Nicole Schwab is an author and a social entrepreneur dedicating her work to the planet. She founded EDGE Certified Foundation with a vision to create equal opportunities in the workplace. Her award-winning novel, The Heart of the Labyrinth, is a spiritual parable offering a message of earth-centered wisdom.
What is the sacred feminine? And why is the feminine worth less than the masculine?
In this episode, we explored the intersection of gender and environment with Nicole Schwab, founder of EDGE Certified Foundation, a business certification standard for gender equality in the workplace. Nicole also shares with us some earth-centered wisdom from her book “The Heart of the Labyrinth”, as well as her hope and optimism on the restoration generation, as she currently leads 1t.org, a platform for the trillion trees community at the World Economic Forum.
Tune in to this fascinating conversation about founder burnout and critical topics in today’s society, and let Nicole take you to the heart of her labyrinth!
Nicole Schwab is an author, a facilitator and a social entrepreneur dedicating her work to the planet. Nicole currently leads 1t.org, a platform for the trillion trees community at the World Economic Forum. A Swiss native with a scientific and public policy background, Nicole started her career working on health policies in the Andes, before returning to Europe to become the Founding Director of The Forum of Young Global Leaders. In 2009, she co-founded a non-profit called EDGE Certified Foundation, a business certification standard for gender equality in the workplace deployed by over 250 multinational companies across 40 countries. She then served as a consultant and strategic advisor to various non-profit organizations at the intersection of environment and gender, including National Geographic Society’s Campaign for Nature. Her writing includes an award-winning novel, The Heart of the Labyrinth, acclaimed as a beautiful exploration of deep mind, offering a message of Earth-centered wisdom.
[00:04] Jennifer Wu: Hi, everyone. Thanks for listening to the Founders Spirit podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I'll be interviewing exceptional individuals, from all over the world, with the Founder Spirit, ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders to philanthropists, elite athletes and more. Together we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed in face of multiple challenges, but also who they are as people and their human story.
Joining us today is Nicole Schwab, an author, a facilitator and a social entrepreneur dedicating her work to the planet. Nicole currently leads 1t.org, a platform for the Trillion Trees community at the World Economic Forum. A Swiss native with a scientific and public policy background, Nicole started her career working on healthcare policies in the Andes, before returning to Europe to become the founding director of the Forum of Young Global Leaders. In 2009, She co-founded a non-for-profit called EDGE Certified Foundation, a business certification standard for gender equality in the workplace, currently deployed by over 250 multinationals across 40 countries.
She also served as consultant and strategic advisor to various nonprofit organizations at the intersection of environment and gender, including National Geographic Society's Campaign for Nature. Her writing includes an award-winning novel, The Heart of the Labyrinth, acclaimed as a beautiful exploration of deep mind offering a message of earth-centered wisdom.
Nicole is also the chairwoman of the Forum of Young Global Leaders and a board member of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. She holds a Master's in Public Policy from the Kennedy School at Harvard, and a Master's of Arts in Natural Sciences from University of Cambridge.
Nicole, welcome to the show, very happy that you could join us today!
[02:05] Nicole Schwab: Thank you, Jen. Hello, great to be here.
[02:08] Jennifer: We're going to start the show with how you chose to start your career in the Andes. So upon graduation from the Kennedy School, you decided to work for the ministry in Bolivia. Quite an unusual choice, I think, considered back in the day, unlike probably some of your classmates who chose to have traditional jobs in New York or Washington DC. What drew you initially to Bolivia?
[02:41] Nicole: So yes, it's a good question because indeed my classmates were going for more traditional consulting jobs and things like that. And, I was always very interested in different cultures and different countries. And with the background I had, because it was combining a biology sciences background with public policy, I thought that working in public health was a good mix to start off with, and I was really interested to work in more in development and really be in the field.
And I just felt that I wanted to have that experience of working in the field in a country that had very different challenges than what we would experience in Europe and in the US. And before starting college, I had already volunteered in working at Burkina Faso among other things, on some more humanitarian projects. I think that was also a factor that made me want to go back to the global south, I guess if we can call it like that.
And Bolivia was particularly interesting because of the mountains, because I love mountains and I was drawn to the Andes, and because of the indigenous population. More than half of the population in the country is indigenous or mestizo of some form, so the culture is really fascinating.
I think that all these factors together were quite a draw for me. And then the other unusual thing is that I went there, I didn't get a job and go, I just went to Bolivia. And a lot of synchronicities came into play and within two weeks I was working on a World Bank finance project as a health economist, even though I wasn't an economist, but all the things kind of came together. So it was really a good choice and it was very easy in a way to end up there and have a fascinating job and in a fascinating country.
