061: Tensie Whelan, part 1: The Rainforest Alliance, United Nations, and NYU-Stern (transcript)
Tensie Whalen worked among many places with the Rainforest Alliance. Beyond influencing individuals, she led organizations and influenced and influences industries on global scales. She oversaw major changes at places like Kraft, J.P. Morgan all around the world not just in the United States. I met her when she helped bring the secretary general of the United States to NYU so she works with some major people. You get to hear from her that massive change is possible because she lived it. She talks experience, not just theory. What she talks about is practical advice and histories of what worked and what takes more patience since it’s not easy. She’s working with people. It is very interesting I find how working with organizations has a lot more to do with working with people than you might think. Anyway, let’s listen to her because youâ€™ll hear a lot of empathy and compassion, working with organizations and most of all effectiveness and friendliness. You can hear that she really enjoys what she does as hard as it is. She gets a lot of reward.
Joshua: Hello everyone and welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Josh. I’m here with Tensie Whelan. How are you doing?
Tensie: I am doing great. Thank you, Josh.
Joshua: I am glad to be here. I teach at NYU, you teach at NYU. And also this is the Leadership and the Environment podcast we look. A lot at leadership and there’s a big divide in leadership as I see it. Different people may see it differently between personal leadership, one-on-one leadership, how to influence one other person at a time or small groups and then this whole organizational change. And this podcast is really focused on the first one and I think you’ve done the first one too but I think you’ve also done a lot of the second one. And that’s an area that in my whole career like I said like I’m going to focus on one. I think that’s useful and effective but there’s a whole other area that I’ve really neglected. I’d love to hear stuff about that. I wonder if we could start byâ€¦ Is that if you did you also look at? And if so, have you done a lot of work in this other area?
Tensie: Well, I run Rainforest Alliance for 15 years for example and Rainforest Alliance mission was to work with companies and producers to change behavior basically, to improve land use practices, consumer practices and so on and to do that you need to influence organizations. The thing is you need to influence individuals within organizations, you donâ€™t influence an organization. You figure out alright, let’s say you want to change the coffee industry. So you look at the coffee industry and you say, â€œWho are the key players? What are the big brands? Where are the intermediaries or the traders? Where is the all coffee coming from? So what kind of farmers are producing it â€“ small farmers, big farmers? Are they men or women? Are they Columbian or are they African? Where are they from? And where are the key leverage points?â€ And then I go in and you say, â€œAlright, within company X who are the people I need to reach? This company is important because it controls 30 percent of the world’s coffee. So what do they care about? So then you sort of study the organization, find out what they’re interested in and what drives them, how they see their competitive advantage and so on. And then you find the right people. That’s the toughest part to talk in their language about what it is you want them to do that they want to do, only they don’t know that yet.
Joshua: Yeah, this is leading in the environment. It’s like people want clean air and water. They just don’t know it. What youâ€™re talking about sounds like experience. It didn’t sound like you’re talking like this is the theory that you read in the book although it might also be.
Tensie: No, itâ€™s experience. I mean I’m sure there’s a lot of literature that says you know everything’s about people. When you come down to it, it’s how you interact with people. So I think your focus on leadership, individual is critical because an organization itself doesnâ€™t lead. It’s the individuals in it that cause it to lead so you need to be thinking about that but you also need to understand what you’re trying to change an organization, you need to understand that the things that are organizational like culture, like how they see themselves because they’ll be different than their counterparts and they are driven by different things, they have different objectives, so you need to understand those and be able then again to speak the language and engage them around sustainability.
Joshua: How do you figure that part out? I mean now when you said culture I thought when you try to influence a person I think it’s very important to understand their emotions, what motivates them and companies, well, if it’s for profit you figure well, they are just trying to keep up the share price and things but one, as you point out, you’re always dealing with people. There’s no company. And two, there is a culture. It’s not just what the companyâ€¦ Itâ€™s not just forâ€¦ First of all, they are not all for profit and even if they are for profit, thereâ€™s culture in thisâ€¦ How do you find this stuff out? Is it more of an emotion to a company than a thought? I shouldnâ€™t say company. Organization.
Tensie: Well, I am [unintelligible] a company right now. So yeah, you can tell a lot about a company in a variety of ways. So we will do research. You can look on the web site. So how does the web site communicate about that? Now you may think this is just corporate you know expression but some web sites will be very, â€œHere are the facts, madam, and thatâ€™s it,â€ some will be very bossy and talk about the top two stories and narratives. Some will be engineering and process oriented. So they are all different in how they express what they think is important. And then looking at how they talk about sustainability. Do they have clear targets? Do they have accountability around that? Do they seem to treat it as something thatâ€™s embedded to the company or something that’s sort of just like it was a nice thing to do offered aside. You get to understand a great deal about the company. That way we would also go to conferences and places where we find people who are active in the sustainability space around from these different companies so specialty coffee association. If you’re talking coffee you go there and you meet all the different companies and you talk to them and you find out what the people say about what they are interested in their company. So you are listening and learning about what their objectives are, what their risks are, what the problems are that they see for their particular company and for the industry.
