Sustainatopia with John Rosser

January 7, 2021

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John Rosser is one of the world’s leading authorities on impact and sustainability investment issues, including smart cities, climate change and sea level rise. He has spoken at several leading conferences around the world during the past decade, including alongside former president Bill Clinton and, separately, on request of the government of Chile.

In 2009 Rosser founded Sustainatopia, one of the most important annual conferences for social, financial and environmental sustainability impact. Attendees have participated from more than 60 countries and it takes place in major US cities (including Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston). More than 3.000 speakers have participated in Sustainatopia since inception as well as hundreds of major global companies, top investors, major media and leading government officials.

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John S.: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I am John Shegerian and I am so honored and excited to have my good friend today, John Rosser. He is the president and founder of Sustainatopia. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, John.

John Rosser: John, thanks you so much for having me.

John S.: It is an honor to have you. You are doing such important work; and for our listeners who have not had a chance to meet you yet or learn about you or learn about Sustainatopia, can you share a little bit about your backstory leading up to the founding of Sustainatopia and how the journey is gone since you started it?

John R.: Absolutely John. I have had a pretty eclectic business career. I got my International MBA back in the day/. Speak some languages and did some things overseas and I fell into– I started my first company in the 1990s. I sold it to the Washington Post and that allowed me to have some time and ability to kind of look to do the things that I wish to do.

When I spent some time in financial markets and the late 90s early 2000s, which was actually a great time to get educated because of the bubble that was going on with Y2K as you may remember.

John S.: Yep.

John R.: Maybe some of the millennials will not. And but you know what, there was always kind of something missing from my life and as I got married and my daughter was born, I think a lot of men would say this as well that you start to view the world differently and you start to think more about giving back and legacy.

And it is just a different perspective. Once you have a family about you know, why you are here. And that led to me to question business in general. Are we here just to make money? Or is there something greater that we can achieve by business? And it so happened that in 2008 when we had the crash, that we all the investment crash that we all remember related to the mortgage crisis. It was a great opportunity for, in my personal life for things to come together 12 years ago to really ask the question.

You know, why am I here? And I found out there were folks. I did not know you at that time, John. I have known you for many years and you have been a pioneer in the space for many years even going back then.

John S.: Right.

John R.: But at that time in 2008, that was the time for me to ask the right questions. And it turned out after several months of figuring out, kind of mapping the space, trying to figure out where I best fit in. And as a result of spending almost nine months, learning about the space, knowing I wanted to do something different. I lived in Miami at that time and I thought Miami had great potential to become a city that could come online with these concepts of Impact investing sustainable business.

So I hosted the first event called “Sustainatopia” back in 2010. And the idea was to provide a platform for all the companies both small and large and investors that really wanted to create a better world through business and investing. And that was our first year and now we are in our 12th year coming up. On our 12th year of the exercise, we will be hosting our 23rd Global Conference in February. We have hosted everything from heads of state, to top CEOs, top entrepreneurs, the biggest investment firm in the world.

We had celebrities like Patricia Arquette, participate Donna Karan. So over 4,000 speakers. And it all came from really just an idea, that passion, and for me wanting to pursue what I thought was the right thing in my life. And we started small and we just seem to be getting bigger and bigger. So this year will be hosting 8 events.

John S.: Wow!

John R.: Virtually of course. And it is a really exciting time because we have seen so much progress in the space in the last 12 years to which I think you will agree.

John S.: Oh, yeah. I mean you have become one of the leaders in the entire world in this space. And for our listeners out there that want to see John’s great work and also participate and become a part of the Sustainatopia Revolution, go to You can see so much about where they have been and where you are going. These events coming up next year. 2021 events.

Before we get into talking about them and they are fascinating. The topics you have picked. Impact investing, ESG investing, next-gen terms of universities, up to 35 and under, accelerating the purpose economy, step back. We are living right now John during this COVID-19 tragic period.

Very strange times and everyone has had to make adjustments in terms of business leaders like you and entrepreneurs like you. How has it affected what you are doing and is the virtual been as successful as you are in-person meetings, and how are you going to continue to adjust and evolve with the virtual becoming much more normalized?