[04:35] Jennifer: And what was it like living in La Paz? What was it like living there at the time?
[04:41] Nicole: Yes so of course, because I arrived there (in 1999) and things have changed quite a lot since then. But in terms of health indicators, since I was working on health, maternal mortality rates - it was the highest in South America. So there were obviously a lot of challenges, but I really loved living in La Paz. It's a city which at the time was extremely safe. So even as a foreigner, I could walk around the whole city at any time of day and night, and I didn't feel unsafe in any way or form, which could not have been said, I think of any other city in Latin America at the time.
It's just stunningly beautiful because you have the Andes all around you, you have this city that's like in a bowl built on the side of the mountain and quite steep, very unusual landscape. Very friendly people, I would say kind of like mountain people, which we know in Switzerland. But more closed people, so this is not your Caribbean culture, but very friendly and very generous when you get to know the people. And so I felt really at ease there.
And I think in terms of the altitude, you do need to get used to it and your metabolism is quite different. So you notice in terms of what you're eating, or even being younger, you notice the difference. But for me it was fine. Some people were struggling. I once had a consultant pass out on my desk, he had just flown in from the US. I was surrounded by medical doctors, so it was all fine. But not everyone could handle the elevation because of the oxygen. So when you arrive at the airport, the first thing you see is the oxygen booth for people who can't deal with it.
[06:27] Jennifer: And speaking of the culture and the traditions out there, can you tell us a little bit about that - about Pachamama?
[06:34] Nicole: Yes. I think it's so growing up in Switzerland, I always had a very deep connection with nature but it wasn't explicit, it's not something that's explicit in our culture. Of course in Switzerland, we love our mountains, we love our glaciers, but we don't necessarily talk about them in a way that's embeddedin our cultural representations. And so what I found fascinating in Bolivia is that the Pachamama, so the mother earth is really personified part of everyday life and everyday culture.
I remember once I was reading the local newspaper and they had said something about the sirens in Lake Titicaca being upset because there hadn't been enough offerings. And I was like, "Wow, it's amazing that something like that would be in a newspaper, right?" There hadn't been enough offerings to Pachamama and so there was a reaction. I think this relationship with the mother earth being part of everyday life, and I'm not saying it's for every Bolivian, but it was there, it was present, people were doing rituals, and I found that really interesting and really fascinating, and it spoke to me.
[07:46] Jennifer: And is it a daily ritual like they have in Bali?
[07:49] Nicole: No, it's not a daily ritual. It's more at certain important times of the year, or for example, when you inaugurate a new house, or even within a business. There was a social entrepreneur and once a year he would gather all his employees and they would do an offering to the earth, for their business so that everything would go well for the coming year, for all the employees for their health, but also for the business as a whole. So it's kind of a once-a-year or important moments.
[08:21] Jennifer: Got it. And is this where you felt like that you developed the deep connection to mother earth? Do you think that's where it started or maybe that precipitated it?
[08:35] Nicole: I think it's where it became verbalized or crystallized. I think I've always had it since when I was a child. And I think it's something I've always had, but I think I never necessarily put words to it, because I wasn't in a culture that does that, or in a cultural setting that has even a way of recognizing or talking about that. So I think it helped me to understand that. And in many different cultures, obviously not just Bolivia, but there is this relationship with the earth that is nurtured and that is cultivated through rituals and through explicit practices. It put it in a different context, but I'm not sure it changed this bond that was already there before.
[09:21] Jennifer: You co-founded EDGE Certified Foundation, back then it was called the Gender Equality Project with a vision to create a world of equal opportunities at the workplace.
What motivated you to start EDGE? You were in your mid-30s, you had worked in public health in Bolivia and the World Bank, you were also the founding director of the Forum of Young Global Leaders. So after that experience, what motivated you to start EDGE?
[09:55] Nicole: Yeah, so it was in 2009. So basically my experience in Bolivia and working on health, I worked a lot on reproductive rights and maternal and child health. I also worked when I was at the World Bank on HIV AIDS prevention. So I got into a whole space of women's rights, I mean women's reproductive rights, but also this whole area of violence against women. Not directly, but by association, because a lot of these health issues have to do with who owns a woman's body. Pretty basic questions, but which relate to women's roles in society and which relate to gender issues. So I was really sensitive to those topics.
