THE NEW THING: The Newman's Own Organics brand started in Aptos 17 years ago, when organics was anything but a sure bet.
Brave New World Of Business
A new lecture series brings big thinkers and socially minded entrepreneurs to town
By Traci Hukill
PETER MEEHAN remembers when the only two companies making organic chocolate were Newman's Own Organics, the company he co-founded in Aptos with his business partner Nell Newman, and the Switzerland-based Rapunzel. In what some might consider an unfortunate if principled decision, Rapunzel was sweetening its chocolate with molasses rather than refined sugar.
"It was a very challenging piece of chocolate to eat," Meehan recalls.
Meehan and Newman wanted a delicious chocolate made with real sugar. But the search for a source of organic sugar revealed something about the state of the sustainable food chain in the mid-1990s: the only place to get it was Mauritius. A tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa, Mauritius was perhaps best known as the home of the doomed dodo and perhaps second best known for its high rate of deforestation. United Nations aid had enabled a recovery of sorts in the form of an infant organic sugar industry.
Today, the situation reminds Meehan of how far the organic food industry has come.
"Imagine," he says. "You're the only domestic organic chocolate company and you're one typhoon away from not being able to make chocolate! Now you can get organic sugar in Florida. That's how much it's grown."
It doesn't take an MBA to understand that sustainable food production and green energy are leading growth sectors right now. But food and fuel are just the building blocks of a new way of doing business that a new five-part lecture series will explore in coming months. Co-hosted by NextSpace, UCSC and the city of Santa Cruz, the What's Next Lecture Series kicks off Thursday, Feb. 18, with a panel discussion titled "Sustainability and Social Innovation." Subsequent panels, held every few months, will address innovations in energy, the workplace, research and development and gaming and social media. The term "innovation" is key.
"We wanted to focus on innovation because we think Santa Cruz is an innovative community, but there's always a lot of talk, sort of abstractly, about innovation in Santa Cruz," says NextSpace co-founder and City Councilman Ryan Coonerty. "We wanted to get concrete and dive in."
Each lecture will bring together big-picture thinkers and entrepreneurs to jump-start conversation and business ideas with an eye toward local economic development. Coonerty says the tactic is twofold. The series will introduce Santa Cruz to new entrepreneurial ideas at the same time it introduces entrepreneurs to Santa Cruz—and maybe, just maybe, persuade some of them to do business here.
"We can learn a lot from these speakers," Coonerty says, "but it's incredibly valuable to have them come here and see there's a vibrant, interested community working on some of these issues. When they go back over the hill to their [venture capital] friends they'll say, 'I couldn't believe the energy in the room.'"
Doing Well, Doing Good
One of the newish phrases buzzing around this blooming business ecosystem is the "triple bottom line." The idea is that today's businesses are wise to consider three components in their definition of success: people, planet and profits, whereas the bad old businesses of yesterday thought only of profits. Think Peabody Coal, busting kneecaps and scraping off mountaintops but raking in the cash. Today it's a matter of enlightened self-interest, the thinking goes, to treat employees well and consider the availability of natural resources when building a profitable business.
Concern with the triple bottom line unites the three panelists at Thursday's "Sustainability and Social Innovation" event. Each represents a different aspect of doing business in the new climate, from the micro to the macro. Meehan, as co-founder of a successful sustainable business, can speak to the special risks facing the entrepreneur who sets out with a triple bottom line in mind. KoAnn Skrzyniarz, CEO of Sustainable Life Media, specializes in helping established businesses make the transition to the new model. And Joshua Levine, vice president of the SRI (Socially Responsible Investing) Wealth Management Group at RBC (Royal Bank of Canada), spends his days ushering investment capital into profitable firms with good social and environmental practices. The panel will be moderated by Sandy Skees of Santa Cruz–based Communications4Good.
Each of the panelists brings their expertise to bear on the subject at hand. Without giving away the ending, Meehan will touch on the need to balance idealism with pragmatism ("Nobody buys a product because of the mission"), while Skrzyniarz, whose company puts on an annual conference dubbed the "TED of sustainable branding," will discuss new business models based on sustainable precepts. "Product-to-service innovation," she says, "Zipcar being an example, where rather than buy a car, you borrow one. Or connecting neighborhoods who have products like camping gear they're willing to coop."
Levine, the SRI consultant, wants to drive home a couple of ideas. One is that SRI already gives returns on a par with traditional investing; in the future, he thinks socially responsible businesses will outperform old business models thanks to their farsightedness. Just look at the Big Three automakers, he says.
"A lot of those businesses, why they got into so much trouble is they were quarter-to-quarter organizations, just looking at what was hot. In the early 2000s, what was hot was SUVs. But they weren't focusing, like Toyota and Honda, on fuel efficiencies. And you see in the long term that they have underperformed against those peers."
A second message is about putting your money where your mouth is. "Learning is one thing," Levine says. "You have to go out and act upon a lot of these measures. Otherwise you're lipsmacking and doing nothing. I see it all the time; the top environmental nonprofits—you'd be surprised—don't do social investing. I just want to emphasize that you really have to integrate this in as many ways as possible."
THE WHAT'S NEXT LECTURE SERIES starts Thursday, Feb. 18, at 7pm at Kuumbwa, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15 at 831.459.2495. To learn more about the panelists see www.newmansownorganics.com and www.sustainablelifemedia .com, or contact Joshua Levine at email@example.com.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.