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Reflections from Mashpi Forest, Ecuador

Last month, nine outstanding leaders from CEF member companies — chosen from a highly competitive field of applicants — attended the CEF Sustainability Leadership Development Program, “Meeting Sustainability Challenges with Transformational Leadership,” led by Jon Foley, CEF Advisory Board Member and Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, Julia Novy-Hildesley, Professor of the Practice, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Stanford University, and renowned National Geographic experts, connected to the program’s base for the week, Mashpi Lodge.

Here are the reflections from the winners:

Aldo Gomez, Global Director, EHS, Delphi Automotive

In short, this was truly a transformational experience.

Studies show that being in close contact with nature makes you kinder, happier and more creative. It has also been proven that walks in the forest decrease stress, relieve attention fatigue and increase activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex. Additionally, being around inspiring people has proven to inspire us to action, to be more motivated, to have a heightened sense of purpose and even to become better at what we do. Now imagine these two experiences combined in this setting: a mega-biodiverse forest reserve, the result cannot be other than transformational. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend time with this wonderful team and our program leaders. Through specific activities and provocative conversations they allowed us to dig deeper into our core aspirations, and reach a higher level of understanding of ourselves and what we do, this in return, is beneficial not only for us, but to our organizations. It is hard to explain the effect of discussing current challenges in our programs while walking the trails to a waterfall and all the sudden stop to watch a Toucan or an orchid, it puts things in perspective on why we are working so hard to make a difference in sustainability.

Mashpi is a unique place in the world, this program and team is as unique as Mashpi. I owe the team, the program and Mashpi my renewed sense of confidence, passion and clarity of purpose. I will be forever grateful for the friendship, conversations, guidance and recommendations around the table or along the trails.

Michele Malejki, Global Head of Strategic Programs, Sustainability & Social Innovation, HP Inc.

CEF’s Sustainability Leadership Development program was a truly incredible experience. Being immersed in the Ecuadorian cloud forest – one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet – provided a fantastic opportunity to see the “delicate resiliency” of Mother Nature. Our local guide, Manolo, provided expert insight into the ways in which animals, plants, and mankind have and continue to interact within the region, and to highlight the crucial balance that conservation and development play.

The program consisted of an incredible group of individuals with diverse experiences. This led to rich conversations, tough questions, and action-oriented answers on how to be effective leaders within the corporate sustainability space. It’s important to note that with diverse groups comes diverse opinions. Despite such differences, however, the group always remained respectful of one other, and this helped spark rich conversations. In today’s times, this is exactly the kind of dialogue that is needed, and it truly elevated the overall experience and learnings. Moreover, these discussions – and the immense beauty of the surroundings, no doubt – caused me to pause and reflect on what sustainability leadership truly is and how individuals and companies like those within our group can be effective advocates and drivers of corporate sustainability.

Wonderful conversations were plentiful, as were wonderful sights: the Mashpi frog, red-eyed dwarf iguana, and ‘mother-in-law’s tongue” snake plant were a few of my personal favorites. And oh yes – let’s not forget the delicious Ecuadorian cacao, or cocoa, that was plentiful throughout our trip. I’ll be sure to re-live the wonderful memories and learnings of this trip with each bite of chocolate I take; and given the dozen or so chocolate bars I brought back to NYC, I’m sure to have plenty of opportunities to reminisce!

Sean Metivier, Sr. Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Consultant, Siemens

Roque Sevilla, himself, would tell you that many questioned his decision to secure the 3,000 acre Mashpi Private Reserve and construct the Mashpi Lodge within this remote setting, a proposed timber mill site. However, it would be difficult to imagine a more emblematic setting for contemplating core sustainability values. Located within the Ecuadorian cloud forest, Mashpi is a biodiversity hotspot and home to rare flora and fauna and remarkable landscapes. Beyond habitat conservation, the lodge promotes sustainable practices both onsite and within the community – recycling, composting, energy conservation, wastewater management, organic farming practices, local economic growth, and more. The people we met along our journey provided direct examples of how sustainability leadership can transform a community. Most of the staff and guides at Mashpi Lodge are local residents, many of whom were previously working as loggers or practicing unsustainable farming. We were also fortunate to meet an organic cacao farmer who practices sustainable, analog farming and shares his knowledge with neighboring farmers in an effort to transform his community. When I was accepted into the 2017 Corporate Eco Forum Sustainability Leadership Development Program, I was honored and excited. Mashpi, and the experience overall, certainly exceeded any expectations I had leading up to the trip.

Our cast of characters on this adventure was an amazing match for our unparalleled setting. PJ, John, and Julia, our trip leaders, brought tremendous insight and diverse perspective related to sustainability leadership. Core themes that resonated with me included the parallels and intersections between natural and “manufactured” systems, the importance of resiliency within organizations and us as individuals, and the power of story as a communication tool. I also believe we were truly blessed with a great team of program participants. I learned so much from our peer group as well and I greatly appreciate the team’s openness to share, listen, and coach each other. No matter where a discussion would bubble up – over dinner, on a bumpy bus ride through the Andes, or during an 11 hour hike though the jungle – the conversations were balanced, insightful, and sincere.

Personally, this experience provided me with the opportunity to recharge, retool, and revaluate. I am excited to act on insight I gained through the guidance, experiences, and self reflection from our time in Mashpi. I feel empowered to evolve as a leader both within my professional and personal engagements. I will cherish the bonds we formed as a team and look forward to writing new chapters in our story.

