I’m trying something new with the Dystopian Present blog by interviewing prominent and up and coming figures in the fields of sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Leading off is the Founding Director of the Green Den Consultancy, Akhila Vijayaraghavan. The Green Den is an international consultancy which focuses on corporate social responsibility issues. I learned that Akhila had met her team via social media and thought my readers might like to hear their story.
As Fareed Zakaria would say, “Let’s get started,”
CO: Akhila, first off, could you please tell us a little about yourself?
AV: Growing up in India exposed to me various cultural and social backgrounds as well as to the fragilities and beauties of the natural world. I grew up with ingrained principles of ‘waste not, want not’ ‘reduce recycle reuse’ etc which has gone on to become mantras of the global environmental movement. I went away to Scotland for six years to do my undergraduate in Molecular Biology – I was always interested in biology and an innate sense of respect for the environment stemmed from not just my education but also my upbringing. This I suppose evolved to pursuing environmental studies, working in the field, volunteering and finally focussing on CSR. I enjoy photography and I suppose that coincidies with liking to be outdoors – both of which I don’t get to do as often as I like. I also really love to travel and of course I deal with a lot of guilt in regards to that! I’m a huge foodie and yoga nut, read a lot and enjoy music. At the end of the day it is a balancing act of what you like to do, learning new things and what you have to do.
CO: I can understand the travel guilt. I have family in North and South America, as well as Asia, so there’s the constant struggle of cost and carbon to deal with in visiting family and exploring the world.
Let’s turn to your firm. Since the Green Den is fairly dispersed, could you give us an idea of how the group operates and what kind of projects/problems you are currently focusing on?
AV: We have a good mix of consultants in terms of cultural background, academic training and work experience. We understand sustainability challenges to businesses with various perspectives. With our varied cultural and educational backgrounds and experiences we cover many industries and specialities that will be very beneficial to multi-dimensional businesses. Some of us are more economy oriented and other of us are more scientific oriented – due to all these different backgrounds, we are more flexible and are able to understand our customers’ problems and needs better. Through our approach, we’re creating a “knowledge base”, based on our expertise of the local markets in which we operate, our experience in a variety of industries, working with large enterprises, SMBs, government and non profit sector. This very unique network has already generated requests from other CSR practitioners interested by the way we envision our collaborative approach. At this point it would be ideal for us to put all these various experiences to use and work on a company that has a fledging CSR program and bring it up to world standard. Our consultants are on the ground in different geographical locations giving us a from the field perspective and local advantage. I am a big proponent of systems thinking, so the other biggest thing that we want to focus on is to bring holistic solutions to environmental and social problems. We live across four timezones and in reality, GDC never sleeps!
CO: Systems thinking seems critical to a sustainable future. I hope more people will quickly realize that.
As I stated earlier, I’ve learned that the Green Den formed out of a group which came together over social media. Could you share how that happened?
AV: I think that most good ideas come to you in fragments, over a period of time rather than in a flash and this was the case with Green Den. I was mulling around in my head about what I wanted to change and how – during this point in time I was a freelance consultant with a couple of years of SME experience as well as NGO experience. I was also certified as a CSR-P so this is where I knew I wanted to make a change – specifically I wanted to work with small/medium sized businesses from ground up to give them opportunities to come up with strategic CSR initiatives with real business paybacks. I wanted to bring together a bunch of consultants with the same goals to work on local projects with a global outlook. Also, the lack of exciting opportunities in the job market spurred me on.
The whole process I would say took two years – most of it was conceptualization in my head – that took a good year. The real challenge as with any entrepreneurial venture is to overleap the bonds of uncertainty. I suppose it began with the blog I started writing also called Green Den. Then when I started tweeting a year ago and exchanging ideas with people and learning more about CSR challenges, reading more, working more I reached the conclusion that I did have a valid business model. After that, GDC gathered steam – I pitched the idea to the people who are now my core team. I imagine we are the first international consultancy to be born out of social media. We are remote-based, with different academic and cultural backgrounds but at the end of the day we speak the same language.
CO: It is amazing the way things have developed in recent years. As little as five years ago it would have been unlikely, if even possible, for your firm to have materialized. As someone who experienced this rapid transition firsthand, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the possibilities of the medium. A lot of people are using social media as a connector or also an education tool, but it’s still rapidly evolving. Do you see it evolving into a marketplace for services or something else?
AV: I’m definitely no social media expert and I am only just scratching the surface of its potential myself. However, I think it is safe to say that the potential is endless. I suppose because of its interactive nature, quickness and ease of use everybody who has an idea can get on a platform and talk about what they have to say. The other great thing is that it enables you to connect with resources and people with ideas in your own field. Also I suppose the impersonally personal medium of the internet helps to break down barriers faster.
CO: I can agree with that sentiment. It’s amazing how much you can learn and who you can connect with given a little effort and proper decorum.
Okay, we’ve arrived at the last question. I’ll make it a fairly open one: Where do you see the Green Den heading in the future?
AV: I see us constantly evolving to fit itself with what sustainability demands. Sustainability itself is a very dynamic concept and unless consultancies and consultants aim to align themselves with what it demands, there is not going to be much change in the way issues are tackled. Within this context, I think the future for GDC is endless not just in terms of physical expansion but also the kind of consultants we would want to work with in the future, clients and projects. There are a few definite plans for sure but still too early to say how they will shape up.
CO: Akhila, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I’d like to wish you, and the Green Den Consultancy, a prosperous and sustainable future!