A Heartening Story of Collaboration, from rain city

I love my job.

Ok, every day except for the days where I loathe my job, I love it.  There’s a lot of face time spent with people doing fascinating work and a lot of time nose-down, eyes glazed, gazing into a glowing screen.  I’ll let you guess which days I favour, because I bet you feel the same way as I do.

A year ago, our team outlined the Core Beliefs and Passions of our organization as part of a strategic planning process.  We did it to help us make sure that every grant we pursue or contract we land is rooted in doing something that, no matter how many spreadsheets it involves, is something that inspires us.

I recently moved out West to grow My Sustainable Canada’s work on Vancouver’s rainy grey wet heart-breaking  heart-wrenching shores.  The city is growing on me and that’s the story I want to share with you now, but for a while there, it was relentlessly wet and that’s all I could think about.  I think Ryan Gosling even made a movie about the rain.

The Notebook (2004) Quote (About break ups, breakup, divorce, forever, gif, love, make up, over, rain, rebound)

Thankfully, it is over, for now.

Earlier this spring, a contract came up issued by the City of Vancouver.  They wanted help figuring out how to address the gaps in the local food system here.  I started this job to work on building sustainable food systems and here was a chance to work with the world’s self-proclaimed Greenest City.  We decided to bid on the contract.  But I told Tania I wanted an “on the ground partner to go should to shoulder with on this thing,” someone who could over my blind spots and help me carry the umbrella.

Enter here, Core Belief #6.

Core Belief #6:
We believe in the power of collaborations and
surrounding ourselves
with talented partners,
to do the best work.

Tania is a smart leader, so she basically asked me what I was going to do about it.

I’ve spent the better part of the last two years advocating that if you want something, mostly in the context of local food, “just ask” for it.  So we put the ask out to our network for someone with a complementary skill-set who could cover my weaknesses (morale in the rain + number’zzzz).


Bold to the point.
Final moments at TEDx Bled in Slovenia last March.

A few degrees of separation later, Annie Lambla appeared.

Annie had just wrapped up her MBA, had a few hundred kilometres on her bike peddling around the eastern US teaching people about yogurt, had run a grocery store in Chicago, and was at least as nostalgic about her time in Turkey, where she was a copy editor at an English daily, as I was.  If you’ve ever wondered what a study in contrasts looks like, I can tell you it feels like a powerful force.  My gut signed on in a heartbeat and to our good fortune, so did Annie.

The first good sign for this partnership came when the City of Vancouver emailed me to say they wanted us.  She would be the numbers, I would be the stories. Perhaps not so surprisingly, such a clean division of labour didn’t make sense.  Two months later, Annie and I have tag-teamed to connect with over a thousand stakeholders, we’ve had generative conversations that wouldn’t have been possible staring at a computer or working with someone who wasn’t as curious and sharp as she is, and yes, she delivered on the numbers – opening me to the world of sensitivity analyses and growth rates.  I think she may have single-handedly also stopped the rain.

At My Sustainable Canada, we believe in the power of collaborations and surrounding ourselves with talented partners, not just to do the best work, but to learn more about ourselves, to push our comfort zones, to think in new ways, and to go places we would never have otherwise gone alone.


Field research: Annie getting cozy with the crustaceans as we scope out the BC Spot Prawn Festival for good ideas.

And what sets apart a competent partner from an excellent partner is one who does not just deliver what she’s asked, but who is as ready to lead as she is to follow, when she sees a moment that’s hers.  It’s this, and her home-made Camembert, that make me pretty grateful to have Annie as a collaborator for a project that was ambitious, big, and beyond my solo-abilities.

I love this job because when you work with a group of people who share the same core beliefs, and who encourage you to ask for what you need and push you to go find it, sometimes you get lucky and the universe delivers it in spades… or rather, in the package of a remarkably talented, bike-pedaling, numbers-crunching new ally – and friend.


To see more of Annie’s work, check out her blog 


Come back later this week to hear from that smart leading Executive Director of ours, Tania Del Hasta Pronto.  Maybe she’ll extol upon us the wonders of her 5 am work routine and reveal the elixir that gets her up early and working in the fast lane all the day-long.  Maybe, I said maybe.  Wait and see! 



Professional Development: My Three Year Anniversary with MSC

It has now been 3 years since I started working for MSC – I began in June 2010, thanks to an environmental internship fund. As a hoarder of electronic mail (despite the associated energy costs), I was able to glance through my emails from June 2010 and onward. These historic records provide not only a reminder of what My Sustainable Canada was like three years ago, but what I was like myself.

In the first year, I supported a wide variety of projects with behind-the-scenes research, learning about energy efficiency, local food procurement, and fleet vehicle monitoring. I also assisted with a major website overhaul and the establishment of our Facebook and Twitter pages. I did not have much of a public presence.

A lot has changed since then. My Sustainable Canada has a growing core of staff, a refreshed and proactive Board, and continues to strengthen relationships and build a quality reputation in areas such as local food procurement and energy efficiency outreach. As the coordinator of the ENERGY STAR Health Care Energy Leadership Program, I am learning to shoulder more responsibility and connect with potential project partners for a second year of program development – a prospect that would have terrified me three years ago. Over time, I have grown more comfortable with myself and others, thanks to experiences I have had with MSC: presenting live, delivering webinars, and calling up potential project partners.

