Meet the father-daughter green team

Last year I shared a story of sustainability sisters Annie and Amy Longsworth. Today, I'd like you to meet father-daughter duo Hal Hamilton and Margaret Henry. Hal is the founder and co-director of Sustainable Food Lab. Margaret is the director of sustainability and corporate social responsibility at Sodexo.

I wish I could share the sound recording of our conversation because what does not come out in words alone is the admiration each has for the other. It is the admiration between a father and a daughter. It's interesting to see that relationship between these two people who are independently changing the world as sustainability professionals.

Ellen: Let's start with both of you sharing how you got to your current position.

Hal: I helped found the Sustainable Food Lab about 12 years ago, which has become an innovation incubator among more than 70 businesses and their partners. I had been a farmer and later led nonprofit initiatives. Peter Senge at MIT introduced me to Adam Kahane, who contributed the "social technology" of the lab for generating innovation in complex systems. Peter also became my close colleague, mentor, partner and friend.

Margaret: Growing up, farming was a part of my daily lexicon and sustainability was something that was rarely named, but always present. Thinking about how to ensure a healthy world for my generation and those to come has always been part of my values and goals. Watching my parents work in this field was certainly inspiring.

Before coming to Sodexo, I worked in NGOs and government. I saw firsthand how these organizations went about forming their strategies in the sustainability realm. These experiences inspired me to seek work in the private sector because I believe the most effective solutions will come from multistakeholder solutions that involve more than one organization or sector.

I chose Sodexo for their unique reach into the food system, as well as the energy and facilities around the world and their dedication to quality of life solutions for the millions touched each day. At Sodexo, we serve 75 million people — daily!

Hal: Before Sodexo, Margaret worked at USAID and World Wildlife Fund. She speaks several languages, has spent time in Africa, Latin America and Asia, so she's learned a lot about how people live in the food system in different places.

Ellen: Hal, what have you learned from your daughter?

Hal: I find in Margaret a model for doing effective sustainability work:

1. She is technically competent with the issues, from energy consumption and operations to sustainability standards for crops and livestock. At least as important as knowing these issues from a technical standpoint is her hands-on experience in these fields, which brings a practicality that is rare.

2. She is a strategic thinker, something that is necessary in order to operationalize sustainability in organizations and supply chains. Margaret has a strong ability to figure out how to support people as they connect their job to larger aspirations of sustainability. I watch her ask herself who matters here and what drives their decisions, figuring out the incentives and structures that shape decisions and how to learn from and build genuine relationships with the people who make those decisions. She's task oriented and determined to deliver.

3. She provides personal leadership, developing relationships with and understanding the key players. It's a lot of fun to watch her provide leadership in circles when we are in meetings together. She's relentlessly cheerful as well as practical. People turn to her for advice. I've learned from, respect, appreciate and see Margaret's sensitivity to where people are.

Ellen: Margaret, what have you learned from your father?

Margaret: The first thing I learned from my father was a love of agriculture and a love for working with the people involved in each stage of growing, processing, selling, buying and cooking food. It was what we were passionate about, especially the "how's." How do you talk about community organizing or motivating people? Both my parents were extremely supportive of my exploration and encouraged me to work for a variety of organizations domestically and around the world. I found my passion for the work first when working with farmers around the world and seeing their role in international systems. It is inspiring to watch Hal engage with the big questions like how to change entire supply chains or how to fit smallholders into supply chains in ways that benefit all parties.

One thing I learned early from Hal is the systems perspective. How do you move beyond simple solutions and answers to see the complexities and barriers in shifting forces, industries and governments towards solutions?

I have learned from Hal how to be personally authentic while moving forward something that's really complicated. Hal inspires me because he brings such deep passion, knowledge and authenticity, but he's able to facilitate the development of an initiative so that everyone can contribute their point of view and ideas about solutions. I first saw that on a trip in Brazil in 2004. He was just kicking off the [Sustainable] Food Lab, and I was doing the logistics. He pulled people together with vastly different points of view, and helped them listen and learn from one another as they prototyped designs for addressing poverty and environmental challenges.

Ellen: What do you have in common?

Hal: We've been intellectually symbiotic for a long time. We both enjoy complexity. And we both like people; being genuinely appreciative feeds curiosity, as well as a feedback loop of appreciation and curiosity back. In our personal lives we also both like to be out in the wilderness or garden. Sometimes we bale hay or trim the hooves of sheep together.

Margaret: We're both driven to get practical things done. Being able to bring that to the corporate workplace makes a big difference. We love food in all its forms and we love to work with a variety of people to find common goals for moving the food system forward.

Ellen: Margaret is a new mom with 4-month-old twins. Now that you are both parents, do you have any advice on parenting, or raising a sustainability professional?

Margaret: This field will be wildly different by the time my twins go into it. Sustainability can be a lonely and hard field and having a trusted friend and colleague in my father is wonderful. My father is the most trusted advisor I could have. I can share with him my questions, strategies, frustrations, joys and excitements without any worries about judgment. I want to be able to be that person my kids can rely upon when they have their own joys and difficulties.

Hal: Of course, parents should love their kids no matter what and respect them through all the twists and turns.

There seem to be very few parent-kid duos in sustainability so far, probably because the field is still relatively young. Margaret and Hal may be in the first generation of "second generations" in the field. Please let me know of any other duos out there. It would be interesting to develop a list.

All photos by Susan Sweitzer.