation to come speak with you today. I have the good fortune of knowing many of your faculty, past and present, and have also had the great good fortune to have several Presidio alum on our team through the years. It’s always a delight to be able to be work with people who we know are coming from a similar place of intellectual alignment.

What an honor to be here in this beautiful place with such a great group of passionate leaders — and even more so, to offer you some thoughts as you begin important next steps in your lives — steps that I know will be particularly important to our collective future.

With the little time I have today, I hope to offer you three things to take with you on your journey from this place:

  • First, I’d like to share just a few words about the state of the world today as we see it.
  • Second, I’ll share a few words about the work I think we have to do together, and why you’re so well suited to help.
  • And third, I’ll try to share a few lessons I’ve learned on my own journey that I hope may be of help to you on yours.

From our perspective, we live in an age of unintended consequences. Our great nation was founded on the belief that each of us deserves the opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This drive to create and protect the opportunity to realize these simple aspirations ourselves, and for others, is at the root of our nature as a nation. The pursuit of this simple “Good Life” was core to the values of our founding fathers.

The greatest and most “sustainable” brands, including many of those who are part of our global community of changemakers at Sustainable Brands, were founded with a similar sense of purpose. They had an intention to contribute to an economy that provided for the real individual, civic or social needs of our citizens.

Throughout the 20th century, their imagination and ingenuity led to fantastic gains in our collective standard of living, not only for ourselves here in the US, but around the world.

However, we have now come to realize that for all the good delivered by industrialization, there have been far-reaching unintended consequences as well.

Our push toward productivity and efficiency, which led us to siloed, mechanistic ways of both working — but more problematically, seeing the world — has inclined us to forget that we all operate as part of a complex set of systems that are inextricably connected, as we are to each other.

And somewhere toward the middle of the last century, the skills of Madison Avenue inadvertently converted us collectively from citizens who were focused on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness into consumers who have been taught we should care more today about whiter teeth, fancier clothes, a bigger house and a faster car.

In what could be characterized as a fit of irrational exuberance, we managed to create a highly efficient “take, make, waste”—based system that certainly generated economic growth, but which has also brought us to this moment in history where we find ourselves at the very real risk of depleting our natural resources and overtaxing our planet to the point where its ability to continue to support life as we know it is in jeopardy.

It was not our intent to create global environmental degradation, or to dehumanize ourselves by drawing our attention away from those things that truly lead to happiness. We did not understand, but we are coming to now. And the good news is that the creativity, ingenuity, passion and drive that led us here can just as easily lend itself to helping us successfully correct the problems we've created on our journey. 

At Sustainable Brands, we believe that business as an institution is uniquely equipped to drive innovation and value creation in our world, and that brands, specifically, are uniquely situated to help us define our global societal aspirations. This puts those of you in this room — particularly those of you who already sit inside business, or who intend to pursue a business career — in a uniquely important position to help shape our collective future.

From where we sit as a growing community of practice, touching over 1 million users and operating in 12 major cities on six continents each year so far — we see a growing cadre of consumers, influential business and brand leaders who understand that we've gotten off track, and are ready to move forward — and maybe in some ways, back — to the future.

We see people who are hungry to return to lives that are based on deeper meaning — focused on things like rich relationships and the opportunity to nurture our creative selves, lives that value and appreciate the beauty of diversity, both in nature and in the people around us. We see young people like our 23- and 24-year-old sons, who somehow understand that we are all connected, and who believe that when we begin to think as we, rather than me, we will restore that which is truly human in us and begin to make the kinds of decisions that can deliver the future we all want.

But I see two insidious characteristics running rampant in our society today that risk sidelining our move toward a better future, and I consider ridding the world of these amongst the most powerful challenges for us to tackle together, regardless of the specific work we take on.

We often point to “selfishness and greed” as the culprits behind what’s broken in our world. But to the degree these exist, these are symptoms, not root causes. And the real levers of change come in tackling root causes.  So here are two things I see as root causes of a good number of the problems we face, and I invite you to consider them as you go on into your fields of work:

  • The first is the residual evolutionary survival mechanism that leads us to put things, and people, into boxes, and most problematically, to fear those in boxes other than our own. In the early days of our emergence as a species, when survival was paramount, recognizing those ‘not like us’ as dangerous was a necessary mechanism for ensuring our survival in a hostile environment. Differentiation and the leap to fear can be helpful, but today it is at risk of becoming a societal addiction, fueled by both liberal and conservative media alike to boost ratings. When fear becomes out of balance, it diminishes our ability to build the necessary bridges to others that are absolutely necessary to ensure our own survival as well as that of our planet, and it impedes our ability to create and enjoy the life that is possible for us individually and collectively when we seek to overcome it.
  • The second trait, cynicism, flows right along with the first.  Cynicism assumes that altruism -- which we can define as “intentional action ultimately for the welfare of others that entails at least the possibility of either no benefit or a loss to the actor”--does not exist. Cynicism assumes that humans are inherently self-serving and untrustworthy by nature, therefore justifying our addiction to fear, and positioning our search to design constructs to support the thriveability of all the children of all time — as Bill McDonough calls us to do — as a fool’s errand.

