Creating an Economy of Good with Sustainatopia’s John Rosser

April 1, 2015

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to Green is Good, and we’ve got with us today John Rosser. He’s the founder of Sustainatopia. He’s also my friend. Welcome to Green is Good, John. JOHN ROSSER: John, thanks so much for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, I’m so excited to have you because you’ve got some real great and exciting things to talk about today. Before we get talking about Sustainatopia and your upcoming conference in Beverly Hills on May 27th-30th at the Hyatt Regency, I’d like you to share with our listeners a little bit about your journey and story leading up to the founding of Sustainatopia, John. JOHN ROSSER: Sure, thanks so much for that introduction, John. I have a pretty eclectic background. I studied foreign languages in undergrad, and then I got my international MBA. I found out pretty quickly, and I think this is also a cultural thing, that I wasn’t a big company person, as far as where I should work. I was very entrepreneurial. I really enjoyed doing my own thing, and I had a lot of ideas. That manifested itself into hosting my first business, the largest international MBA job fair in the country. This was in the nineties. I got to work with many corporations, but just on the other side, as a service provider. It was a really fun event. I wound up actually selling it to the Washington Post, and this was in the nineties. That allowed me to kind of explore what I really wanted to do, what I was passionate about, and I wound up, a few years later, producing a television show, which starred my wife, called Origami with Leonore. It was filmed in what’s called interstitials, which are 2-3 minute segments. It was on Discovery Kids Latin America, it was also on PBS for many years. That was a seminal moment for me and my business career, because we were very mission-driven as a program. We were trying to teach young boys and girls origami, and I simply loved, as part of my daily activity, being both mission-driven and trying to be sustainable financially. That was the turning point for me because I realized that when you’re able to combine those two things, it’s really a great way to go, and I think it’s a great way to structure individual companies and large companies as well. After I had had that experience, I was very interested in continuing to have this ability to both be mission-driven, but also to do business like anyone else. That led me to launch Sustainatopia after, actually, a couple years of research. We held our first event in 2010 in Miami, Florida, and now we’re very, very happy to be on the West Coast in Beverly Hills. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that want to learn more about Sustainatopia or sign up for your upcoming conference, they can go to www.sustainatopia.com. Share with our listeners first, John, what is Sustainatopia so they understand it from your vision? JOHN ROSSER: Sure, thank you for that. We’re really focused on this new world. We all have to make money to be sustainable. That can be in a small business or a very large corporation. Business is a good thing and a good tool overall. We need it, but I think we’re entering a world in which it’s important that we also solve both social and environmental problems that exist in the world. I think business is the best available tool to do that. Our conference, really it’s both a conference and a festival, and I can go into that later, but what we really focus on is this new world of doing business and also doing good. That can take many different forms, as you know. There’s so much good stuff to do and it’s actually very valuable stuff in terms of creating value and creating businesses, and ultimately, making money. This goes across the board. We like to focus on issues everywhere from the environment, and that can be companies that focus on recycling or other means, focusing on climate change, saving our oceans, different things like that, but also social problems such as urban core poverty, recidivism, which is prisoners going back to prison, which is not good for anyone. There are all sorts of tools now, and very creative financial tools, to help lessen or even eliminate the social and environmental concerns. There’s a number of great businesses, including our own, John, focusing on this, and we believe this is the economy for the next 500 years. That is, when the values and money align, and we cannot only create employment, create great companies, but also help solve and mitigate these very serious social and environmental problems. What we’ve found through our event, and we posted over 1,500 speakers over the past six years, we’ve had everyone from the White House to celebrities like Donna Karan and the top foundations like Rockefeller and top corporations like HP, we believe there’s so much talent available to do this, to create an economy of good, to help address these social and environmental concerns. It’s just about unlocking this creativity that we have across the board. We have the tools to do it, and our event is really proud to support all these great businesses and entrepreneurs who are addressing these problems. JOHN SHEGERIAN: John, you just mentioned a couple of minutes ago conference, festival or both. Can you explain the difference between them and why yours might be really considered both? JOHN ROSSER: Sure. Our conference is really a business-to-business conference. These are for folks who do this for a living. This can be anyone from a social entrepreneur to a Chief Sustainability Officer or Chief Marketing Officer within a corporation, the head of a foundation, the head of an NGO, an investor who’s looking to invest in this space, and we’re seeing that increasingly, that financial capital, including Wall Street capital, is very interested in these projects that both make money