“I channel the power of civil society movements to create enduring, positive change toward social and environmental justice for the underrepresented.”
That’s how Darryl Knudsen, Executive Director of International Rivers, describes his personal mission. While the actual mission statement was only crafted recently, the content of the mission has guided Darryl throughout his career, which spans many roles within the private and public sectors. Everything Darryl has done in his career has prepared him for his current, perfect-fit role.
In this moving episode, Darryl also shares his battle with depression and the inspiring work he did to address it so that he could better lead and live a fulfilling and purpose-filled life.
Meet the Guest
Darryl Knudsen, Executive Director of International Rivers, oversees all aspects of International Rivers’ management – strategy, programs, operations, and finances. He seeks to unleash the greatness of the International Rivers’ staff, Board, partners, and stakeholders to further our mission of healthy rivers and communities. Darryl has 20 years’ experience in more than 30 countries channeling the power of civil society movements to create enduring, positive change toward social and environmental justice for the underrepresented.
Having spent much of his career within the corporate sector at the nexus of business, human rights, and global economic systems, Darryl worked to transform the apparel and retail sectors’ supply chain practices on labor, human, and gender rights. He provided leadership to win challenging human rights campaigns, such as ending pervasive forced child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry; helped to secure and distribute millions of dollars in support of trade unions and improved working conditions globally; and garnered powerful political support to protect local human rights leaders. Darryl was appointed by two US Secretaries of Labor to serve on a National Advisory Committee focused on trade and labor rights issues and has served on numerous cross-sector boards, committees, and working groups to advance human rights.
Darryl has a deep love of rivers. He is an avid whitewater paddler of nearly 30 years and a former river guide. Darryl holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University and a BA from Dartmouth College.
To learn more about International Rivers or make a donation visit:
We also recommend following Darryl’s blog where he shares his thoughts and call to action.
Beth Davies, host: Welcome to Career Curves, where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are. I'm your host Beth Davies.
We often hear that a personal mission can be quite powerful, giving purpose and meaning to our lives. Guiding our decisions about what career moves to make and which moves not to make. While few of us are clear on our mission, my guest on this episode, Darryl Knudsen, is very clear on his.
Darryl Knudsen, guest: I channel the power of civil society movements to create enduring, positive change towards social and environmental justice for the underrepresented.
Beth: It's a powerful mission and its especially relevant today as Black Lives Matter protests happen worldwide.
I'm excited to have Darryl here to answer some questions, including when he created his mission and how it's evolved over time. How and why he selected the jobs he did over the 20 years that he's worked within the corporate, NGO, and government sectors. And, how he developed the skills he needed to do the work he does –linking global public policy to local impact, driving change, and advancing action on human rights, water, climate change, and energy?
Darryl, I'm happy you're here and I'd love to get started and ask you some questions.
Darryl: Looking forward to it.
Beth: You actually recently made a career move and became the Executive Director of International Rivers.
Darryl: That's right.
Beth: So what are you going to be doing in this role?
Darryl: First of all, I'm just so thrilled to be joining the organization, Beth. It's as though the job had been designed for me.
Beth: I love that.
Darryl: My whole life I've been doing various things and it feels like I've been preparing for this my whole life, even though it wasn't on purpose. It was following my passions and they seem to have come together into this role.
Beth: Did you find this role or did this role find you?
Darryl: That's a good question. The role found me in a way.
Beth: Tell me the story of how it happened.
Darryl: Well, I was trying to re-center myself in a transition moment. A lot of that has been focused on planning and how do I get from here to there, but here and there, I've said, "You know, I really need to look inward and figure out what I'm passionate about."
So as part of that process, the opportunity came along to go on a trip on the headwaters of the Amazon. So this was actually a two-week trip on the river. It was a Centennial celebration for my college kayaking club. And I couldn't say no.
As I was preparing for this, I learned that some dams were planned for this river, for the headwaters of the Amazon, one of the last free flowing major rivers in the world. And it reminded me of another opportunity I had 20 years ago when I went to some river and there were dams slated for that one as well. At the time, I didn't have that much experience with global policy or human rights. And I thought to myself, "Wow, maybe I can be helpful this time.”
So I looked into this river and found International Rivers. I reached out to them, to the interim Executive Director and the head of Latin American said, "Hey, I'm going down to this river. I have a human rights background. Anything I can do to be helpful?" And, we started chatting and decided on some things I could do. When I came back to talk to her about some of the interviews I'd done with river communities, some of the pictures I'd taken, I learned that they were advertising for an Executive Director position. I wasn't looking for a job at that point, but the job was just so perfect that I decided to throw my hat in the ring.
Beth: And then you got it. So, as the Executive Director at International Rivers, what is your role?
Darryl: Well, the role is to be managing every aspect of the organization so the simplest way to describe it for people who may not be familiar with what an Executive Director of a nonprofit does, is if it were a company, it would be like being the CEO of the organization. So I'm responsible for hiring and managing and unleashing the talent within the organization. For advancing our mission. For making sure we have strategies that are in service to our mission and our vision. I'm responsible for our finances and making sure that we're solvent and, relatedly, to fundraising. And that's a big part of the role of an Executive Director is to be talking to donors, be talking to people who believe in the mission, and helping them understand how they can help us advance that mission.
