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Social Impact Heroes: “We extract wealth from the Earth through farming or mining, and we need to be thinking about how we give back to the planet, not just take from it.” with Shaun Paul and Chaya Weiner

We extract wealth from the Earth through farming or mining, and we need to be thinking about how we give back to the planet, not just take from it. If only everyone recognized that a portion of business profits should reinvest in all capitals. I think of five capitals all the time: financial capital, human […]


We extract wealth from the Earth through farming or mining, and we need to be thinking about how we give back to the planet, not just take from it. If only everyone recognized that a portion of business profits should reinvest in all capitals. I think of five capitals all the time: financial capital, human capital, social capital, manufactured capital, and environmental capital.We have these implicit assumptions in our values — we think more profit and income means greater happiness and well-being, and it’s not true! We know this deep down, but our socioeconomic systems do not, and these constructs are predicated on the goal of achieving more profit.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Shaun Paul, CEO, Ejido Verde. Shaun is a Social Impact & International Social Finance Pioneer as well as a seasoned fundraiser and Regenerative Finance & Biocultural Diversity Expert. Shaun Paul has 30 years of professional and entrepreneurial experience in private finance, philanthropy, and international rural development, leading and supporting the creation and growth of dozens of innovative for-profit and non-profit companies, catalyzing well-being for people and planet. He currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer of Ejido Verde, a Mexican forestry company formed through a partnership of the Mexican pine chemicals industry and indigenous communities in Michoacan to reforest 26,000 acres for pine resin extraction, an area the size of two Manhattans. His duties include growing a 300-person workforce to create 12,000 high-paying jobs restoring and protecting forests, along with structuring and securing $35 million of investments in crowdfunding, equity and debt from individuals, private companies, U.S. foundations, and multilateral agencies. In 2012, he partnered with Good Capital to establish an impact venture fund, Reinventure Capital, where he serves as a General Partner. Reinventure Capital matches capital with technology innovations to invest in growth companies led by women and people of color. In 1992, at the age of 28, Shaun Paul co-founded and for 20 years led the non-profit organization, EcoLogic Development Fund, to empower rural and indigenous peoples to restore and protect tropical ecosystems by providing grants and technical assistance to grassroots organizations integrating community-led development and conservation. In 2006, he founded Pico Bonito Forests, LLC to restore tropical habitats in Honduras through reforestation commercially. Beginning in 1999, Shaun guided the launch and seven-year incubation of Root Capital that has now provided more than $1.1 billion in loans benefiting 637 small and growing businesses in Latin America and Africa. Shaun’s fundraising assured the design and execution of plans, securing over $80 million from a range of individual and institutional donors, and impact investors, deploying capital mobilization strategies for crowdfunding, annual giving, major gifts, government contracts, foundation grants, corporate royalties, and commercial structured finance. Shaun has worked on every continent with donors, investors, entrepreneurs, non-profit organizations, and social purpose companies to scale catalytic strategies addressing wicked problems. This work has relied on his forging blended finance strategies, business acumen, and social mission, as well as orchestrating international multi-stakeholder partnerships that have included UN agencies, government, multinational companies, and civil society organizations. Shaun is a Research Fellow at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University to innovate measuring the social impact of private investments, an advisor to the Mentor Capital Network, a nominator for the Goldman Environmental Prize, and designated as a Next Generation Leadership Fellow by the Rockefeller Foundation. He has served as a board member of Accelerating Appalachia to grow early-stage nature-based companies, International Funders for Indigenous Peoples, and Creative Action Institute. Shaun received his Bachelor’s degree in international development from the School of International Service at American University and a Master’s degree in development economics from the University of Michigan. He is fluent in Spanish and English.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In my college years, I was inspired by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, who gave me a value for service and social justice in my teens, which was reinforced by my study of those two leaders. Following my interest to serve the most vulnerable people, I also have a love for the environment, so I created my first company, with a partner, when I was 28, committed to community-based conservation.

In my freshman year, I heard President Reagan say something to the effect that we could not help the environment because it was bad for the economy. This belief puzzled me and made me want to study to understand why caring for the environment would impede economic growth. While I pursued the arts at SUNY Purchase, I discovered a passion for economics and political science, so I switched schools for a Bachelor’s degree in international development from the School of International Service at American University. I pursued graduate studies at the University of Michigan, where I earned a Master’s degree in economics.

While President Reagan presented economics as law, I learned economics is a philosophy, not a science. I discovered these philosophies shared values and beliefs, not scientific facts. I later learned that we have a crisis of values globally, which manifest themselves in statements like the one from President Reagan, resulting in cataclysmic climate change and wealth inequality. Rather than protesting about what is bad about the economy, I found more satisfaction in creating new models to make old ones irrelevant. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

At Ejido Verde, one of our most important community partners is the indigenous community of Cherán. When I arrived, I learned there was a great, widely felt commitment in the community to restore their forests from devastating illegal logging, realized by organized crime eight years ago. I discovered there were different understandings and perceptions of our relationship in planting trees to restore their environment. In this indigenous community, we had 70 meetings over two years to build a common understanding of our shared purpose and obligation to one another, captured in our Community Investment Agreement signed by community leaders and over 150 family farms.

