In 2007, Andy Serwer, the managing editor of FORTUNE, where I was then a senior writer, asked me to work with the magazine’s conference division to create a conference about business and the environment. His timing was excellent. Presidential candidates Obama and McCain had promised to act to curb climate change. A global climate agreement seemed possible. A wave of clean technology startups were attracting attention and investment in Silicon Valley. And big companies like General Electric and Walmart had put sustainability squarely on their corporate agendas.
On Earth Day in 2008, the inaugural Fortune Brainstorm Green was held at the Ritz Carlton Huntington hotel in Pasadena. Speakers included Michael Dell, Doug McMillon (who’s now the CEO of Walmart), venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, David Crane of NRG Energy, Gov. Jerry Brown (then the attorney general of California), Dave Steiner of Waste Management, Stewart Brand, Mark Tercek (then at Goldman, now head of The Nature Conservancy), Gary Hirshberg, Janine Benyus, J. Craig Venter, Andy Karsner, Hugh Grant of Monsanto, Ursula Burns of Xerox, Fisk Johnson of SC Johnson, and Shai Agassi, the founder of electric-car company Better Place. Some of America’s most important environmental leaders–Fred Krupp, Frances Beinecke, Peter Seligmann, Mike Brune, Mindy Lubber and John Passacandanto–spoke. Chuck Leavell played keyboards and Shawn Colvin sang. It was too much fun to be called work.
In 2009, Brainstorm Green moved to the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, CA, where it has remained. The theme of the event never changed: How can business profitably solve the world’s most important environmental problems? I’ve been co-chair of Brainstorm Green for these past seven years, and it has been, for the most part, a rewarding experience.
About a year ago, I decided that I no longer wanted to co-chair Brainstorm Green, for a variety of reasons. I liked programming the conference and I enjoyed moderating interviews and panels, but the process of recruiting speakers year after year, which requires the patient massaging of corporate egos, had become tiresome. What’s more, a good deal of the excitement that had gathered around corporate sustainability during the event’s early years has since faded. Unhappily, the politics of environmentalism turned bitterly partisan, dooming Obama’s cap-and-trade plan. The financial crisis dampened corporate enthusiasm for all things green. Clean tech slumped, and Better Place flamed out.
Last fall, Fortune rebranded Brainstorm Green as Brainstorm E: Where Energy, Technology and Sustainability Meet. It will be held on September 28 and 29 in Austin, Texas. The powers-that-be at the magazine decided that selling a “green” event to corporate sponsors had become too difficult. Perhaps they’re right.
The best thing about Brainstorm Green, I daresay, were the relationships forged there. A deal or two came out of the event — one year, Bill Ford met Zipcar chief executive Scott Griffith, and later Ford Motor bought a stake in Zipcar — and I know a couple of people landed new jobs there. That’s typical of conferences. But, at least for me, Brainstorm Green felt like more than just another “networking” event. For a few days every spring, a community of sorts formed around a shared belief that business could do good. Collectively, we were trying to make that happen. I’m going to miss many of the Brainstorm Green regulars (yes, that means you, Dhiraj Malkani) as well as the Fortune colleagues with whom I worked so closely over the years, particularly the incomparable Tony Hansen.
These days, I’m spending most of my time writing for Guardian Sustainable Business. But stepping away from Brainstorm Green will give me time for other pursuits. I’ve got a new project in mind (watch this space) and I’m also hoping to moderate at other conferences and corporate events. To that end, I’ve put together these excerpts from my moderating work.