and do good. The conference is really a business-to-business conference, most likely for folks who either have a burning desire to learn about it, and we welcome them, or they actually work in this industry already. The festival was developed because we didn’t want to be closed door to other people who really care about what we’re trying to address with Sustainatopia, to create a better world. In that way, we’ve created a number of different events, everywhere from free events, educational events, to $10 movies, to fundraisers in and around the conference in order to support doing good and bringing together what we like to call basically a family reunion of folks who really care about this, care about changing the world. We don’t try to define are they brothers and sisters or second cousins, but they’re all part of the family and we try to have different portals for folks to connect to Sustainatopia at the level that they’re at. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. For our listeners that just joined us, we’ve got John Rosser. He’s the founder of Sustainatopia. To learn more about Sustainatopia or sign up for their great conference that’s coming up in Beverly Hills, May 27th-30th, at the Hyatt Regency, you can go to www.sustainatopia.com. I’m on your website now, gorgeous website, lots of great information there. Share with our listeners some of the past top organizations and leaders that have participated in your great conference, and some of the ones that are coming to this year’s conference, just to give them a taste of the amazing wide breadth of people and organizations that you have that represent Sustainatopia. JOHN ROSSER: Sure. We’re particularly proud of a project that we’ll be featuring in Los Angeles that was actually conceived at our event in Miami in 2014. It involves the CDI initiative of the Obama Administration. CDI stands for Climate Data Initiative. It’s an initiative to gather on an actionable basis all the data available on climate change. What occurred, and this is in 2014 after the President talked about climate change in the State of the Union, we were the first event that they visited to talk about the Administration’s plan. They actually met Wharton Business School, a group called Good Company Ventures, which is connected to Wharton Business School, and it’s their social business accelerator. They’ve catalyzed over $50 million for social businesses over the years. They both came to the event, and this is kind of the magic of doing events in-person, why doing things online will never replicate a physical event, because they both came down speaking about different subjects and then networking over several days, they came to discover there’s a great project that they could both address. That is creating a social business accelerator for climate change, and they’ve done that now with partners MIT, IBM, NASA, which is the federal government agency, collecting data within the federal government. We’re so proud of this combination of partners and this idea was fostered at our event in Miami. We’re actually having all these groups, including the White House, come to Los Angeles this May. It’s only one of many projects, John, that we feature. I actually wouldn’t have time to talk about all these great projects. In candor, I’m really agnostic about how the good stuff happens, as long as it happens, so we celebrate good at every level. It doesn’t always have to be the White House. We see the most incredible social entrepreneurs and companies come to our event. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What are some of the key themes, though, that you’ve put together and structured so people could come together and create these constructive collaborations at Sustainatopia this year? JOHN ROSSER: Sure. We have several tracks. Our biggest track is called the Ecosystem of Impact Investing and SRI. The ecosystem includes not just investment, but the companies and foundations and government officials themselves. As you may know, these projects are becoming increasingly complex, so there’s often a role for foundations or non-profits and government with these structure projects, which are trying to solve social or environmental concerns. We have a track for Fortune 500s. We love our companies, we love our big Fortune 500s, and we love when they’re trying to incorporate this new world in what they do. These efforts have been going on for many years, but they come to our event to learn best practices and partner and learn more from NGOs and other experts about these issues. We’ll have over 80 Fortune 500s participating and intermediaries, like consulting firms, that service them. We also have a track called Fuse, which is on design, media, ethical fashion and entertainment – the creative industries. We’re excited for them to have their own track. We have a number of large media companies coming, CNN Money, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, the Economist, all speaking at the event. We have a smart cities track and clean tech as well. Some amazing things going on as you know, John, and some amazing leadership companies including Tesla, who’s speaking at the event. We have another track called LOHAS, which focuses on food and consciousness and yoga companies as well. There’s been a big boom in the yoga industry and we also have those folks participating as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there in the United States and around the world, to sign up for your great event at the Hyatt Regency in Beverly Hills, May 27th-May 30th, they can go right to your website and sign up right online, is that correct? JOHN ROSSER: Absolutely. It just takes seconds. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. Talk a little bit about, John, your own overall view of sustainability and how that’s helping to change the world for the better now, and what you’ve seen since you’ve launched Sustainatopia, and how you’ve seen great ideas come together at your conference that are already going out there and changing the world. JOHN ROSSER: Sure, I’d be happy to. If you go back a couple hundred years when the Industrial Revolution was just starting, I’ll make an analogy for you, and hopefully your listeners can appreciate this. When I was growing up, you’d go to a playground. I grew up in the South. It was really, really hot, and I remember the summers. You’d have the slide that was blazing hot. It was made out of metal. You’d have concrete on the playground, and as a father of a child now, I look back and I go how in the world could our parents allow that to happen? I don’t think it’s because our parents were necessarily negligent; they just did what they knew and over time, people decided that’s not the best way to go for young children, to have metal slides and concrete. That’s dangerous. Now you see in playgrounds wood chips and things that are much safer. Folks learn through experience, so if you compare that to the economy, we go back 200-300 years with the Industrial Revolution. People were trying to do the best they could to create economic activity, to create jobs. That’s what they knew at that time, but the fact of the matter is, we know better now. We know very distinctly that we can’t continue the way we’re going in terms of creating economic output that creates all these kind of prongs and externalities with our environment, with our oceans, and having an economy that’s not as inclusive as we need it to be. The wonderful thing is we have now, John, this wonderful redesign opportunity. We have the opportunity to redesign the economy for the next 500 years, and we have more employment opportunities than the eye can see. We have an ability now to bring the creation of money back in line with value, to not have all these externalities that the Industrial Revolution created. Pollution is an easy one. We all remember seeing those photos of London 200 years ago, where you couldn’t even see the city because of pollution, and maybe LA 30 years ago, but we know better now. Cities have done a better job and companies are doing a better job, and that’s the direction we need to head. That way, we don’t create these externalities, which wind up being a huge tax on all of us. We can create companies, small or large, where making money and value is aligned. When you do that, you’re applying the laws of economics perfectly, you’re creating employment, and it’s really a virtuous circle of how things should be. We’re really excited to facilitate and bring together the companies around the world, small and big, that are doing this great work and be the catalyst that we can be for them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: John, we’re down to the last three minutes or so. Can you share your vision on where Sustainatopia will go in the next five or 10 years? Where do you want to drive the future of Sustainatopia? JOHN ROSSER: Boy, that’s a big question, John. We certainly are strategic in what we’re doing. People love our brand. What we’re particularly excited about is that millennials love what we’re doing, and millennials, the biggest demographic group in history, they totally get what we’re trying to do with Sustainatopia. In candor, millennials are really driving the bus in a lot of ways. These are going to be the folks who are in management or running companies. I think we have a real opportunity here, so we’re really interested with our brand and using it in ways that can leverage good. We have a physical event, of course, that we want to grow and grow, but we think our brand can help in so many different ways. We’re so excited about the future. We’re excited about expanding the brand. We’ve got some really exciting initiatives that we’re going to be announcing soon. It’s just a great time for everyone, and especially for younger listeners out there. There’s never been a time in history where you have a bigger chance to make a difference for the world, and you can make a difference on a global basis. I can’t encourage them enough to do everything they can to try to make a difference because the tools are definitely there and communication with the Internet and in other ways to really have a profound impact. In candor, those of us who are older, we’re counting on you. You’ve got the energy, you’ve got the smarts, and we want to work with you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to a minute-and-a-half or so. Why LA over Miami? Why did you decide to make that move, because that’s fascinating, that geography? JOHN ROSSER: Sure. We love Miami, and that was our home for so many years, but we’ve seen some great, great things in Los Angeles. It’s the media capital of the world, there’s no better place to distribute messages to the mass public, and we think sustainability and impact are the right things to do, and we think probably what’s held us back, if anything, is not having a higher frequency of messaging and being clearer about our message. We all have the secret sauce that work in this space. This is what people want to do. It’s aspirational, I think, in their heart of hearts. They know it’s the right thing to do, but we just need to do a better job of communicating it, celebrating it and getting leaders together to solve problems. That’s what we’re really intent on doing. We think, for now, Los Angeles is a great place for us to be, and we’ve been welcomed with open arms. It’s been a fantastic response to date, and we look forward to this May event. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that want to come to Sustainatopia 2015, go to www.sustainatopia.com. You can sign up. It’s May 27th-May 30th at the Hyatt Regency in Beverly Hills. John Rosser, thank you for being a visionary leader and entrepreneur. You are truly living proof that green is good.