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Women in CSR: Sophia Siskel, Chicago Botanic Garden

| Tuesday October 29th, 2013 | 1 Comment

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Welcome to our series of interviews with leading female CSR practitioners where we are learning about what inspires these women and how they found their way to careers in sustainability. Read the rest of the series here.

Sophia Shaw Siskel portraitTriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.

Sophia Shaw Siskel: Since 2007, I have served as president and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden, one of the leading living museums and plant conservation science centers of the world. The 385-acre garden delivers an inspiring four-season garden experience annually to a million visitors, as well as offers an engaging calendar of public education programs to students of all ages.

3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your company? 

SS: While the Chicago Botanic Garden is now known internationally as one of the great public gardens of the world, less well known are our efforts to understand and cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life. For example, we do this through jobs-training programs in plant conservation, urban agriculture and horticulture. The Garden’s plant biology and conservation science programs discover critically important knowledge and create practical land and water management solutions. Together with Northwestern University, the Garden offers a graduate program in Plant Conservation Biology. These programs have taken on even more urgency recently, as we know more about the earth’s changing climate. I am particularly proud of our ten-year Keep Growing strategic plan that guides the Garden’s work today—it highlights sustainability defined in many ways across all aspects of our institution.

3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your sustainability journey, and how.

SS: Dr. Peter Raven is one of the world’s leading botanists and advocates of conservation and biodiversity. He is known for his 40 years of leadership of the Missouri Botanical Garden and was named by TIME magazine as a “Hero for the Planet.” While he is famous for his international research and advocacy efforts to preserve endangered plants, he and Dr. Pat Raven, his wife, are also gifted mentors and friends to the upcoming generation of environmental conservation leaders. Peter and Pat have encouraged me (and many others!) to join and continue their work in advocating for plant science at the national and international level.

3p: What is the best advice you have ever received? 

SS: Over six years ago, I stepped into big shoes left by my predecessor, Barbara Carr, at the Chicago Botanic Garden. While I felt generally confident in operating the programs of the Garden, I felt less sure that I could lead the Garden to fulfill its goals as a global plant conservation science institution. I am a museum administrator, art historian, exhibitions developer and educator—not a plant scientist. I called the guru of plant science, Dr. Peter Raven, to ask his advice. He said simply, “I know you can do it!” And when I visited him this past summer and again confessed my uncertainty and asked his advice, he said even more emphatically, “You are doing it; you can do it!” with all the warmth he is known for. “You can do it” are the best words—if delivered sincerely (and with an informed perspective about the challenge at hand!)—we can say to each other.

3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of? 

SS: This summer I stood on the rooftop of the McCormick Place convention center along Chicago’s lakefront. In front of me was a vast (20,000 square feet!) sea of rectangular trays of low yellow sedum and bare soil.

But what Chicago Botanic Garden staff and I saw in our mind’s eye was bed after garden bed bursting with kale, collards, carrots, radishes, lettuces, peppers, beans, beets, tomatoes and herbs. For in that space, as part of the our work to promote sustainable gardening and to train Chicago residents for jobs in urban agriculture and food service, we, in partnership with SAVOR…Chicago, had just launched the largest farm-to-fork rooftop garden in the Midwest. This rooftop enterprise will yield about 4,000 pounds of produce in 2013—its first year—and double or triple that amount in subsequent years. This enormous rooftop garden also has created more hands-on training and job opportunities for our Windy City Harvest program participants, which offers Illinois’ first accredited urban agriculture certificate. We are now reaping the first of what will be many harvests in years to come—and many lives changed for the better.

3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be? 

SS: Currently, plants receive less than two percent of federal research funding for biological sciences, and most people don’t understand plants’ essential role in the web of life. Clearly, those of us in the world of plant science have not yet done a good enough job in communicating plants’ importance. I hope to change that.

Granted, many plants are not as captivating to behold as animals, but it is not an overstatement to say that the future of life on Earth relies on the degree to which humans understand, value, and protect plants and the healthy habitats on which they depend. Plant conservation activities, by their very nature, are inseparable from work that benefits other species. Plants form the foundation of healthy ecosystems. Plants are important in and of themselves, and also for the food, shelter, nesting areas and more they provide for other wildlife. They serve critical functions for humans as well—including cleaning our water and air, and protecting us in times of floods and droughts.

I want to work together—with companies, gardens, conservation agencies and institutions—anyone!—to communicate the power and importance of plants to sustain and enrich life.

Sophia Shaw Siskel3p: Describe your perfect day. 

SS: A Sunday. Going for a walk with my family around the Garden and picking up our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box at the Garden Farmers’ Market; there is always a surprise inside the box—a fruit or vegetable we cannot recognize or have never tried before. Visiting my dad and my step-mother at their property on a large oak savannah about an hour away; eating lunch together, sledding, swimming or playing with my sons; working outside in the garden or in the woods, walking; reading a book, cooking, taking a nap. Being quiet. Perfect.


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  • Max Weismann

    Hello,
    I was the person in charge of the construction of the Botanic Garden and am very pleased to see it’s success.