Tag Archives: environment

Antonia Bowring – Inspiring on many dimensions

In this, my second profile in the series “Celebrating a Whole Life,” I am privileged to write about Antonia Bowring, a woman who has inspired me for many years and who truly deserves to be celebrated. Antonia is someone who I have admired for her thoughtful choices and honesty, but what first amazed me about her was something I discovered in a freezer.

I was impressed by Antonia from the moment I met her. She was facilitating the first staff retreat I attended with Acumen Fund nine years ago, and her approach to guiding us through complex and sometimes delicate conversations was both intimate and commanding. She had the complete trust of our CEO, and I was so curious about her story – who was this woman who could pop into our three day meeting to help us as we shaped some of the key elements of our strategy as a freelance consultant.

So I was already curious about her when on our second day at the offsite retreat I opened the freezer to find ice cubes and found small frozen pouches of milk and naively asked what they were. She was nearby and told me she was pumping milk for a baby she had at home. The whole concept was foreign to me at the time (though it is all too familiar now) and I suddenly had to replay the past 24 hours. In the past day of marathon working sessions, interspersed with the kind of intense social time that was possible for a team of about 11, she had been finding time to fulfill this commitment to an infant somewhere hours away.

Antonia became somewhat of a beacon for me as I thought about having a family years later. Wondering how it would all work, I would think of her and know that it was possible to achieve tremendous professional respect even in the midst of nursing a baby.  This may seem obvious to the many many women who do this every day, but to me, at that moment that I peered into the freezer, it was a revelation.

It had a big impact on me years later when I was nursing my first child and returned to work. Rather than aim for subtlety in managing the oh-so-fun process of pumping 3 times a day at work for months, I decided to be relaxed and open about it, wondering if perhaps some younger woman might make a mental note, as I had, that this was something that people do, and it can work.

Antonia has stayed in Acumen Fund’s orbit, and I have continued to watch her career and life with fascination, moving from success to success, now the mother of two beautiful boys and the COO of the Open Space Institute. The Open Space Institute (OSI) protects scenic, natural, and historic landscapes for the public as well as for the sake of environmental conservation. She manages the systems and finances of an organization that has protected more than 116,000 acres and made more than 70 loans and grants for nearly $80 million to protect 1.6 million acres valued at over $530 million. From her work in women’s microfinance internationally to serving as a portfolio manager at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation – one of New York’s most innovative education philanthropies – and now serving on the board of ioby, a grassroots environmental organization, she has found so many ways to make a difference on so many important issues.

When I decided to write this series of posts I knew I would reach out to her. In part because I already owed her a tremendous debt for cracking open the idea of combining mothering and contributing professionally in such a powerful way, but also because I wanted to better understand her story.

We had dinner together recently and I was able to form a more nuanced picture of her work at the Open Space Institute, balancing the needs of two children a few years older than my own with her leadership responsibilities. She was refreshingly honest about tradeoffs she had made, but I saw that the same art that I had observed when I first met her to put the pieces together was still in full effect. She agreed to answer my five questions, and I had one more for her before we parted ways after our dinner. “What is the bottom line, when it comes to work – what can’t be given up?” Her response – “Making a difference.” I was so glad we’d stayed in touch and that I would have a chance to celebrate Antonia, and thank her, in writing, for helping show me a path I could learn from.

Here’s how Antonia answered the 5 questions I pose to all of the women I highlight in my Celebrating a Whole Life series.

1.     How do you define success?

When I “started out”, I defined it as “making a difference”.  By that I meant a difference in resolving the inequalities faced by many people – my focus was economic inequalities faced by women in developing countries.  I still want to make a difference….but my tableau right now is more local.  I can’t work if it doesn’t have a positive benefit for society one way or another.  But my definition of success now also includes raising two strong, capable, thoughtful, adventure seeking young men.  Oh yes, I’d love to define success by winning a tennis tournament. I know it will happen ONE DAY.

2.     What is your greatest struggle?

It’s such a cliché.  Its feeling like I don’t do much of anything well because I’m so scattered.  I do “ok” work; I’m an “ok” mom; I’m an OK athlete, I’m an ok board member; I’m not sure if I even rise to the ranks of “ok” life partner.

3.     What are you proudest of?

Hands down, my two boys.

4.     Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life? 

I don’t recall her name.  She is the publisher of Julia Child’s cookbook series. (I can look it up.)  She was a pioneer in believing in the book and its impact.  And now in her 80s in VT, she is still a pioneer raising organic cattle.  I love that she still has a sense of adventure, creativity and she hasn’t just stopped “thinking” and watches TV all the time.

5.     If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?

 I’d cook, I’d have friends over, I’d eat and drink with them, and we’d all have scintillating conversations because I’d have time to keep up on news and read books about philosophy!  (And I’d listen more to my boys in a non distracted way.)