John R.: Sure. That is a great question. I have to be totally transparent when COVID hit, we were not prepared at least initially to look at doing virtual events. I was not as experienced. I am an older fella on 56 years old and I do a lot of things online, but I have never hosted a virtual conference. I attended a couple, but I did not quite have the feel for it. But we felt like this is a sea change. This is not going away. We are a company that is a company that is focused on engagement. And the way they engage over the next several months is going to be virtually. That is going to be the only game in town and maybe longer.

John S.: Right.

John R.: As it turns out, it is been a long time and it is going to be a long time yet. So we put down the marker and we told our clients. Look, we are going to host this event and will be totally transparent with you. This is the first time we did it. We think we can do a good job, but have faith in us and we think we will figure it out. Well, what was quite amazing and I did not expect this going into it and part again being an older fella.

I just did not think we could do the same level of engagement online as we would find in the physical world. And what we found is that in the physical world, there is actually several barriers that, or potential barriers that can happen. And it goes beyond just the cost in the time which is quite large actually to attend a lot of conferences. If you’re on the east coast to go to the west coast or even if you are in a place like New York City and to go. There is time and cost involved and you can do things online in most cases at a lower price. And you can provide a lot, if not all of the value.

In fact, we have got clients that like the online model more. They think it is more intimate. They like the fact they do not even have to get in a car to drive to an airport. That is going to bring him to a hotel room in another city before they even get to the event. That they can join the event and leave the event within seconds. And there are also some technical factors. For example, not to get too into the weeds on this but you did ask the question John.

John S.: Right.

John R.: But when you are at an online event, or at least our online event, we can chat. The text chat bar while you are listening to a speaker. You could never do that in a physical conference world. It would be rude.

John S.: Right.

John R.: We all have the capability of listening to a speaker and maybe sending a message to someone else in the room. So yeah, I did get in a little bit in the weeds.

John S.: No!

John R.: It is important for the audience members you have the experience that to know that you actually can be part of tremendous value of these events. If the event has a good technology team and a good format.

John S.: John, we have a new president administration coming in the United States. He already said that going to be resigning the Paris Accord. It seems as though institutional ESG investing is really on fire. It seems that the new generation of Greta Thunberg’s and young millennials and Z generation. People are also on fire on their new investment apps like Robin Hood and things to invest in brands that make the world a better place. Talk a little bit about your thoughts on that and how your great platform Sustainatopia plays a role in that future now coming up upon us.

John R.: Well, there is no question about it. The world of business has changed and it is changed in a number of ways. But you know, just fundamentally for those of you who can remember your accounting or involved in balance sheets, you know, Goodwill for most companies. The Goodwill is a huge number on the balance sheet of many companies. Fifty, sixty, seventy percent. And what is Goodwill? You know, Goodwill winds up being what folks think about you, what investors think about you. The trust they have in your management team.

The trust they have in your brand. And we are living in a world where customers, clients, more, and more, not just young folks, but folks of all ages say. We want a brand that represents my values. That, and my values being that protects the environment, that cares about people, that makes money. We all agree businesses should make money and if they make more money, that is great. But they have to do it while also, caring about the citizenry and caring about their employees and doing the right thing. And these concepts are not so amorphous or hard-to-reach as they were in the past.

There is a lot of metrics, a lot of data where you can look at companies and know how many women are in management for that company. What is the gap between what the CEO makes and the lowest employee? All these metrics that can tell you if the company really does care about not only their community but their shareholders, their stakeholders, as well. And companies increasingly are going to be judged on this. So it is just better for companies to take the bull by its horns and say, you know what? We are going to make this at the core of our company doing the right thing.

And we are going to combine that with producing a product or service that has a value. And if we do that and we are sincere about our efforts and we go to the longest yard, our customers are going to reward us. Regardless if maybe it costs our product a little more or not. Our customers are going to reward us. Our investors are going to reward us.

