Episode 6 of the Blu Skye Podcast - Thomas Donovan

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Here is a link to Thomas's resume, and below is the full transcript of the interview.


THOMAS: If we're not getting to the airport where are we trying to go?


ZACH: Welcome to the Blu Skye podcast. I’m Zach Winter. Blu Skye is a strategy consulting firm that operates on the assumption that environmental and social responsibility are the only business opportunities that are truly sustainable. If you please go get many more applications then you have job openings. In order to highlight the excellence of a few of those applicants. I called them up recorded the conversation and I'm sharing their stories with you. This week I talk with yet another job seeker about circular economies, The long arc of history, and our collective blindness.


ZACH: Just something for the top of the podcast that is like, “here’s who I am”.


THOMAS: Absolutely. My name is Thomas Donovan. I am a senior at the University of Southern California. Coming from the East Bay Area. And, I'm about to start a graduate certificate in sustainability here at USC which is a bunch of math classes that I'm really excited about. And in the long run hoping to get involved in the strategy sustainability space.


ZACH: I'm curious about what drives your passion for sustainability specifically, sustainable business consulting.


THOMAS: Absolutely. I think that's a great place to start. So I think for me personally. The whole idea of sustainability and environmentalism as like a specific thing didn't really occur to me until I came down to school cause, I grew up in the Bay area pretty much grew up in the foothills of Mt Diablo where I was kind of outside all the time and pretty much took that for granted. And, coming down to the University of Southern California which is in South Central Los Angeles. It was not so much a culture shock, as an environment shock where I went from kind of being so used to trees and streams and suddenly being surrounded by just this concrete behemoth which made me realize that the patterns of development that we're seeing happen across the globe are often pretty ugly. And, in my courses through the business world, I kind of realized what was the result of that. And saw where my skills and interests kind of best lay, which ultimately drove me to become interested in the whole world of sustainability.


ZACH: What what do you see as the as the single greatest barrier that we have towards a truly sustainable world?


THOMAS: I think you can cut that in a number of ways but, in an abstract kind of macro sense, I think right now. The business, the private sector, even the governments are really set up to operate on a time horizon that rewards the short term success. You know we're thinking in terms of. Financial quarters or years when we really need to be thinking in terms of decades and centuries. And that kind of concept really manifests itself in all sorts of ways in terms of the regulatory impacts that companies have as well as the way that they go about doing their business.


ZACH: So if I give you two billion dollars in a team of 50 people. How would you use them and those resources to...do anything, really?


THOMAS: That's a that's an interesting question. I don't know if others have thought about that before. I do think the whole reason that we're even able to be as successful as we have been throughout our history as a species has really been kind of a story of technological innovation. So I think moving forward. That also is our best hope for kind of a salvation. So I really think that if I had two billion dollars and 50 people. I'd put as much of that as I could into really investing in some sort of an accelerator or some kind of an innovation lab where we tackle... All right. What are the stickiest issues? What are the wicked problems, technologically speaking that are separating us from moving into a kind of circular sustainable economy and that might be on the energy side you know how do we become competitive with carbon based fuels? Anything that we might need to tackle would be where I direct that money for sure.


ZACH: It's a good answer. And I'm also a big believer in technology. But people often push back on me when I say similar things. In that, a lot of people believe that sustainability is not a technology or a data problem. They think it is more of a communication slash behavioral science problem. And I'm wondering if you agree with that and how?


THOMAS: I think at the end of the day technology and the communication things will ultimately go hand in hand. Because. Essentially for change to happen I think we need to essentially make the business case for sustainability. And you can go about that one of two ways. Either, you can effectively communicate and articulate the opportunities that do exist right now, but maybe a little bit more hidden or difficult to unlock which is what I think Blu Skye does such a good job of doing, or what I'm hoping is that in the next 20 years we'll really start to see some breakthroughs where there are exciting new technologies that fundamentally offer a better option than the current extractive, exhaustive practices that we have in place. But no matter which is more important to ultimately need to work together effectively in order to create the change that we undeniably need.


ZACH: People working in sustainability often expressed that they feel like corporate sustainability consulting can feel like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Do you ever have a similar feeling? I mean you're not a working consultant yet but I imagine you will be and how do you plan on reconciling that?


THOMAS: I really like that question. I think rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. That's that's an easy stance to take. And then I think that by and large what we've seen come out of sustainability work to this point. Has, to some degree obviously it's moving the needle. But we've never really seen a shift in the paradigm. And that's the unfortunate fact of the matter. But on the other hand, these problems we're facing and our knowledge of these problems on a scientific business level, are still so young in the overall history of our species. I think, actually, I used to be a history major. So I always try to put things in terms of like a historical context. And I think that when you're talking about change on a societal level like what would be the necessary steps for a real sustainable revolution. That societal change takes a great deal of time in maybe the same ways that it took the ideas of the enlightenment many years before they manifested themselves in really kind of pushing forward an effective form of democratic government. If we look at the length of human life, let's say it lasts 80 years. It would only be three human lifetimes before we were all the way back at the Declaration of Independence. You know, sustainability and the environment is still a problem that's only existed in maybe one lifetime on  a macro level. So for that reason I have a lot of hope that the ideas that we're seeing really kind of begin to grow and set in at this point will effectively manifest themselves in the coming years. And whether or not they do we'll kind of be the defining question for our generation.


ZACH: I love your optimism in the face of my doom and gloom question. Aside from sustainability what political or cultural issues are you most passionate about.