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Filed under Careers, Celebrating a Whole Life, Work and Life

Your Coffee, Their Lives, Our Planet

 

(originally posted on Acumen Fund’s Blog)

I recently attended a conference on “Sustainability as a key factor for mitigating risk in agricultural supply chain finances,” co-hosted by the Rainforest Alliance and Citi Foundation. A pretty specific topic, for sure, and you may be asking yourself, “how many people are there trying to figure that out?”

Well, you’d be surprised. There were at least 80 people there, and potentially many more that would have come if they could. Why, you may ask?

A simple answer, really: a lot of the things that people consume come out of the ground – coffee, tea, chocolate, cotton, and almost everything we eat. What many don’t realize is that in the majority of the world, the people who grow stuff are among the world’s poorest and the way commodities are produced is having a bigger and bigger impact on the environment. Our global supply chains now matter more than ever.

Most of the world’s poor are small scale farmers. And a major reason they remain poor is because they struggle to get their products to market. Even when they do, because of a multitude of reasons – lack of transportation infrastructure, lack of access to capital, lack of accurate market information – they are often abused by exploitative middle men in the process and fail to capture the true value of what they produce.

At the same time, conventional agricultural practices are creating a perfect storm of environmental challenges: decreasing water tables, loss of arable land, deforestation, loss of habitat, and pollution from pesticides and fertilizers.

People need the stuff that comes out of the ground, but we also need to get it in a way that enables producers to have stable and adequate incomes, and that allows the environment to sustain life in the long-term. Without both conditions, the system cannot be considered sustainable. One of the best ways to achieve both is to develop new supply chains and new business models that fairly compensate farmers and reward sustainable agriculture. At the most basic level, engaging smallholder farmers – farmers with tiny plots of land – in global agricultural supply chains may be one of the most powerful ways to reduce global poverty and ameliorate environmental degradation.

So things like Fair-Trade, organic, and certified sustainable are not just hip new ways to show you care – they are actually the beginning of an effort to transition our agricultural systems into a means to meet customers’ needs, but also address critical social and environmental issues.

What’s exciting is that major brands and retailers— Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Starbucks, Unilever –recognize the value of sustainable supply chains (short hand for this effort). But huge challenges stand in the way of improving these practices, especially among the millions of disaggregated smallholder farmers. OK- reality check – it’s anything but simple. Tensie Whelan, who leads the Rainforest Alliance and co-hosted the event, mentions the growing role of companies in her blog on the event:

Hundreds of companies are working with civil society (and occasionally, governments) to help millions of producers to invest in sustainable practices-helping them to become more viable small businesses and, not incidentally, more stable long-term suppliers.

A few weeks ago I joined these 80 people from companies, financiers, foundations, non-profits, and academics, because Acumen Fund has developed a portfolio of companies dedicated to improving famer productivity, and we’ve begun to find innovative business models that we think will contribute tremendously to the advancement of socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture. Companies like Global Easy Water Products, which distributes low-cost irrigation technology tailored to small-holder farmers in India, and Western Seed, which sells high-quality hybrid seeds to farmers in Western Kenya who for generations have used farm-saved varieties.  Or companies like GADCO, one of Acumen Fund’s newest investments from our new operation in West Africa, which engages smallholder farmers in Ghana in the production of rice for local markets, increasing their productivity through improved inputs and linking them to a higher value market by managing the whole supply chain.

I was there to better understand how we can partner with companies, NGOs, multi-laterals, to make sure that these innovations truly achieve scale, both for individual companies in our portfolio, and for the broader network of global supply chains.

My big Aha at this conference is that a challenge this complicated takes the networks, expertise, and capital of a whole constellation of actors. Acumen’s niche here is, I believe, in finding and supporting innovation in the sector, and whenever it makes sense, to be a great partner to those organizations who need this challenge addressed in bold, new ways:  to corporations who know they must move in the direction of sustainability for a myriad of reasons, and to Foundations (such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped us launch our agriculture portfolio), who have made it their business to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.

Making sustainable supply chains the new norm and not just a niche or fad will require tremendous effort on the part of these diverse actors, and whole new systems that can support, expand and monitor sustainable practices. In all of this Acumen Fund aims to be a source of innovation through the business models we invest in. And always, we strive to be a champion for entrepreneurial solutions and for the entrepreneurs themselves, recognizing that transforming markets and raising standards can just as easily create new barriers for farmers and entrepreneurs that are already struggling.

At this event, I was humbled by the complexity of the issue and impressed by the commitment and expertise of all those gathered. I left convinced that Acumen Fund and our agriculture portfolio has a unique role to play through our continued investments in enterprises that unleash new ideas for a system that must evolve – for producers, for the planet, and for all those who consume and know they must do so in ways that are sustainable. That is, for you and me.

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Filed under Innovation, Patient Capital, Social Impact, Sustainability