In fact, the good news is that many researchers today are delving into the science of altruism and demonstrating both that we are in fact wired for good, and that our ability to thrive as a species actually depends on building bridges between ourselves and ‘others’ not like us.

I have read a lot on this topic over the past few years and can recommend the book, The Altruistic Brain by Harvard’s Donald Pfaff; as well as Dacher Keltner’s work at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, where he is studying the evolution of compassion and publishing a regular newsletter I recommend.

David Sloan Wilson, one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists, in his book, Does Altruism Exist, demonstrates through various experiments that “selfishness can beat altruism within groups, but altruistic groups generally beat selfish groups” whether looking at viruses, insects or mammals.

What does this mean to you as you set off to make your mark on the world and on our future?

It could mean that if you choose a selfish path, you may ‘get ahead’ of your classmates on your journey — depending on what that means to you. However, if you are one of those who chooses altruism as a core tenant of your path, you are much more likely to contribute to helping build the global economic and social fabric we need to carry us successfully to a thriveable future. And you are much more likely to achieve the “Good Life” as we are now coming to better understand it.

It can be easy to become discouraged or, again, fearful looking at the craziness that is taking place around our own governmental affairs and around the world. I have been known to say over the past year or two that we stand at a key moment in history, where together we will choose whether we will revert back to the dark ages, or choose instead to move forward toward the next renaissance. However, my personal belief is that what feels like a lean toward the former is really just the last gasps of the old economic power system dying away.

But from what we see, despite the picture being painted by the media today, humanity is continuing to evolve. At Sustainable Brands, we just completed a study of the general US population, which we fielded in April with the Harris Poll, looking at how we are collectively rethinking the nature of a “Good Life.” What we found is that we are much more aligned as citizens about what we collectively aspire to today than the media would make us out to be — and collectively, our understanding of what makes a good life is evolving:

Our research showed that regardless of gender or generation, region or race, or religious or political affiliation, balance and simplicity — along with connection to family, community and the planet — are now solidly outweighing money, status and personal achievement as top aspects of the good life we seek to live. According to our study:

  • 71% verify that their aspiration for the good life is different than their parents
  • 78% now agree that money cannot buy happiness
  • 76% agree that the good life involves making a difference for others in the world
  • 83% agree that not everyone has equal access to the good life today, and
  • 72% agree that if more people around the world did, there would be less conflict in the world.

So, the times, they are a changing — and you are especially well set up to lead as we collectively work to redirect our systems back toward health and sustainability for all living systems on our planet.

In terms of advice, there are a few things that stick out for me as I look back on the 20-30 years of life I have on most of you:

First, get clear on your vision of the good life and don't let yourself get distracted — know what is enough for you, and don’t allow yourself to get pulled off center by the delusion that money and ‘stuff’ lead to happiness.

In my early 20s, as I was starting my career in the Bay Area, I landed in a small but quaint suburb of SF in a tiny studio apartment within walking distance of the town’s commercial center. I was a few blocks off the lovely, tree-lined main street of town, and dreamed at that time that some day I would be able to purchase my own little house on that street.

10 years later, we bought our first small house, equal distance on the other side of that tree-lined street to my first studio apartment. It was a great little street with friendly neighbors. We all opened our doors to all the kids on the block — shared looking out for the young widow/single mom who was fostering two challenging kids and elders who had lived there for 40 years, and had block parties together on every 4th of July.

Fast-forward another 10 and by that time my husband and I had each achieved a good deal of commercial success, so we did what we assumed we were supposed to do with our somewhat unexpected newfound wealth — we bought the big house on the hill. Instantly, our family dispersed into far corners, and our connective tissue weakened. We never saw or heard from our neighbors. Life at home became more work, and less ‘together.’ We missed our walking lifestyle immediately.

So, after 10 years of owning this perfect house on the hill — the one everyone in town aspired to — we decided to move our family back down the hill to that beautiful, tree-lined street within walking distance of downtown and back into a house half the size. 

Yet now another 10 years later, we couldn’t be happier. And the move allowed me to start Sustainable Brands as a passion project, paying myself far less than what I had earned in my corporate life. Had we had a better sense of ‘enough’ earlier on, we would have saved ourselves a substantial detour and put that many more roots and memories into the home we plan to have for a lifetime.

