How to Join the Women Leading the Green Economy

Last week, I had the good fortune to co-present on the topic “How to Join the Women Leading the Green Economy,” with Grace TiscareƱo-Sato. Grace is the author of “Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them.” The book is the first to examine the role of Latino entrepreneurs in the emerging green economy.

Our presentation was at the 3rd Annual Women’s Business Expo held by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (video highlights are available below). We focused on three main topics:

  1. Women and sustainable businesses are a powerful combination. The rise of women-owned businesses and sustainable businesses is presenting us with a unique opportunity to reshape business as we know it.
  2. Many women business owners are already active in the emerging green economy. Examples include women like Carmen Rad of CR&A Custom, a large-format printing company that uses biodegradable materials, and Sandra Artalejo, a fashion designer who repurposes discarded materials into new products.
  3. How you can go green in your business. This involves looking at the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. While most businesses are quite adept at looking at the profit component (a necessity to survival in business!), the focus on people and planet tends to be much less prominent.

In terms of reducing your impact on the planet, areas to look at include:

  • Energy and water conservation: How can your business reduce its energy and water consumption?
  • Solid waste reduction and pollution prevention: How can your business divert waste from the landfill and minimize use of harmful chemicals?
  • Production and distribution: How can your business modify its production and distribution practices to make it more environmentally responsible?

To ensure that your business is having a positive impact on people, areas to look at include:

  • Employee wellness: How does your business provide for the well-being of your employees?
  • Community impact: How does your business support its community?
  • Supply chain impact: How are people impacted throughout your supply chain?

These are all important areas to look at in your business as you consider what you can do to go green and develop a sustainable business. The actual practice of greening your businesses in these areas may seem to be overwhelming, but it’s important to realize that the business case for sustainability has already been made: businesses that minimize their environmental impacts can in turn reduce their expenses, while also generating goodwill among employees and customers, which can lead to higher revenues. The businesses that do this will also realize a competitive advantage in being able to tap new markets. Finally, this is just an overview (we only had 45 minutes!), but fortunately, there are several resources available:

  • Certifications: Bay Area Green Business Program and B Corps
  • Networking and advocacy groups: Sustainable Business Alliance and the Green Chamber of Commerce
  • News and information: Greenbiz, Triple Pundit, and Sustainable Industries

This short video captures some of the highlights from the Expo:

Are you a woman with a green business? Share your story below!

Why We Have So Few Women Leaders

In a TED talk that has rightfully received considerable attention, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recently addressed the important question of “Why we have so few women leaders.”

The statistics that she points out are rather grim for women:

  • Out of 109 world leaders, only 9 are women
  • Of all the people in parliaments around the world, only 13% are women
  • In business, women hold no more than 15-16% of C-level and Board positions

Sandberg is focused on keeping women in the workforce, particularly in corporate positions. She prescribes the following recommendations for women:

  1. Sit at the table. According to Sandberg, “No one gets to the corner office by sitting at the side, not at the table, and no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success or if they don’t even understand their success.” The problem lies in women systematically underestimating their abilities and attributing their success to external factors rather than their own abilities. This results in women not reaching out for opportunities as much as men.
  2. Make your partner a real partner. Right now, the work that is done outside the home is generally viewed as more important than the work done inside the home. This makes it harder for men who may choose to stay at home while their wives work outside the home. By placing both on more equal footing, it will make it easier for women to remain in the workforce.
  3. Don’t leave before you leave. Her theory here is that many women step back at work in advance of having children…once they are thinking about having kids, they might not take on more challenging projects or go after a promotion, which results in them “leaving” their work before they’ve physically left.

Although her talk centers on helping more women get to the top in corporate America, it has important implications for women entrepreneurs as well, since taking advantage of opportunities, balancing work and family life, how successful women are perceived, and believing in your own ability to be successful are all pertinent issues for those of us who start our own businesses.

She concludes by saying that a world in which half of the countries and companies in the world are run by women will be a better world. We may have a long ways to go before women hold 50% of the leadership positions in global politics and in corporate America, but in U.S. business as a whole, women have made greater strides. The most recent U.S. Census Bureau data from 2007 indicates that “businesses where women were owners or half-owners numbered 12.4 million firms, representing 45.7 percent of all firms.” This trend in women’s entrepreneurship, particularly when combined with the trend in sustainable business, is indeed a powerful combination that can move us closer to a better world.