So some companies you know for example they’re very focused on marketing. Some are very focused on the supply chain. Some are very driven by the creative CEO. Some are more democratic in how they run you know. Whole Foods you have to understand how Whole Foods work who are probably different now on Amazon but if you were interested in bringing sustainability to them actually in many cases you had to do with the store manager and not sort of the leadership of the company because so much was decided by the store manager. So you have to understand that. And also, they are very driven by [unintelligible] is kind of libertarian approach and you need to understand what libertarian approach would look like in a business, so how do you deal with that. So it’s all stuff that you learn along the way. And then the other part that you do, it works well with organizations but also individuals is you get a competition going.
Joshua: Iâ€™ve always heard that in business if someoneâ€™s moving slowly you’ve got to imply that something’s going on.
Tensie: Yes. So you can get one company to commit to letâ€™s say sourcing, Lipton made a commitment to source Rainforest Alliance certified tea. Then after they did that, then we started to see Tetleyâ€™s and Twinings and Typhoo and all these other companies begin to make commitments to sourcing sustainable tea. Or if you look at the banks, one big bank, I donâ€™t remember which one started first but Citi and JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley all have you know hundred billion-dollar commitments to renewable energy and things like that and you know one started and then the next did it and the next did it and so on. So that’s an individual but express for an organization.
Joshua: Now I don’t know if people can hear it but you’re smiling and it looks like a kind of sneaky smile that tells me there’s a story of one time when this worked or something like that. Is itâ€¦
Tensie: No, I just think of it as a very male thing. That’s why I’m smiling because it’s sort of like who’s got the bigger whatever and in terms of getting them to agree to go compete about this stuff. So that’s why I am smiling. I don’t really see it as something that if you had to generally be CEO if youâ€™re male, if you had to mention CEO female [unintelligible] that it would work as well.
Joshua: I’ve have never heard of women competing.
Tensie: We certainly compete but just in that way, I donâ€™t know. So it’s interesting.
Joshua: Itâ€™s touching. But that goes back to what you’re saying. OK. Even it’s a corporate company organizational thing, there’s still always people. And I think a lot of people lose sight of that because I think one of the big problems is that people approach this with like if you look at the facts, this is the way things should be and if you just see it the way I do, then you’ll agree that this is what you should do. And I don’t hear you saying that.
Tensie: No. I don’t think one-on-one works like that either.
Joshua: I definitely think one-on-one doesn’t work that way. And I thought that there’s a more of a chance of it working organizationally but looking at you now, you are like â€œNot at all.â€
Tensie: No, itâ€™s more complicated in a way.
Joshua: I would have thoughtâ€¦. I would hopeâ€¦Part of the reason I’m saying not going there and sticking whereâ€¦ I thought it was a little easier than you could say look if you do it this way, you’ll make this amount of money. But if you do it this way, you’ll make more money and then the companies will say, â€œWell, independent of what weâ€¦â€ I mean there may be some influence of how to work with the people but ultimately, they’re going to make a rational decision more than an individual would. I don’t look to reason as a way to influence people. It generally gets you to push back. Companiesâ€¦
Tensie: Companies donâ€™t care about the financial [unintelligible] of the story. But companies are choosing to pursue sustainability for a variety of reasons part of which is financial. Part of it is that it might be they as individuals hear about the issue [unintelligible] something to tell your kids. It might be that they think that there’s mutual risk because some other company had major labor rights problem or some another kind of challenge so they want to avoid that. It may be that they have experienced the opportunity of creating a niche product that is done well so they want to build from that sustainability point of view so they want to build more opportunity there. Maybe that their consumer markets, they will say that millennials donâ€™t care about this therefore particularly as employees and so therefore they want to be able to recruit more employees so therefore they are going to invest more and there is a whole series of reasons companies would think through. And we can’t you know as a nonprofitâ€¦ A nonprofit is never credible going to a company and saying, â€œIf you do this you’ll make more moneyâ€ because they’re looking at us saying, â€œYou are nonprofit.â€ You know so we can shut them you knowâ€¦ Part of the engagement process is here’s why this is beneficial and here is the evidence we can show you that it’s on the financial side of things but this is really a much more sophisticated dance.