Last weekend I was at a local event called Ecofest, showing visitors a prototype ‘app’ that MSC is working on. The app is intended to help customers of electronics and appliances find and compare energy efficient options. It was gratifying to receive such a positive reaction to our work from the public, even though I have had very little direct involvement with this particular project.

I guess you could say that MSC and I are growing up, and I look forward to helping MSC develop further, and to being further developed by MSC.

As an aside, I’d like to wish the best to Hayley Lapalme, who is preparing to walk into Vancouver City Hall with recommendations for the City of Vancouver’s Food Hub Steering Committee. Stay tuned for her update next week!

Digging in: a metaphor for sustainable action

Between my academic and work lives, I’ve spent a lot of time researching various environmental issues. I’ve also spent a lot of time preparing presentations on these issues, and there’s no better way to grab the audience’s attention than a good graph. Especially a logarithmic graph. You know, the ones that start off slow and then hit a tipping point and explode.  Graphs of the human population, or greenhouse gas emissions over time are the best examples.  They’re all scary, they’re mostly all accurate, and they usually leave you feeling like this.

Figure 1: Human Population over time (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population)

I have two problems with graphs like these.  First, I don’t think they’re very effective at motivating people to grab some shovels and do some work.  Second, the upward trajectories of graphs like these make for terrible metaphors.  We’re not building and improving, we’re digging ourselves into a giant hole!  Fixing the metaphor is pretty simple though: just invert the graph.  Now, instead of build up over time, we’re crashing down. To further set the stage for the metaphor, visualize these graphs as physical paths and trajectories (you start at the top of a hill and end up crashing down towards… something).  Then add in Newton’s Laws of Motion (you know, stuff about acceleration, force, and inertia).  If you put a ball at the start of the path to represent “us”, just give it a push and set it in motion.  The trajectory of the ball is down, and it’s picking up steam.

What we’re trying to do at MSC is to find new ways to come together and push back against that decline. To flatten out our global trajectory.   But it’s hard.  Really hard.  Societal norms are entrenched, and the systems that need to change have incredible inertia. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act.  In fact, it means that we should ALL act.  The trouble is that on our own we feel like this thing will flatten us, like we’re throwing a pebble at a charging bull.  But if we all push together and dig our heels in, our cumulative action will have a big impact.  The more we push, the more we can flatten out that trajectory, and the closer we’ll get to halting our decline.  At MSC, we want to find ways to bring people and organizations together, to dig in and make changes.

Brendan Wylie-Toal

Things I’ve Learned as a Social Entrepreneur

The purpose of this blog is to give readers a glimpse into the behind the scenes workings of the organization and into the people that are MSC.  So here we go.

I thought I’d start this first post based on a presentation I gave recently to a group of senior undergraduate Environment and Business students at the University of Waterloo.  I was asked to deliver a presentation on the Story of MSC.    As a co-founder of MSC, the story is full of layers—some of which are the personal trials and tribulations of a social entrepreneur who has seen her share of successes, failures, struggles, excitement and fear.  It’s been a rewarding and challenging journey without question.   And if there’s one ability that I continue to rely upon, it is courage.

So back to the presentation I gave to the students that day…  I chose to include several slides on “Things I’ve Learned” as a social entrepreneur and I will share these with you now… drum roll please.

Things I’ve Learned:

  1. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  Perseverance and resilience are key.
  2. You’re going to make mistakes.  Learn from them and move on.
  3. Surround yourself with people smarter than you.
  4. Never miss out on an opportunity to connect with new people, you never know where a simple conversation will take you .  (More on this later)
  5. You may not have the answer today, but tomorrow is a new day and it’s amazing what sleeping on it will do.
  6. The path to success is messy.  People think it looks like a linear arrow going up, but it’s really an arrow going up with a tangled mess of spaghetti in between.
  7. Celebrate your successes.
  8. Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

So to close off on this inaugural MSC blog post, I’d like to share with you what happened after giving the presentation. Several people had come up to me afterwards, including someone from St. Paul’s University College. This person in particular began to quote #4 on the list above and had an opportunity that she wanted to discuss with me. She didn’t get into any details but we agreed that a starting point would be to have that simple conversation and we were both open to seeing where that would take us. Well, I’m pleased to report that we did have the simple conversation and it has led to a bigger opportunity—of which I could have never foreseen leading up to the day of that presentation. So what’s the bigger opportunity?

Well I have been appointed as GreenHouse Director at St. Paul’s University College — a social innovation community for undergraduate students at the University of Waterloo. This is a new and exciting project for MSC, which will involve developing student experience and learning services that provide students with the social entrepreneurial resources to explore, exchange, test and execute their environmental and/or social justice ideas. So, there you go, who knew that sharing the things I’ve learned would result in a new and exciting opportunity?

Talk soon,

Tania Del Matto