Building a Global-Leading Green Event with SXSW Eco’s Chris Sonnier
June 18, 2014
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited to have with us Chris Sonnier today. He’s the Program Manager for the South by Southwest Eco-farm. Welcome to Green is Good, Chris. CHRIS SONNIER: Hi, guys. Thank you so much for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, happy to have you on, and before we get into your amazing expo that you put on every year, SXSW Eco Expo, I want to hear a little bit about Chris Sonnier. Tell us about your journey even leading up to this wonderful platform and position that you have. CHRIS SONNIER: Sure, happy to do so. A couple years back, in 2008 or so, I was in undergraduate school here in Austin, Texas, at the University of Texas, focusing on anything from restoration ecology to cultural studies to business and essentially, I couldn’t sit any longer. I ended up actually graduating early because I had to get out in the world and I had to start making things happen so I graduated with a ton of passion and maybe slightly less direction, I guess you could say. I ended up doing a number of jobs but I really wanted to get into Central America to understand just a little bit more about the world and be able to view it through other lenses so when I was down there, I was very much prepared for all of the poverty and the social situation so what I had not really anticipated was the trash and as the world does not really have the capacity to actually process western packaging, in many regions of the earth, they don’t even have the capacity to hide it like we do here in the States so that kind of launched into a tirade of things. I ended up getting really into cellulosic chemistry and seeing if there was a way to produce a biodegradable alternative. That led me to chase down low impact high diversity biofuels and ended up doing prairie restoration in the Midwest for a number of years. A couple of different projects after that. I worked with AmeriCorps, worked with the law school at the University of Texas, and just a number of different things but basically, t was always a sort of difficult financial situation for me but I was very passionate about just doing whatever I could to make the world a better place from whatever position I was in. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How did you end up at South by Southwest? This is like the premier place to be. You must have done a lot of things right along the way. CHRIS SONNIER: Absolutely. They had a seasonal position open up and it was in tech production, and it’s one thing that my résumé could say was that I’m not afraid to do hard work in difficult climates so they brought me in right before the show, were happy with my production and basically, at the end of it, we were asking what is it that the company can do to continue to grow? What can we do? And always being one to look for a way to make things better, I pitched the idea for Eco. Let’s do a solutions-based conference at another time of year in Austin, Texas, and somewhat to my surprise really, a couple weeks later, after I had given them a formal pitch, they decided to go for it and ever since then, I’ve been managing the programming of the event and I’ve also been the producer of the event as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you’re not only the Program Manager, Chris. You’re a very humble guy. You were the founder of the South by Southwest Eco Program. CHRIS SONNIER: Well, not to use too many words, but yeah, I definitely was the driving force behind that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Very cool. Let me just say that. Very cool, and thank you for the story. That’s awesome; so now tell us what it is. Tell us what it is, what was your proposition, and how has it gone since it’s launched and what are you doing? CHRIS SONNIER: Sure. South by Southwest Eco is a conference that is designed to attract the global community to really explore and engage and co-create solutions for a sustainable world. This being said, as I had mentioned, I had plenty of inspiration, but what I was having difficulties finding were areas to act and maybe that’s poorly put, but finding ways to act in a way that was not completely economically depressing for myself, which never stopped me by the way. During all of that time, I was doing research on all of the sectors that I would say factor in to sustainability, anything from food and agriculture to energy to efficiencies and designs and so forth and I was really seeing that at the overlap of a number of these industries and sectors, there was a lot of potential for solutions to be had and very much in an economically advantageous way for the people involved so the idea is to bring this diverse group of people together, that group that will have the actual capacities, the abilities, and the diverse skill sets to make change, bring them all together, give them the top level knowledge that they need to pursue their jobs but also give them access into other facets of sustainability and most importantly, access to the connections that need to be made for these great projects to be moving forward. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Very cool, and for our listeners that just joined us, we’re really excited and honored to have with us today Chris Sonnier. He’s the Program Manager, but actually really the co-founder and the Producer of South by Southwest Eco, and you can follow along like I am right now at www.sxsweco.com. It’s a beautiful website. You can learn a lot and you can get really engaged so tell us now, when is the South by Southwest Eco going to be this year and who do you expect to come to the South by Southwest Eco this year? CHRIS SONNIER: The conference this year is October 6th through 8th in Austin, Texas, at the Austin Convention Center — so downtown Austin, so that’s a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday event. That being said, Sunday, the 5th of October, we’ll end up doing more of festival-related programming, so a film series, for example, to welcome receptions, maybe some private meetings on that day as well and as far as who we expect to come, it’s always difficult to sum up because what we’ve really been noted for is the diversity of the audience that we bring, not just gender and racial diversity, which we’re definitely known for having the greatest diversity in those demographics, but also in professional diversity and as well as in age diversity so actually, most our audience is 25 to 34 followed by the next highest demographic, 35 to 44, so it’s an energetic group that come to the show ranging from across society, so really what they have in common are a desire to make the world a better place and really that desire is backed by the smarts and the abilities to make this a very economically viable dream. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How many people usually come to the conference? How big is the group? CHRIS SONNIER: Well, so in 2011, when we first launched, we were expecting that 400 people would come and we were actually shocked that closer to 1,100 people showed up. The year after that, we grew by roughly 100% and last year, we were coming in at just under 3,000 people so at this point, we’re not even actively trying to grow our audience base. We’re just really focusing on creating that special unique event that is most useful for the community, so we will be expecting roughly 2,500 to 3,000 people this year again. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. So, now let’s talk about your great speakers. Who are typically your speakers historically? Who have they been and who are going to be the speakers this year that you could sort of tease our audience with to get more people excited to come on down? CHRIS SONNIER: Yeah, so we’ve actually been very blessed to have an amazing array of speakers that have come from the public sector, the private sector, academia. First year, 2011, one of my favorite speakers was Mark Tercek, who is the President of The Nature Conservancy so he was really speaking to natural capital. He came over from Goldman Sachs so had a very high finance background and was putting his efforts and expertise into land conservation so that’s a really good example of the type of speaker that we’ll have. We always have high ranking officials from a number of departments within the U.S. government. A lot of people come from the Department of Energy and from ARPA E, their Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy as well as the Department of the Interior. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When you’re picking speakers, talk a little bit about the art and science between that in terms of really creating a convergence of where innovation meets commerce and art and science equals innovation and potentially commerce and therefore more sustainability. What goes behind the thinking about when you’re making the picks? Because I’m sure lots of people apply to speak at your great conference. CHRIS SONNIER: There’s a number of things that go in. Definitely diversity comes into play because that spread of ideas and upbringings and life experiences is really something that is very valuable to share when it comes to generating just new thought and creative thought and inspiration within the registrants and with their fellow speakers as well. It’s also very much about the personal story of the speaker and it’s not a judgment on oh you’re story isn’t good enough but how is it that that can help to drive the creative process for others? Were you brought into clean technology for purely financial reasons? Maybe so. Maybe that’s not what would drive others to the conference but it’s a very good news story when things start getting down for purely economic reasons. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right, right, right. That’s interesting. This year, talk a little bit about this conference coming up. Who do you have speaking at this year’s conference that you’re super excited about and what are you trying to accomplish? What subject matters are you trying to tackle or highlight or give more visibility to this year? CHRIS SONNIER: We are in the process of actually now going through our panel picker submissions so, as you said, when people apply, we’re going through those now and we actually have a very democratic process, which is very unique to South by Southwest events. That means that it’s open for public voting. We also have an advisory board that votes and then the staff voting so it allows us to be very reactive to what is here and now in sustainability so that we can provide the most up-to-date and useful content to the community. From that, we also do a bit of programming of our own so one person in particular that I’m very excited about is Christine Bader. She recently released a book, just in March I believe, called The Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, so she was very much one of these people with highest marks in all of her classes, got her M.B.A. from Yale and then went on to, hopefully, in her mind, utilize the great power of some of the world’s largest corporations for good and she was actually running the Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Programs for BP when the Deepwater Horizon Spill happened, so it’s very much an expose on what you do when you’re trying to do good within an organization that’s just done really bad and I think that will be a very unique and very interesting topic. We also have Judy Rushmore. This young woman is very inspiring. She is with TripAdvisor. She’s running their green travel programming and she’s really harnessing big data so she’s not only harnessing it but she’s actually creating how they acquire that data and then is using that data to make sustainable travel, which travel and tourism is the largest industry on earth, how to give choices and options very quickly and very seamlessly to consumers and it’s just very amazing to hear her story as to in order to make it very easy for you on the receiving end, how much work has to be done behind the scenes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it — wow, that’s really cool; so when will all the speakers be locked? When will you have your speakers and you start promoting that and your conference will be programmed? CHRIS SONNIER: Come early to mid-June is when we expect to have at least 50% of our programming locked in. About a month after that, we’ll have about 80% and then over the next month or two, we will have the full conference saving maybe a couple spaces here and there for late breaking items that pop up in the news. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Of course, it’s in Austin. We’re down to the last three minutes or so. Can you explain to our audience why Austin. Why is Austin such a cool location for a sustainability conference, besides being the home of Whole Foods and Dell and other great and cool companies? CHRIS SONNIER: Sure. So, I think actually Austin makes perfect sense. It’s a progressive city in a very conservative state. If things can happen in Texas for society, for the environment, they can happen anywhere, so this really gets us out of some of the bubbles that where great ideas are generated, but typically have difficulties disseminating outside of that so I think that that approach of progressive city, very conservative state, of course the energy capital of the U.S., very commerce-driven state with an international border here as well, really makes it a unique place for an event like this and we’re starting to see in Austin as well a major push in the clean-tech ecosystem really building up clean energy, clean technology companies. How is it we can support them? But also, international philanthropies are coming up, which is the Rainforest Partnership. It’s really kind of a burgeoning place where I think that, over the coming years, we’ll really seen Austin recognized as a global leader in this space and on top of that, it’s a lot of fun so it’s not a bad place to come and have a conference. JOHN SHEGERIAN: With a minute-and-a-half left, anything new besides the cool new speakers that you have at all your conferences? Any new programs, competitions or anything you want to give a shameless plug to that’s going to be going on at the South by Southwest Eco Conference this year? CHRIS SONNIER: Sure. So, one thing that I’m really excited about coming back to Austin being a global leader is we’re launching a program called Cleantech Global this year so this is going to be a group of Cleantech clusters from around the world. A lot of them are focused on microgrids but also in energy storage, energy generation, all sorts of things just in the clean technology space and the idea here is really to bring people together in practices and really just share processes and ideas. The idea is that, instead of making Cleantech a pie that everybody’s fighting over a small piece of it, it’s really to grow the pie and just create more opportunities both here and globally. On top of that, we’ll be expanding our film series this year. We’ve had some phenomenal documentaries that we have shown. Over the next couple of year, we’re looking to really expand that, expand the number of our competitions and yeah, I have really high hopes for this year. It should be a great event. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. It’s going to be a great event because you’re running the show and it’s been so great to have you on today, Chris. For our listeners out there that want to attend or learn more or even apply to be a speaker, go to www.sxsweco.com. Thank you, Chris, for being an inspiring sustainability visionary ambassador. You are truly living proof that green is good.