148: Dawn Riley, part 2: Minding her beeswax (transcription)

February 22, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast


Dawn Riley

Right off the bat she’s talking about Olympians, America’s Cup winners, a cross fit games World Champion. The places Dawn brought me where elite because this summer I met her just before a fundraiser on Wall Street. And yet she’s totally down to earth, scrappy as she puts it. She makes pickles for world class athletes. She already reduces waste, she tours composting facilities and this is while she’s training world class athletes as well as being one herself. So here, I have someone like her probably busier than you are and responsible for people’s hopes and dreams takes on environmental challenges many people consider distracting. Spoiler alert: she makes it really fun.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here again with Dawn Riley. Dawn, how are you doing?

Dawn: I’m good. A little bit busy getting ready for a fundraiser here at Oakcliff.

Joshua: Yeah. Well, when I saw you last time it was busy getting ready for… Actually, after we spoke last time you said, “Stick around.” and I go to a barbecue at Oakcliff and suddenly I’m surrounded by, at first I was going to say Olympic athletes, but it was more than Olympic athletes. Can you remind me who all was there?

Dawn: So there’s a bunch of people trying to do the Olympics, quite a few people who had done at least one if not two or three Olympic campaigns but then [unintelligible] who’s also just the side a cross fit world champion at age 35, Trevor Byrd who does really well in triathlons, just yeah, high energy people. And then, after you left, the America’s Cup team came in and we did our tryouts for the New York [unintelligible] clubs American Magic team.

Joshua: All right. One of my measures for how effective someone is as a leader is how many followers they have and the kind of followers that they have. You have quite a bit of followers.

Dawn: I have 5000 friends on Facebook. No.

Joshua: I mean these are people… It’s one thing to have friends on Facebook, it’s another thing to have them at your place. Your place is not like trivial to get to. So it’s kind of centrally located. It’s not hard to get to from Manhattan but… This is my measure of everything in the world. So I’m curious why are you such a center… Is that easy an answer?

Dawn: Part of it is because there’s nothing like this in the world. I was so lucky with the Lawrence family to be able to be hired as a consultant and as we talked about [unintelligible] like my own best job. But what it is is the culmination of all the best bits from all over the world in one place. And it is a little bit off the beaten track. I think that’s part of the specialness of it. If it was in downtown Manhattan or even in Newport Rhode Island, it would be yet another thing. In Oyster Bay it is like you’ve stepped back into the 1950s.

Joshua: Yeah. After I left there I was like, “Such a nice town.”

Dawn: Yeah. Yeah. The kids go to the ice cream store. The Carvel is the hop-in place on any summer night. That doesn’t happen in many other places in the world. So it’s a place where you can come as an elite athlete and you have the physical training, the housing, the access to the water, the debriefs and the energy and the other athletes that you can learn off of and you know bounce ideas off of and then just as a person that’s sailing there you’re in this little special bubble that’s called Oyster Bay, New York.

Joshua: Do the people in Oyster Bay, New York know what’s going on at Oakcliff?

Dawn: The people in Oyster Bay do know but they don’t know, if that makes any sense.

Joshua: You just aren’t like, “Hey, look at us.” It’s actually you could walk past it and not notice it or you could look in and be like, “Wow, something is going on here.”

Dawn: I’m working on trying to get enough funding to paint the building because we are definitely scrappy and blue collar and not… While we have elite athletes there’s nothing super shiny or artificial about us at all. But yeah, we are kind of a hidden gem and a lot of people in Oyster Bay know about us now but they don’t understand, I don’t think, the impact. As a matter of fact, there was a story about women in sailing that I was told about in the Washington Post, it was an AP wire story and they called it Oak New York because most people in sailing think that Oakcliff is the town but we are the center in Oyster Bay.

Joshua: And it didn’t have to work out the friendliness and the comradery because I was a bit intimidated by… I’ve always loved talking to people but I felt like everyone could talk to everyone. There were old salts and there were young… I mean some of the people you pointed out they looked like in their teens, maybe 20s.

