Sally Hill was interviewed by Siobhan Toohill in October 2013.
SIOBHAN: Tonight we’re thrilled to be joined by Sally Hill who is amongst many other things, the co-founder of Wildwon, an experience design and event production company that works on projects and events around food, sustainability and community. Sally has worked for the WWF, runs a sustainability blog called Sustahood, and is one of the forces behind the Youth Food Movement. So she has her fingers, if you’ll pardon the pun, in many proverbial pies. Sally joins us in our kitchen this evening to share some of her ideas and experiences. Welcome to Out the Front Sally.
SIOBHAN: Sally I think when I first saw you or met you, you were talking about passata in the turfed lane way in Sydney city, and I think at the time you were under the banner of Sustahood. You now run your own events organisation Wildwon – perhaps if you could tell me a bit about what is Wildwon.
SALLY: Wildwon Projects as we call ourselves, because we work on a very very broad range of projects – we’re an experience design company. And that concept of experience design largely takes the form of events at the moment, but we also work across communications and digital production, and both myself and my business partner Yvonne have a background in sustainability and social change. We’re both really passionate and driven by a desire to change our world for the better. What we do is we try to create experiences for people that inspire individuals and also organisations to change their behaviour, their attitudes or what they do for the better. And we not only inspire that change – we also embed it and put a strategy in place to make sure that change is seen through to fruition.
SIOBHAN: I’m curious – why the name Wildwon?
SALLY: That’s an interesting one – I don’t know whether you’ve ever had to name a company before – it’s a very challenging task because you’re being asked to name something that is part of your self. It’s a bit like a child, I’m guessing, and it’s a huge responsibility and you want to give it an appropriate name. It takes a lot of deliberation, but the Wildwon name comes from a feeling that both Yvonne and I had about business and the world, and our communities that we were living in, that we were faced with a challenge greater than ourselves. Wildwon is our response to that challenge. And the wild, in the sense of nature, and the unknown, and the future that’s ahead of us, we believe that the wild will always win. Nature is always the bigger player in what we’re doing, and we need to see our role and humble ourselves in the face of that. Wildwon is about the fact that nature and the wild will always win, and we need to respect that. And that’s what the company was founded in.
SIOBHAN: I love how also there’s a sense of fun around that. I think sometimes in sustainability we can get caught up on being a bit earnest, but I think Wildwon speaks to a sense of fun and excitement, and we can have joy in trying to create social change, and that makes me think about the work you’ve been doing with the Youth Food Movement because there is a sense of real celebration. Perhaps if you could talk a bit about Youth Food Movement and the role that you’ve played there.
SALLY: I came across the Youth Food Movement when I was working at Digital Eskimo and we were working with Dave Gravina, who’s kind of a mover and shaker in Sydney around cycling culture, a real amazing activist on climate change, and he had run an event called Keep It Real, which is a cycling event tied in with 350.org's day of action. He wanted to run another event and didn’t quite know what to do. He tasked myself and Yvonne with creating an event that would be bicycle themed, and we could do whatever else we wanted to do with it. Being us we decided to create a cycling and food event called the Moving Feast. And we didn’t know at the time, but we put the day of the event exactly one week before another event that was being held by a group called the Youth Food Movement which was the Ride-On Lunch.
We realised as we were planning this event that we’d created a competing event, which was exactly the same theme, a very niche theme which was a cycling and food event. We didn’t want to clash and compete, and so we met with two amazing women called Alexandra [Iljadica] and Joanna [Baker] who founded the Youth Food Movement in Australia and we decided to join forces so they helped us with our event the Moving Feast, and we helped them with their event the Ride-On Lunch. As we started working with them we just fell in love with what they were doing. Yvonne has a real passion for food histories and food culture, and I see food as a really important part of sustainability. At the time, well, during my time at the Youth Food Movement I also worked for the WWF and their strategy for corporate engagement largely focuses around food because food is one of the key commodities that moves around the globe, and it’s one of our biggest impacts as humans – how we produce and consume food. So we got heavily involved in this group really quickly found an amazing energetic group of young people – skilled professionals as well.