Second, believe in the power of business to be a hero for our time, and lean in wherever you land. Business as an institution is best equipped to innovate, and brands touch every aspect of the economic ecosystem. Go make your mark — and recognize that the goal is a whole systems shift, so don’t worry about where in the system you land. Think systems and recognize you can change the system from any part of it.

Third, do what you love, love what you do, and deliver more than you promise. There is a lot to unpack in this council, and if you sit with it over time, I think you’ll find you’ll bring to it meaningful personal experiences that will make it sing. In a nutshell, follow your heart — not your parents’, your professors’ or your best friends’. It is when we do what we love that we thrive, and the benefits accrue not only to our self but to all those around us. And then once you find your path – treat it as you would the love of your life. When it gets hard, stick with it. There is something rich on the other side of overcoming hardship and challenge – don’t quit! And finally, by delivering more than you promise, you accrue social capital, which may well be the most valuable kind of capital in the years ahead — to be honest, it may already be!

And finally, have faith. For me, the antidote to cynicism may come down to ‘faith’ – a word that has been largely commandeered by those who wish to either promote or malign one religion or another. But from my perspective, we all inherently live by faith of one sort or another. We are not omniscient, and can neither know, nor not know the complete and true nature of the universe as of yet.

And so, we live on the basis of our limited direct experience, what we’ve been taught, or based on some sort of deeper intuition or way of ‘knowing’ that for now defies our scientific ability to pinpoint, define or even fully describe.

At the end of the day, we choose the lens from which we look out at the world, and this makes all the difference.

I have chosen to define faith as the choice to hope. I believe without hope we are doomed — and that to allow ourselves to succumb to fear and cynicism is to give up on the possibility that the future we hope for is possible.

But with it, if we choose to believe, we’ll drive innovation and greater prosperity for ourselves and for those companies that lead the way.

To close, I wanted to share one last story of a young friend of mine who recently passed away — not to be morbid, but to offer what I think is some important perspective that perhaps you will find helpful at some point along your journey.

Lucas Daniel died in April, not two months after being diagnosed with cancer. He left his lovely wife, April, and his 7-year-old son, and so many people who loved the special person he was.

I hired Lucas as my EA when he was fresh out of school 20 years ago. I recognized how lucky I was immediately. When I quit my corporate job, Lucas went to work for my husband, Steve, at his music tech startup. Then he went back to design grad school, and on to become a Partner at a well-respected design innovation firm, Gravity Tank, in Chicago.

Lucas and I always stayed friends. He was a thought partner for me. The last time I saw him was at our SB’17 Detroit launch event at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. He came because I had sought him out to talk through and help refine my perspective on the Good Life initiative we are pursuing around the world over the next three years.

That event was the last time I spoke to him. I share this with you because I want you to know how lucky I feel – and how luck you all are to have been gifted with such amazing thought and action partners on this crazy journey to change the world.

It always rubs me wrong when I hear that SB is so tied to me as the founder, because I simply do not see it that way. Others just don't yet see how this is not true. 

What we do here together going forward is in service of the whole. We each have our unique roles to play, and each role is important. We are each individually irrelevant in the scheme of things — even those who appear more visible — me included — in the sense that we will never get where we want to go without an army of individuals and communities working together to get there. 

And yet in another way, we are each insanely relevant. Because at the end of the day, the balance is tipped by just one stone. Every stone counts. Lucas Daniel may not have had as much visibility I have on the global playing field, but he impacted the direction of many many, many stones, including mine. And that matters. Every day you choose to put your stone on the right side of the scale, it matters. Easy or hard, it matters — at least, that's how I look at it.

You will all each choose your own path, your own ways to plug in — some very visible, and some, not so much. Either way, it is incredibly human to encounter moments when you wonder whether your efforts matter — and you all will. In those moments, choose faith — make the choice to hope, and just keep putting your stones on the right side of the scale ... If we all do just that, we will find our way to the future we seek — and my children, and yours — and all the children of the world will thank us for it.

Thank you again for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you, and I wish you all good things on your journey, which starts today!


Launched in 2006, Sustainable Brands has become a global learning, collaboration, and commerce community of forward-thinking business and brand strategy, marketing, innovation and sustainability professionals who are leading the way to a better future. We recognize that brands today have… [Read more about Sustainable Brands]


Most Recently Viewed in the Library

[Slideshow] [Webinar]
Mark Lee
Lindsay Clinton
[Slideshow]
Rodolphe d'Arjuzon
Sarah McDonald
Carmel Mcquaid
Hermione Taylor