Dawn: Yep, yep. No, we have 15 and above and in our ACORN program residential and it’s two to four weeks long. We have 15 and above. And that is the program that we most often have 15-year-olds and 60-year-olds. People at both ends of their working life. And it is so amazing to see the connection and the equality with the interaction because they’re all trying to do the same thing which is sailing.

Joshua: And I’m also thinking that… You know someone could put it together you say there’s nothing like it. Well, that doesn’t mean that someone could have envisioned it. So there must be some vision that you had. I guess someone came to you and said the United States is missing something. You got it. You know how to do it.

Dawn: No, no. They came to me and said, “We have some boats and we want to do something in Oyster Bay.” Those were the parameters.

Joshua: So the whole thing about bringing sailing back at the top level to America that was you?

Dawn: Yeah.

Joshua: And you’re like, “You’ve got a couple of boats. Good. That’s all I need for my dream.”?

Dawn: Well, it’s a little bit more than that because everybody wants America to be best, if you’re American. You want your sport to be the best in the world, if you’re an American sailor. But how do you do it? And that’s where I was lucky to have the time to put together a plan, about a year of a consulting project and then the financial backing and the support of the Lawrence family for the first year or so, they’re still very supportive, but we’ve been able to build something that is publicly supported by the people that come there. You know I think I mentioned before it’s like the YMCA where everybody pays something but you pay what you can afford to pay. The most important thing is the mission.

Joshua: Well, and then watching you at work I feel like at times you’re a four-star general and at times you’re a private and everything in between. So the first time we met it’s funny you said if it was in the middle of Manhattan… Actually, the first time we met was in the middle Manhattan with the New York Yacht Club which is like… That’s certainly a place to remember, a very different place. There’s no boats there. I mean it’s all these little boats. And now we’re at NASDAQ down in Lower Manhattan. So you’re working a lot of different parts of the world and within your community it seemed like you know every sailor personally and at the same time you know the long term vision and you made the salad, you made pickles. And when you said, “Would you like a sandwich?” you pointed out to me there’s wrapping around it that’s plastic and you might want to avoid that, I was like, “Most people don’t have that sensitivity or awareness.”

Dawn: Well, it’s a little bit because every time I wrap the sandwich I feel bad.

Joshua: So we connected it… Something reminded me you connected with and that’s what…

Dawn: Yeah.


Joshua: Let’s transition into the challenge because you’re going to figure out how to make sandwiches without stuff, without plastic.

Dawn: So I did look into… I know for sure that wax paper wouldn’t work unless I had masking tape. So environmentally maybe that’s OK but that’s a really longer time. And also the sandwiches I make are stuffed, full of stuff so you need something to hold it together. That’s why the Saran Wrap works better. I assumed aluminum foil would be better. I researched it and unless you can convince people to carefully bring it home and rewash it and reuse it four or five times that’s not better, it’s actually worse. So then you and I both collectively found the same thing the beeswax paper which is a cloth that’s covered in beeswax. And I went and tried it last weekend and it worked. And so now I’ve ordered. It’s like one hundred and eighty-nine dollars’ worth of it and I hope that we’ll reuse it. Financially it’s not going to work out. I did check the cost of Saran Wrap and estimated how many inches I use per season that type of thing.

But you know what’s really cool? I had it sitting on my desk. Five of my people came up and said, “Oh, that stuff’s great!” They already knew about it because they use it.

Joshua: You know a friend of mine told me about it because she was going to make it herself. And apparently it’s not so hard to make. I haven’t done it but apparently you can make it yourself. That’s maybe the next step. So when people get the sandwiches now they have to save it. Right?

Dawn: They have to save it and they bring it back. And this is the part that’s going to be a challenge because I’m doing it this weekend for 30 sandwiches a day is I need to wash it and dry it and keep it sanitary and of course deal with food allergies. So I’m not quite sure, I might even, I know that I’m talking out loud, I might even keep some for gluten free, some for peanuts, that type of thing.

Joshua: And I’m reading off of you… You just described the “what” of it. What about the feeling of it? I’m reading, “Hey, this is kind of fun.” How would you describe…?