Something that I really appreciate in any kind of community group is a culture of excellence, rather than a passionate amateurism which can occasionally occur when groups are really passionate around an issue. This was a group that had a culture of excellence and wanted to apply all the skills they possibly could to a problem. Yeah over the course of the year working pretty hard as volunteers for the YFM we produced events like Passata Day which is the one you heard about in the lane. It’s an event around the Italian tradition of crushing and preserving tomatoes which is a dying art unfortunately, but the YFM is determined to keep in touch with our manna-technology or the skills we can learn from our grandparents. That was a pretty amazing day, which is an annual day and we’re trying to create a DIY Passata Day that anyone can do. We also put on subsequent Ride-On Lunches which became more and more popular. The City of Sydney has grabbed on to that model and they want to use it to increase the community engagement on cycling and also alternative ways of sourcing food. As in alternatives to shopping at your local supermarket they want to use the Ride-On Lunch model to showcase local farmer’s markets, local businesses who are sourcing food and producing food differently.
Yvonne and I are still enormous supporters of the YFM but we’ve taken a bit of a step back and it’s amazing to watch the amount of energy and people that it’s pulling towards it now. We feel like it doesn’t really need us anymore and it’s one of those things that has a bit of a life of its own. They’ve received grants from the NSW state government on Love Food Hate Waste programs and they’re also collaborating with OzHarvest now, and they’re doing bigger and better things all the time.
SIOBHAN: It sounds like you are someone who’s doing lots of different things at the same time. When I first heard you talking about passata and the Youth Food Movement, you were working at WWF. What sort of work were you doing at WWF and how does this feed into the work you’re doing now?
SALLY: Mmmm that’s an interesting question. I ended up at WWF through a really intense interest in corporate sustainability and I had through some time been in London working in CSR and also sustainability communications – I’d developed a really keen interest and also I had a belief that corporate interests were to blame for a lot of problems that we’re facing in terms of social problems and environmental problems and so I also saw them as a solution.
I had a lot of time reading and thinking about that when I was in London then I came back to Australia and decided that WWF was a place that I really wanted to be. I felt like my own values were very much aligned with the organisation and this is somewhere I wanted to be working. I really enjoyed my time there and WWF is doing some amazing things especially at the global level. They’ve got change strategists working on the Common Cause report which is now changing the shape of campaigning across the globe. They’ve got a really important strategic plan around how they engage with corporates. They figured out that around 70% of the world’s resources – as in 70% of all commodities whether that be timber, soy, palm oil, milk or meat – you name it, passes through the hands of about 100 companies worldwide. So if they could target these 100 companies and create a sustainable supply chain that was quite comprehensive within these companies they would touch most of the world’s commodities and most of the raw materials that we deal with. So their strategy is amazing.
I worked on a a few really interesting projects, particularly around seafood in Australia, and soy and beef. The environmental impacts you’re talking about with those commodities are the Great Barrier Reef and the marine protected areas all around the world. While it was very interesting work, great experience and a great organisation, it did help to shape what I did after that. While I respect the work of the WWF and the environmental NGOs I have a philosophical position which is that very often the relationship between corporates and not-for-profits isn’t a particularly productive one.
The way I’d explain this – it’s hard to put into words – but I’ll use the words of Peter Buffett which I’ve been reading about lately. He’s a very interesting guy. Peter is the son of Warren Buffett and Warren Buffett famously decided to that he would leave most of his fortune to his foundation. So he’s a famous philanthropist. He made a decision that at a certain point in his life he would give away all of his money. He also invested quite a lot of money into three foundations that he said would be managed by his children. One of these is Peter Buffett. So Peter was thrust into this world of philanthropy. I read a New York Times article by Peter saying he found himself at the table with heads of state and heads of some of the largest companies in the world. The way he described it was that these guys were sitting around trying to solve problems with their right hand that they were causing with their left hand.
