PGS Gets to Know Paul Hawken


By Allyn McAuley, MBA Candidate

Published 10.15.13


Presidio Graduate School President William Shutkin sat down for a one-on-one with faulty-member and sustainable business pioneer Paul Hawken in a sold-out Presidio Presents at the Impact Hub SF. It was an energetic atmosphere and Paul immediately put the crowd at ease with his serene demeanor and delightful sense of humor. William got the conversation started at the very beginning...

 Becoming Paul

Paul Hawken grew up in Berkeley and was shaped at an early age by institutions he was forced to visit. Paul had asthma, and has vivid memories of challenges with his health at the hospital. In addition Paul hated school, and instead chose to focus on his own reading as he was consuming biographies on Ben Franklin by age four, while his classmates were reading Fun With Dick and Jane. These experiences pushed Paul away from institutions and into nature, where he felt at peace.

He described, “My plant community was my community.” Hawken's continued asthma encouraged healthy eating habits and his entrepreneurial career began with opening a one-stop natural food store and becoming part of a growing organic-farming community. He was an “entrepreneur by default” who knew nothing about business, and Paul imparted his lifelong experience to the audience that business success comes through doing work that is meaningful to you, not buying a solution with loads of up-front capital.

While visiting a supplier farm Paul came across a dead pelican and learned that many of these birds had been dying in the area. It was 1971 and this issue was traced to chemical contamination on neighboring non-organic farms that was affecting the fish and in turn killing the birds. This experience made it clear to Paul that there was no distinction between human and nature anymore, but instead human activity was having a clear and drastic effect on the natural world.

Writer and Entrepreneur

Hawken has written many books and started many businesses, a fact which William regularly tried to steer the humble Paul back to. Paul said he became a writer through reading, it was that simple. He shared an interesting anecdote regarding one of his most famous works, Natural Capitalism. His editors wanted an eye-catching title, so they chose to include the word “capitalism,” an economic system which Paul regards as an “unmitigated disaster.” The book is about finally giving worth to natural capital, the “ism” was an addition to capture the frenzied, booming-economy interest of the capitalism-embracing masses. He went on to explain that his editors squashed most of his reviews even though they were extremely positive because he was basically saying that business is ruining the world.

Paul discussed his current business endeavors which include inexpensive thin film, a biomimicry solution to capture water out of the air, a cradle-to-cradle process of pulling pollutants out of water and consumer products, and even a natural method of changing gray hair back to its natural color. This last product understandably got a rise from the crowd and the gray-haired William, and Paul exhibited his wit with his reply, “I think you look beautiful Bill.”

Closing Thoughts

Hawken fielded a question about the future of big companies such as Walmart to which he responded to the delight of the crowd, “Localization is not a fad, it's a premonition.” He cited an Oregon State study, which determined that local farms are the biggest producer of jobs, even despite government subsidies going elsewhere.

Bethany Baugh raised a question regarding maintaining personal sustainability in a stressful world, which brought Paul to a poignant close on the discussion. He reiterated his point that you must do what you love, and you must ask yourself is climate change happening “to us” or “for us”? He explained that too often we see climate change as a doomsday scenario, which paralyzes people into inaction. Instead, Hawken views climate change as an immense opportunity to transform business as usual and the world as we know it into a green, healthful utopia where people live in harmony with nature. He said we can only control our intention, so personal sustainability is the only way to solve the seemingly insurmountable problems of today.

Listen to the full audio recording of the event:

Allyn McAuley, MBA Candidate

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