Joshua: If I heard you right you echoed something that I’ve been hearing over and over again from guests that I’ve interviewed that leadership begins with the other person’s interests. I mean you’re saying some donâ€™t want to do it for this and others want to do it for that and some at the corporate level they want to do this and at the personal level they want to do that and that’s what guides the whole process is whatâ€¦Have youâ€¦ I mean I guess there might be companies that are like, â€œWe don’t care about the environment. And if you come in with anything it’s not going to work.â€ And if there are companies that care in some way you got to know how they care and dress what they care about. As much as you think thatâ€¦ I mean I’m kind of speaking hopefully to people who are listening if you’re thinking I’m going to bring in and tell them what’s right, how’s that to be received?
Joshua: OK. Know-how. And so do you come in with questions? Do you come in or do your first not even approach until you have something inâ€¦? You do your research ahead of time to find out what’sâ€¦
Tensie: So ideally, you spend time getting to know some people in the organization. So yes, you do your research on the company and you know what they’re doing out there, you know whether they are doing anything on the sustainability front or not, they are not, you know what their website says about that, you know you’ve talked to other companies and other NGOs about them so you even talk to other people about individual that you want to serve up to, so you’re gathering intelligence as much as you can and then you can proceed in a variety of different ways. You can do as I said you know that they’re going to be speaking at a conference and you meet them sort of serendipitously or not serendipitously, just informally and talk to them and see if you get them interested in a more formal meeting or you go directly and ask for a meeting to talk specifically about what you’re doing.
When we were first starting out the Rainforest Alliance we had to do it much more informally because we weren’t known that well, we weren’t seen as someone that you had to meet with. As we got more mature and had more access than I think most people would take meeting with us and then we would be going in with a great deal about them as much as we could. They’re also starting with you know we know that you’re interested, you are focusing on this kind of sustainability. Can you tell us more? What are your objectives? Where are you trying to go with this? So that we could be the most effective we could be around showing them where else they can do.
Joshua: What you describe sounds a lot like sales. Did you take sales classes?
Joshua: When I taught social entrepreneurship, I would teach some sales but I wouldn’t tell them I was teaching sales. And it’s really important and I think that if I told them it was sales, the would poo-poo it, they would be like, â€œNah, that’s for this other stuff, that’s trickyâ€ or something like that. Should people who are more interested in the environment learn more about sales?
Tensie: Sales and stakeholder engagement and mapping. So one of the interesting things when you meet people who are responsible for the sustainability within companies they themselves have to pitch and engage all the different parts of the organization and educate them and engage them. So they go out on that learning and listening towards themselves and have to be incredibly good sales people to be effective internally. And they also externally need to manage a whole lot of different stakeholders like the Rainforest Alliance and others. So again, if they are good at what they do, they will have done research about Rainforest Alliance because we were an important constituent for a company and coffee. So I think that that salesmanship in this space where really you understand, you’ve done sort of stakeholder mapping, you know who all the stakeholders are, you know kind of what motivates them and what role they play in the dynamic of whatever industry you are looking at. And then within the company you also whether you’re the external organization like Rainforest Alliance or the internal [unintelligible] they also have to do their mapping and understand and sort of figure out again where the leverage points are. Well, I know procurement has some issues that they could use my help so I’m going to work with them and see if I can begin to get sustainability into sort of procurement way of approaching things.
Joshua: How did you learn thatâ€¦ Was it all trial and error? Did people before you walk you through this thing? I mean I’m thinking now from the perspective of someone listening. I would guess a lot of people who listen to a podcast and the environment are probably thinking, â€œSales, that’s not my thing.â€ And hopefully they’re thinking, â€œOh, maybe it should beâ€ and but hopefully they’re not thinking, â€œI guess I got to School of Hard Knocks or just watch a couple YouTube videos.â€ Was it a School of Hard Knocks for you or was it mentorship?
Tensie: I think it probably started as this is in the nonprofit world with learning how to fundraise, to fundraise like sales itâ€™s the same thing. You listen people will try to understand what it is that they are excited about in order to be able to get them to write the check to what you would like them to write a check for. I learned that working with the chairman of a group that I ran and he was really good at it and I watched him do it and I think I learned from him some. I think the thing is whether it’s fundraising or this kind of engagement around bringing people around to environmental or sustainability causes if you believe in what you do, it’s not work, it’s not hard. It’s exciting to actually bring people around.