To me that’s the crucial problem that we see when we have not-for-profits and environmental NGOs trying to solve a lot of problems, but they’re doing it with funds that have come from corporates, which are funds that have been generated from exploitation at some level. So environmental exploitation or human exploitation. When you’re a person who sees systems and thinks in this way it’s a real challenge to work in that way. Part of the reason I decided I didn’t want to work there anymore and to start my own company is that I believe you can be working for for-profits, that you can be generating an income, generating a profit, but you can also be generating a positive benefit socially and environmentally at the same time. There are a whole lot of structures in place still which mean that it’s very difficult to do. Capitalism as we know it hasn’t evolved to the point where that’s straightforward, but that’s what we’re forging and trying to create as WildWon along with a lot of other companies.
SIOBHAN: Does that mean your Wildwon is only going to work with those organisations that are for you creating a net positive outcome, or are you prepared to work with organisations that are on the journey. Do you have a philosophical position around who you do and don’t work with?
SALLY: We have a one project rule at the moment. That means that we work with anyone who would like to work with us, and while that sounds contrary to our values, we try to have an open approach. The kind of approach that we would hope that company would have towards us. We don’t have closed doors – we want to work with anyone. The thing that would decide whether we continue to work with someone is whether they have an openness to change and whether they are prepared to be transformative themselves.
Maybe that’s the client – the direct person we’re working with in the company, and whether the company as a whole has a general attitude of openness and whether they’re willing to adapt, and whether they’re willing to take on what we do. And we find that often what attracts people to us is the fact that we’re really different, and that we might have something fresh to share and contribute to their company.
Right now we work with yes some large companies, some NGOs, some research bodies, and some community groups. So the range of work is broad. We’re still subject to system where we have to strive to exist as a business having a positive impact, but also supporting ourselves and existing. At the moment it’s just part of our mission.
Right now I feel the biggest thing we can do is exist, and continue to be viable as a business and demonstrate that at least this kind of business, one that’s truly lead by its values, and it’s truly doing the best it possibly can, to only have a positive impact, not a negative one, can exist.
SIOBHAN: It’s a very different way to creating change to the work you must have been doing at Get Up.
SALLY: I started my career at GetUp. That was a wonderful place to work. I was at university. It was the very beginnings of digital campaigning. GetUp was born out of the same thinking and experimentation that started MoveOn in the US, which bred the Obama campaign, and the micro-donation model of campaign fundraising and the widespread mobilisation of communities in the US. That came to Australia though GetUp and we were barely touching social media at that point. We were just working on email campaigns, and that’s still the bread and butter of GetUp – the email campaigns.
SIOBHAN: I think it’s the bread and butter of most people working in digital.
SALLY: We still cross paths with them actually. There’s a space in Surry Hills called the Campaignery that houses quite a lot of progressive organisation like change.org, GetUp, Avaaz, Agency who do creative work for social change. They’re an amazing community legitimising themselves by putting their stamp on the world – we are this whole organisation, this whole building doing work for social change.
SIOBHAN: We’re both people who are interested and concerned about climate change. Is there a moment in time when you reflect back – the moment when you thought this is the kind of work I want to do, to focus in my life? Are there some pivotal points for you?
SALLY: Yeah definitely. When I look back on it I’m often surprised at how long it took me to get to that point. I mean everyone in a way we’re all surrounded by this news and this information that climate change is bearing down on us. I was working at GetUp for a long time surrounded by climate activists. My heart was still in campaigning around social issues and human rights issues. It didn’t quite hit me how serious the situation was.
And I think I can pinpoint a time when I was in London and I’d signed myself up for a course around corporate social responsibility, but the person who taught the course was the Professor of Sustainable Development at Cambridge University and he was very clever at bringing people right along to his point of view. He talked through WWF’s Living Planet Report that says at the time we’re three planet lifestyles, I think it’s now up to about five – but three plane lifestyles on the lonely planet and we’re eating into our bio-capacity.
We’re not only eating through resources, but we’re eating into the earth’s ability to regenerate. That hit me with the full weight that it should have and I knew at that point I’d be working on that issue for the rest of my life.
SIOBHAN: Even before that given that you were working in human rights issues, and you were working effectively as an activist in an activist organisation. Is there a time before that when you decided that was the path you wanted to take. This focus that’s very much around eco-justice or social justice. Or is it something that’s always just been in there?