And when I came back, I wanted to come back to Europe, which is why I came back. And when we started the Forum of Young Global Leaders, but I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do something in the area of gender and gender equality and women's rights.
And as I was kind of curating this new community of Young Global Leaders, I got really inspired because many of them had started their own organizations. There was a lot of this entrepreneurship and enthusiasm, and it was so inspiring to see all these young people who had started something. And so I think that was the moment where I thought, I wanted to start something, I wanted to create something. And so that was the impetus. And being back in Europe, of course, the context for women was not the same as the one I had seen in Bolivia.
And I also felt that while there's a lot of needs still in Europe to work on issues of violence against women, whether it's domestic violence and things like that, there was another space that I felt maybe closer to what I could work on, which was equal opportunities in the workplace, and issues such as salary, equal salary, promotions. Why do we see so few women at the head of organizations?
So that's kind of those two factors combined, made me feel like, okay, I wanna start something, and this is an area where I think there's something to do, there's a real need. This was way before the #MeToo movement, and everyone was saying, oh, there's no problem. But there was clearly a problem. So there was a need, there was something to do and I was just inspired to start something.
[12:28] Jennifer: And what was your own experience with gender biases or gender imparity in that sense?
[12:36] Nicole: Well, I think, I mean, working in Latin America as a young woman was certainly interesting. Not in Bolivia, in Bolivia I never experienced it, because I think the context there is just so different. But in Argentina, for example, I remember being with my boss in a room, it was a meeting with 10 men all in their 50s. I was 25, and the moment my boss left the room, so we had we started the meeting and he had to leave for a bit and he said, "Okay, Nicole just continue" And I knew what I was talking about, but the moment he left it was chaos, and they just started talking to each other and it was like I wasn't there anymore. So it was really interesting to see how, I mean it was age as well. It was gender, but it was, of course, also age. So I think there were a few situations like that.
But initially because of my Harvard education and so on, I could use that to get into places where, maybe it would have been harder for a woman, there would have discrimination. But then if you have the degrees and you have the intelligence, then it gets you there, right? So you don't feel the difference necessarily as much initially, which doesn't mean there isn't a bias there, but you can get over it, through the mind and the degrees angle.
[13:57] Jennifer: So coming back to the beginning of EDGE, what was it like? Like how did you start, and what was it like back then in the early days when you first started the foundation?
[14:09] Nicole: So we were two co-founders, myself and Aniela Unguresan. Before we started, we spent a year talking about the issue and really trying to understand what was the angle that we wanted to take, because it's a huge topic, right? And there's so much to do. There was so much to do, and we really wanted to understand what's the difference we want to make. Where can we make an intervention? And so we took time to really think about it before we started.
And I would say at the time in the US, it was still a little bit ahead of the game from Europe in terms of talking about diversity, talking about gender, still not as much as today, obviously, this was 13 years ago, but the US was still quite ahead. But in Europe, there was very little conversation about this. And we felt that we needed an approach that was focused on metrics because the subject was so emotional and people were talking about it with an emotional reaction without actually necessarily having the facts and having an objective assessment.
So that's where we felt we could make a difference to provide a methodology that gave an objective analysis of the situation, and therefore to always bring the conversation back to that so that it wouldn't divert into emotions, assumptions. I think a lot of people were defensive. So we started including the equal salary aspect, which is a very quantitative assessment, right? It's a statistical assessment. So you can't really argue.
[15:48] Jennifer: You can't argue with that.
[15:50] Nicole: Exactly.
[15:50] Jennifer: [00:chuckles]
[15:51] Nicole: You can't argue against it. So we thought, okay, let's start with that. Let's start with numbers on promotions, recruitments opportunities, and let's always take a gender-equal view. So this is not about women, it's about equal opportunities for women and men, right?
Just to bring down again the heightened emotions. I think there was also a lot of fear because just at the time when we started and we were doing these equal salary assessments, a major pharmaceutical company, there was a class actions suit, and they had to pay $200 million or something like that for a question of unequal pay.
So companies were starting to get worried about that, but it was still in the metric side. I think the differences is on the harassment side, it's a topic we couldn't even raise. Every time we just talked about it, people would say, oh, we don't have any sexual harassment in our company. No, we don't wanna talk about that. So what we did is we said, okay, let's start more with the data. And then we still had a bucket called corporate culture where we surveyed employees.
But we did it in a way where, again, we surveyed and we looked at the difference in responses between men and women, just to see whether employee perceptions about their opportunities for promotion, recruitment, development, the corporate culture, whether there were different perceptions.