Beth: Tell me about your team. How big is the team?
Darryl: The team itself is about 26 people. They are from 12 different countries. They're based in nine different countries and on six continents. I love saying that. On six continents. So we're everywhere but Antarctica.
Beth: So, what is the work that International Rivers does?
Darryl: Most of the work is centered in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. And we do a number of things to try to protect rivers and defend the rights of communities that depend on them. We're best known for our work to help public and industry and governments understand how destructive mega-dams can be.
I've learned so much about this since I came on board. For example, I always thought dams were great for climate change. And I thought, "Well, how are we going to balance these competing interests?" It turns out that every year reservoirs emit 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is an equivalent amount of the entire global airline industry. So actually, dams are not good for climate change.
And I also didn't realize that rivers are the most bio diversely, dense habitat in the world. So we have so many programs on these kinds of issues and part of my job is to help the organization think about how can we learn cross regionally? How can we take learnings from Brazil and apply them in South Africa? Helping connect that work to global policy dialogues around international governance of rivers, lasting protections for rivers and around movement building so that people who depend on rivers, which ultimately is all of us although some more than others, have a voice in how these rivers are used. And we can move from a model of extractive development – taking things out of the natural environment – to one that is more restorative.
Beth: You've planted lots of seeds that raise the question of, "Okay, so how did you get here and how did this become the perfect role, the perfect opportunity, for this place in your career?" So, let's go back in time and figure out what was happening that led you here. And I'd actually like to go all the way back to your childhood. So tell me about where you grew up. Tell me a little bit about your family.
Darryl: Well, I grew up all over the world, all over the United States and somewhat over the world. My dad was in the Air Force for 23 years and we moved about every three years. I was born in Mississippi, in the South, and we lived in North Carolina. I lived in Colorado and upstate New York. And I was really lucky that at a formative time we lived in Okinawa, Japan. This was when I was 8-11 years old and really engaged with the culture while I was there. That's on my mom. She was always wonderful about building community.
So when I was in Okinawa, I got to know a lot about Japan and Japanese culture. And we traveled a little bit around the region. That's when I first was directly exposed to the extreme differences in wealth that exists between the developed and developing world, and certainly was one of the building blocks that led me to my career in human rights.
Beth: Do you remember, as a child, starting to say to yourself, "This is the kind of work I want to be doing or I want to do something about this," or was it just an awareness in the back of your mind?
Darryl: I think my mission has always been with me, but it certainly hasn't always been clear to me. It's been a matter of paying attention and unpacking. So at that age, no, I didn't know I wanted to work in international policy. I didn't know I wanted to work in human rights. I knew that I was interested in justice. I cared about fairness. I saw the humanity in people around me, even when their circumstances were different. And, I felt called to those issues. I didn't quite know what that was going to look like.
I think when I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. I remember sitting in class reading my textbooks, thinking, "You know, a real bummer that Marie Curie figured this one out because there's nothing left to do."
Beth: Nothing left to do.
Darryl: "It's a real bummer that the civil rights movement happened in the sixties because, gosh, I feel like I would've liked to have been a part of that and help stand with Black people for justice, but that's all already solved."
Well, as I got older, I learned, of course that's not true. There are a lot of problems to work on, including racial justice in the United States.
Beth: So you just mentioned that you had thought about being a scientist. As you were finishing up high school and getting ready to go off to college, is that what you were thinking about or was it some of these other seeds that were being planted about the global community and the inequities or picking up on these movements that still needed work to be done?
Darryl: By the time I went to college, I was leaning more towards social sciences. I spent my senior year in Germany and that wasn't with my parents. I applied for a scholarship to be an exchange student in Germany for a year while I was living in North Dakota. I'd grown up on military bases and I had a lot of opinions about the Cold War, about the world order, about lots of things. And it was the first time I really, in a deep way, experienced what it was like to be looking at these issues from a different position. So suddenly I wasn't in North Dakota where the nuclear missiles were launched from, I was in Germany where all of the missiles were pointed at. That really helped me build empathy which is a core value of mine.
And it was right after the Berlin Wall came down. It was right after the crumbling of the Soviet Bloc. That cultural mix was fascinating. And I said, "This is really cool stuff. I think I'm really good at math and science. I always thought I'd be an engineer, a scientist, but maybe social science is the way to go so I can bring these, these dimensions together."
Beth: Yeah, it really sounds like your time in Germany, you got to experience that all that work wasn't done. I mean, you were in the middle of living history while it was happening. And where did you end up going to school?
Darryl: Well, I was really fortunate and ended up getting to go to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. A great number of people graduating from my college went into a very small number of career tracks. So they would go into investment banking. They would go into management consulting, or they might become lawyers or doctors or maybe go into academia. And that was probably 90% of the people. Those paths weren't calling to me at the time.
At this point, I was a humanities major. I spoke German, Italian, a bit of Russian, and I had been accepted into one of the few majors at my college you had to apply for, which was comparative literature. There were four of us in the senior class and at one point we were going around the table and the professor – the sort of very powerful professor in this case – was asking us to say what our plans were for after college. People were talking about their research plans and I said, "I'm planning to go be a raft guide and a kayak instructor," and I said, "Then I'll see where that leads me."