Interestingly enough, the data shows that the investment data shows that companies fully grasp this and fully employed this across all of their business models of businesses actually produce the highest return. And this is data that we thought would come to fruition that we would see but we needed a few years to prove that, to have the companies actually go whole hog in these concepts and then we look at their returns. And that is what the data is showing. Those companies actually wind up doing better as an investment than companies that do not embrace this. So it is a very exciting time.

John S.: For our listeners who just joined us, we are, have John Rosser on. He is the president and founder of Sustainatopia. To find John and all the great work he is doing at Sustainatopia, you could go to You know, there is investment opportunities now that are coming up more in this green ESG circular economy, sustainability space more than ever before. What do you see as some of the greatest opportunities right now?

John R.: Well, that is a great point. There is a lot. I would say, number one on the food side, there is always kind of interesting concepts derivation. This has been going on for a while. For close to 20 years that you have. Companies that want to produce a healthy product and companies that treat their employees fairly and their stakeholders fairly. And these companies seem to come out of nowhere. They have great run rates for a few years and they actually wind up getting bought in many many cases. I am, we are based in Boulder Colorado when I am not traveling around the world and support Sustainatopia.

And Boulder has produced a number of companies that in a very short time have gone from conception to being sold to larger companies. And this is and evaluations are quite high because the large food companies are trying to catch up, pun intended trying to catch up with with this trap. And they are just better off buying these smaller companies in some cases to kind of infuse the DNA. The kind of seminal purchase that we all know about was Ben & Jerry’s back in the day by Unilever; which is actually very interesting is that the former CEO Paul Polman actually changed a lot of the processes Unilever to model the successful things that were happening in Ben and Jerry’s.

And Ben and Jerry’s was historically and I believe still is one of the most profitable companies in the Unilever and all the companies that they run around the world. So it is a bit of a, I will say the tail wagging the dog, but this has been going on for a while. That a company of the enormous size of Unilever looks at one of its smallest units and say “Wow! This is how we need to run our business.”

John S.: Right, right, right. You know, it is a weird thing John, you and I are the same generation. We are aligned culturally and from a DNA perspective. We have been friends for years why we truly understand each other but there are so many people yet out there, even though we want to drink cleaner water and breathe cleaner air and leave a world, that is a better place than you and I founded, some people still do not believe even in climate change or the whole sustainability revolution. How can we help others get over this and move the discussion forward so everyone wants to be aligned and be part of the solution and not part of the problem anymore?

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John R.: You know that is a really good question and I think this does happen over time. But it does come back to education and communication. So beating the drum louder, having meeting people where they are at more opportunities. Look, there is some amazing success stories. If you go to the farmers in Iowa and you talk about renewable energy, they understand exactly what you are talking about now. They did not years ago, but many of them are surviving on producing renewable energy at their farms. This is becoming integrated across the board in the United States. There is still this residue. This I will call it do-good residue. This is the first time I have used this term John so I take it for that.

John S.: I like it.

John R.: Yeah. I hope I am not infringing on anyone’s copyrights on this. But there is this do-good residue that we have to figure out a way to get rid of. Words can matter. And for whatever reason, we have people who cognitively understand these concepts. But they think, “Ahhh, This is just kind of do-good stuff, and let us get back to kind of the regular way.” Well, the regular ways is going away the paradigm shifts are too powerful in the space. And at the end of the day customers want this.

This is what customers want. I have a 20-year-old daughter and this is just natural for her. She can not, she has a hard time understanding how the world has the problems that it does. So these younger generations, they get it intuitively. They are demanding this from the companies that they buy products and services from. So I think it behooves us, John, at our older age without revealing our ages to kind of keep in step with these younger folks. They see, I like to say and I fervently believe this. The younger folks see the future more clearly than you and I. We have got a great few clouds in our eyes from–

John S.: Right.

John R.: –the business battles over the years. And they know where this world is going. So it would really make sense for our generation, investors, and politicians included, to listen to these younger folks. Because their vision of the future is probably more accurate than ours.

John S.: That is so interesting. Could you know, I am on your website now. I love it. This got so much information. Can you talk a little bit about and give our listeners and viewers a preview on 2021, your virtual conferences and why you chose the topics for each of these conferences so people can understand what is going on and where you are going Sustainatopia in 2021 and beyond?