And that way, again, we could very quantitatively point at a gap, right? I think that really helped to get the first companies engaged and to start the conversation. Then of course, in the 10 years that followed, you know, we saw a lot of development and things are very different now, but at the time it was a good way to get people to even dare talk about the topic.
[17:48] Jennifer: How long did it take you to get to your first client? To develop the methodology, to talk to the relevant people, and then get to your first client? How long did that process take?
[18:01] Nicole Schwab: That's a good question. It's getting a bit blurred, but I think, so we were lucky because the first thing we did is we set up an advisory council of academics across different fields, and everyone wanted to help, and that was extraordinary because everyone said, "Yes." And that showed us that there was a need and people wanted to contribute, because they saw that what we were doing was something useful and that was needed and that would move the field.
And of course, we also had some connections. I mean, Iris Bonnet, who's at the Kennedy School at Harvard, she's one of the world's leading experts today on this field. And she happened to be my professor, uh, in her first year at Harvard, which is when I was there. So there were a few people like that, that we had connections with and they really helped us because then we got together this group of experts to develop the methodology.
So in the first year, we really focused on developing the methodology, and then we had seven companies and we asked them to be pilots. So in a way, they weren't our first clients. They were still funding, but they were basically funding the development of the project and they wouldn't get certified, right? Because we developed the certification methodology, but we had this first group of companies who were almost like part of the founding of the certification.
And in the second year we worked with them to pilot the methodology with all of them. And then in the third year we got a partnership with Accenture. Accenture's development partnerships, ADP, that works on social entrepreneurship projects. And that was a game changer because they developed the software for us, they actually programmed a tool that is still being used today, and that became the foundation for this gender equality assessment that we could then offer companies. So that was in the third year and that was the point where we were able to then have clients coming in, right? So I would say as of the fourth year.
I think something that's important to say is the certification business is very complicated because you need to have a non-profit or an international organization that develops the standard, and that provides the independent integrity of the standard. And then you need third-party certifiers that are external, or even a kind of a for-profit company that can provide services and consulting for organizations to get them ready for the certification.
So it's actually quite a setup and it was quite complex. And so we started with the foundation, with the nonprofit in the first three years to establish a certification, and then in the fourth year, my co-founder Aniella then started to work on setting up the business, which would provide the consulting services to help companies prepare for an external third-party to verify and to certify them. So, quite complex, I guess three years just to get started, and then another three years for the company to break even.
[21:17] Jennifer: That's pretty good actually, six years to break even. That's already really good.
[21:20] Nicole: Yeah.
[21:21] Jennifer: And how were you funded? Were you funded by these seven anchoring corporates that you did pilots with?
[21:30] Nicole: Yes, initially we were funded by the seven corporates, plus we had some grants, some philanthropic grants, to get us started. And then, for example, the partnership with Accenture was in kind, so we had different support coming in through different ways that got us through the first three years.
[21:50] Jennifer: Besides some of the challenges that you talked about earlier, getting companies to sign up, getting data, what were some of the (other) challenges in the early days?
[22:02] Nicole: Yes. So and just on that first one, the way we got around it is we would send our statistician to the company. They would do the analysis on-site, on a computer that was not connected to the Internet, and then destroy the data and just keep the outcome of the analysis. We worked with legal teams just to understand what would be possible because actually having that data, that would not be possible for us to have that salary data, so we got around that.
I think the other challenges were fundraising was very difficult because philanthropists saw us as serving business in a way. And so the response we would often get is, "You should be funded by business."
And with business, most of them if they were to engage, then there was a question of “well, is this a conflict of interest because they want to be certified?”
So it was quite difficult and that's why we decided we are only going to get those pilot businesses that were part of setting up and developing the methodology, but then the foundation wouldn't be funded by business so that there would be no conflict of interest with certifications. So I think it was difficult to find the right niche and to find people who really saw and understood what we were trying to do and were willing to support us financially.
And we had moments, you know, there's the cash flow issue. You really have to believe in what you're doing, and that it's going to work, and that you will be able to pay your team at the end of the month. There were a few months that were quite challenging because it was borderline, are we going to make it or are we going to have to stop?
[23:54] Jennifer: Sounds like very similar challenges at most startups, right? Funding and getting clients. A few years into EDGE, you ran into some health issues, you had a burnout. I think over a decade ago, this was a condition that most people were not aware of, and people weren't even talking about it, or it was rarely talked about. If you're open to discuss it, can you tell us what had happened? What do you think might have caused it?