She looked at me with a stern glance. I think she was probably trying to make sure that none of the other students got these crazy ideas. And she said, "Well, I'm sure that will lead you down a river." (Laughter)
Beth: So did you feel you had your parents' support for the direction you were going, even though it may have been a very different path?
Darryl: Most of the time. Doing something different was different.
What I realized was I'd been very involved in my whitewater kayaking club – the same one I got to go to Peru with this past December – and I didn't know what I wanted to do long-term, so I decided to do something that felt right in the moment and I went down to be a kayaking instructor and a raft guide in the Southeast.
At first, my folks were supportive of this. I think they became impatient with it before I did. And it really came to a head when I was trying to transition out of that work. I had an opportunity to go to Panama and this actually relates to back to my International Rivers...
Beth: To where you are now.
Darryl: To where I've ended up.
I had this opportunity to go to Panama and there were two things that were happening. One, I was asked to be part of an expedition and it was really fun. We were asked by the indigenous people who lived on this very remote river in Panama, they had just discovered that their river was slated for a dam. They'd given permission for the gauging station – they didn't know what it was – and they wanted to see if bringing commercial rafting and tourism into the region could help raise political awareness, possibly be an economic offset, and we were asked to come and assess this.
I spent six days going up the river with these folks. It was incredibly remote. We had 10 people come with us. It was risky for them. Poisonous snakes they had to deal with in our camp. At one point they said one of my friends couldn't sleep where he was sleeping because they couldn't shoot that far if a Jaguar came. And when we got to the top, they looked at us and I had 20 eyes looking at me. "Can you help us?" And at that point...
Beth: You're fresh out of college...
Darryl: I'm fresh out of college. I've been a raft guide. And at that point, I felt like I wasn't just literally in the middle of the jungle, I was figuratively in the middle of the jungle. As I reflected back on that, I often think about the quote from Archimedes, which says, "if you give me a lever long enough and the right place to stand, I will move the earth," and I just thought to myself, "Wow, I'm standing in the middle of a jungle and I have no levers and no tools to help these people with.
That's directly led to me finding my way into the field of business and human rights, and trying to build some of those levers. Twenty years later, I now have a lot of levers and now I have this amazing place to stand at International Rivers, and I'm hoping we can move the earth.
Beth: I love what you're talking about right here, because one of the things I know people wonder about a lot is, "Was there ever a job that you were offered that you turned down?" Clearly this is that story. And yet, what I'm loving about your story is you turned it down, but you didn't leave that opportunity. It stayed in you. There was the idea of it, and it still helped to form you and shape you, and obviously it led you back to it now. It's just such an interesting thing that sometimes saying no, or turning something down, doesn't actually mean that you're rejecting the whole idea. That's really cool.
So, what did you decide to do instead? So knowing that you needed to build skills and needed to build your repertoire to be able to do that kind of work, what did you decide was the next move that you should make instead of taking this one?
Darryl: Well, I think this leads to a bit of a theme for me. When I've gotten stuck, I've needed to really look inward and figure out what I'm really passionate about. And so at that time, I realized, "Okay, I'm passionate about international issues. I love being in other countries, other cultures. I have a facility with languages. That's building block #1."
I said to myself, "You know, I've always cared about human rights and oppression." I'm Jewish and learned about the Holocaust at a very young age, possibly too young of an age, but I did. That's my curiosity. Of course, there’s a historical particularity to that experience. For me, the takeaway, "Gosh, people being oppressed in a way that is genocidal, that robs them of their culture, of their lives, that's not a unique experience."
And so I learned about the Cambodian genocide. I learned about the Rwandan genocide that had just happened shortly before this. And, those things had always captured my passion. I felt that with these things going on, I just had to be involved in that in some way. So that was building block #2.
So I started looking at these things and I came across an essay by Bill Clinton in Foreign Affairs. Now this was in 1999 or 2000, so they're just been the major protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization. There was a lot of questioning about whom was globalization actually benefiting. And, he came out with this… I don’t agree with Bill Clinton on everything, for the record. Having said that, he came out with an essay which basically was saying, "Hey, there's a lot of positives that can come from cultural and economic globalization, AND a lot of damage to the environment and human rights if we don't pay attention to that." So, it was sort of a call to action. "Let's pay attention to how we can mitigate those negative impacts on the environment and human rights."
And I said, "That really speaks to me." So I started looking into that, found some books, and that's where my personal life moved me forward into my first role in the field of business and human rights.
Beth: And what was that role?
Darryl: I was a social research associate, I think, at a mutual fund that is what's called a socially responsible investment fund. And what that means is that this fund – we had about 2 billion in assets, so small for a mutual fund but big for a socially responsible investment one – would use our position as shareholders to engage with senior corporate executives and the board around issues of environmental or social importance. For example, the first time I came to the Bay Area was to present at a shareholder meeting at a pharmaceutical company around board diversity and how important it was that they diversify their board.
Beth: Working with a mutual fund could not sound more different than being on the river.
Darryl: (laughter) That's what my hiring manager thought, too.
Beth: I'm sure a lot of people thought that, probably everybody who knew you thought that. So kind of a dual question, how did you adjust to that difference and why did you even know that that was the right move to make?
