Vivian Panou: “Don’t let the hell you might be going through stop you from moving forward”

“Don’t let the hell you might be going through stop you from moving forward.” That advice gave me the courage to present myself in a positive manner when I was the most vulnerable as a single mom. When I randomly met my former employer on the soccer field, he asked me what I was up […]

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“Don’t let the hell you might be going through stop you from moving forward.” That advice gave me the courage to present myself in a positive manner when I was the most vulnerable as a single mom. When I randomly met my former employer on the soccer field, he asked me what I was up to and what my career was. After I gave him a glimpse of my background he asked “with credentials like that why aren’t you working for us?” My response, “well, I don’t know why I’m not working for you”? He smiled and invited me for the interview and employed me within a week; a decision neither of us would come to regret.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vivian Panou.

Vivian Panou, is a marketing and communications professional with over 20 years of experience building relationships and executing fundraising efforts for non-profits focused on health and wellness, climate change, and water conservation. She spent ten plus years working with ECOS® managing company partnerships with organizations including Global Green, Grades of Green, The Wyland Foundation. During this time, Vivian has built and presented educational programs to students about the importance of eco-conscious stewardship and leading a toxic-free lifestyle. She has also been a featured speaker for sustainable business appearing on local and national television and radio in the US and Greece. Vivian has several board positions in Southern California including at the American Cancer Society, Network of Executive Women, and Women’s Cancer Research Foundation. She earned her BA in Broadcast Journalism at Columbia College in Chicago.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I have had many careers in my lifetime. First as an on-camera and print reporter and producer in Chicago and Greece with a goal to share balanced reports to allow the public to decide their position about each of my stories. Sensationalism drove me out of that business and into a more “normal” career known as legal marketing. After having kids, I decided I wanted to do something a little more meaningful. Something that would make me feel ok with the fact that I was a full-time working mom of two toddlers. My babies were the real reason I chose a career (or perhaps it chose me) that helped make a positive impact on our planet.

Becoming a mom was definitely the gateway to green and sustainable living. In 2008, I found myself going through a destructive divorce, dealing with the economic crisis, and in need of new employment. So, I announced to whoever would listen that I wanted a career that would improve the environment. One day my then five-year-old Katerina had her first soccer game and while there, I met a pioneer in green cleaning product manufacturing, the late Dr. Van Vlahakis, founder and owner of ECOS®. He and his daughter Kelly (who has been running the company since her father’s passing) were kind and bright and eager to learn more about my professional experience. Van asked if I’d meet him for an interview and I said yes; a few days later I found myself in their California plant for an interview and tour. Within a few days, I was offered a job to help them with their solar division which I accepted and, instead, found myself heading up the marketing department for the cleaning products brand. I knew nothing about green cleaners, but I did know how to market, sell, and write. We did great things and I found myself learning more than I had ever imagined possible about sustainable ingredients, manufacturing, and living. My enthusiasm and commitment to sustainability and the company became infectious and I quickly became a sought-after public speaker and educator on behalf of sustainable living and cleaning. I was very proud of the work we did there and proud of my accomplishments. But, once ten years passed, I knew in my gut that it was time to make a change for something that would potentially be even bigger and more impactful for the health of our planet and its people. Suddenly, Covid-19 hit and I knew my full-time job as the special events and program director was at risk. All business travel, meetings and events were canceled for the remainder of the year. I could hear a ticking time-bomb and began to meditate and open myself up to issues that mattered most to me. As I looked at my two daughters whose lives had just been interrupted, who were no longer able to play their sports because of COVID and wildfires, fighting Climate Change became the most important issue. So, the “backstory” is really all about finding the silver lining from Covid-19. As I imagined would be the case, my full-time job came to a sudden halt. At about that same time, the founder and co-chair of EarthFund, Alysia Helming, reached out, shared her vision, and asked if I’d be interested in joining her as her business partner. With her experience in renewable energy and contacts, and my experience in marketing, communications, sustainability, and contacts, we knew we were a winning team. The only answer I could give her was YES, and I’m so glad I did! I knew it was time to further my career into an even more meaningful role, and by joining EarthFund we stood a great chance at making a difference for people at large.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Our work is disruptive because it truly has never been done before! EarthFund Global is a non-profit that’s focused on helping countries reach climate neutrality rapidly through the lens of strategic, technology-enabled solutions which enable more deployment of capital and cut down bottlenecks. The global model is customized to the specific needs of each country. What is specifically disruptive is that EarthFund partners with cutting edge clean technology companies, like EarthIndex, the world’s first clean energy platform designed to accelerate a country or state’s ability to rapidly scale to 100% clean energy by 2030. To achieve this, EarthIndex works with world-class technology companies, such as ESRI, and advisors from Google, Tesla and EIT-Climate-Kic Silicon Valley, to develop a country/state level solution to change the game in clean energy development, starting in Greece and in California. Disruptive is a most appropriate word for what we’re up to!

