Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

Billy Parish Opens Symposium

Guest Post by Kathryn DeSutter

Jan. 24 — The 2013 symposium’s first speaker, climate activist and founder of Mosaic, Inc. Billy Parish, easily charmed the crowd Thursday night in the McCullough Social Space. Parish’s talk touched on the urgency of the fight against climate change and the possibility of each individual in contributing to that fight.

Parish began his talk with an easy crowd-pleaser topic: his love of Vermont. He praised Becky at the Vermont Book Store for calling the local high school to get him a copy of Ishmael for his talk and delivering it personally to the Swift House.

“You know who doesn’t have service like that — Amazon,” quipped Parish.

Parish also applauded Middlebury for its work in the climate change movement and in examining social entrepreneurship. He then made a point to “cheer on” those students leading the divestment campaign on campus. “I’m confident that Middlebury will continue to be a leader in this next wave of campus sustainability,” he said.

Parish quickly won over the audience with his casual manner.

Parish’s presentation then borrowed from the Marshall Ganz practice of articulating a “Story of Self” in order to introduce his current life work and his path to this point. He read a passage from Ishmael and described his experience as a teenager at the Mountain School in Vershire, Vt. Parish then told an anecdote that took place his sophomore year of college, when he traveled to India and climbed the glacier that feeds the Ganges River.

“That’s when I realized the things we were doing in America were threatening the water source for 400 million people,” said Parish to a silent, attentive audience.

Parish described how he returned to college and decided to organize a regional student climate conference. It was this experience that sparked his career as a climate activist.

In the wake of reflecting on these anecdotes about personal experiences, Parish then used his experience to connect to the audience.

“I want to share the 3 biggest lessons I’ve learned in my life and career,” he said.

Lesson 1: Follow your purpose.

“There may be no more important question than, ‘What am I here for?’” introduced Parish. To engage us in this question, Parish had every audience member write out on an index card what we perceived to be our purpose. Then he invited the audience to stand up and speak our purposes out loud. Next, we shouted our purpose out loud. This was met with enthusiasm from the audience… except for the guy in front of me in the black and white sweater, who was silent. (Learn to let go, buddy!)

Lesson 2: Build with the best.

“We never do anything by ourselves, and particularly we never do anything world-changing by ourselves,” explained Parish. He then asked audience members to list 3-5 people to work with — “think big, guys!” — who could help achieve your purpose. Next, Parish had us think about 3 concrete action steps we could take to begin to build a partnership with them. To make a pact that we would, in fact, contact this people, Parish had us high-five the people around us.

Lesson 3: Go to the root.

Parish encouraged us that “whatever problem you’re interested in solving, whatever your purpose is, take the time to study and think about where the real barriers are — where the real causes of those problems are.”

Parish described his disappointment in the failure of the two main goals of Powershift 2009: the goal of federal climate change legislation and the goal of an international accord in Copenhagen. Inspired by a TED talk by Bill Gates, Parish eventually turned to the solar energy industry for a solution.

Parish described how it is often difficult to finance solar energy, as the projects have high transaction costs when there is a lack of specialty and expertise. The industry also lacks a stable policy, as incentives are created and then often later eliminated by federal and local governments.

To solve this problem, Parish decided to start his own solar energy company, Mosaic, Inc., which works “like a Kickstarter for  solar energy.” Mosaic solicits investors to contribute money to solar energy projects, and then offers those investors approximately 4.5 – 6.5% annual return. Through aggregating contributions of multiple investors in one project, Mosaic makes solar energy a possibility for those who may not be able to support a project on their own.

Parish was honest about the limitations of the current status of solar energy — the industry has just 0.1% market penetration in the U.S. — but hoped that Mosaic will “accelerate transition to clean energy by allowing more people access.”

As a final exercise, Parish challenged audience members to explain to those around us what skill we would most like to learn and master, and then talk about how we will foster this skill — either through apprenticeship, on-the-job training, study or another method. The Social Space buzzed as students began to map out their futures.

After providing us with a stated goal, partners and tangible action steps, Parish concluded his talk and offered a 15-minute Q & A. Students, faculty and community members had a chance to challenge Parish. At the conclusion of the Q & A, President Liebowitz awarded Parish the MCSE Vision award.

If you missed Parish’s lecture, there’s still a chance to catch him Friday morning at 9 a.m. for a 90-minute workshop or during Saturday’s panel at 10 a.m.


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