Darryl: Well, I think this is where a healthy dose of opportunism and purpose come together. I want to go a little deeper on your question because at the time I was down. I had done this trip to Panama, I'd come back, I was trying to get out of being a raft guide. I actually loved it day to day, but I just knew that my body wouldn't be able to do it in 20 years and that there were other ways I could also contribute to the world. So I was actually temping, doing copying and administrative work and whatnot. Tried to become a paralegal, but I wasn't qualified. And I'm starting to make some progress. People were starting to know I had these international skills. And my mom was very sick.
My mom had cancer for about five years before she died, and things had come to a head and I decided I needed to move back to New Hampshire to be closer to my family. At the time, it felt like I was leaving my career to the side because I was starting to get some traction, but I centered on my values. And I said, "Well, this is more important. I'll figure something out," so I moved home to New Hampshire.
While I was there is when I read the essay by Bill Clinton that I talked about. It's where I met my now wife who introduced me to the hiring manager at Citizens Funds. I had been talking to her about my interest in these areas and she said, "Oh, you should do an informational interview with my friend, Dan Viederman. He's the vice president of social research at Citizens Funds and he'd be a great person to talk to."
So I talked to him and he said, "Hey, we're actually hiring," and he said, "but can you sit in the desk? Cause you've been on the river for four years."
Darryl: And I said, "Well, I don't know, but here's my vision and why I think this work is so important," and he decided to give me a chance. Dan and I ended up working together in different capacities to this day.
Beth: So as you're sitting then at that desk, so clearly you were able to do that, what did you learn about yourself from that role and that work?
Darryl: I learned that I really don't like repetitive tasks, because I had a lot of repetitive tasks. While I talked about the thing that I was most passionate about, which is engaging with senior corporate management, executive teams and boards, the work of the work was actually analyzing companies for problems they might have had with social or environmental performance and screening out companies that had operations in areas we wouldn't invest in like military, guns, etc. I found that so boring. I mean important, but for me it just was very repetitive.
So I learned, I don't like repetitive tasks, but I also learned that it was a great thrill to go meet the CEO of a $9B company and use my position as a shareholder to get access to that person and have a one-on-one conversation and try to influence him around values and things that mattered to me. So in a way I learned that I liked the juice. I liked the action and that has certainly been a theme throughout, throughout my career.
Beth: Sometimes people shy away from those kinds of conversations because they think, "That's a big, important person and I'm just little me." Did you ever have those kinds of voices in your head, that self-talk that would minimize you and get in your way?
Darryl: Well, absolutely I did. Absolutely, I did. Perhaps I overcame it from my experience paddling Class 5 rivers, which is to say, you can have fear and anxiety. I think sometimes people talk about bravery and courage and they might think of people who don't have fear, don't have anxiety. For me, bravery and courage is acting with the presence of that fear and anxiety. So when I met this CEO, and he tried to charm me and it was just very charismatic, and I was polite, and I gave him my message. I said what I had to say, and he listened.
And I've found that the moments in my career, whether it was talking to survivors of a fire at one of our factories in Bangladesh who jumped out of a nine story building and looking their parents in the eye to say, "I'm sorry," or whether it was talking to one of the most powerful business men in Bangladesh and saying we expected him to provide lifetime earnings to these families even though he felt good about paying their hospital bills, I felt a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety, and that I had to rise to that occasion because it was just so important.
Beth: What I think is so important too, is the short-sightedness really of the professor who said that the time on the river was not what you should be doing, because what I'm hearing are life lessons and strength that came from that, that just allowed you to be a strong person in these really difficult circumstances. What you just described of needing to talk to families in extreme loss and pain. I just can't even imagine the strength and sensitivity that you had to have then and how much the river probably taught you even about that.
I also want to say, by the way, I'm sorry for the loss of your mother.
Darryl: Oh, thank you.
Beth: Thank you for sharing that part.
Beth: So you did decide after the mutual fund to go to grad school.
Darryl: I did.
Beth: Tell me about that decision. Why did you decide to go to grad school and what were your plans for that part of your education?
Darryl: Well, I was thinking that I wanted more levers. I wanted more training. And so I'd gotten my foot in the door with this socially responsible investment company and this field was starting to bloom. Now, corporate sustainability and business and human rights, at least most of the people I talk to, have heard of these things on some level. At the time, it wasn't completely obscure, but it wasn't well known.
Beth: There were kernels.
Darryl: Yeah, there were kernels. There were a lot of people doing the work, but it wasn't part of the popular narrative, and so I started to get excited about it. I read books by, I mentioned Simon Zadek, The Civil Corporation. I read Paul Hawken's book, The Ecology of Commerce, which my wife gave to me, and I just wanted to be a part of this. And so I started talking to people. I started calling up some of these authors and I said, "Hey, tell me more about this." I started reading the activist websites on these issues. And I said, "I want to go learn more about this."
One of my colleagues at Citizens Funds introduced me to a woman named Judy Gearhart, who worked at Social Accountability International, and one thing led to another and I found myself at Columbia University talking to an academic pioneer in this area named Paul Martin. He was trying to start a business and human rights focus at the School of International and Public Affairs. So that was very exciting.
Meanwhile, so you talked about feeling small and unimportant, this was a very difficult time for me. This is where my mom was dying. I'd basically been a river guide and playing in this space that seemed so alluring to me, actually felt beyond my capabilities. It felt really cool, but not something I was up for.