THOMAS: Obviously along with kind of seeing the environmental issues that Los Angeles has as a city. When I came into school here in South Central, it's pretty it's pretty apparent when you come here for the first time the immense social, socio-economic issues that exist in the south central area. You know, we have Compton, Watts, Inglewood, all within a mile or two from campus. And so, in the same way that I think our issues with sustainability are kind of, they stem from our collective blindness to posterity and being able to think about the generations that come after us. I think that these socio-economic issues that we see right now. Come from a similar sort of unwillingness to see the truth of what's going on in these communities. So I'm part of an organization here at USC called Troy camp, and what Troy camp does is we essentially partner with there are seven schools we work with in the south central area and every week we offer programming where we go into these schools offer tutoring, we’ll play soccer, we have theater and dance classes. And it's essentially a mentorship program where we can kind of help share our insights and make these kids really understand that they do have the opportunity to strive for a college education and whatever sort of life they would want after that. So for me the kind of socio-economic issues particularly as they relate to children in education are really important.


ZACH: There is a question I want to ask you that I haven't quite fully formed yet. But I can tell you at the preface is. Do you know Bill Mcdonough? He is an author and sustainability guru. And he essentially calls for us to move away from the idea of doing less bad. Like that is a lot of what sustainability consulting is, is minimizing the bad. And, he makes a call for more good, not less bad. And he exemplifies that with this amazing allegory that is, you know, a lot of what we do is akin to getting in a taxi, and telling me telling a taxi driver “I don't want to go to the airport” like you're not you're not actually seen anything about what you do want to do. So I'm I'm just curious about what your thoughts are on that.


THOMAS: Absolutely. I think that really kind of cuts to the core of this kind of very interesting moment we're at right now, where a lot of corporate responsibility really is it is just mitigation work. Where the impacts are still ultimately negative and they're just making progress towards those. And I do think that at a certain point we'll reach, and that point maybe right now, is how can we make a fundamental change to the operating models of the organizations that kind of run the world. You know, move from a linear kind of extractive model, to a circular model and, the idea that “I don't want to go to the airport” is just entirely without direction. That's kind of where a lot of these organizations are you know they're still they're still incentivized to make profit and they're just trying to mitigate that overall impact. That actually reminds me of one of one of my favorite professors here at USC. He is a professor named Adlai Wertman, and he's in charge of social entrepreneurship lab here and essentially he works with organizations who are mission aligned with an impact mission. So they're not out to make profit, they're out to achieve their goal while remaining viable. They're not always nonprofits but they're sort of business-minded organization that is still goal oriented but no longer thinks in terms of profits but it thinks only in terms of impacts. And I really think that's the direction that we ultimately need to move into as a society. It's to sort of, realign what our values are and what our goals are. So we would know if, if we're not getting to the airport where we where we try to go?


ZACH: You brought it full circle. Good job. What have you been raised to be afraid of?


THOMAS: Raised to be afraid of... Obviously as an undergrad at USC, graduating soon and going into the business world and probably in the top percentile of the most fortunate people on the planet Earth. Right. And I think, most people you might have on the show who are in a position to make the changes that they really care about, that sort of agency and control over their coming years is pretty unique. And, one thing that I've kind of been raised to fear is allowing the lifestyles that we have access to in terms of wealth and luxury to really sort of, consume what we're actually accomplishing in our time here. And I think... That's another thing that when I spoke about the kind of. Career life trajectories that you often get shot out of business school and go into investment banking, consulting, you can kind of get trapped in these in these linear parts of you know, you get promotion you buy a bigger house and you kind of, there's this game that gets played and there is no real stop to it. There is no way to get out. And so I think, always kind of remaining aware of where we're at, and what we value is kind of the best way to do that. There is a quote by Aristotle that says “the unexamined life is not worth living, and I think. I've been raised to kind of never stop examining, because as soon as you do, that's when you can really start to get away from yourself.


ZACH: Great answer. What have I not asked you about, that I should have?


THOMAS: Ooh. That's a good question. Something I always like to talk about. And actually, the means through which I met the professor that I mentioned earlier, Adlai Wertman, is a club that I'm really passionate about here at USC called Peaks and Professors. And the club is as simple as the name. We're essentially an organization that brings together the best professors on campus with some of the best students. And we put together our excursions of all sorts, hikes backpacking trips, we’ve done a surf trip, we've done some yoga trips. And, you have a really awesome opportunity to kind of engage with some really, really intelligent people at the cutting edge of their fields while you're out hiking in like the best casual informal environment. Where you can really kind of understand where they're approaching these problems as a person and what they really see as the biggest challenges. And it's through experiences like that that I've been kind of able to develop my own kind of life path and life goals. And we're actually hoping to start expanding to other colleges, so if anyone has similar interests and might be interested in getting that started at one of their own campuses, we're in the process of getting our first colony set up at Stanford. So we're always looking for more people to get involved in that.


ZACH: That’s a really cool program. Blu Skye actually runs something similar that we call Confluence where we get 15 different business leaders from all walks of life and geographical regions and bring them together and take them down the Tuolumne River. Jib Ellison, the CEO of Blu Skye started his career as a river guide. His love of nature kind of informed his work that he's been doing to this day, s he still loves the river and gets on it as much as he can and that's part of his master plan. So, it sounds really similar actually to what you're working on.


THOMAS: That's really awesome. The Tuolumne is an incredible river, and the spaces that you can just sort of access in a purely fun out there is environment. I think it can be more productive than a boardroom.


ZACH: That's the idea. Nailed it.


If you want to get in contact with Thomas, head to the Blu Skye website thats, BLUSKYE.com. There you will find a full transcript of this interview, as well as a link to his resume.


Thanks for listening to the Blu Skye podcast. If you enjoyed this or any episode, please leave a review on iTunes or wherever you are listening. See you next time.


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