[24:28] Nicole: Yes. I think that, this is common to many entrepreneurs and people who have a drive and a passion, especially in the social field or environmental field where you're so driven because you see problems, you wanna solve them, right? And so you are constantly putting your energy to finding solutions, to creating organizations to, and so in a way, I think I've been working for so many years and really just putting so much energy.
And EDGE, it took a lot to get it off the ground. It took a lot of work, also the responsibility, you feel responsible for the people you're employing. You want to make sure that it's going to work. So in a way, you take a lot of responsibility upon yourself, probably more than it's reasonable. And so there just came a point where I was completely exhausted and I knew I had to stop.
And I think it wasn't just EDGE. I mean, I think it went back before, because I traveled a lot when I was in Bolivia, at the World Bank. I was traveling a lot, I was working a lot. And maybe you only realize it when you start having less energy, or it accumulates year after year after year. It's almost like you're filling a glass, and then there's a point where one more drop and it overflows and it's over. Right? You just have to stop.
So that's a little bit how it was for me and really that last bit of those seven pilot companies, we had, you know, 10 consultants we had, just getting that to work was a huge effort, and (it) just left me with needing to take a huge break. I mean, initially it was like, I need a really long break, right? It wasn't, "I have a burnout." It's like "I need a really long holiday, I need to rest."
[26:22] Jennifer: And that long break, how long was the break?
[26:25] Nicole: Well, it was very long because I started getting sick, but it was only after. And surprisingly, but maybe that's normal because your body's trying to catch up. I think often the body's a few months behind and needs to catch up and needs more time. So initially I just took the winter off, and then I guess the break turned into several years.
But during that time I also wrote a book and then started doing some small, very small writing projects, consulting projects. But it was four years of break, including writing the book, which is not necessarily a break for some people [00:chuckles] and doing these little consulting videos and writing projects.
[27:10] Jennifer: I think that makes the perfect segue into the book. But before then, you took a long break from EDGE Certified Foundation when the company was just starting to take off.
You had just gotten over the difficult startup phase and you were entering into this exciting phase of growth, was it difficult for you to take a break from EDGE, and to pull yourself away from something that you worked on for so long and really hard on?
[27:45] Nicole: Yes, it was difficult, but I did realize that it's almost like I couldn't anymore. You know, there's a point where physically I was so exhausted that I actually saw that it was just not possible anymore. And the other thing, which made it much easier, I was very fortunate anyway because we were two co-founders and actually we had agreed with Aniela that she would go ahead and start the company right at that time.
And so I think it was actually the perfect moment for me to leave, because the nonprofit and the standard had been established and validated. And it's almost like there was a next phase to start the company, and to start actually selling this product and getting clients (is) almost like a new project. And she was willing to take that on board.
So, of course, it's not easy when you start with two and then you end up alone. So for her, I understand it may not have been so easy to see me leave. Yet for me, I never really wanted to start a company, I've always been more focused on nonprofits. So the vision was very clear anyway, that that's not what I would have been drawn to. So it made it very easy as well for her to then really take the leadership, start that company and with all the difficulty, very challenging. But it was a perfect time, I guess I would say.
So it wasn't that challenging and it was very rewarding for me to see that even though I had stepped back, it kept going. I think that's where it becomes difficult as if you see that you step back and everything you've worked on goes down the drain. I think that would have been very challenging.
[29:44] Jennifer: But I think to some extent when we're really engrossed in what we're doing and we develop an obsession about work, we all think that we're indispensable. But in the end, we all realize that actually, we're not, that life goes on and we have people around us, colleagues, other co-founders that will take it over and we'll keep on going.
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[31:26] Jennifer As you mentioned, the burnout actually was a way to lead you down a path to writing, which is something I think that you've always wanted to do. And you wrote and published in 2014 a book called The Heart of Labyrinth, which is a spiritual parable about a woman named Maya, who was very successful, has a very fast-paced job, very well-educated, but she gets very, very sick. And then she found out that she's actually adopted. So she goes on this journey, going back to the Andes to find her mother. I'm not going to finish the rest of the story for you, Nicole. I think you can tell us the story about Maya better than me. So in your words, tell us what the book is about.
[32:25] Nicole: So the book is, there's many different layers in this book. And it is a story about a woman who goes into the Amazon, the Andes, and the Amazon to look for her mother. And who along the way starts to really understand that what she's looking for is her lost connection with the Mother Earth. So one level of, I mean, I would say the core of the story is really about how we have become disconnected from nature, from the Mother Earth, the Pachamama, we were talking about it before, and understanding the subconscious mechanisms of why that has happened, how that has happened, and what is needed for us to reconnect to, in a way, to a part of ourselves, and then to reconnect to the earth, um, as a living being and as an entity. So it's a story of Maya, it's a psychological story as well, because it goes very deep into subconscious and subconscious mechanisms of why we believe what we believe, why we behave in the ways we behave. And it's also a story about the sacred feminine, and I can say more about that, but that's why there's many layers within layers within this story.