This is a time where I really leaned on some friends and my good friend, Joey Hood – he was in my wedding party; he's now very senior at the US State Department – he had just gone to international affairs school and he said, "You know, Darryl, this will be perfect for you, " and I said, "Joey, do you think I could do that?" He said, "Absolutely, you can do that," and so I started to look into it.
So, that desire to go to international affairs school and the confidence boost that my friend gave me at the right moment, together with the subject matter interest led me to having to choose between Columbia University and Johns Hopkins. I chose Columbia. It was actually my second choice. I chose it because my not-yet-wife was also trying to decide between two grad schools, one in Wisconsin and one at Yale, and we both picked our second choice so we could give the relationship a shot. It was the better choice for me in the end and...
Not quite sure how to get this across, but I hope you're hearing a theme that for me, when I think back on my career curves, I maybe thought I knew where I was going, but it was when I made values-based choices that the most meaningful opportunities presented them to me. And they were not values-based choices with an intent to get somewhere. They were just sort of listening to my values and what was important to me.
Beth: I do hear that and it's super powerful. So you do go for the international affairs degree and tell me about as you're graduating. What plans were you making for what you were going to do after you got this degree and graduating?
Darryl: Well I have laugh because of what we just discussed. So I had decided that I wanted to focus on supply chain human rights. I built my whole concentration around that goal. The reason was the two industries at the time that we're really working on this intersection of business and human rights were light manufacturing, pretty much apparel on the one hand, and extractive industries, pretty much oil on the other hand. Apparel felt more alluring to me.
So I'd sort of built my degree around this. I tried to learn the languages that I would need, like international law, and corporate finance. And all these sort of different things. Economics. And I was thinking, "Gosh, I really, really want to do this. I talked to one of my adjunct professors, Marcela Manubens, who was an executive at Phillips-Van Heusen, who worked in this space. And what I'd realized is there just weren't that many opportunities and so I felt I really needed to cast a wide net.
Well, meanwhile, my wife was graduating. (She still wasn't my wife yet. Laura, her name's Laura Tam. I'm so proud of her. She's had an amazing career.) And Laura was graduating and got a job in San Francisco. And so now my geographic scope was narrowed, and I thought to myself, "Oh no..." And it was actually...
Beth: And again, narrowed based on values, right?
Darryl: Based on values, being with this woman I loved. And I thought, "Oh no, now my geographic scope has narrowed. I basically have three choices: Gap, Levi's or Business for Social Responsibility." There might've been a few more, but those were the three I knew about. I was in a bit of a panic. Didn't know what I was going to do. And two days before my graduation at Columbia, I saw on a listserv, a job posted to be a project manager for stakeholder engagement at Gap, Inc., and I decided, "That is my next role. I absolutely need to have that role," and I relentlessly pursued it.
Beth: What did that even mean, project manager of stakeholder engagement?
Darryl: Well, that's what I asked. I didn't know. (Laughter).
People sometimes, when I was in role, they would say, "Gosh, how did you get this job? How did you end up here?" and I like to call it strategic luck because I was being strategic about following my values, but it was lucky that this job got posted. It was also lucky that while I was in graduate school, I had picked some strategic internships with two organizations that set me up really well to get this job. One was Social Accountability International, and though it wasn't public yet, Gap had been in discussions for over a year about becoming a member there, I found out during the interview process. And so when I asked my mentor there, Judy Gearhart, if she could make a recommendation, she was already in dialogue with the hiring manager unbeknownst to me.
I also interned at an organization in El Salvador called the Independent Monitoring Group of El Salvador. Also had had a long-standing relationship with Gap, Inc. So when this job was posted, I actually had these relationships who could talk about whom I was. And then became the question of what was the job? I actually didn't really care what the job was. There were two jobs being posted. One was for a manager of reporting and one was for a project manager of stakeholder engagement. To me, the project manager job looked more senior. So I thought I'd apply for that. It turns out it was the other way around, but I'm glad I did because Gap was at this inflection point where they'd been under criticism for a while by civil society organizations, by NGOs, who thought they weren't doing enough around encouraging their contract factories to treat their workers with dignity and respect.
And the company had privately been in discussions and making a decision that they wanted to listen to these organizations a bit more and build relationships with these organizations and learn from these organizations. My job was on the team that was at the vanguard of that for the company and also kind of for the whole industry. And so I ended up in a hot seat. I worked my way up through that function and eventually was the head of stakeholder engagement, the head of global issues and partnerships and stakeholder management for the whole company on environmental and social issues. That was 10 years later.
It was a wild ride because we were in the front seat of a lot of tables where the agenda was not only getting set, but being built.
Beth: You just mentioned that you started off as a project manager in this group and then about 10 years later had been really leading the function. What advice do you have for somebody who's joining an organization with this kind of size and these kinds of opportunities of the things that you need to be doing and how you need to be managing your career to get those opportunities that get you advancing and moving ahead?
Darryl: When you started asking the question, I wasn't sure how I was going to answer it, but by the time you finished it, it was crystal clear for me. I think this goes back to courage and I think that that's important as people manage their careers, and it's also so important in the field of sustainability. At the end of the day in the field of sustainability, you're trying to change the status quo, which means that you're pushing against the norm. There's a lot of pressure to conform in any organization, and so to be successful in that field – and by success, I mean actually driving change – you need to find your courage.
