Ten Women in Charge: Breaking the C-Suite's Glass Ceiling While Improving the World
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After years of “business as usual” being that of domination, competition, false scarcity, inequity, and putting profit over people and the planet, there is a hunger rising. People are craving businesses that are compassionate, collaborative, cooperative, focused on elevating and empowering local economies, forging equity and human wholeness, and regenerating the resources used for manufacturing.
In a sea of businesses that are still willing to make money at the expense of the conditions that create life on earth, breaking the C-suite’s glass ceiling is only meaningful if the women who do it are also breaking the cycles of violence perpetrated by many businesses in the modern era.
The women included in this list are changing how the building and construction, food distribution, beauty, energy, e-commerce, and menstruation industries are “supposed” to work. From near-zero-emission organic food distribution fleets to using felled trees once considered of no or low value into green resources for construction, these women are at the head of forward-thinking, values-driven companies creating livelihoods by creating a better world for us all.
To celebrate Women’s History Month in March, meet ten CEOs committed to a better future for people and our planet.
Amelia Swan Baxter – Co-Founder and CEO of WholeTrees
The mission of WholeTrees is to make forest and woodland communities more economically viable as they create a restorative model for the commercial construction industry.
WholeTrees gets their trees from sustainable forest management, where small diameter trees are cut down to prevent fires and to foster the health and biodiversity in forest ecosystems. By using unmilled wood as a replacement for steel, concrete, and milled wood, WholeTrees is trying to influence commercial construction into a regenerative age by leveraging the inherent strength and durability of small-diameter round timber. The company offers beams and columns, trusses, event canopies and pavilions, shade structures, climbing structures, playscapes and play equipment, solar carports, decorative trees, and custom-engineered structures all made from round timber.
When Amelia Swan Baxter’s co-founder Roald Gunderson received national attention for using unmilled timber in construction—material normally seen as a low-value byproduct of forest harvesting—they created WholeTrees in response. Started on 134 acres of off-grid forestland in Wisconsin in 2007, they began engineering structurally sound uses for the round timber.
At the helm of WholeTrees, Baxter is using her decades-worth of experience in market development, HR, and agricultural and land management operations to guide innovation and scale operations. During her tenure, Whole Trees has de-risked the use of unmilled timber, is selling all across the United States, and is on the road to make unmilled timber products that can compete with steel in price.
Under Baxter’s leadership, WholeTrees has won several awards, including the Wisconsin Innovation Award for Manufacturing in 2017, the Wisconsin Urban Forestry Council award for Innovation in Urban Forestry in 2017, and Best-In-Show at the Ag Innovation Showcase in 2015. The company also put forth the winning pitch for the “Rethink the Materials Paradigm” competition at the 2017 Living Products Expo.
As of 2018, WholeTrees earned $5 million in product/service revenue, received $2.2 million in grants from the USDA, and $3 million in equity capital. In 2019, WholeTrees partnered with Google and Autodesk to develop product-enhancing software.
Gregg Renfrew – CEO of Beautycounter
Gregg Renfrew is the CEO and founder of Beautycounter, a company leading the movement for clean, safe beauty products. Offering skin-care, make-up, bath and body products, and a men’s line, Beautycounter offers products completely free of toxins, contaminants, and allergens. Their “Never List’ includes 1800+ banned ingredients, they’ve developed safety standards for all operating partners, they run an in-house lab to test formulas, created a science advisory council to stay up-to-date on the latest findings, put products in sustainable packaging, responsibly source their materials, and support positive legislative change for the regulation of beauty products.
Gregg Renfew was no stranger to corporate America before founding Beautycounter in 2011. After college, she started a few businesses, worked in sales, and eventually made her way to working with brand megaliths like Martha Stewart and serving as CEO for Best & Company. Watching Al Gore’s Inconvenient truth in 2006, plus an “aha” moment where she realized that the “natural” product she used to wash her children scored eight of nine for toxicity, sparked Beautycounter into being.
When building Beautycounter, Renfrew went against the grain in several arenas by regulating her products at much higher levels than the industry required, choosing to create economic opportunity for women through an Avon-esque sales network rather than trying to put products in department stores, and by advocating for more regulations in the beauty industry. In 2020, Renfrew became the first clean cosmetics CEO to serve as an expert witness at a hearing on cosmetic reform in congress.
In 2019, Beautycounter provided opportunities for more than 44,000 consultants in the U.S. and Canada, paying more than $120 million in commissions. In the same year, the company diverted 76 percent of waste from their headquarters from landfills, and offset 100 percent of their carbon emissions by investing in local and global renewable energy and community development projects.
In 2018, Renfrew signed the U.N. Global Compact, agreeing to make Beautycounter an agent of change in the arenas of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption. A Certified B-Corp, Beautycounter achieved a score of 95 in 2018—a testament to their consideration regarding people and the planet in their product offerings.
