Steve Schmida: “Never, ever burn a bridge”

Being an entrepreneur is incredibly lonely, at least at first. No one understands your business idea or the challenges you face as well as you do. It is only after you grow a team that you can have others who really understand what you are trying to do. As a part of my series about “Big […]

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Being an entrepreneur is incredibly lonely, at least at first. No one understands your business idea or the challenges you face as well as you do. It is only after you grow a team that you can have others who really understand what you are trying to do.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Schmida.

Steve Schmida is the Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Resonance, an award-winning corporate sustainability and global development consulting firm. Resonance clients include Microsoft, Unilever, Pepsico, the US State Department, Oxfam and the Gates Foundation. Steve has worked in more than 50 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. He is the author of Partner with Purpose: Solving 21st Century Business Problems through Cross-Sector Collaboration.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In the early 2000s, I was running an American foundation in Kazakhstan in Central Asia. I was approached by an executive of the oil company Texaco, one of the world’s largest companies at the time, who was having workforce and local supplier problems at one of his company’s most promising oil fields on the Caspian. He asked for my help in designing a program to solve these problems. It just goes to show that even huge successful companies cannot always solve these problems themselves.

It was at that moment I realized the business world was facing new types of problems in the 21st century, environmental and social problems that were extremely complicated. Companies were not going to be able to solve these problems on their own. They needed the help of nonprofits, governments, and communities, with the expertise, networks and funding companies that were needed. However, just because they needed each other, did not mean it would be easy. Working across sectors is extremely hard to do well. Business, government, and NGOs have different goals, structures and culture. Even the lingo they use is completely different.

It was that insight that led me to move back to the U.S. and establish a consulting firm in 2005 to help clients tackle sustainability and global development challenges through cross-sector collaboration.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In 2006, I was in Kabul, Afghanistan designing a new project for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). My client asked me to travel outside of Kabul to meet with an influential warlord to explain the project and to determine whether he would support it.

That is how I found myself in the backseat of an ancient Pakistani Toyota, traveling down the Jalalalbad Road to meet with the warlord. As we made our way, we saw a group of young men with AKs blocking the road in front of us. It was just the driver and me. We were unarmed and no one was going to be coming to rescue us if things went badly. It goes without saying that I had a very bad feeling about this. In life, few stories with happy endings begin with a group of young armed men flagging you down.

A pit in my stomach formed. As we approached the roadblock, the fighters shouldered their Kalishnikovs, smiled and waved us through to a small side road. We drove through a dusty village to a large compound, where again we were waved through.

I nervously got out of the car and was unexpectedly greeted by a woman in Afghan dress, who spoke fluent, native English with an American accent. It turned out she was American and married to the warlord. She had come to Afghanistan in the late 80s, met her husband and stayed through the Afghan civil war, the Taliban and the US invasion following 9/11.

She led me to a tree-covered chai-khana, a raised platform where folks lounge on pillows and enjoy tea and fresh fruit. There, I met the warlord, a ruggedly handsome man with penetrating green eyes. He greeted me with a warm smile and motioned for me to sit.

Over the next two hours, I would come to learn this couple’s amazing story and the work they were doing to help Afghanistan rebuild and revitalize after decades of conflict and strife. They also shared with me a number of ideas for the project I was designing. It ended up being an incredibly productive and fascinating conversation.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

I am not sure who said it, but I’ve always tried to live by the following idea, “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.” I think that is a wonderful life principle to follow — seize opportunities, live with passion, verve, and joy.

There is also a great quote from Robert de Niro in the 90s spy thriller, Ronin: “You are either part of the problem, part of the solution or just a part of the scenery.” I decided early in my career that I wanted to be part of the solution. I wanted to make sure that my career contributed to making the world a better place.

Last, as an entrepreneur, I try to abide by first principles thinking. What is the essence of the problem that needs to be solved? I try to take my ego, my assumptions, and the expectations of others out of my reasoning.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

In 2050, the global population will hit 10 billion right at the time when climate change will be at its very worst. This is the biggest challenge we have faced as a species since we climbed down from the trees and began roaming the Savannah some 2 million years ago.

To meet this challenge, we must transform every aspect of how we live and, more importantly, how we conduct business. Companies, investors, and consumers need to transform business models, strategies and practices to minimize their negative impacts and maximize their positive impacts on the planet and on humanity itself.

While the challenge is tremendous, so is the opportunity. The UN has forecast more than 12 trillion dollars in new sustainability opportunities that will emerge in the next decade alone. That is an enormous opportunity for businesses that embrace the sustainability agenda.

This process of business transformation is incredibly difficult and companies, even the largest and most successful brands, cannot do it on their own. Companies must collaborate across sectors with non-profits, governments, and communities to make sustainability work for all stakeholders.

How do you think this will change the world?

Put simply, if we succeed at making markets, business and consumers behave more sustainably, we will ensure that our children and grandchildren will live in a prosperous and verdant world.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

The biggest drawback is inaction, or a wait-and-see attitude on sustainability. Choosing to wait-and-see will make it much more difficult and expensive for companies to transform themselves.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

A few years back, I was in a coastal fishing community in Ghana and I met an old fisherman who told me when he was a young man, he only needed to travel about 3–4 miles out to see to find fish. Today, his son needs to travel more than 200 miles to find fish because the fishery is totally depleted.

That moment really stuck with me. We are depleting resources faster than they can renew themselves. This isn’t just about poor fisherfolk in Africa. Talk to the CEOs of the world’s agriculture companies — they will tell you the same thing. It is getting harder and harder to sustain yields and meet the demands of a growing population.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

We need business leaders who are ready to take their businesses to a new level. We need business leaders and investors willing to look beyond the next quarter and think about the longer-term. We need governments and regulators that support and encourage businesses to become more sustainable.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Being an entrepreneur is incredibly lonely, at least at first. No one understands your business idea or the challenges you face as well as you do. It is only after you grow a team that you can have others who really understand what you are trying to do.
  2. Never, ever burn a bridge. People have a habit of re-emerging in your professional life. Therefore, no matter how badly you have been treated, try not to burn bridges.
  3. Timing is really important. In our case, we were probably 5–10 years ahead of the market. Fortunately, we were able to survive and use that time to learn how to be a sound business.
  4. Hire only the best people, who also happen to be good people. Period.
  5. Everyone makes mistakes. The key is to pause, reflect and learn from those mistakes.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

  1. Preserve optionality. I try to design business decisions that keep options open. I am rarely an ‘all-in’ person. I am an 80% in person, who keeps 20% in reserve in case things do not go as planned.
  2. Read broadly. I read 2–3 hours a day. Usually, I have a couple of books going, some for work, others for fun. I also read news from across the political spectrum and I try to understand an issue from multiple perspectives.
  3. Pay it forward. Karma is real and I believe that if you can do a kind deed — provide a reference, make a connection, etc. — you should do it. It can pay huge benefits down the line.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Sustainability will be the single largest, most secular business trend of the next half century. Getting sustainability right is hard, which means it is an incredible business opportunity.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Linkedin: Steve Schmida

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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