Similarly in managing your career, I think I came in as a project manager. There were over a hundred people at my level at that point and I was actively thinking about, "Well, how do I stand out?"
And I remember – here's a little anecdote – on my very first day of the job, we were having our annual conference. So everybody from around the world had come to San Francisco and our leader, Dan Henkle, at the time, had brought in a lot of executives to talk to the team. One of whom was Lauri Shanahan, who was the General Counsel and she was talking about the work. And I thought, "Gosh, I guess now's a chance to kind of put myself out there," and I decided to ask a question. I brought my academic training and asked her a legal question about a sort of arcane law that gives liability to companies for things that happen in other countries, called the Alien Tort Claims Act. I thought this law had so much power in terms of doing something that she was talking about, which is leveling the playing field.
And so I asked the question. I said, "Hey, do you think that this provision, the Alien Tort Claims Act, can be a tool and can it be helpful in advancing the agenda?" And she came back and she gave me her views that it wasn't that useful. And to her credit, she said to me, this new member of the team, "Do you have a different perspective?"
I thought, "Whoa boy, here's the General Counsel. It's my first day. I don't know the lay of the land at all, but I'm going to find my courage," and I said, "Yeah, I do have a different perspective. And this is my perspective." And later on, she came to me and said, "Darryl, I want to talk to you more about that," and we started building a relationship.
I think that these moments come along, not every day, but when they come along, people have a choice to make: Are they going to find their courage and do what needs to be done or are they going to play it safe? And I would say that recognizing those moments, finding your courage, taking the risk is actually what has helped me advance in my career.
Beth: I'm so glad I asked you this question. I'm just holding onto everything that you just said. That's just gold. So thank you so much.
You shared previously about the Bangladesh fires and I believe that those happened while you were at Gap. Is that that right?
Beth: Can you give us just a snapshot of what happened, what we're talking about?
Darryl: Sure, sure. You know, at a high level, Bangladesh was a very important part of global apparel supply chains and the global apparel supply chains were a very important part of Bangladesh's economy and growth plan. The country, at about 2005, went from being an important player to one of the most major players and had just unbridled growth in this area, which led to a lot of problems. It led to labor issues and problems, and it led to infrastructure problems. So you ended up with buildings being built and repurposed for ways they were never intended. What you ended up having was these death traps.
And this was happening in a repressive labor environment, so people who would speak up about poor conditions would get fired or worse. People who would try to organize trade unions would get fired or beaten up or killed. We know – "we," The world – knows that oftentimes safety hazards are first identified by people on the front lines and if there aren't channels for them to communicate that, you can end up with big problems that result in catastrophe, and so that was an element going on in Bangladesh as well.
So in 2010, there was a fire at a supplier factory of Gap, Inc. and 29 people died in that fire.
Beth: Twenty-nine people?
Darryl: Twenty-nine people died in that fire. There were 5,000 people in the factory.
But a couple of years later, there were some even bigger fires in which hundreds of people died. More people than died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire for people who might know that in New York City, which was sort of the birth of the labor movement in the United States.
And then a couple years later, there was a building collapse that took place at Rana Plaza, where 1,129 people died and that was another example where workers saw the cracks in the wall. They said, "We want to get out," and they were told to get back to work, and the whole building fell on them. So that's the context.
Beth: So as these things are happening, what was it requiring of you? What was your role and at the same time, what was that causing you to think about yourself and your place in the world?
Darryl: Hmm. My role at the time was to help the company get our arms around issues that we didn't really know how to deal with, that were outside the scope of things we dealt with before.
Beth: And this sounds like it's squarely in that camp.
Darryl: Yeah. Loss of life was a first for us in an industrial accident. Part of what I brought to helping get our arms around these roles was relationships that I'd built, and that we as a company had built, with organizations who were really pushing forward human rights and labor rights issues.
When this fire took place, I immediately thought, "This is a tragedy," and when I got into problem solving mode, I thought, "This is an opportunity." I called up the leaders of the most hardcore, if you will, labor organizations involved in the apparel space: the head of the International global trade union, the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers Federation, the head of the International Labor Rights Forum, the head of the Clean Clothes Campaign, the head of the Workers' Rights Consortium, and the head of the Maquila Solidarity Network. And I said, "Hey, this has happened. Clearly, we have a lot to work through here, but let's take advantage of this as an opportunity. This could be the galvanizing event that enables us to come together as businesses and labor to really help this country do what it needs to do anyway for its workers, which is invest hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements."
So that's the role I saw for myself and to the company's credit, I did that with blessing. So that was one piece of it.
And the other piece was really just trying to redress the injustice and the impact that this had on people. So I did view my role as helping to elevate their voices, amplify their voices, working toward a common purpose, and using the commercial power of our company to get other companies and their commercial power as well involved to try to drive some change.
Beth: This is clearly a story that is a part of your mission, working both at the policy level, at that macro level, but then also seeking that social justice for the underrepresented. Was this shaping your mission – so did you already have the mission and know it – or was this a big driver in then shaping the mission that you have today?