SALLY: I don’t know. I can remember being exposed to history really early in my life. My dad was a history major at university and he was always about context and history. I think that’s a really solid grounding for thinking about why things happen, why things are, and the fact that things don’t have to be the way they are. And when you observe social movements and when social change has happened in history, it makes you realise the world now isn’t the way the world is going to be and you can be quite tactical about how you want the future to turn out.
SIOBHAN: Are there any particular leaders, or is there a form of leadership that you take your inspiration from.
SALLY: I don’t know. I’ve been exposed to a lot of great leaders in my career and the people I look to most now are those – I really admire people who are able to work on these enormous challenges and remain positive and remain hopeful in the face of it all. I think that true leadership is when you can call on your inner strength to work on something despite all the odds. And that’s what everyone’s done I mean through all social movements in history. Some of the greatest speeches in history have been given about seeing light – light on the hill kind of stuff. You need to overcome your personal stuff, and dig deep.
SIOBHAN: Is that what you gained from your experience in the Centre for Sustainability Leadership? And being exposed to the leadership, but also learning about leadership from other people on the journey with you?
SALLY: I went through the Centre for Sustainability Leadership course in 2011 and it’s an amazing contribution to the future of Australia. It was set up by Larissa Brown and it’s been running in Melbourne and Sydney. It equips leaders with the philosophy that we aren’t going to get people in positions of power to change their opinions, so what we had to do was get people who are passionate about sustainability into positions of power. So it equips people who already have the right values in place with the skills they need to succeed and to create influence.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned during that course was that some of the skills and people that I have looked up to in terms of being amazing public speakers, or amazing leaders, I’d often thought they were just born that way, or they just had it in them, and I learned that most of the things people do are a learned skill. But they were driven by purpose and if you can find that purpose you can find a way to do almost anything. I was terrified of public speaking when I started that course in 2011, and within a year of coaching and support of a community in doing really scary things within that comfort zone of a group of about twenty people who supported you gave you a lot of strength to go out into the broader world, outside the comfort zone, and do things.
I think public speaking is an incredibly important skill when you want to influence change. And that’s just one example of the kind of impact it can have on an individual and their capacity for creating change.
SIOBHAN: So you talk about the importance of purpose, and you also mention drawing energy from people who take a positive view. With that in mind what are you looking forward to?
SALLY: I am looking forward to Wildwon creating some incredible experience and I want to be able to say that we’re going to do some things for the first time ever in Australia. There are some amazing things to look to overseas, for example, whole summits that are being held in forests and on top of mountains. There’s examples in the UK of leaders being hand-picked from across industries to be taken on six week trips out into the wilderness, and change personally in the hope of them going out and changing their organisation, and their industries. We want to try and create similar change through experience. I’m also really excited about all the moving parts that are going on in the world in terms of every industry going through an amazing transformation.
Every part of our economy is undergoing a transformation right now. We’ve just recently had a woman come over from Edinburgh University to study our company and others, because she sees us as part of the new economy that is emerging, and it’s really exciting to be a part of that. There’s also legal structures that are shifting, and there’s a new entity or a new idea called the benefit corporation which is gaining prominence. It’s now law in twenty states in America, and the benefit corporation is all about changing the structures – companies currently only operate to serve profit motive and that’s really damaging for every other outcome you might want to achieve in the world.
Companies operate at the expense of the environment and society, usually. B-Corp is all about changing that gearing and so we’re very excited to be slowly going through the process of becoming a B-Corp which will take us probably a number of years, but we’re undergoing that process. That’s just one really nice signal that things are shifting.
SIOBHAN: I think that’s really exciting. With Wildwon not only focused on this positive outcome, but people are at the heart of the organisation and it’s about social experience. Something I won’t forget is going along to an event that you recently ran at the launch of the Sydney Hub, you were running that event with cutlery and crockery from your own homes, and I remember a discussion that we had about that afterwards, and how you talked about the fact there was a little bit of you on the table. I’d like to thank you tonight for being at our table and bringing yourself to our radio show tonight.
SALLY: Thank you it was lovely being here. Thanks for the pasta.
Interview: Siobhan Toohill
Photography: Dean Sewell / Oculi
Art direction: Sara Jinga
Transcript: Adrian Wiggins
Published by: Adrian Wiggins in Interviews