You can view the video below and then share your thoughts about it in the comments.

Will Your Holiday Gifts Support Green, Women-owned Businesses?

Green holiday gifts

The busiest election season of the year is coming up… how will you vote?

Yes, I know that the political mid-term elections are already behind us. However, that’s just one type of election: a political one. Every day, you vote many more times with your dollars. You may choose to support large corporations that focus on maximizing shareholder profits; small, independent businesses that are active in their local communities; or any number of other businesses in between. But with each purchase, you are casting a vote in support of that company’s practices.

This holiday season, you might consider supporting green, women-owned businesses. To get you started, here are a few suggestions (and in case you’re wondering, I’m not receiving any compensation for listing these companies). All of these businesses are either certified B Corporations or members of the Green America Business Network (GBN).

  1. Bamboo gifts: Bambooya offers clothing for men, women, and children, housewares, handicrafts, gift sets, and more – all made from bamboo, which is a renewable natural resource. Bambooya is a member of the GBN.
  2. Fair Trade fashion and footwear: Autonomie Project is a B Corp that makes clothes using organic cotton, natural FSC rubber, and other environmentally friendly and locally sourced materials produced by independent co-ops and Fair Trade-certified facilities. Items include clothing for men, women, and children.
  3. Green toys: Toys made in the U.S. from recycled milk bottles are just one of the items available through Kate’s Caring Gifts; other items include soaps and lotions, dinnerware, and more. Kate’s is certified through the Bay Area Green Business Program and is a member of the GBN.
  4. Handmade jewelry: Turtle Love Co. and Melissa Joy Manning are both B Corps that make handmade jewelry and seek to use conflict-free gemstones and local artisans, among other sustainable practices.
  5. Natural cosmetics: Alima Pure is a B Corporation that makes all natural cosmetics. Their products do not contain any additives, fillers, or fragrances that might irritate the skin.
  6. Organic gift baskets: Choose from a wide selection of gifts including items that are free of preservatives and artificial ingredients. It’s Only Natural Gifts is a member of GBN.
  7. Porcelain dinnerware: Mary Anne Davis of Davistudio produces sustainably and individually made porcelain dinnerware. Davistudio is a certified B Corp that has reduced energy use, uses a lead-free glaze, and recycles all waste material.
  8. Recycled housewares: Organic Bug is a GBN member on a mission to offer quality, contemporary, eco-friendly, fair trade and natural wellness products. On their website, you can shop housewares, toys, clothing, and more by collections such as fair trade and made in the USA.
  9. Thai silk home and personal accessories: Siw Thai Silk is a B Corp that works with village artisans in Thailand to produce pillows, throws, scarves, and shawls all using Fair Trade practices.
  10. Recycled paper gift wrap: This year, forget the plastic bags filled with gift wrap and bows. Earth Presents, a GBN member, provides a more earth friendly alternative – recycled paper gift wrap for your holiday needs.

In addition to purchasing green gifts, you might also want to consider other holiday options such as making your own gifts, supporting charitable organizations through volunteering and/or donations, or choosing gifts that give back to women, which give back to the women who produced them.

Do you have a green product that would make a great holiday gift this season? If so, please share it in the comments!

Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future West Coast Summit

Last Friday, approximately 200 women attended the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future West Coast Summit. This gathering, held at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, was a forum designed to allow women to “co-create a picture of success for the next phase of sustainability development.” Attendees represented the diverse mix of women in sustainable business, from MBA students to entrepreneurs to corporate executives.

The summit proved to be both interesting and informative. In particular, five questions were posed throughout the day to frame some of the larger issues around sustainability in business:

  1. How does business develop long-term strategies to think globally and act locally in today’s environment?
  2. How does business work with different kinds of partners or even competitors to make a difference?
  3. How are customer values changing? What can companies do to keep up?
  4. What are the lessons learned from businesses creating new jobs in the expanding sustainability arena?
  5. How do engaged employees continue to help companies develop and implement their sustainability strategies? What keeps employees involved and enthusiastic?

These are all, of course, questions that businesses are grappling with – developing long-term strategies in a dynamic environment, understanding the changing market, recognizing that success requires partnerships, creating jobs, and keeping employees engaged so as to retain the best talent.