I think the important thing to remember though is that it is not your job to shove things down people’s throats. That just doesn’t get you anywhere. So for me what I always remember is what is the bottom line is where I’m trying to get so I don’t need to prove that I’m right immediately. I need to focus on how I am going to get the person to where I want them to go. And telling them that I’m right is not the way I’m going to get them where I want them to go. So that to me is just being humble and being a learner and listener and if you think about it that way, you donâ€™t have to think about sales although indeed it is sales so you know it’s selling. But it’s more like hey, this is an opportunity to learn. What makes this person tick? What do they care about? How does that relate to what I’m doing? How do I synthesize those things and make it work for them? How do I get to win-win? That’s what it’s about.
Joshua: And I hope this is the case with you because it’s definitely the case with me that I have to remind myself that all the time because I’m very tempted and what feels actually natural is to tell them why I am right. And if they just understood things the way I would, then they would agree that I was right and then they would come around… And you have to purposefully not do that and remind yourself over and over again. Is that the case with you too?
Tensie: Yeah, absolutely. It’s sometimes… The meeting I hated the most was sitting with these marketing folks who would over and over again sort of tell me why everything wouldn’t work to market on this you know it’s sort of sustainable products and also by the way why shouldnâ€™t we as a nonprofit be doing that. [unintelligible] So I had to bite myself and say, well, first of all, you [unintelligible] money for marketing. Second of all, if you can force people to somehow think that they can’t live without a ruffle potato chip, you can certainly figure out how to sell them sustainability so stop. It was not what I was allowed to say. Be straight forward. I mean you never want toâ€¦You have to be really careful particularly when you’re running an NGO like Rainforest Alliance. I would never back off of our beliefs or you know do something that wasn’t in line with what we wanted to do. So I wouldnâ€™t compromise in a way that would compromise our ethics or our integrity but at the same time shoving things down the throat, not listening to what the challenges are for them because in many cases there’s if not good reasons, there are reasons why they’re not doing things. So you need to understand and sort of help them solve for these reasons.
Joshua: More listening. And I get frustrated looking atâ€¦Thereâ€™s a lot of people who care about the environment, who want to change things, who want to lead and they’re doing what we’re talking about not doing. And I feel like, the way I generally put, is like a lot of their behavior I think get populists elected. And it’s incredibly frustrating because they’re trying to help. And maybe there are in ways I’ve not seen but I feel like it’s often moving things backward. And do you see it that way too sometimes?
Tensie: So I see two sides of that coin. So if we just apply it to the environmental movements and the flat organizations [unintelligible] plus individuals, we need the full spectrum of type of NGO. And we need the campaigners so in fact the ones that your time bans individuals, who would go and attack the company, who don’t really want to hear what the company reasons are, well sort of embarrass them and create a big scene about their behavior. And then you have the organizations like the Rainforest Alliance that want to engage with the company and help them find solutions. If we didn’t have those campaigners who really take off companies, the companies don’t like them at all.
Joshua: So people form the Ethical Treatment of Animals and thatâ€™s not so environmental butâ€¦
Tensie: But itâ€™s on that side of things. Yeah, without those quite a few companies would never come to be embraced by the Rainforest Alliance. So it’s just like anythingâ€¦
Joshua: Good cop, bad cop.
Tensie: And pushes people without that anchoring from that extreme side, then it would be hard to get people [unintelligible]. I think when you apply that to an individual and you’ve got an individual sort of interacting with you one-on-one and not listening you know sort of being very certain of the righteousness and not listening to your perspective, I think absolutely that can backfire. In some cases, it may make them be more willing to listen to a more reasoned argument later. Other cases it may like with some populist things may turn them off to the issue altogether. So that individual level I think is a little bit more complicated than the organizational level.
Joshua: So I should be so frustrated at some of these things going on because there’s is an ecosystem of the organizational ecosystem of different people working in different ways.
Tensie: Maybe. I mean you also have on the other side, you have extremists on the other side so again, without the anchoring of the two extremes maybe it will be more challenging for the people in the middle to kind of get them [unintelligible] Who knows? That’s the bright side of it.
Joshua: There is something else I want to ask. There are a couple of things. One of them was that when a cover sales stuff in my class one of the things they’re always nervous. It’s really a big hurdle for them to get over. But as long as I get one or two students in the class to talk about their experience of having successfully influenced someone to buyâ€¦ The exercise I usually have is sell an apple to someone. And sometimes they’re like overjoyed, they are like [sound] and then I get the race to the top in a class because if one or two people do it, then the rest are like, â€œI didn’t do it like I did this homework halfway. Now I really want to do it.â€ Have you had experiences where you’ve had some I guess I would call it a corporate sale where someone like they’re like, â€œRainforest Alliance, they make a lot of sense. Let’s do this deal with them.â€ What’s that like? Whatâ€™s like a big deal that you’ve had and how was it?
