Women in Business: Q&A with KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, Founder of Sustainable Life Media and Sustainable Brands

05/20/2014 08:16 am ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

Koann Vikoren Skrzyniarz 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 when she launched international conferences on improving log utilization, reducing Waste Paper, and eliminating ozone-layer destroying chemicals (CFCs). In 2005, she produced the First International Conference on Cradle to Cradle Design in Practice with Bill McDonough, Michael Braungart, Peter Senge and others. In 2006, she launched what has now become Sustainablebrands.com and in 2007, the widely respected Sustainable Brands Conference, which is being held this year in San Diego on June 2-5.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I suppose being a first-born child to a mom who was a leader herself in her own way is where it started. My mom married my dad the day after she graduated from high school and promptly had two kids. But once my brother and I started school, she went on to college. As a 28 year old mother of two, she graduated as valedictorian and Woman of the Year, and went on to become a teacher, a career she loved passionately for 30 years.

Other than that, I have an insatiable curiosity and a passion for trying things on my own. I've been inclined to make my own path, rather than follow someone else's, for as long as I can remember. I am now over 50 years old and I can tell you I've packed an amazing amount of life and learning into every one of the years I've lived. My natural interest in understanding how the world works, coupled with a pretty unusual set of business experiences, probably enable me to "read the tea leaves" a bit more, and thus pick up on emerging trends before most. I've worked my way from the bottom of a $20 million family-run company to the executive level of a billion dollar multi-national firm. I've worked in a wide range of industries, from paper, timber and mining, to computer games, digital video and the web. I've facilitated mergers & acquisitions, and travelled and worked around the world. I am also innately purpose-driven and have always sought to understand the wisdom and meaning of life, and to bring this to whatever work I do. I tend to embody Peter Senge's concept of "creative tension", which is the notion that the gap between your vision of what's possible and your understanding of current reality is a powerful source of energy. Creative tension is something I live with every day, and it is what gives me a somewhat ridiculous amount of energy and drive to build things and make things better.

How did your previous employment experience aid your position at Sustainable Brands?
I was an "intrapreneur" for 18 years while working at a company that is now a division of United Business Media before starting a boutique management consultancy, and eventually, Sustainable Brands. The company, then called Miller Freeman Publishing, was a 20 million dollar business when I started, and grew to one billion during my tenure. The family that owned it had built a culture in the company that was very much based on the belief that people were the company's greatest asset, and they managed the business from that place. They were very careful about who they hired, and once hired, they provided a good deal of autonomy to employees, especially those who delivered on their numbers on a consistent basis, which I did. It was a great place to try new things in a safe environment where I didn't need to worry about corporate infrastructure or day-to-day cash. Because I performed consistently, I was given a lot of latitude to try new things and to build new businesses. By the time I left, I had launched several product brands and introduced different business models to the company. I had introduced organizational learning to the company, spearheaded a corporate rebranding initiative, identified and acquired a business and supported the acquisition and integration of several others, and launched and built a new multi-national division for the company that was doing $50 million in revenue per year when I left. Having the freedom and encouragement to build businesses from the ground up and to experiment with new ways of managing equipped me with the knowledge and experience I needed to found Sustainable Brands. Ultimately, SB is about helping other business leaders drive a sustainable purpose into the core of a brand and then leveraging the brand to help drive large scale shift to a sustainable economy. My work at SB draws directly from my experiences in that company, as well as in the consulting work I did between leaving there and launching this business. Equally as important, it draws on my lifelong interest in understanding the meaning of life and work, as well as my deep desire to contribute to making the world a better place.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Sustainable Brands?
There is nothing better than being able to bring your tangible skills and experience to work that contributes to a better future. Aside from that, the people I get to work with every day is one of the things I love most about my job. We are coalescing a community of courageous optimists who are well-placed and motivated to make the world a better place, and regardless of their role in their company (or on our team), each is an inspiration.

As far as challenges go, it would have been really helpful early on to have been able to partner up with one or many of those who were already beginning to work in this space, rather than to start a new organization. After four years of trying to find a way to work on my vision while building on others' efforts, I finally accepted the challenge from a friend and early investor who encouraged me to just go do it on my own. I was surprised by how tough it was in the early days to find organizations that were interested in collaborating. We have always been interested in adding to existing efforts in a coordinated fashion rather than to disrupt the efforts of others. When you are trying to drive the kind of large-scale paradigm shift in the way our economic system operates as we are, you have to collaborate. At the beginning, we were dismissed or ignored by most folks, but happily as we've gained momentum, we've found countless collaborators willing and ready to come to work together on our shared purpose.

How is Sustainable Brands making a real difference and encouraging companies to embrace sustainability?
For one thing, Sustainable Brands continues to frame the forward edge of the conversation about the next economy and how brands can succeed by leading the way to a better future. For another, we're bringing the system into the room along with the right people within the system--those who are by nature "courageous optimists," as we call ourselves. From there, it's simply about amplifying all the great work this community is doing and reflecting it back to the community so everyone can learn faster, and then equipping them with the right relationships and resources to help them reach their goals.