Looking back, while it was a slow and frustrating process from a business perspective, the result meant I received better-quality feedback from the community that made Ejido Verde stronger. Despite the challenges, ironically, our trees planted there are the highest quality for the lowest cost. This outcome happened because the community is demanding of their people in how their money is spent and how work is done. We even achieved a larger economy of scale there that was not elsewhere, planting 1,000 hectares in one community!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Many funny things happen due to cultural nuances and language differences, working in a foreign country. One day, I went to speak at a meeting in a new community, introducing myself and Ejido Verde’s work. While I was focused on our message and making a good impression, the audience was not listening. The participants were distracted by how my shirt was tucked in differently than they were used to seeing, and that was the only take away from the meeting! I quickly learned that if I wanted to access the listeners, I needed to talk like them and dress like them.

While this surprised me, appearances do play a wide, critical role in engagement everywhere. For example, in the most recent Democratic primary debate, Andrew Yang did not say much, but he gained the most Twitter followers afterward. Why? Critics believe that Yang’s decision not to wear a tie made him popular among potential voters.

Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?

Ejido Verde is a triple-bottom-line, sustainable pine resin company positioned to become a lead supplier in the $10 billion global pine chemicals market arising from an intergenerational heritage trade relationship between Mexican industry and forest communities. Ejido Verde restores degraded lands with an adaptive reforestation model to maximize long-term pine resin yields without harming trees. Backed by over 10,000 investors from 78 countries, Ejido Verde provides communities with zero-interest loans to plant and maintain new forests. Ejido Verde is now invested in 11 rural and indigenous communities in Michoacan, and growing its community lending portfolio. By forging relationships based on reciprocity, Ejido Verde ensures communities grow healthy forests to produce transformative wealth and holistic well-being.

On average every day, we plant 5,000 native pine trees and create one new living wage job restoring degraded indigenous lands and growing transformative wealth by increasing the supply of pine resin for an overlooked $10B global pine chemicals industry. Our 3,000 hectares are now under management on 700 family farms that created wages in 2018 alone for 1700 people. We are making great progress toward our goal of planting 12,000 hectares (two times the size of Manhattan) on 3,000 family farms.

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who has impacted this cause?

The Founder of Ejido Verde, my partner, Fredo Arias-King, grew up with his father, who ran bio refineries. He was walking in diapers in the pine-resin biorefinery plants. As a young adult, he was passionate about pro-democracy movements globally. By the time I got to meet him as an adult, he had been thinking hard about how this industry group could give back to the forest communities that had been the basis of his prosperity, building on the legacy of his father and grandfather, and he created win-win solutions.

I am pleased to have gotten to know Fredo as someone with great business acumen, fantastic instinct, and a big heart to be generous and give back. Philanthropy has not been effective in his experience as a way of giving back. Fredo values creating opportunity, not a handout, believing the best way to give is through relationships of reciprocity.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Let’s rethink the role of profit and how much is enough. For example, if your investment changes the lives of 6 million people, that’s a big impact! If you have the same investment and only impact one person, that’s a smaller impact. It’s time to have a paradigm shift around rethinking the time and value of money and the issue of duration, so Ejido Verde represents an intergenerational view of investing. In contrast to people who seek liquidity in a matter of months, with a short-term mindset, I come from the perspective of creating intergenerational prosperity. We need to be moving toward a long-term vision. Part of the problem with society and the planet is this short-termism, maximizing profits short term by any means necessary.

We extract wealth from the Earth through farming or mining, and we need to be thinking about how we give back to the planet, not just take from it. If only everyone recognized that a portion of business profits should reinvest in all capitals. I think of five capitals all the time: financial capital, human capital, social capital, manufactured capital, and environmental capital.We have these implicit assumptions in our values — we think more profit and income means greater happiness and well-being, and it’s not true! We know this deep down, but our socioeconomic systems do not, and these constructs are predicated on the goal of achieving more profit.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I believe leadership is about leading through influence, not authority. Usually, an individual or group of individuals have a vision or commitment to realize change by guiding or accompanying others, whether that’s in a social movement or running a company. I admire Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi as they were able to lead with little-to-no authority. The grandeur of their leadership came from their ability to use this powerful leadership practice, which can make the biggest change possible. They both embodied non-violent, civil resistance, which is usually the case with societal change.