Darryl: You know, it's funny Beth, because in our preparation for this, you had a question about when did I write my mission? And the mission as written, about three weeks ago. And yet that mission has been with me since I was 25. That mission has possibly been with me since I was 15. I just didn't know it. And so I think that if I look at all the curves in my career, when I've made significant transitions, it's been when I've been re-centering on my mission of channeling the power of civil society towards social and environmental justice for the underrepresented. But that wasn't always clear in my head that that's what my mission was.
It's looking back on what's been the common thread. What's driven me? What have I not been doing when things have felt out of alignment for me, because that happened too. And I realized, this is really what I'm about. This is what my career is about. And in that time in Bangladesh, possibly because it was such a big moment, possibly because it was so intense, possibly because I was under so much stress, I naturally gravitated to that mission and that purpose.
Beth: Even if you didn't have the exact words of what it was.
Darryl: Even if I didn't have the exact words. The idea was clear in my head that that's what I needed to be doing and I was fortunate to be in a role where that was what was being asked of me as well.
Beth: You left the gap after about 12 years, so sometime soon after this was happening. What led your decision to finally move on from the Gap?
Darryl: The company, like any company, like any organization, can't remain static. And there were so many other things to be investing in in social responsibility: environmental work that we hadn't attended to for so long, the pressing needs of climate change. The center of gravity started to shift. I realized that Gap could still do the work that I've been doing, but they didn't need someone as senior as I was to be leading that work. So I started thinking about what other opportunities could take advantage of my skills and where I needed to be going.
Similarly to my time at the end of Dartmouth, where I didn't know... Well, I knew what I didn't want to do, but didn't quite know what I wanted to do, that's where I found myself.
And I'm going to maybe take a little bit of a risk here because I'm sure I'm not the only one that's gone through this. I didn't decide to leave Gap, Inc. There was a lot of inertia to keep me at Gap, Inc., and I had a family to support and I had a one-year old child and an older child. And I hung on and I hung on longer than I should have. And this was one of the times that I wasn't centering myself on my mission, and so I think that dissonance continued for longer than it ought to have, and the company and I parted ways.
Beth: You said you didn't know what you were going to do next. Tell me what ended up happening. How did you find that next and what was it?
Darryl: Well, first I decided to take care of myself and I went out and I rode 130-mile bike ride in the Sierra. (laughter)
Beth: Good for you!
Darryl: Trained for that. Spent time with my kids. And started looking for similar roles. I knew it. It was comfortable. I had skills in it. And I started looking at other companies and applying for different roles doing that work.
At some point, it became clear to me that this wasn't the right next step. So I went and I started talking to a career coach and she gave me the good advice that, "You know, Darryl," (she gave me one of these personality assessments), she said, "you might really enjoy consulting because you could be doing lots of different things."
And so I started doing that and it was amazing. I got to work in different industries, and I got to take some risks.
Beth: Were you consulting inside a company or had to go out on your own?
Darryl: So I'd set up my own business. I consulted in the private sector. Also in the nonprofit sector. And it was a time of just tremendous growth and widening my gaze about what was possible because I’d become so highly specialized.
Beth: And how long did you continue doing the consulting? Was this coach right that you should be doing consulting?
Darryl: You know, I liked it. I liked some parts of it. And then, I think this is a common refrain from consultants, it was sort of the question of, "Well, what impact am I actually having?"
Right around the time that things were really, really starting to pick up, I'd already made the decision that I wanted to go back in-house, and another great opportunity came up for me at Fair Trade to be their Director of Impact. I ended up going there for a year. It was a chance to take over leadership of a function where I didn't have specific expertise, so that was really exciting for me.
Beth: And where did you go after Fair Trade?
Darryl: So Fair Trade turned out not to be a great fit for me, and so I was back in a similar situation as when I’d left Gap. And at that point I realized that I really needed to re-center myself on my mission. I was sort of chasing jobs instead of my calling, and that I really needed to actually spend some time on some personal work.
At that time I set up my consulting business again and had had some things, but I was fortunate enough to be in a position that I had the financial reserves and I started to grapple with the lasting impacts of my mom dying when I was so young and realized that that had just rippled out into every aspect of my life – my family relationships, my personal relationships, my professional relationships – and that there were a lot of unresolved issues there. So, I went deeper into therapy to deal with my persistent depression. I repaired relationships with my dad, which had been hurt and started reading books about depression and about trauma and started to get a lot of clarity.
And I want to say this openly because I hid this for a really long time while I was at Gap and other places. I think in the public discourse, we know now that depression is so common, so under-diagnosed, and while it's less stigmatized, it's still stigmatized.
Darryl: And I just realized that I had so much to offer and I was running with a parachute on my back. It was just slowing me down. And my creativity was blocked. This led to so much progress for me.
I'm going to share a little short anecdote because I had a wonderful therapist and we made a lot of progress, but when this opportunity came along for International Rivers, I started to get some surges. And, after I got the offer, my creativity, my energy really started to flow, so much so that I was having trouble sleeping. I was going to bed at 1:00 waking up at 4:00. So I just said, "Well, I'm going to journal."