Jerelyn Wilson – CEO and Outreach Ambassador for BuildingGreen, Inc.
BuildingGreen, Inc. is a consulting agency that helps building industry professionals improve the environmental performance of buildings while reducing adverse impacts.
Started as a monthly print newsletter sending out green building news in 1985, the company has since expanded to provide educational support and customized consulting and training to help leaders in the building industry design and build from a whole-systems perspective to reduce (or even create a regenerative) ecological impact. BuildingGreen’s mission is to heal the human relationship with our earth by helping people idealize and create high-performance, resilient, and inspiring buildings and communities.
Jerelyn Wilson has been a part of BuildingGreen since its inception as both an owner and a member of the Board. Before stepping into the CEO role, Wilson served as HR director and director of outreach. In her role as CEO, she implements sustainable education with mid- to large-sized architecture firms, professional development, and provides support for sustainable design leader summits. Wilson reports that her background in education helped her to move the company’s mission forward as she cultivates relationships with design firms and university-level architecture programs.
Seen as the “Consumer Reports” of ecologically minded building information, BuildingGreen does not accept advertising money for any of its products. The company instead focuses on architects, engineers, and construction professionals, emphasizing expertise and keeping the influence of sales-motivated manufacturers out of the information they bring to the fore.
BuildingGreen has also been an engine in helping professionals to earn and practice as per certifications like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and WELL Accredited Professional (WELL AP), a certification that designates the capacity to design for wellness. BuildingGreen, Inc. makes money from its members by charging a monthly rate in exchange for feature articles, news analysis, webinars and webcasts, monthly continuing education opportunities, product guidance, curated product collections, spotlight reports, and product reviews.
Leslie Gordon – President and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City
As president and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City, Leslie Gordon is responsible for the vision that moves forward the food bank’s mission of ending hunger in New York City. The largest hunger-relief organization in New York City, the Food Bank is a nonprofit involved in food distribution, income support, advocacy, capacity building, nutrition education, direct service, and the cultivation of a food donation network. It even maintains a hunger concentration map for a targeted response.
Leslie Gordon had an established track record in anti-hunger before becoming the President and CEO of the Food Bank for New York in 2020. As CEO of Feeding Westchester (her position just before the Food Bank), Godon increased fresh produce distribution by 40 percent, food distribution by 20, and created cutting edge alliances with non-food partners.
Taking the helm of the Food Bank just as Covid-19 began, Gordon led the non-profit through unconventional strategies like pop-up food distribution in housing developments, the creation of food and resource hubs in regions experiencing emergency food provider closings, drive-through pantry bag pickups, seniors-only distribution hours, and home/building deliveries. Under Gordon’s leadership, the Food Bank also partnered with NYC hospitals to deliver food to frontline healthcare workers.
In 2019, the food bank delivered 57.5 million free meals to 1.4 million New Yorkers—132 free meals per minute. The organization enlisted 25,000 volunteers who donated 96,000 hours of service. Included in the 57.5 million meals were 27.4 million servings of fresh produce.
As a testament to the good work being done by the Food Bank, public support and revenue for its services was $50.5 million in 2019. Eighty-three percent of all expenses in 2019 went directly to program services like food distribution and storage, research and policy, nutrition services and education, community kitchens, and benefits access.
Lynn Jurich – CEO of Sunrun
Lynn Jurich is the CEO and co-founder of Sunrun, the leading installer of residential rooftop solar panels in the United States.
Sunrun’s vision is “to create a planet run by the sun,” by making solar accessible, affordable, and reliable for families. The company offers solar installation, battery storage, and energy services with little or no upfront cost to customers. In 2019, Sunrun’s revenue was $859 million. Its services saved low-income families $92.7 million in energy costs, and panels installed prevented 185 thousand tons of C02 emissions from entering the atmosphere (the equivalent of eliminating the emissions of more than 40,000 cars). The San Francisco-based company is on a growth trajectory, earning 13 percent more revenue and serving 22 percent more customers than in 2018.
Lynn Jurich came up with the idea for Sunrun while enrolled at the Stanford Graduate School for Business. While taking part in an internship in China, Ms. Jurich was opened to the rapid development happening in Shanghai. Witnessing the rate at which buildings were being created opened her to the intuition that we, as a species, need to build more sustainably. She co-founded Sunrun with Edward Fenster. Despite doubt and dismissal from those in the industry, Sunrun outcompeted Tesla in the residential solar market, serving 285,000 customers in 22 states in 2019.