Tensie: Lots of big deals. And you know but the first big one that we got was Craft [unintelligible] coffee committing to work with us to source a significant percentage of Rainforest Alliance Fairtrade coffee. That was the first big company that we kind of import.
Joshua: That’s a big company.
Tensie: So it was really exciting.
Joshua: How long did it take to closeâ€¦
Tensie: It took two years maybe.
Tensie: Yeah. Any big ones like that always take years. So we had Lipton was another one and I mean we had [unintelligible]. Rainforest Alliance work with 5000 companies, with very specific minutes around certified sourcing. We had groups of people around the world who were working on this so yeah, when the latest announcement came in from whoever brought it in it was just really exciting and really cool. But also, when people would see the [unintelligible] different products all over the world you know people take photographs, and show it and things like that.
Joshua: Wow. So are there photo ops and ribbon cuttings and press releases or is it just kind ofâ€¦
Joshua: Can you capture that moment of one of them? Because I feel like that’s got to be craft. I mean that’s like they are probably doing a lot of messy stuff and then to get one of the messy things off the table and have them doing some stuff that’s going to be fully beneficial. This got to feel good.
Tensie: Yeah. It does. Well so with Craft we brought the CEO of Craft [unintelligible] down to El Salvador to look at Rainforest Alliance certified farms and he broad his executive team. And so you know getting him to say yes. I mean that was sort ofâ€¦. We announced it last, I canâ€™t remember if we announced it there or we announced [unintelligible] with that anyway and really, really cool and he saw directly what kind of difference that could make which was great for him and his executive team. And actually, when he retired from Craft, he came in Rainforest Alliance… So he got enthused about the whole thing and was on the board for 11 years.
Joshua: This makes a big difference. Obviously, a big difference is a bit likeâ€¦Itâ€™s one relationship. Did you have to work all the way up to him from other people?
Tensie: Yeah, we always do that. We start with the sustainability person, in that case it was the marketing person, corporate communications person I think we started with first and then the sustainability person and then [unintelligible] over time. So again, as Rainforest Alliance got more well-known, it was easier for me to get directly to the CEO.
Joshua: Did he put you in touch with other CEO? Did you come in at the top at any places?
Tensie: Not when he was at Craft, so later when he came on board he helped me with reaching out to some others. But no, that was just really a lot what he did at Craft.
Joshua: I love the personal side of things. Part of me wants to keep going there. Part of me is I’m curious if this is too off topic, Rainforest Alliance â€“ NYU â€“ was that a big jump or was that a natural flow? And did you want to educate or whatâ€¦
Tensie: I have been 15 years in the Rainforest Alliance which I think you know I guess this goes back to leadership. I think people should now move on after some point, you need new blood, new ideas always. So when I came to the Rainforest Alliance last I was thinking 10 or 12 years, [unintelligible] so I stayed a little bit longer but I think it’s important to have turnover at the top. So I started thinking about what I wanted to do next, I was looking at different options and professor [unintelligible] who runs a business in society program who I taught a couple of classes for him, asked me if I would be interested in coming to teach. And in a fact, what you said a lot of what I did was sales at Rainforest Alliance, a lot of what I did was also education. And I like teaching and I like engagement but I also like the opportunity of working with business and I donâ€™t know where that go. And I wanted to do more. I was a journalist back at the days and I wanted to do more writing and more research. And I was travelling. I was travelling 60 percent of the time. So then I told [unintelligible] I am an entrepreneur so I really need to run something so how about I started a center for sustainable business here? So thatâ€™s how that came about.
Joshua: So that reminds me of another thing thatâ€¦ Okay, a lot of people out there, I’m saying this now kind of to the listeners, a lot of people out there over and over again I hear, â€œI’m trying to get ahead of my career. This environmental stuff is kind of nice to have but I really got to get ahead.â€ And I keep talking to people who got ahead by doing things environmental to which I say, â€œThereâ€™s a huge global demand that’s not being met.â€ And you’re another case where it feels like you’ve reached high levels of leadership at massive organizations through doing what other people want. Like exactly what they’re saying I shouldn’t do that seems to me whyâ€¦ You know if it was an area where there’s not global demand I’d say don’t waste your time on something that people donâ€™t care about but people really care about this. Is it safe to say that it may not be the easiest road but this is a road to leadership?
Tensie: Yeah. My entire career has been creating opportunities for myself. So during graduate school I interned for the World Wildlife Fund and then they created a job for me. And then when I left there I went to Sweden to be the editor of an environmental journal or the associate editor and the editor left and so I got to be managing editor. And then I met my to-be-husband and we decided we were going to somewhere fun so we picked Costa Rica. So then I decided to be an environmental journalist and so I did all kinds of stuff there.