So, I started journaling and I meandered my way in one of these journal entries to a dam metaphor. I realized that my mom's death had caused me so much pain. It was almost like a torrential rainstorm that swelled up the rivers and flooded what was below, and caused so much destruction in my life. I didn't know what to do with it. And I realized, I built this giant dam to protect myself, to protect what was downstream, but in the process, I built a toxic reservoir, a stagnant reservoir, and it's under pressure and it's all there. And I'd cut myself off from the source of all that potential pain, but also of a lot of potential joy.
And so through this process of self-reflection and reconnecting and re-centering, that took place over a number of years, some of the water had started to come out of the reservoir. I'd been feeling these spurts of creativity, of excitement and joy again. And, at this point, when I found this calling that brought everything together that I love and care about, I just felt like, "Gosh, the gates are open. We're drawing down this reservoir. We're de-commissioning this dam."
Beth: As you were doing the personal work, that clearly has been so important to do, did you completely step away from work or was there something that you were also doing still on the work front?
Darryl: I had set my consultancy back up. I did have gigs here and there, and then this amazing opportunity came along to be a part of something called the Responsible Remediation Resource. I was at an advisory board meeting – I'm still involved with the advisory board at Social Accountability International – and they brought the founder of this new startup, James McMichael, and he talked about his idea.
Part of my job at Gap, which we haven't talked about, was to get pitched all the time on ideas and partnerships and innovations, and to decide what was worth pursuing. There were a couple along the way that I felt could be game changing, and when I heard James talk about the Responsible Remediation Resource, I thought this is one of those ideas. We spend billions of dollars across all industries on labor issues and supply chains. We probably spend, as a world, 90% of that money on finding the problems and communicating the problems. We don't spend 90% of it on fixing the problems. And this was an idea about how to tackle some of the obstacles to fixing the problems in a scalable way that's stakeholder powered, but technology driven.
I got so excited that I jumped into a working group at the board meeting on it, and then I found James for a beer afterward. And then, before I knew it, he was asking me to be his co-founder, and so I got to work on that. So the challenge, and this was a fun challenge, was finding the money to build it. And we did find some and we're actually carrying forward a pilot right now in China.
Beth: So that's still being built...
Darryl: It's still being built.
Beth: And yet, you have now stepped away from that and joined International Rivers. Why did you decide to leave this organization that is one that you believe in so much?
Darryl: I told James when this job at International Rivers came along, that I was going to throw my hat in the ring. I said, "it's just too perfect." And he knows me well enough. And he said, "You absolutely have to apply for that job," and I said, "Don't worry, it’s very unlikely that I'm going to end up with this job." We had a responsible conversation about how to continue things and I'm going to stay on as an advisor there.
Beth: When we started and I asked you about International Rivers, you said, "it came to me at the right time," and it almost, at that point, seemed like you were talking about your skills and your work history, but it's so much more than that. It's coming at the right time in terms of everything you've built career-wise, but even just the person that you've become and who you're allowing yourself to be now. And, wow, I'm excited to see where you go with this opportunity. You're at the start of a great adventure and I just really wish you well with it.
And thank you very much too, for sharing that personal story that I think is a powerful story that we need to be telling more.
I have just a couple more questions for you as we go to wrap up. They're my lightning round that I ask everybody. And so the first question is what would you say is the smartest career move you made, whether intentionally or accidentally?
Darryl: Deciding to choose a graduate school close enough to end up marrying my wife, Laura Tam.
Beth: I love it.
What about the flip side? If you could have one do-over, what would it be and why?
Darryl: If I could have a do-over, it would be to have moved on sooner from my role at Gap. I think that life is most abundant, and you can have the most impact when you're paying attention to yourself and you're paying attention to where you're meant to be and what you're meant to be doing. And, for all the reasons I described, that was a time that I just couldn't hear that message for myself, so I guess I would have tackled some of those issues a little bit sooner and leaned into the future instead of hanging onto the past.
Beth: What's one piece of career advice that you wish you could go back in time and give to your younger self?
Darryl: I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that following my passions was going to work out just fine. And that the angst I was feeling at that time of not knowing where things were going to lead and seeing such a clearly laid out career path that was defined as success that I could have followed, wasn't necessarily the right way to go, and following what I thought was important was actually going to still lead to a rich and meaningful career where I could make a difference.
Beth: And how do you define success?
Darryl: There is a point where I would have given you a very technical answer, but I actually remember back to something my dad told me when I was young. He said, "All I expect of you is that you leave the world a better place than you found it," which was a pretty weighty thing for me to carry and sometimes was too much weight to carry. But I've come to realize that that comes in many forms. It can be on these grand things that I've been fortunate enough to be a part of, and it can also just be on ending a rafting trip and having a family for whom that was their big vacation have had a good time. Being a good mentor to a staff person.
There is no objective definition of it, but for me, what success is, is having the courage and the awareness, self-awareness to recognize when my skills and talents and position in the world can help with environmental and social justice for the underrepresented and for people in need, seeing those opportunities, and really bringing my best self to it, giving the effort, and let the chips fall where they may.
Beth: Darryl, thank you so much. Your story is so inspirational, and I think there are people who are younger in their careers who are going to find just great inspiration and motivation in your story. And maybe they too will follow your father's advice and recognize that they too have the power to leave the world a better place. I know that you have.
Thank you so much for your time. I've really enjoyed our conversation.
Darryl: Thank you, Beth. It's been really fun.