John R.: Sure. Now thank you for that. First of all, we are conference where we like to say we are an open door conference. I know a lot of conferences say they are. We really are and for a couple of different reasons, we are more boutique events. We like that. We, people, feel that there is intimacy at our events that they can just kind of come and be themselves. And even if they are at a knowledge level which is lower. They are accepted. And folks, and we do have a lot of rock stars there, but they do not necessarily act like rock stars. They are willing to have that kind of longer conversation, explain concepts and help people join the circle so to speak. And that is, going back to your earlier question, this is necessary. We still have to educate in the space and be open to folks joining and not be so cliches even though it is a pretty big cliche by now.

John S.: Right. Right.

John R.: And, so what we do is we are pretty deep and broad conference. So feeding into that, we are pretty deep and broad. We do not host many keynotes. Most of our sessions are deep dive with a lot of Q and A. We do a ton of networking. We have, in our two-day events over eight and a half hours, a dedicated networking. We also have side rooms that you can go in and network as well while the content sessions are going on. So we really heavily focused on people coming in, getting engaged, talking, learning, building the trust. And that is where we really, I think, the magic happens at these events. If you can and this is not to belittle any other concept.

There is some wonderful events out there doing incredible work. But we feel like if you only have four-five speakers over four hours, it really is kind of top-down driven. And it is, it can be good for educating but I think in a lot of cases, folks who are seeking education they can do better if they are allowed to ask more questions. I think our format allows that. We do a very very top folks but what we try to do is have them kind of on an egalitarian horizontal basis. Speak the folks, where they’re at. And that is kind of special to our model. In terms of the titling our first event, February 17th and 18th. A two-day event, virtual of course, Sustainatopia.

That is kind of a cult classic brand. Kind of use a product that is maybe not so sustainable. But we all [inaudible]. That is our cult classic brand. That is kind of our basic model, which is very kind of a balance model between businesses investors, foundations, nonprofits, government. Later in the year. We are doing some different things which is some events being a little more investor focus, others being more business-focused. And you mentioned as well, we are having our first next-gen university events. Super excited about that in May.

John S.: Wow, got it. Got it. And then you also have in June, accelerating the purpose economy. Explain what you mean by that?

John R.: Absolutely. We have seen, we have seen an acceleration especially in the last five years. For what I will call the purpose economy. So this is going to be a deeper dive and actually focusing on case examples, which this is always very popular at our conferences. We have companies who come and they say “Look, we know we want to be more purpose-driven but help us figure out how to get there”. And what they love to see is they love to hear stories and, John, I know you have a lot of stories given how many years you have worked in this business.

John S.: Right.

John R.: And these are valuable stories. These are you know, folks learning from your pain then your–

John S.: My mistakes.

John R.: [inaudible] that did not work out. Yeah, some of them work out, some of them do not.

John S.: Right.

John R.: But the important thing is that we learn and share and that is what happens at events like is accelerating the purpose economy. Companies can walk away small and large and say “Wow! I am learning from the kind of blood, sweat and tears of another company”. And our companies are more than willing to share because they know what kind of goes around comes around. There is kind of us read the core where we all operate to help each other in that way.

John S.:You know, John you and I were talking a little bit off the year before we started taping this podcast. I would love for you to share your vision with our listeners around the world on 2022 and beyond. How does virtual intermix with in-person? Will you go back to some sort of in-person events or will you go do a healthy mix of virtual and in-person in 2022? What is your thought process now? And I know this is always subject to change as the world is changing faster than ever before and they still a lot of uncertainty out there. But what do you think 2022 and beyond post pandemics going to look like for Sustainatopia?

John R.: You know, I made John, if you recall, one of our conversations I made note of this analogy of back in the 90s when–

John S.: Yeah.

John R.: When we used to all read a print newspaper.

John S.: Yes.

John R.: I had understood this concept which they were saying at the time of that, we are going to get all our news online and you are not going to have print newspapers really that much anymore. And I had a hard time grasping that simply because I loved print, I love even the USA Today with its big sports and life section, and business section with color. I said, “How are you going to replace that experience?” Well guess what? They replace that experience. And you have a hard time finding a newspaper rack in anywhere on a street corner anymore. And this is just what happens when these paradigm shifts happen. So I do think in some ways, this is a paradigm shift.