And then I came back here and after having worked as in charge of information for national online society, I decided I wanted to do something else so then I found this opportunity with the New York [unintelligible] Conservation where they had great board [unintelligible]. But no stop. And so I said, â€œGreat. I’ll build this for themâ€. So I did it. I built that organization. And then from there I said well we need these leagues of conservation workers around the country. I met a couple of them and I said, â€œWhy donâ€™t I create a federation of Leagues of Conservation Voters?â€ So I went out and raised money to do that and created Leagues of Conservation Voters all over the country.
And then from there I decided that I wanted to... My daughter was young and I wanted to do more consulting. So I did much consulting including for Rainforest Alliance and then when she was a bit older and they recruited me to run it, they were about 4-million-dollar organization and so a lot of people wouldn’t take the job. But I took it and I turned it into 50-million-dollar organization. And then with this job I said, â€œI’ll raise money for the center. I will create the center.â€ So each time there’s been a creation element of it.
And part of it is just my personality I think that I like doing that but part of it is that this is a growing space, a space where you can [unintelligible] and create an opportunity. And actually, one of the things I tell my students because there’s only limited sustainability jobs available in business. There’s these small sustainability teams. But the fact that matters that I believe that all functions and business are going to have sustainability components and the companies that are really embedding sustainability are really starting to do that. So you could be in finance, you could in accounting, you could be in marketing, you could be in procurement wherever you can go into that job without having any kind of sustainability component, go get to know the sustainability people, offer to help them, work with them, you will absolutely get an opportunity to do more in your area to bring sustainability there or you might end up working for the sustainability team or you might end up creating a sustainability function in your own area. There is like a huge opportunity for people who are self-starters and really want to make a difference.
Joshua: Doesnâ€™t the rest of the world get it backwards? I feel like to think that this is like this is a small side thing but it’s like a bigâ€¦. You said it wasn’t that big but I think it’s growing. To me it’s not the size but the direction and the demand. And what I heard of your description it was like leadership roleâ€¦ There are two things I heard. Leadership roles and it wasn’t always obvious that it would be a leadership role but when you made it a leadership role because you saw the growth potential there or something that you really liked like the journalism or when you were working to I presume to spend more time with your children the consulting was your choice. And it sounds like an enviable career. I mean enviable in the sense of enjoyable. Lucky in the sense ofâ€¦ What’s a good quote on luck? Napoleon, when they brought him officers to be promoted he would say, â€œIs this man lucky?â€ It’s a skill I think you know. It comes from perseverance and self-worth.
I have a whole lot of more questions but I now want to shift to the personal challenge which might be more challenging for you than many because the longer someone and the more heartfelt someone has been environmental, acting on their environmental values, they tend to have already done all the low hanging fruit. I’m not sure if that’s the case with you or not. What I ask people isâ€¦Let me take a step back. The environment, people care about it for different reasons. It’s sounds like you care about a lot. What generates the caring? Where does it come from?
Tensie: Probably a couple of different places and reasons but I grew up in New York City but my dad worked in the Museum of Natural History so I spent a lot of time there. We had and so have a farm in Vermont so I got to spend a lot of time there hiking, fishing and camping and being outdoors and understanding local farming. So that all I think contributed to me being interested in environmental issues. My mom worked in the Institute for Justice Reform and so my work has always included the social side like Rainforest Alliance included social side in big way. So I have that side too and I think also the other part of it is that when I was a kid my grandparents lived in Mexico city and so I spent a big amount of time there and I was really affected by the contrast between rich and poor there and both in the city and then going out in the rural areas and that also I think sort of shaped why I am interested in and how I am interested in societal good.
Joshua: I’m hearing a lot of people in this. I mean your family, your relationship with your family, your growing up, the relation between rich and poor and because the environment is kind of abstract I think. I mean yes, there’s trees and clouds but when people say the environment to me it connects to people and I hear that in you as well of how you affect other or…
Tensie: Yeah, that also. I mean that was the hiking and the fishing and the camping and being in the outdoors and being a city kid but just running like a lion in the field at 5 oâ€™clock on an August afternoon and smelling that alfalfa and watching the sunset on the purple mountains. You know like wow. So the environment is part of it, itâ€™s people but itâ€™s just the beauty of nature. And that also I think is part of why I do what I do.
