KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz on Whole Systems Thinking and Solution-Finding
Koann is the Founder and CEO of Sustainable Life Media and Sustainable Brands whose involvement with the intersection of environmental and human issues in business dates back to the mid-1980s. Since 2003, she has devoted her full attention to the emerging field of social and environmental sustainability, launching Sustainable Life Media in 2004.
Tell us about your early life, and the path that led to your work in whole systems thinking with Sustainable Brands.
Interestingly, I grew up in Orange County, California in a very loving, and very conservative evangelical Republican household. My parents were born and raised in Nebraska where they were steeped in family values, self-reliance and the protestant work ethic. They came of age in the 50s, met and started dating in high school and married the day after my mom graduated, and retain a romanticized view of the time that they hold fast to. They and the many others I grew up around who largely affiliate with conservative Republican values are my path to empathy for those who hold a different view of the best way forward politically to realizing a future I believe we all hope for.
I have my own deep personal experience with the Christian faith and chose to attend Lutheran Liberal Arts University (Azusa Pacific, where I studied Communications, Psychology, Music and Bible) out of a desire to keep myself from falling into the bad habits one can fall into if surrounded by them. There, however, I began to ask myself what made my worldview more ‘true’ than those held by others. Eventually, I came to the view that if we are created in the image of God, with a degree of intelligence and the power to create, and given the promise to “Seek, and you will find, knock and the door will be opened’, then I should feel confident in approaching the world with an open heart and mind, and trust that this would be the best path to as full a truth as can be obtained while we’re here on this earth.
Since then, I have been fully committed to being a life-long learner with a commitment to whole systems thinking. This, dovetailing with my sense of being born for the purpose of using whatever gifts and talents I’ve been given to somehow leave the world a better place than I found it, form the basis of all I’ve sought, and probably accomplished in life.
After 4 years at Azusa, I moved to the SF bay area where I found a shared love of learning and celebration of the beauty that comes in the diversity of life. I found my way into business to business publishing, working for 18 years for a family owned trade publisher – 8 years covering the natural resources markets, and 10 covering innovation in technology — before leaving to spend time at home with my sons, and eventually, starting my own company.
Your bio reflects an involvement in sustainability – specifically the intersection between business practices and sustainable systems – dating back to the 1980s. What inspired pursuing that environmental ethos in your career, versus a more traditional ‘profit-first’ business mentality?
Let me be clear –although I was lucky to have spent a great deal of time in the outdoors, camping with my family, and at church camps in the Sierras as a kid, all of which gave me a deep sense of awe and connection to nature that has informed my life in deep ways — my work in the natural resources markets in the 80’s was completely coincidental. I was very lucky, by something as serendipitous as responding to a newspaper add that said ‘must be willing to travel’, to have found my way into a 3rd generation, family owned business that was covering these sectors. I learned a lot covering the paper, timber and mining industries then about the impending concerns about natural resource limitations and the impact of toxins on our environment, but it was much later before I put all the pieces together and became compelled by the need to see a community and conversation take shape such as we’ve been building at Sustainable Brands. The funny thing about being a committed learner and systems thinker, is that over time, particularly for those like me who have deep interests in a wide range of topics from faith and philosophy to history to biology to communications and psychology to economics and art to sociology and design, the threads of these wide ranging interests started to connect into a richer picture of the whole — both in terms of what’s possible in life, and in terms of what’s broken about how we’re living together on this planet.
Name a company whose transformation or evolution into a sustainable brand has been most impressive to you. What was it about the scale or depth of that transformation you found most impressive?
I hate to say Unilever, but at the moment, its one of the best cases available of a global brand that has been working on transformation toward sustainability since I began looking at the field. They were among the first to make the connection between the environmental and social issues we face, and their implications to brand innovation and purpose, and they have done a spectacular job over the past decade plus in moving steadily toward embedding sustainability thinking into the core of each of the consumer facing brands they have in the market. They are now also able to document that those brands that have fully embedded a social purpose into their brand DNA are the fast growing, highest margin brands in their portfolio. There are many other fast followers, and many others who have been working the ‘problem/opportunity space’ in parallel, but Unilever does stand apart in the holistic nature of their approach.
We frequently hear that millennials are driving an economy built on giving back/creating a better world. Your experience clarifies that trend has been much longer and deeper than the current (and next) generations. What demographic and industry diversity do you see within Sustainable Brands? How does that diversity inform the discussions and resources available to brands in the network?
Well, if you mean I’m not a millennial, and yet I’ve given a good deal of my career to try to drive positive impact at scale in business, I guess you’re right 😉 Interestingly, I’ve seen quite a bit of data that suggests there is a deep connection in the sensibilities of Baby Boomers and Millennials for one thing. I’m not sure we’ve done an age assessment to determine the age span within our community globally. I will say, though, that there is a lot more diversity than I think has traditionally been assumed in terms of engagement and active participation among conservatives vs. ‘progressive’. And of course the geographic and market sector interest in this topic of brand leadership for a better future is incredibly broad as is evidenced by the many sectors engaged in our platform, and our operational footprint that now spans 6 continents. Our experience confirms our belief – that there is more that connects than divides us on so many levels – and that language, creativity and a lack of listening for understanding is the thing that most often gets in the way of our ability to successfully engage others in building and buying better brands.
What advice have you given your own sons about finding work and carving out a life that is meaningful?
[Both of my sons are] exquisite young men – each with different gifts and talents, but both with a deep sense of interest in the real stuff of life. I hope what they’ve both heard from me, and will pursue through their lives as they unfold, is that living a life of service to others, using your unique gifts, with the hope of leaving the world a better place, is the greatest gift there is. As young adults, I already see them both exploring what this means for them and it makes me so deeply happy.
What books or magazines are you currently reading that inspire your creativity and/or imagination?
I’m not much of a ‘magazine’ reader so to speak – like many these days, I am a voracious reader of thought pieces from many places that I find, or have shared with me via social media. I’m also still a pretty big book buyer/reader. This year I’ve been reading quite a bit on the science of altruism (loving David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist?) and on co-creative leadership and the next chapter in thinking about the evolution of organizational design which could help us more rapidly and fluidly adapt to increasing complexity pace of change (for example Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations.) I found Ramez Naam’s book “The Infinite Resource” an inspiring reminder that whatever the concerns we face, we have the capacity to dream up solutions if we retain hope and a focus on solutions rather than problems.