What can consumers and stakeholders expect from business leaders over the coming years in terms of sustainability?
You can expect that business leaders are going to continue to step up the drive towards a sustainable economy. More and more, businesses are "getting it" and are recognizing that they have a vested interest in ensuring things change and that they have the skills to drive innovation. The pace is picking up, too. More and more companies are joining the conversation and looking at what they can do to operate more sustainably and inspire others to do the same.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I think of work/life balance differently than some who consider balance about maintaining nine to five work hours. I look at my work and personal life as an integrated whole. Most of what I do during the day is not one or the other. I married a guy I met at work. My friendships have almost always been people who are also working in the same field or on the same mission. My work is where my passion lies, and quite honestly, I find it tough to find anything more interesting to do on a Saturday morning than to read my Twitter stream, which is largely a collection of thought leaders in the sustainability and branding field. I'm also part of a book club I joined 15 years ago during a brief window of time when I wasn't working full time. These are the women I talk to about all the things we wrestle with around being women, mothers, wives, daughters, and so on. I don't always get the book read, but they're patient with me nonetheless.

I do have two boys, and while they were growing up, I certainly carved out a very healthy amount of time in my life for them. My timing was good; by the time I had them at 34 and 35, I was already at the top of a terrific organization where my contributions were more managerial and less about being critical path to any particular daily deliverable. I didn't work weekends. I didn't travel nearly as much as I did before they were born or I do now. I served as a room-parent in school, and went on every field trip I could and to every soccer game. I even quit my job to be home with them when they were 4 and 5 years old. They are, and always will be the most precious and important thing to me in life. There is no question that it's much easier now that they are both in college, even though they continue to be an active and mostly daily part of my life in one way or the other. But candidly, I found that my relationship with them has always been healthiest when I am personally challenged, learning and happy. Then, I'm not looking to them to be the source of my happiness, which is a burden you should never put on your kids (or your spouse).
Luckily (or by design?!), my husband also has his own set of passions and is very much an equal contributor to our relationship and marriage. He is quite independent, so he gets on just fine if I'm absent either working late or traveling, and as with the kids, our time together is enriched by the fact that we both have new learning and experiences to bring to our relationship. The growth keeps things fresh.

It helps that I am pretty good at being present wherever I am. And yes, there are overwhelming days, but if I can get at least two days of yoga in each week, I can manage fine. I tell young women who are trying to think about how to design their lives that timing is everything: you can have it all, just not all at the same time.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I see being a woman in the workplace as a gift, not a curse. Men want to see black and white, but I think there are a lot of advantages to being able to see gray. It opens the doors for more strategy, more innovation. Women are generally more naturally resourceful, adaptable, empathetic, compassionate, resilient systems thinkers (I say this with reservations because I am much more comfortable talking about feminine vs. masculine traits, both of which we all possess along a spectrum). These are traits that will be particularly needed in the 21st century as we wrestle with more complex challenges and a much more rapidly changing landscape. I very much see the cup as at least half full, if not more when it comes to being a woman in business.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I must say, I've drawn much of my inspiration throughout my life from two places: for one, my personal interest in pursuing an understanding of the great philosophers, from Jesus to Ken Wilber to Ticht Naht Han and many in between, and secondly, from my elders. I was that kid who, growing up, was always more interested in being in the room listening to the grownups than in being out in the yard with the kids.

When I was just getting started in business at 22 years old, I became close friends with a woman who was 30 years older than me while both of us were assistants in a sales organization. She had lived abroad, travelled the world working on cruise ships, spoke five languages, started and built her own antiquarian book business, and was married to a very successful French executive at a multinational cosmetic company, so she travelled in a very influential circle. She taught me a lot about life in general and made the world much bigger for me very quickly. I was encouraged into my first entrepreneurship role by her.

In my early days working at the publishing company there was a 70 year old woman who headed HR that had been at the company for maybe 40 years by the time I arrived. Above her desk she had this sign that said "no one is as smart as all of us" and that was something she came to help me understand at a deep level over the many years I worked there.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Today, women like Hazel Henderson immediately come to mind. Hazel has driven the global conversation around sustainable investment and finance and how we can shift to a green economy. She started her work early, and now at over 80 years old, she is still constantly driving connections, good thinking and action.

I also greatly admire Libba Pinchot, the co-founder of Bainbridge Institute, a business school that integrates values about social justice and environmental sustainability. I recently had the chance to personally spend time with Libba and Joyce LaValle, also a terrific role model who retired recently as CMO of Interface Carpets and was the person who initially prompted Ray Anderson's "spear in the chest" moment by giving him Paul Hawken's book, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. It turns out it was this small action that spurred Ray to become one of the fathers of the sustainable business movement. Joyce is really excited about the "baby boomer retirement brigade," as she calls it, and is working with AARP to tap that enormous resource coming on line as baby boomers retire with so much more energy than ever before to create support systems for younger generations as they seek to bring the future we need into being. She also started Women's Network for a Sustainable Future about 25 years ago, which she continues to support in addition to her work with the AARP and other activities. All these women are still considerably older than I am now and I find that terribly inspiring!

What are your hopes for the future of Sustainable Brands?
I hope we can manage to continue to grow our community of change-makers around the world while helping to shape and amplify strategies for achieving our mission to shift the world to a sustainable economy and enable a flourishing future. I also hope that one day Sustainable Brands will become irrelevant because that would mean the new paradigm necessary for a sustainable future would be in place.