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Women in CSR: KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, Sustainable Life Media

By Andrea Newell

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.

TriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.

KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz: I am Founder and CEO of Sustainable Life Media, the company, and Sustainable Brands, our service brand. SLM was originally launched in 2004 and I spent a good two years prior to that, while running my own management consultancy, absorbing everything I could get my hands on related to sustainability and business.

As far as my role at SLM, like every entrepreneur, I wear many hats and, at the beginning, I wore all the hats. I wrote our business plan, raised our funding, set up our first website, sold our first sponsorship, organized our first conference and hired our team. Of course building a business with scaleable meaningful impact requires its leader to shift from building a product or service to building an organization, so putting a great team in place is number one, and I feel incredibly grateful every day for ours. At this point, as much as I love being hands-on, I'm working hard to make myself irrelevant to the day-to-day things so I can focus on expanding our offering and impact.

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

KS: We see ourselves as a living lab of what it means to be a sustainable brand. What that means is that we wrestle with the same things our community does in terms of how to prioritize our commitments and activities.  For example, our greatest footprint is associated with the conferences we run. Therefore we work closely with our event venues, as well as with the cities in which we host the events, to help them understand our zero waste goal, and then to develop the necessary processes and execute accordingly. We're delighted by the fact that we're catalyzing a permanent positive change locally in the cities where we convene, as well as impacting more broadly across our hotel partners.

We've also been working to deepen our commitments on the social sustainability side through support for our internal team, as well as in our community, by improving employee benefits and instilling volunteer and mentorship programs. We also launched a new wellness program – it’s a FitBit team challenge, which has been fun!

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

KS: Thomas Friedman's books, The Lexus and the Olive Tree and Hot, Flat and Crowded, were real eye openers for me. Having worked in the paper, timber and mining industries early in my career, I had a vague realization that our resources were limited. And having later worked in the tech sector, I was aware of the trend toward globalization of our economies. Friedman's books drove home for me how small the world is becoming, and how connected we all are. In 2003, I met Mathis Wackernackle at the Global Footprint network. He put numbers around the implications of population increase on our resource use, pointing out that we were already in what he calls "Ecological Overshoot," using more resources annually to support our global economy than the earth can regenerate. Right around the same time, I read Cradle to Cradle and later met Bill McDonough. At that point it all clicked together for me - I realized that we have real work to do to redesign our global economy for sustainability, and that I needed to help.

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

KS: Just do it (thanks, Nike!). Realizing that the whole global economy needs to be redesigned is a pretty gobsmacking notion and can cause any manner of reactions: fear, depression, helplessness, hopelessness. Or it can be energizing. Either way it's hard to know where to begin to tackle something as daunting as what we have to contend with this century. The key, though, is just to begin -- put one foot forward in whatever way you know how to do. Don't let perfection be the enemy of the good. Find like-minded friends and get moving. We have come a long way over the last decade and we have a lot more to do. Awareness of the need and action around it is picking up steam everywhere I travel - that's something we need to hang on to and encourage.

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

KS: I don't really experience so much pride as gratitude and humility around our work. I guess you could say am proud of the impact I know we're having on individual people's lives. I have had many people tell me their lives have changed as a function of discovering and becoming part of our community.

I certainly feel excited by the reach we have generated around the world. Sustainable Brands will be convening our community at conferences in seven cities on four continents this year, which is testament to the individuals and organizations who have come upon our work from afar and reached out to us to partner. What this means to me is that our message is resonating with people around the world, and again, that's not so much something to be proud of  - shouldn't we all be doing that as a matter of course? -  but something to be grateful for. It will take all of us working together to get to a sustainably flourishing future. I am thankful every day that there continues to be a growing worldwide community of people stepping up to help us get there.

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

KS: Oh, my.  Only one?  So many ways to answer that!  I wish I could wave a magic wand and have all the administrative aspects of running a small business disappear. On a macro level, I'd love to eliminate short term trading, which encourages people to play games with money rather than put it to work creating real value. Sadly, investing has become about value extraction rather than value creation and that just has to stop.

3p: Describe your perfect day.

KS: Well, a lovely day in the Bay Area, spent with my husband and sons, either out in nature or experiencing music or art.  Good food is a must. And time at the beginning and end of the day to read, plus the blessing of eight hours of sleep – these are the simple things that mean the most to me.

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Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

Read more stories by Andrea Newell