Dawn: I’ll let you know how fun it is when I’m sitting there at night washing 30 beeswax pieces of cloth. But yeah, no, you know another thing though it’s not quite so exciting is I was very proud of the fact that we’ve been using compostable plates and forks and cups since I got there. I was like, “This is crap. We are absolutely not going to be wasting…” And then I found out through research that you need an industrial composting.

Joshua: Oh, yeah. Those plates were…

Dawn: And the closest one is in Brooklyn at the facility that I mentioned I’d been at but I don’t have any way of getting it to that. So then the next step, then Uber next step is, we have the plates, we have the silverware is to look at possibly getting some kind of industrial dishwasher but I just don’t know where I’m going to put it physically.

Joshua: Yeah. I’m just thinking all those people working for… I feel like there’s some sort of… You saw the Karate Kid. There’s some sort of wax on wax off you can teach the kids.

Dawn: No, no. Trust me they do enough of that. Everybody at Oakcliff works their butts off. I mean in the summer we work from… Well, they work out at sunrise. We work from 9:00 to 9:00 most days – Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday for sure, 10:00 to 9:00 Tuesdays and 9:00 to 5:00ish on Friday and Sunday with Mondays off. There is zero extra manpower.

Joshua: Now I have to pause talking about the environmental thing to ask about motivating people to reach their limits because I’m thinking with the environment motivating people to like walk instead of taking a taxi is sometimes like they get mad or they can’t handle it but you’re getting people to work 9:00 to 9:00. I mean partly they’re coming to you because they think, “I’ve got a chance at gold.” Partly they’re coming to… I mean there must be some selection effect but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get them to reach…

Dawn: Not every single person that comes and starts to train with us trains that hard and makes it. And what is the difference? One is a little bit of a work ethic. One is a fascination with learning. One is a passion about sailing. One is to see how far they can test themselves whether it’s in the gym or on the boat. So the people that excel here are, yeah, every once in a while grumpy, every single one of us are grumpy often probably but we’re there and we give our head a shake and we realize how lucky we are for doing what we do.

Joshua: Is there something that you do to bring out more than they would get out on their own? You on a personal level or you through your team?

Dawn: I don’t think so and I don’t ever slowdown that much to reflect on myself. But I will say that we have a lot of fun. I mean there is like you said general and private, yes, there’s a small hierarchy when stuff has to get done stuff has to get done and I can get angry and everybody can get angry but we shake it off and we laugh about it very shortly after.

Joshua: All right. So now I had to ask about that because people getting the limit… People reaching their full potential it shouldn’t be so much of a challenge but it is a challenge. People are constantly saying to me like, “Oh, I can’t believe you do all these things.” People say to me often like I’m taking the train to L.A. and they’re like, “Oh, that’s so good. You have such great values.” I’m like, “But I don’t think anybody wants dirty air and dirty water. We have the same values. It’s the behavior that’s different.” Everybody wants to win. I mean competitors generally want to win a competition, that’s why they go into it, but not everyone wants to put everything in to get that. And I think a great coach, a great leader brings those things out and that’s what, I was only there for a few hours but that’s what it looked like I saw. And so that’s what I imagine is there. I imagine some of it is setting it up just the context and bringing them all together. But I have a feeling… I’ve read all these things that we haven’t talked about yet but that you’ve taken teams that were not performing well and gotten them to peak levels. Didn’t you get brought into… There was some boat that was like…

Dawn: Heineken. OK. Yeah, yeah. That was kind of dramatic. I forgot about that race around the world. Yes. And it’s hard to learn. I mean I went to school for advertising and journalism and I of course still make mistakes. I think the difference is one trying things out always leading by example and always question yourself a little bit.

Joshua: So there’s a big element personally… What I heard was that you lead yourself first and then that shines or comes out in…

Dawn: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes I have to tell myself to stop worrying about it. It’s done. It’s good. It’s OK. You remember something more than they do because in your mind you are really upset but they don’t know that and it’s OK. That’s at 3:00 in the morning.

Joshua: It reminds me of a big lesson I learned. If you play piano in Carnegie Hall, I’ve not done this, but if you hit a wrong note, the best thing you can do is just keep going.

Dawn:  Just keep going. Yeah.