Joshua: A visceral sensory experience. Now this will [unintelligible] to make it in but I just saw this photo essay of [unintelligible]. He is up in Vermont and he supplies a bunch of restaurants in the city. It’s kind of funny because I read this book on the San Bushmen in Southern Africa and they don’t store food. When they are hungry they go out and either kill something or they dig it up or whatever, [unintelligible] and they get their food. And now that’s like the number one restaurant in the world that people keep telling me about this place different ratings but it was some place in Denmark, [unintelligible] or I forget the name. Now thereâ€™s multiple ones but now there’s one in Copenhagen. And this trend of scavenging for food and getting local stuff and the way people used to eat all the time, people every now and then like if I say I’m going to take the train instead of flying, they are like, â€œJosh, we can’t just go back to living in caves.â€ I am like, â€œI didnâ€™t talk about living in cavesâ€ but at the highest level of like I don’t knowâ€¦This place in Copenhagen has two Michelin stars which seems like a lot and what you’re talking about is itâ€™s all there. We don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for it to be delivered in like special restaurants and stuff. And sorry, you made me think of like people trying to get back to your childhood.
Tensie: Yeah, yeah but again that was lucky.
Joshua: So what I ask people is based on what they care about. Everyone cares about something. I really love the answers to that question of what it means to them because sometimes it’s so different for everyone and I really thought before I did this itâ€™s going to be the same and it’s not and it’s fascinating. So are you up for doing something to act on something there with a few constraints I’ve learned to put on? You donâ€™t have to fix all the world’s problems overnight because that stops a lot of people from doing anything but it can’t be telling other people what to do. It has to be something measurable so it’s not awareness. That’s nice but I can’t stop there. It has to be something that makes a measurable difference. It doesn’t have to be global warming which a lot of people think of and it canâ€™t be something you are already doing. Anything that comes to mind? Are you interested in doing something? Itâ€™s your option.
Tensie: Yeah. I was thinking about that and so the two things I think about, one, is environmental and the other isn’t. The other one is broader so I am not sure what qualifies. But the [unintelligible] on the environment are small but there’s something I’d like to do which is I like drinking wine but I don’t particularly look for the organic or biodynamic wines. I mean maybe I do sometimes but I really donâ€™t do this a regular thing [unintelligible]. So what I am thinking is I would like to do a 100 percent always organic/biodynamic and if I am in a restaurant I will ask for it because they don’t ask for it, I will ask for it and if they donâ€™t have it, I wonâ€™t have it. So that was one thing, itâ€™s a small thing but I was thinking that I could do that. Do you want me to tell you about the other option or you just want me to focus on that?
Joshua: Letâ€™s hear the other one too. Because if someone at home might be thinking, they might hear and think, â€œOh, I’ll do that.â€
Tensie: Well, so this other one is not so much [unintelligible] So sustainability is not just so much environmental. It’s social and governance as well. And I think one of the big challenges in America today is around jobs and how the short-term kind of corporate shareholder results looking at short term and cutting everything you can which means cutting your biggest costs which means cutting jobs and so outsourcing, offshoring, automating, [unintelligible] or low wages, people going to [unintelligible] and it’s a huge, huge problem. It’s a newer one for me and I am just starting to research and figure out what I can do to contribute to that dialogue. So I don’t know. My commitment is pretty broad and more about influence so thatâ€™s why I am not sure it really qualifies but what I want to do is I want to over time be kind of expert in that issue as I have gotten on the environment and see how I can really from this [unintelligible] play a role and shifting companies back to seeing themselves as a provider of jobs, not a company that only thinks about shareholders and tries to eliminate jobs because I think that is just bad for our society. So that’s the other area which may not qualify for what you want.
Joshua: Actually, several people have forced me to like they did things that were by the words that I said fit. And I thought, â€œThat’s not what I was talking about. That’s not what I meant by environment.â€ But then several times what they’ve said has resonated with people that didn’t resonate with me. And I was like I want to reach these people. And it’s not about me, it’s about the listeners and it’s about you and the guests. And so I’m becoming increasingly open to interpretation in different ways. Does either of them or both of them appeal to you more or?
Tensie: Well, if I make the commitment on the one, then I’ll do it. The other one I am probably going to do but it’d be nice to be held accountable to it and be able to report one it and I am going to do it. The wine one I thought of that specifically for this that this so this will mean that I will have to do it. So either way, your call.
Joshua: The accountability is a nice element. Leaders like accountability and non- leaders don’t. And so hopefully people are listening. Go on to the podcast and you can, either if you’re not a guest you can commit publicly to something that will add this accountability which as you can hear it Tensie is like, â€œI want it.â€ She doesn’t want it but she wants it. And I don’t know. To me it’s acquaint, it’s your interests and what I’m hearing is the small one is easier but the big one is you will probably get a reward commensurate to the effort that goes into it. And so I feel like you’re saying like give me the big one so I can get the reward.