The speakers included women who represented a wealth of experience in the field of sustainable business:

  • Dr. Sharon Nunes, VP of Smart Cities Strategy & Solutions at IBM, spoke about “Sustaining Sustainability.” She outlined the major trends that businesses need to be considering, including social/demographic trends (e.g., increased urbanization), economic trends (e.g., global financial crisis), environmental (e.g., cities are seeking ways to reduce carbon emissions and increase their energy from renewable sources), and technological (e.g., emerging technologies) and explained how IBM is responding to these. In particular, she articulated one of the most important challenges for business today: to create relevant and compelling solutions that people will be willing to pay for.
  • Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, delivered the afternoon keynote. In a lively address, she explained the steps that the federal government has taken to support the clean energy economy. The GreenGov Challenge, for example, asked federal employees to identify ways in which federal agencies could reduce their environmental impact. When asked about the role of the Department of Defense in federal sustainability efforts, she remarked that the DOD has already recognized climate change as a national security threat and is quite forward-thinking in this regard. She also made it clear that we as a nation must build a clean economy if we are to continue to lead the world.
  • Kimberly Hosken, (Program Director, Green Building at Johnson Controls), Allison Taylor (VP, Sustainability for the Americas, Siemens Corporation), and Melissa O’Mara (VP, Green Building Solutions, Schneider Electric) were all part of an afternoon panel. During this wide-ranging session, they discussed topics such as the challenges of working with business units throughout the world and working with their supply chains to minimize their environmental impact. One of the more interesting themes that emerged, especially since this panel followed Nancy Sutley’s keynote about how the U.S. must lead with a clean economy, was their observation about the challenges they face with China and Europe. Coming from women who are on the ground throughout the world with international corporations, their comments about finding it hard to keep up with how quickly things were changing in China and how Europe has a clearer vision about sustainability than the U.S. were particularly provocative. At the same time, they described ways in which their businesses are seeking innovative partnerships and collaborations, sometimes even with competitors, which is a fundamental difference between the “old” way of doing business and the “new” way required by a changing world.
  • Judy Estrin, serial entrepreneur, author, and founder of JLabs LLC, delivered the final address on the topic of innovation. She provided an overview of types of innovation and described the five core values necessary for innovation: questioning/curiosity, risk, openness, patience, and trust. In a part of her talk reminiscent of what Dr. Nunes had said about changing trends, she underscored the fact that 21st century realities are creating opportunities for innovation, as we find that traditional solutions no longer work. Interestingly, she also pointed out that significant growth will only come from innovation-driven start-ups and new industries (my personal twist on this is that it is the combination of women-owned business and sustainable business that will lead the way to a healthy, thriving economy).

Why Women Business Owners & Sustainable Businesses Are a Powerful Combination

The statistics from the last few years confirm that women entrepreneurs are a force to be reckoned with. Women are starting businesses at twice the national rate, and the revenue from women-owned businesses is estimated at $2.8 trillion, according to an October 2009 report on the economic impact of women-owned businesses. If U.S.-based women-owned businesses were their own country, they would have the 5th largest GDP in the world.

At the same time, we’re seeing that many of our most common business practices are fundamentally unsustainable. For example, many businesses today are built on the use of cheap labor from third world countries to develop products full of toxins that are then shipped worldwide using fossil fuels. How long, realistically, can such a model be sustained? The rise of sustainable business is in large part due to the realization that business models dependent upon the indiscriminate use of both social and natural resources are not sustainable in the long term.

Both women-owned businesses and sustainable businesses are fairly new trends in business. Neither had an impact until perhaps the past 20 years, and weren’t even a consideration during the Industrial Revolution when many of our business practices were established. Now, however, they are both positioned to significantly change the way we do business in the 21st century.

The opportunity that we have with women-owned businesses is this: to harness that entrepreneurial activity and steer it in a sustainable direction. By doing so, we can demonstrate that businesses can be successful without depending upon the exploitation of workers in third-world countries. We can show that businesses can be successful without destroying our natural environment or exposing us to toxins in the products we bring into our homes. We can show that business has a role to play in mitigating the effects of climate change. We can develop businesses that benefit the communities in which they operate.

All of this is possible through sustainable business, which shows that businesses can be financially profitable while also being ecologically sustainable and socially beneficial. And women can lead the way, because we are the ones who are currently driving much of the entrepreneurial activity. If small businesses are the engine of the economy, then women are in the driver’s seat. We can choose the path that we want to take.

What do you think? Would you like to develop your business to be sustainable? Why or why not?