Joshua: It’s not impossible to do though. It’s hard. You got to learn.

Dawn: At least you got to keep going.

Joshua: Yeah. It’s in the past. It can’t be changed.

Dawn: It’s live television. I’ve worked for ESPN a little bit and Outdoor Life Network a lot and we did the America’s Cup live and I had never done that before. And one time I messed up and the producer’s in my ear screaming at me which of course I froze and then I kept going. And then after it was all over I felt like horrible. He was, “Well, that’s the beauty of live television. It’s done. We’ll edit it out in the reruns.” I was like, “But why didn’t you tell me that before?” That’s it. Just keep going.

Dawn: Is that a hard lesson to learn?

Dawn: It was very dramatic and it was done. It was learned in like 15 seconds of dead air.

Joshua: I have another phrase of mine is “People who suck at things tell you how great they are. People who are amazing at things tell you the disasters they went through on the way to get there.” and they are much better stories.

Dawn: I can totally understand that thing.

Joshua: You’ve got a few of those?

Dawn: Yeah. No, I just… Yeah. Don’t tell me how good you are. Just do it.

Joshua: Yeah. There’s an event you have to get back to. Were there any big hurdles with the beeswax, the Bee’s Wrap?

Dawn: Just like I said I’ll let you know if there’s any washing hurdles. For an individual – no. For a commercial which is a kind of what I’m doing you know commercial application is probably a little bit harder. They remember they’re having to take the sandwich from me in the morning, put it in their duffle bag, take it out on the water, hopefully not step on it on an umpire boat and then eat it and then bring me back the piece of the beeswax paper so it’ll be good. But no, I hope it works.

Joshua: I look forward to hearing it. A lot of people listening to this… There’s a lot of people out there who don’t start. There’s also a lot of people who’ve started and they’ve done a little thing and they think, “OK, I’m done. Good. Environment checked.” And I’m glad to hear someone who’s like you’ve done this, you’ve done more and you’ve done more and a new thing you just say, “Yeah. Let’s do another thing.”

Dawn: I think it’s also a little bit the more you know, the more you’re like, “Oh my God, there’s so much more to do!’

Joshua: Yeah. Oh, yeah. No one’s seen the pictures that you’ve shown me of you getting the trash and plastic out of the water and every sailor I talked to talks about how they’re in the middle of you know no land in sight and there’s just Coke bottles and beer bottles and Starbucks and yeah, anything. I usually close with questions. Is there anything and didn’t think to ask that’s worth saying? And anything to say directly to the listeners?

Dawn: No. I think we talked about it last time how sailing you know I’m an advocate for sailing and for people finding their passion. But I’m biased. Sailing should be your passion for everybody. It’s not that hard. Come on down to Oakcliff, we’re there. And yeah, it’s not that hard, people.

Joshua: Everyone should watch videos… I’ll put link on for videos of Oakcliff in action because they’re online. Are there videos of you in action?

Dawn: I’m in a lot of the videos. Yeah, on my website there might be some. I don’t know.

Joshua: I have to say because I’ve seen you in action just a little bit and the words force of nature come to mind.

Dawn: Somebody else has said that before. They always go Mother Nature because I usually… No, it’s not true. It’s become a bit of a thing where they think I am better at weather forecasting than anybody else there is why they call me Mother Nature. But there was an interview for the Mystic Seaport. That one’s probably the biggest one. And that’s on YouTube.

Joshua: OK. I’ll find that out or ask you for the link and put that up for people to find. Dawn Riley, thank you very much.

Dawn: Thank you.


You didn’t ask for it but I am going to give you some advice. Learn to sail. Humans have been doing it for seven thousand years all over the world. In fact, it’s a lot of how we got all over the world. In my case, it’s brought everything that flying did – in my case you might know that I haven’t flown for almost three years – of exploring the world, cultures, people and so on. And you meet people like Dawn. If you’re too busy to act on your environmental values, how many America’s Cups have you won or helped others win? How many Olympians follow you? Because Dawn’s got plenty and she doesn’t hesitate to act on her environmental values. Maybe it will help you create in your life what Dawn created in hers. Not a distraction, but an augmentation.

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