I think virtual events are here to stay. I think you are going to see increasingly folks making very hard choices between physical and virtual events. We will continue with physical events. Having said that, there are certain events that if you take away 30% of the audience which could easily happen or more because thereis a virtual alternative. It weakens the event and for some events and some event companies, that is going to weaken them beyond their ability to really service their client. So I think it is going to be an interesting mix. I mean, I think we will still have physical events. But for a lot of individuals and companies are, at least some it is going to make more sense just to stick with virtual.

John S.: That is so interesting. So they will, so virtual has a place, in-person has a place and there is going to be some sort of healthy mix in the future.

John R.: Yeah, and I mean, we also have to look this on the generational basis. I mean, we always, I do not know John, with your children if you have had this experience. When my daughter was 13, she was in a room with her friends, maybe 10 friends and they were not speaking to each other. They were all on their phones texting for an hour. It was dead silence. And you know, you would have told me that five years before I would say you are crazy. Who does that? Well, they do that. So, you know that is going to play a role in how this turns out as well.

John S.: John, exactly. Your timing could not be more impeccable. Last night, I was visiting both of my children and my daughter now is a mom and she is 34 and a lawyer. My son is 28 and a lawyer and they were sitting in the living room together. And they were working on a project together and they were emailing each other and I said why do not you guys just pull out your cell phones too and just start texting. They were not talking. I am sitting there watching them go back and forth, email each other like “This whole world is changed right in front of my eyes.” My two children, daughter and they were just emailing each other working literally collaborating on a project I said, “Well, take out your cell phones just start texting and I will say and then I will leave later on and I will just text you guys. Good night.” I mean they were just, and of course, they were hazing me after I said that.

John R.: Right.

John S.: But that is really the reality of what is going on.

John R.: Incredible.

John S.: And guys like us have to get used to that. I mean even sometimes I call my son during the day just to hear his voice. He goes “Dad, do not call me. Do not be a weirdo. Just text me.” I was like “Ah!, I just want to hear your voice.” He does not get it sometimes but one day he will when he is a father. But I am with you on that. It has been a generational change for sure. Hey.

John R.: Yes.

John S.: You know John, this has been fascinating and I want you to come back next year as Sustainatopia continues to evolve but I want to give you the last word as the years closing out now. Any final thoughts, any final wisdom, any final vision by you before we have to say goodbye and bid a due to 2020 together?

John R.: You know, it has been a very hard year for virtually everybody.

John S.: Yeah.

John R.: And you know, I want to say a little prayer for everyone and give them hope that things are going to get better. I know, maybe in their personal lives and their business. It is been a very very challenging year, but I want to let you know things do get better and I think we are going to see that in this next year and have courage to take a chance and have courage to think something new and think differently about what opportunities are. This is a business program for the most part.

And business is about taking advantage of good luck, good fortune when you have it and taking advantage of opportunities when you have it. So I hope some really talented people out there, either in their personal lives or in their business will not allow this really terrible situation for the world two distinct, to extinguish kind of that flame and that passion to take an educated chance and educated risk or to work very hard at something they are passionate about because it will come good. The world will come back. The businesses will come back and I hope I can give some hope and some encouragement for that.

John S.: That is a beautiful message and it is applicable really at the end of 2020 and even into the new year. And that is, I am very grateful. I am grateful John that you are a friend of mine. I am grateful that you have this wonderful platform that continues to be a beacon of hope for the next generation of green and sustainable entrepreneurs that want to make the world a better and greener place. You for sure have made the world a better and greener place and also have made a tremendous impact. I am so thankful for you personally, and I also want to say out there for our listeners out there that want to be involved, that want to be part of the sustainability revolution and evolution. Please go to John Rosser, thank you for being with us today. God bless you. Continued good health, and I can not wait to see you in person in 2021.

John R.: Absolutely, John. Thank you for the opportunity.