From the suffrage movement to civil rights to the anti-apartheid, the abolishment of slavery, and more, influence becomes formalized over time as a system with authority. Organic food certification began in the same vein — farmers and people with new ideas started to come together against pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in the early 1960s. From this small group of farmers, a social movement culminated. Associations developed around the world: Demeter International for biodynamic farming, the Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society, the Soil Association, making the world’s first organic certification system in 1967. In 1972, these organizations formed the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. Recently, awareness has driven the demand for organic farming. Today, organic food has a significant portion of the grocery market, with Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe’s, showing how influential leadership practices can make a new social change mainstream.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Who are all the key stakeholders, and why and what are their expectations. We work with communities that are not in agreement, so we need to understand the different stakeholders in the community. Different businesses have various internal stakeholders. It took me time to understand these dynamics. For example, women are underrepresented, and their voices matter as they are critical. We also want the voices of young people. We need to take the health and well-being of our trees into consideration as they cannot express their views — all stakeholders matter!
  2. How community decisions are best made with and without strong community governance — it’s very nuanced, but in an ideal world, communities are organized and can make decisions. Government and power play an important role, balancing the influence of distinguished, elected leaders and the local elders, who are natural leaders. These roles were not clear to us at first. Without a good community or elected government, there is a vacuum.
  3. Who my greatest competitors are and how might I best manage their impact. At our core, at Ejido Verde, we are competing for land use with avocado and berry growers. Avocados are a booming business surrounded by irrational exuberance for the “green gold” of avocados in Michoacan — the profitability is unbelievable! Why would farmers want to grow pine when they could grow avocado? We respond to that question with, “Do your children need to drink water when they’re adults or no?” Farmers are contaminating and drying up aquifers with the fruit, but pine restores aquifers. We are looking for farmers that find our value proposition attractive. We appeal to people who are trying to leave something better for their children and grandchildren.
  4. The cultural norms and practices to respect to optimize strong community relations. Often, when we start a conversation, we start with ice breakers, discussing the weather, sports, and family. In the US, if you comment on someone’s age or weight, it’s offensive. However, in Latin America, it’s normal! When I go deeper, working with these communities and envisioning these cultures, it would have helped to know these cultural norms and practices. What is the protocol for greeting men versus women? In Latin America, men and women kiss each other’s cheek, and women kiss each other on the cheek, but men and men shake hands. These nuances make a difference when you work with different cultures.
  5. I wish someone told me that failure is an inevitable part of innovation. I always thought if something does not work, failure is a failure. However, I learned it’s part of the process and journey. In business, science, and investing, you have winners and losers. Failures and successes are part of building anything! In science, there are lab experiments. With technology, Microsoft and Apple have each had products that have flopped. If you want to be innovative, failure happens by definition.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We need to adopt regenerative principles in the way we live and work, finding better ways to participate in the evolution of life on Earth actively. If we are talking about a healthy planet, not just curing a sick one, we need to be participating in life’s evolution in higher orders of being, in evolving ever more complex living systems. For example, we know we have single-cell organisms that evolved into reptiles, animals, and then the animal kingdom. This ecosystem shares the evolution of living systems. Now, we are a single species, dominating the living systems of the planet. In fact, ants consume as much energy as people, but they don’t have the destabilizing environmental effects we do.

The evolution of life is not only the evolution of biodiversity, but it has to do with the constructs of our social systems: how we treat our most marginalized people, how a society cares for or neglects the most vulnerable population is a reflection of society as a whole, how we treat others, and how we take care of ourselves. We need to make decisions as if the Earth could speak. When we build wealth and happiness, we need to be thinking about the whole system we’re a part of: community, country, continent, planet. We exist at all of those levels at scale. We need to ask ourselves, “Am I an individual, community member, or citizen of a country?” We exist at all of those scales — we live in nested, interconnected systems.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As someone who cares deeply about our climate crisis and increasing wealth inequality, it is important to maintain perspective and positive action. Rather than dwelling on what is bad about systems that are not working, I discovered satisfaction in creating new models to make old ones irrelevant. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This desire to create positive change is what led me to join Ejido Verde, joining a team of people working toward regeneration, not just maintaining the status quo. The trees we plant today will create revenue and jobs for three generations. Regeneration, what some call “step-change beyond simple ‘sustainability,’ aims not only to preserve but to restore and generate new value.” We are among these exciting “regenerative” companies demonstrating ways to fund environmental restoration, climate action, and improved livelihoods for indigenous people suffering from economic and ecological injustice.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would enjoy a meal with Richard Branson because he beat the odds and made the impossible possible. He was told nobody could build a profitable airline — everyone told him it was doomed to fail. However, not only did he create one, but he developed a collection of businesses that are innovative and socially responsible in a simple, elegant way within a complex environment. From climate change to wealth inequality, we have wicked problems to solve — this doesn’t mean we ignore what is complicated, but we ask the right questions to simplify these social issues so we can find solutions.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.facebook.com/ejidoverdemx/

https://www.facebook.com/shaunpaul1/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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