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?

When I first started working with EarthFund, Alysia was getting me up to speed with the technology for-profit business, EarthIndex, and our non-profit EarthFund. One day after a variety of meetings, I was talking to my daughter about our accomplishments and the next steps, etc. As I was building momentum sharing exciting developments with her, she said “Mom, you need to get the businesses straight. EarthFund is the non-profit, not EarthIndex!” My13-year-old daughter, Aria, was correcting me about my own projects! We laughed and laughed and then went back to work. I love the fact that she listens in on my calls, asks questions, and keeps me straight!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ve been blessed with exceptional mentors in my lifetime. First, my parents. They exemplified pure love to me as a child and a grown woman. Their years of nurturing enabled me to draw from experience how to get through some pretty tough times as a mom. I’ve been passionate about my career, but my greatest passion and accomplishment is my daughters. My parents’ love and support fueled my stamina as a working (many times overworked) single mom of two active, smart, and accomplished girls. Vaso and Argyri Panou were my role models as a professional parent. My Godmother, Valerie Kazamias, was a professional fundraiser for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and the Madison Symphony. I looked up to her for guidance on fundraising and grants and taking time-out for a silly night making snow angels after a storm hit in Madison. Godmother taught me that asking for money is necessary for the advancement and preservation of culture. We had to do it and the worst thing that could happen is someone might say no, but with a good plan, many more will say yes! My journalism professor, the late Les Brownlee, was my writing mentor. He believed in my skills and always told me “You’re a Winner.” And so, I believed him and dared to become a reporter. He was the first black reporter in the City of Chicago so adversity was familiar as was reward following hard work and perseverance. On many occasions I have felt unable to perform at my best, mostly due to egos and weaknesses of others, and in those moments, I imagined myself in the shoes Les walked in and find strength to keep moving and doing what I do best. Dr. Van Vlahakis, founder of ECOS® was my mentor until he passed away. He taught me everything I know about solar energy, green chemistry, and the importance of asking questions and “when you go into business, do something everyone needs” which is why he made laundry detergent and other cleaners. Van believed in supporting his employees and shared his profits with exemplary bonuses and he was always there to answer questions. Currently, Subriana Pierce, Managing Partner, Navigator Sales and Marketing is one of my top mentors. She’s on the Board of the Network of Executive Women and whenever I need insight or have the desire to map things out visually about programs or anything under the sun, I turn to her. She’s also the epitome of a strong, hardworking, equality based professional. I strive to be like Subriana. Finally, a gentleman I will refer to as “Bruiser” is my mentor for so many things. He’s an accomplished father and entrepreneur and the greatest cheerleader a person could ask for. His positivity causes me to only find solutions and believe in my every action, even if it results in something unexpected. Whenever I need business solutions and someone to help me weed things out, I turn to him, and remarkably, he helps me figure things out. My respect and appreciation for everyone who has helped me through this lifetime is immense.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disrupting is good, even if it’s bad, so long as we learn from it and find better solutions. Take for example GMOs and insecticides like DDT. The goal was to introduce genes into our crops to lessen the burden on farmers and to help bring an end to hunger. I remember being a young teen and hearing on the news that GMOs will rapidly grow crops and enable us to protect people from world hunger. DDT would help our crops grow more quickly because it would kill off insects that would otherwise cause harm to the crops. Well, that was a big mistake. Yes, crops grew more rapidly and demand was met quickly, but the adverse health effects it caused in people and the harm it caused to the environment was not worth the gain. DDT is no longer used and communities are engaging in more local farming initiatives than ever before. Organic farming has become more common and individuals are making their own gardens to ensure they and their families have healthier food on their plates. Even I had vegetable beds placed on my balcony where I grew the most delicious tomatoes, cucumbers, mint, basil, and oregano!

Positive disruption is what organizations like Global Green have been doing. In the past, they’ve helped rebuild cities like New Orleans after it was struck by Hurricane Katrina. When they rebuilt the city, they introduced sustainable building materials, instead of going with cheap and harmful materials for a quick fix.