Alex Michalko, Sustainability Program Manager, Amazon

This Thanksgiving, I was especially grateful for the transformative week I spent in Ecuador through CEF’s Sustainability Leadership Development program. CEF consciously selects program locations where participants will learn not only from each other, but also from the landscape itself, and this year’s program was no exception. The Ecuadorian cloud forest taught us to fall in love with the small things – leafcutter ants, Mashpi frogs, caterpillars, and walking stick insects, to name a few – while also manifesting the core principles of healthy ecosystems. Species need a variety of genes to survive. In the forest, as in a business setting, diversity is not just a nice-to-have, but a core element of a thriving ecosystem. In addition to genetic diversity, geographic diversity matters too. If you scatter your seeds nearby, your long-term reach will be minimal. The same is true in corporate sustainability. We have to consciously build bridges to other departments and organizations if we want to integrate systems thinking across the business over long time horizons.

I was inspired and impressed by our trip leaders and my fellow participants, who were not only incredibly accomplished professionally, but more importantly incredibly generous in their willingness to coach, encourage, and lift each other up. Throughout the week, we kept coming back to Donella Meadows’ metaphor of a rubber band stretched vertically between two hands – the top hand representing idealism, and the bottom hand representing reality. Sometimes the tension between the two is too great. If you release your bottom hand, the rubber band snaps toward ungrounded optimism. If, on the other hand, you release your top hand, the rubber band falls toward uninspired reality. Our task as change-makers is to hold the tension, so that it may resolve in favor of our vision.

I returned home to Seattle with a reaffirmed set of core keystone habits – some of which I already practice, and others that I’ll be building over the months and years ahead. It was such an honor to be part of this cohort, and I know this was just the start of many great friendships.

Allie Ottoboni, Philanthropy Manager, eBay Foundation

When I learned that I was accepted into the CEF Leadership Development Program, I nearly spit out my coffee at my desk. What a tremendous honor! If I’m completely honest, I’ll also fess up to feeling intimidated when reviewing the list of winners. Impressive companies, titles and resumes. I set my nerves aside, poured over the suggested packing list and set off for this great adventure.

We began by exploring Quito “like a local” with a wonderful guide who showed us around this vibrant city. From an organic chocolate making demonstration to a traditional “limpieza” from a 4th generation medicinal healer, I soaked it all in. From there, we were off to Mashpi Lodge, a luxurious and truly unique lodge in the middle of the cloud forest. It was there that I fully embraced “The Mashpi Manifesto”:
Leave home
Feel at home
Listen to the forest
Sense the wildlife
Protect nature
Ditch your watch
Jump into the waterfall
Splash in the puddles
Explore the dark
Ask questions
Try new flavours
Do not stop
Stop
Go far
Challenge your assumptions
Share with others
Live the journey

Our guides, natives of the Mashpi community, pushed us to hike extensively through mud, rivers, steep terrain and, in some cases, we created new trails entirely. They imparted their wisdom, tolerated our Spanish and were our role models for the week. We met with Roque Sevilla, former mayor of Quito and owner of Mashpi Lodge, who reminded us why this place is worth fighting for and that happiness is the only real objective of life. We swung from tree branches, jumped off of rocks, waded below freezing waterfalls and cycled above the canopy of the forest at staggering heights. At the end of each day, we were greeted with fresh juice, herb-infused towelettes and an immediate sense of relaxation. Over dinner each night, we listened intently to each other’s challenges and questions, asked more questions and encouraged one another in a way that I’ve never experienced before. We laughed so hard we couldn’t catch our breath and cried at new awakenings and revelations.

I walk away from this experience with profound gratitude and responsibility for our planet, a renewed sense of adventure, my own personal manifesto and friends for a lifetime. Thank you, CEF, for this magical and meaningful experience.

Lisa Shpritz, Environmental Operations Executive, Bank of America

I can’t express how thankful I am that I had the opportunity to travel to Ecuador with the Corporate Eco Forum, especially with this incredible group of people. This experience was truly life-changing in so many ways, and I will treasure this time always. I knew I would be traveling and spending time with an accomplished group of people, but never did I imagine that every person would have such a great impact on me. Over the week, I went through every emotion under the sun, from joy to exhaustion, from sadness to elation.

During our time in Quito and in the Chocó cloud forest, our group connected on an unbelievably deep level that I never thought was possible in so few days. By the end of our trip, I truly felt like I had known everyone for years. I came home from Ecuador stronger and more prepared to manage both work and life challenges, and also returned home inspired to do everything I can do be a better environmental professional, thanks to this thoughtful and kind group of people.

We learned about walking palm trees, the rare Mashpi frog, speedy hermaphroditic snails, butterflies, sky bikes, the Dragonfly, stick insects, hummingbirds, the importance of a machete when hiking a new trail, Alejandro’s cacao farm, the 7-minute workout, tasty Ecuadorian fruit, locro, ají de tomate de árbol, empanadas, Mashpi time and we even planned the next hit reality TV show (Oh, Manolo!).

One of the many powerful moments that will always remain with me was during one of our hikes, while we were sitting quietly in a clearing of the forest. We were asked to think about where and how we spend our energy, across all aspects of our lives. It was the first time in forever that I had sat alone outside, without speaking, without a phone or computer, and it was absolutely glorious. I was able to hear the forest, to hear my thoughts, and to ask myself many questions, such as how I can truly make a difference in the world, and how I can be better to myself. Because of experiences like this one, Ecuador will be with me every day.

This program wouldn’t have been possible without many people who gave their time, expertise and love to our group. I would like to send a huge thank you to PJ, Jon, Julia, Manolo, Nestor, Carlos, Diego, José, Roque, Pilar, Rodney, Alejandro, the entire staffs of the Mashpi Lodge and of the Casa Gangotena, as well as Amy and Devon of CEF. You all made this trip one that I will forever cherish and remember with great affection and gratitude.

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