Turncoats? Moving from Greenpeace to the corporate world

I love talking to the iconoclasts who make drastic career changes, like those who leave a grassroots nonprofit for the halls of a corporation. That’s what Jonathan Wootliff and Danny Kennedy did when they went to the private sector from Greenpeace. I wouldn’t call them turncoats, but rather people who took their passion to a different side of the equation. The way I see it, businesses need pressure to do the right thing coming from the outside as well as the inside. These guys agree. What I was most curious to ask them was, why go into the private sector after publicly damning companies, and how is the work different?

Tackling the energy revolution from the inside (and) out

Kennedy, who founded the residential solar company Sungevity after managing political and solutions campaigns for Greenpeace Australia Pacific as well as running Greenpeace’s Clean Energy Now campaign in the U.S., told me that Sungevity involves a lot of the same work and uses much of the same skills as with Greenpeace. “I can have the same big impact by representing, fundraising, organizing around a goal, setting a vision and measuring with metrics,” he explained.

Kennedy clarifies that at Greenpeace he wasn’t always damning the private sector; rather, his approach was that “speaking truth is a good thing to do. I wanted to also leverage the power that business and the corporate sector have for good, which is evident in a lot of social movements over time. I have a theory that social change movements, historically, have always needed to be able to say what they’re for, and to demonstrate what they’re for as well as to be able to say what they are against. Business, small business especially, entrepreneurial businesses are really great at creating a new vision and starting that transition that is social change.”

This type of transition follows Schumpeter’s Creative Destruction theory that economic development in a capitalist society stems from the breakdown of a previous economic order. In other words, climate change has led society to transition away from fossil fuels. “Doing Sungevity was a way to show that there is a path, there is a solution, and it can scale rapidly when done right,” as Kennedy put it.

Kennedy believes that working in the private sector for a solution to fossil fuels is not necessarily more effective than finding solutions within the nonprofit sector, but that it is “just appropriate to the time and the task. In the history of change, there are different stages that social movements go through,” he says. “At one point you have to stand in front of the tanks to draw the world’s attention to the oppression, and at another point you have to work to reform the system.”

“We’re very good as activist at saying no; we’re not so good at saying how. I think it’s very effective to be in the business side of this struggle right now. It’s the most important place to be,” given the combination of his personal journey and where he thinks broader public opinion is. Kennedy feels the timing is ripe for a company such as Sungevity to thrive “because the technologies are ripe, the finance industry is ripe and entrepreneurs are needed to guide that into being.”

Photocollage by GreenBiz Group

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