What we’re doing at EarthFund, is positive disruption. We are helping a country achieve carbon neutrality and empowering students to be the solution to a brighter and cleaner future.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Don’t let the hell you might be going through stop you from moving forward.” That advice gave me the courage to present myself in a positive manner when I was the most vulnerable as a single mom. When I randomly met my former employer on the soccer field, he asked me what I was up to and what my career was. After I gave him a glimpse of my background he asked “with credentials like that why aren’t you working for us?” My response, “well, I don’t know why I’m not working for you”? He smiled and invited me for the interview and employed me within a week; a decision neither of us would come to regret.

When I was in 6rd Grade I had a creative writing assignment where I wrote about a world where freeway exits would be on the left lane instead of the right and as you entered the exit lane, you’d have the opportunity to purchase drinks and even food without getting out of the car and doing so with a card that would take money straight out of your bank account so you didn’t need to waste money on paying back high interest credit cards. My teacher laughed at me, gave me a “B”, and told me I should think more realistically since cards like that would never exist. “A bit far-fetched for even a writer. You may think about studying something else in college.” So, I became an on-camera reporter instead and enjoyed using my debit card about a decade later. 🙂

“There’s no such thing as free lunch!” That came from my first love who was a cameraman for CBS when I was a reporter. He was talking about how people will try to push me into inappropriate situations and I should never stoop low to acquire a bigger seat at the table because it would never lead to a good result. I never had the desire to go down that route, but that phrase stuck with me as other situations arose through the years.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I think I’m shaking things up quite a bit right now! Let me get past setting up EarthFund in Greece and then we’ll talk!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Access to capital is a challenge that I believe faces “women disruptors” more often than men. I do feel that’s changing dramatically for the better. Time is typically a challenge because women still are mostly responsible for the home and their children’s needs.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

“Not Even My Name” by Thea Halo is a book that resonates with me and gives me strength as a single mom raising two daughters on my own. In this book, author Thea Halo writes the story of her mom, Sano Halo, a woman who survived the slaughter of 2-million Pontic Greeks and Armenians from the Turks post WWI. The book, which is the work of Sano’s memoirs, takes the reader through the death march that she (10) experienced and survived through Turkey. During the march Sano lost three of her four sisters. For the next five years she was at the mercy of people who treated her poorly and finally at the age of 15, Sano was sold to marry an Assyrian man three times her age who brought her to NYC where they raised 10 wonderful children. This eloquent account of this tragedy that was impressed upon Greek’s and Assyrian’s in Turkey reminds me of how precious our democracy is and how fortunate we are to be living in a country where we are truly free. It also keeps me in check and reminds me that my bad day, would most definitely be a good day by far to too many women even in today’s world. It also gives me the energy to persevere and also celebrate the small victories.

You are a person of great 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. 🙂

What we are doing at EarthFund along with EarthIndex is truly the best movement we could support for the most amount of people. Bringing one country at a time to climate neutrality will help reduce the negative effects of climate change, will enable us to breathe a little lighter and will bring sustainable learning across all sectors. With our business model we will also be uniting local government, with civil society, non-profits/NGOs, business leaders and the church because we know that when we work together everybody wins. We need to end the use of fossil fuels. Coal, oil needs to go away, and those who are working in those industries need to be trained for new work opportunities. There’s a place for everyone, even if you were trained in a different field. I’d love to find a way to help trade-in gasoline fueled vehicles with electric cars. That would be amazing!

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

My favorite life lesson stems from a very negative comment that was made to me long ago. A co-worker and I were heading up a project that required me to check and edit her work which resulted in me working long hours into the wee hours of the night. After reading something she had written I was a little puzzled as it didn’t add up scientifically. Before I questioned her about it, I looked up the matter on the EPAs website and found that indeed her quote wasn’t accurate. I kindly shared the evidence and asked her for her opinion. Her response: “This is most unprofessional! You need to leave the science to the scientists and just stay out and do your job!”

So, I did my job as an editor and eliminated the false entry in the book. From that day on, she avoided me at all costs. Her immaturity and hatred ate her from the inside out. It was devastating to watch. I tried speaking to her about it, but it only made things worse. I actually felt very sorry for her. The lesson I learned was multi-faceted. Check your ego at the door and work with people, instead of against them because in the end this attitude will only hurt YOU. Ultimately, I turned that experience into a positive. It inspired me to learn more about science and eventually teaching specialized lessons that inspired young kids to seek out degrees in chemistry and professions in sustainability!

How can our readers follow you online?,,

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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