With Jurich at the helm, Sunrun is healing our earth through solar and by becoming a model of best practices for gender equity, diversity, and inclusion. Lynn Jurich became the first CEO in the solar industry to sign the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion pledge and the CEO Champions for Change pledge. Sunrun is the home to six groups that foster a culture of inclusion by focusing on women, Black, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ, and Veterans issues. In 2018, Sunrun also became the first national solar company to achieve 100 percent pay parity—ensuring equal pay for equal work to all its employees.
Mari McClure – CEO of Green Mountain Power
Green Mountain Power (GMP) is the largest electricity distributor in Vermont, delivering power to 70 percent of the market and serving more than 265,000 customers.
GMP’s mission is to work with customers and the community on cost-effective, clean, and reliable energy. GMP is the first utility of its kind, offering an energy audit, suggestions for solar and storage, and then charging a flat-rate monthly fee. GMP also offers rebates and programs for electric vehicles, home energy systems and storage, home and yard products, and services for businesses.
In addition, GMP offers ways for those investing in renewables to share infrastructure through public charging stations, and by sharing energy generated by renewables with energy banks, nonprofits, and small businesses. GMP was the first power company to become a certified B-Corp.
Working at Green Mountain Power since 2010, Mari Mclure worked her way to the CEO role through involvement in almost every sector of the company. Serving under the leadership of another successful and visionary CEO, Mary Powell, McClure was chosen to continue GMP’s mission at the beginning of 2020.
For four years running (2017-2020), Fast Company delineated GMP as one of the most innovative companies in the energy sector. Vermont Business Magazine also listed GMP as one of the best places to work in Vermont.
In 2019, the company boasted a power mix that was 94 percent carbon-free, and 63 percent renewable, mostly due to the hydroelectric power generation. GMP is also a pioneer in the transactive energy sector—a market where customers who own electricity-generating devices can sell what they create to other customers in the distribution system through app technology. The hypothesis behind transactive energy is that it will push energy generation further toward a 100 percent renewables future and create a pool of flexible resources that can foster systemic balancing.
Mary Jane Evans – CEO of Veritable Vegetable
Veritable Vegetable is an award-winning female-owned and led organic produce distribution company powered by a zero-emission fleet creating a healthier world since 1974.
Veritable Vegetable partners with organic farmers to provide 750+ kinds of organic fruits and veggies; select perishables, flowers, and grocery items; fair trade and biodynamic certified products; and organic dairy to California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and New York.
The company boasts an unbroken cold chain from the farm to customer, and run their own fleet of 30 hybrid delivery vehicles running state-of-the-art equipment that enables them to run at near-zero emissions. In addition to being hybrids, the trucks run on renewable diesel fuel, have a selective catalytic reduction system to reduce emissions, solar panels, idle shutdown technology, aerodynamic design, and are even washed using reclaimed water.
Mary Jane Evans, a part of Veritable Vegetable since 1976, has been an environmentalist since before she joined the team. The recognition in the 1960s and 1970s of the interconnectedness of all species and ecosystems and the importance of understanding whole systems is represented in the way that Evans approaches development for Veritable Vegetable.
CEO since 1988 and currently one part of a female-majority executive team, Evans has led Veritable Vegetable to nearly 20 awards in women’s leadership, trucking, sustainability, organic agriculture, and community. Notable awards include the Top Green Fleet by Heavy Duty Trucking in 2019, inclusion on the Top Women to Watch in Transportation by Women in Trucking in 2020, and the Outstanding Company award by the Climate Collaborative and National Co+op Grocers in 2018.
Veritable Vegetable is a values-driven company, operating with a commitment to integrity, community, excellence, innovation, sustainability, and leadership by women. In addition to their near-zero fleet of trucks and trailers, VV’s employees are 45 percent women, 99 percent of waste is diverted from landfills, and 25 percent of the energy used for operations is generated through solar panels.
The company supports small to mid-sized independent businesses and co-ops, is a certified B-Corp, is committed to community control of local economies, is a Certified California Green Business, advocates for policy change in food and agriculture, and shares everything that they’re learning as widely as they can with professional and customer networks.
In addition to their work with small and mid-size businesses, Veritable Vegetable works with big names like Cal-Organic, Earthbound Farms, and Straus Family Creamery.
Sandi Kronick – Founder and CEO of Happy Dirt
Happy Dirt is a farmer-owned wholesale organic produce distributor with a mission to make organic produce more accessible to every stakeholder—retailers, chefs, shoppers, and guests—by pooling and distributing diverse harvests from several regions on the East Coast.
In addition to providing fresh produce, happy dirt also curates “pantry” items like bottled drinks, condiments, honey, rice, cheese, and more from those who are using clean ingredients and create with similar values to Happy Dirt. The company also customizes orders to fit the unique needs of each customer.
Sandi Kronick co-founded Happy Dirt in 2004 after working with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association developing new markets in the wake of the federal tobacco buyout. While Happy Dirt was originally idealized as a consultancy program to help farmers transitioning from tobacco to organic food, its focus shifted when Kronick realized that farmers were good at farming but not always skilled in terms of customer-facing interactions.