Tensie: Yes. The challenge with the big one is how soon do you want to talk toâ€¦?
Joshua: Oh, I’ve had people come backâ€¦ John Lee Dumas signed up for a year. He lives in Puerto Rico and he’s going to pick up garbage off the beach every month for a year. And Dorie Clark she wants to, thereâ€™s a restaurant where she eats and she’s going to make that restaurant to be vegan for her. It’s not a vegan restaurant but she will only have vegan there. I said, â€œHow long?â€ She said, â€œSix months.â€ I said, â€œThat’s a long time.â€ And she was like, â€˜Yeah, I want to make sure it’s for real.â€ Most people but a lot of people have gone for like a couple of weeks or a month but no oneâ€™s gone longer than a year. But that gives a range.
Tensie: Because I think it will be at least a year before I have anything to report on that. Whereas the wine one I can start right away.
Joshua: So probably we can do both. I mean we could say we’ll talk again in a year and or maybe 18 months or something if that’s what it takes. Because the calendar goes out that far. So how long would it be for the wine one?
Tensie: Itâ€™s not like I am drinking every night so you know I think you know I need some months to sort ofâ€¦ I mean I need to start right away way before I can actually say, â€œHere’s what the results have been.â€ I think I need some time before I have anything appreciable to talk about.
Joshua: It’s like afternoon right now. We can just head out.
Tensie: So you know 18 months to talk about both of them is fine or if you want to talk about the wine one in three months, [unintelligible] do that.
Joshua: So I’m going to get my calendar. And do you want to schedule three months from now?
Joshua: Ok. I see you reaching for your calendar. So we are now March 29 so if we went to June 29, I’m out of town then, June 30 if you want to do a weekend.
Tensie: The whole month of July I will be out so we couldâ€¦
Joshua: Maye we could shorten that.
Tensie: Yeah. Shorten that.
Joshua: June 25 or June 24 or June 23? I mean six months from now my schedule is not that full.
Tensie: How about June 21?
Joshua: You got it. So we could do the same as this one?
Joshua: OK. So that was 3 o’clock, right?
Joshua: So after we hang up, I will share the invitation. Is there anything I didn’t bring up that’s worth bringing up before we wrap up?
Tensie: No. I think you did a great job.
Joshua: Ok. Cool. And any message directly to the listeners that might be worth hearing?
Tensie: Well I think all of us active on these issues have to be optimists because it can feel overwhelming and depressing at times like when you go out and you get a lot in this. I may have made it sound too easy you know I get a lot of yesâ€™s but I also got a lot of noâ€™s.
Joshua: You are talking about over 15 years.
Tensie: Yeah, exactly. And sometimes those noâ€™s were upsetting because they were really important. You know when you are trying to save the world and you know somebody says no to youâ€¦
Joshua: You mean you want to destroy the world?
Tensie: It’s like my niece told my sister-in-law which is little, â€œDon’t say no to me.â€ It’s always important to remember that these, I think Margaret Mead said that, â€œNever doubt that a small group of people can change the world. Itâ€™s the only thing it ever has.â€ Like I try to remember that when I am like, â€œGosh, it feels so overwhelming, thereâ€™s so much going on. What can I really do in the scheme of things?â€ Well, actually you can, so you know maintain an optimism.
Joshua: So you are going to take those knocks but stick through them. Yeah. Well, thank you very much. I’ll talk to you againâ€¦. Well, I’ll talk to you separately but also we’ll talk to you again in roughly three months.
Tensie: Sounds great. Thanks so much, Josh. This has been fun.
Joshua: Talk to you soon.
One of my biggest takeaways from Tensie is something that I over and over again have to learn and re-learn, it’s one of the hardest things to practice which is that effective leadership is rarely if ever about being right and just showing how right you are to the others for them to just come around. Her practice that came over decades of hard work is to be empathetic about people and organizations. You still have to understand organizations from an emotional perspective not just the dollars and cents of things. That’s really hard in practice, at least it is for me. I hope it’s easier for you. Emotionally, internally it’s work. Maintaining integrity while empathizing with people you disagree with or her doing things that you disagree with, it’s really hard. But if you want change, being effective is more important than venting. I think telling people how right you are it feels to me a lot like venting. A younger me would only think to protest organizations I disagreed with. Iâ€™d certainly carry a lot of picket signs and picket organizations and those things are still important but also to engage and to lead seems to me essential. But as she put in her words, it’s hard work but exciting.
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