Through the years, Kronick has gone from driving an 18-foot distribution truck herself to rebranding the company (originally Eastern Carolina Organics) in 2019 to reflect the opening of the company’s food distribution ecosystem to farmers outside of the Carolinas.
Under Kronick’s leadership, Happy Dirt is thriving just as much as the people who benefit from eating the clean healthy food they distribute. Between 2018 and 2020, sales grew 330 percent. As of 2020, Happy Dirt works with a network of organic farmers more than 170 strong.
Another notable step forward for the company has been in their capacity to sell grade 2 products to fast-casual foodservice environments—a move that brings farmers more income while eliminating food that would have previously been wasted. At this particular moment in their history, Happy Dirt has increased their capacity to the point where they can offer organic produce year-round as a result of the reliability and resilience of their expanding supply chain.
Suzi Wilkenfeld – Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Kindhumans
Kindhumans is an online marketplace with a very clear ethos: make it simpler for everyone to engage in conscious consumerism by bringing together products made by people who want to make the world a better place. Seeing consumption as activism, Kindhumans brings together a line of products that are sustainable and eco-friendly, contain no harmful ingredients, are ethically made, cruelty-free, and truthful and transparent.
Kindhumans envisions a future of united people and businesses whose top priority is conveying kindness to themselves, to our earth, and to one another. The company offers a wide range of products including apparel, beauty products, household items, outdoor products, school essentials, self-care items, and more. Three percent of every Kindhumans purchase funds an act of kindness for kids, the planet, or humanitarian aid.
Suzi Wilkenfeld co-founded Kindhumans with her husband, Justin, partially as a result of Suzi’s journey to understand the root causes of their daughter’s chronic illness. On a pathway to find healthy and sustainable products, Wilkenfeld found it difficult to fill their own home with products manufactured ethically and with integrity.
Before Kindhumans, Wilkenfeld was in advertising and marketing for Feld Entertainment, working with top brands in television, media, and live events. Suzi believes that happy healthy people heal our earth, creating a positive cycle where a happy earth heals the people who are a part of it. As Co-CEO, Suzi’s role is to vet all of the products with the Kindhumans teams and advisors, ensuring that each product offered also solves a problem.
To date, sales at Kindhumans have resulted in impacts like the addition of 10,113 coastal trees through the organization SeaTrees; provided 160,133 gallons of safe drinking water to families in Flint, Michigan through 501cTHREE; and given 1,814 days of mentorship designed to close the opportunity gap for at-risk kids through STOKED. Kindhumans is also a member of 1% for the Planet, a professional organization for businesses committing to giving 1 percent of gross sales to environmental causes.
Kindhumans is committed to climate neutrality, as well as measuring, reducing, and then offsetting emissions through renewable energy and tree planting. In addition to give-backs and climate measures, it enlists a network of ambassadors to spread the message of loving-kindness and conscious consumerism.
Tracy Puhl – CEO of GladRags
A company by women and for women, GladRags has been on a mission since 1993 to transform the experience of menstruation.
By making reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups mainstream, GladRags wants to empower menstruators everywhere and reduce their environmental impact. GladRags offers reusable panty liners, day pads, night pads, and a monthly reusable pad subscription where customers can slowly acquire pads until their needs are met. Gladrags also offers reusable menstrual cups made from body-safe medical grade silicone, and reusable accessories like hankies, nursing pads, and zero waste laundry strips.
Overall, GladRags products protect women from the plastic, fragrances, adhesives, and chemical gels rampant in mainstream pads and tampons; prevent up to 16,000 disposable products from making their way into landfills per customer; and save customers thousands of dollars over the course of their menstruating lives.
Tracy Puhl discovered GladRags, a company created by Brenda Mallory in 1993, while providing vocational support to adults with developmental disabilities. After supervising the adults packaging GladRags, Puhl made the transition to GladRags, became invaluable, and then bought the company from Mallory in 2009.
When she bought Glad Rags, Puhl wanted to ensure that the core values of the company were maintained while continuing to break down the societal taboos surrounding menstruation and women’s bodies. During her tenure at GladRags, Tracy won the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Small Business Administration in Portland in 2013 and the Entrepreneur of the Year Award from her alma mater, Portland State University, in 2016.
GladRags is run by an all-female team that develops products and the business from the values of inclusivity, curiosity, and positivity. The company has a clearly stated commitment to anti-racism and to elevating the voices of those who have been historically marginalized or oppressed.
In addition to the reusable products at the center of their line, GladRags is positioned to use business as a force for good. They utilize local bike delivery for finished goods and work to reduce waste in manufacturing, distribution, packing, and office management.