[33:43] Jennifer: I'm re-reading the book again 10 years later, it's about understanding who we are and why we're here. There's that aspect about self-worth and self-identity, but how does Maya's story compare to your own spiritual journey?
[34:02] Nicole: So when I left, and I was not feeling great and taking some time out, and already before I had been very curious to understand on this gender topic. I was working on gender equality in the workplace, salary, and things like that. But much deeper, I just couldn't understand why in a country, like say Switzerland, just to take my country. Why is it that still today women and men who have the same jobs, the same qualifications, are not paid the same. It just doesn't make any sense, right?
So I couldn't make sense of that for rational beings who are well-meaning to discriminate based on gender. And so that led me down a pathway of looking at our subconscious beliefs and our conditioning. So what do we believe about men and women? What do we believe about gender roles and what do we believe even more deeply about different types of leadership qualities?
How is a woman leader supposed to behave versus how is a male leader supposed to behave? And of course, since I would say in the last 10 years, things have evolved, but there's still some very strong stereotypes and norms about how a woman's supposed to be, how a man's supposed to be. And so that reflection led me to understand how our beliefs are formed in our early childhood and even before when we're in the womb of our mothers. And so how we are really conditioned to believe certain things and that, this then really these shapes our choices, it shapes our behaviors, it shapes our patterns.
The parallel between my story is that I went on a pretty deep introspection, of course, using myself as the base of scientific exploration of the subconscious to start to unpack some of that and understand how these mechanisms work. And I wanted to share that, I wanted to share what I had learned, I wanted to share what I had understood.
And so Maya, it's fiction because this character working in New York, I mean, I've never worked in the types of settings that my character is living in.
[36:27] Jennifer: I have. [00:laughs]
[36:29] Nicole: Yes, I know you have, so if you want the outer part of the character is very different. Yet the subconscious conditioning and the patterns that she then starts to see as she goes on that journey. I think those are patterns that we share, and a lot of people share, also from what I've heard from the readers, men, and women. I've had men also say, wow, you're in my mind, this is exactly, what's been happening to me. So it's not unique to women by any means.
[37:00] Jennifer: And why did you write it in the form of a fictional novel?
[37:03] Nicole: Because I love stories and I don't read non-fiction - I love reading fiction. I feel like it's a very liberating, you can be much more creative. Maybe it's also because with a, you know, scientific background, whenever you write a paper, you need a footnote for everything you say. And I find it's very constraining. You can't just say something because you want to say it. In fiction, you can say whatever you want because you're telling a story. And so after a decade of writing a lot of papers and that had to be so rigorously documented and justified, I just wanted the freedom of writing a novel.
And because I love stories and storytelling, and I had been writing very short things all my life, just the idea of a novel was very appealing to have kind of this longer form to explore characters.
[37:58] Jennifer: And you also wrote the novel in Greece near Delphi. Tell us, what was that like? Did you pick to go to Greece to write that? Or it just came to you?
[38:10] Nicole: Yeah, it was a bit of a synchronicity because as I wasn't feeling so well, a friend of mine invited me to stay there, at her parents' house. And it was near Delphi. And I was intrigued because I had never been to Delphi, and I was intrigued by the story of the oracles and the priestesses. So I thought, okay, I'm just going to go for a few weeks and rest and maybe that will help me to rest and recover. And I ended up staying eight months and writing my book there.
So it was synchronicity. The more I stayed, the more I understood how this story of the priestesses of Gaia, Pachamama. In ancient Greece, these priestesses were devoted to the Mother Earth. And so it was very inspiring to me because I saw this parallel between how patriarchy had eradicated this whole devotion to the Mother Earth from women priestesses. And not just patriarchy, but Christianity, where a lot of these ancient rituals in Europe that were there in pre-Christian times and that were about this connection with the earth and with all living things had been replaced and completely kind of picked out of our daily lives.
I already wanted to write about this topic, but being there gave me much more material and inspiration to write about how do we reconnect to the Mother Earth, you know, what does it mean in Bolivia, but what does it mean? What could it have meant in ancient Greece? Of course, I'm using my imagination. But I saw this very strong parallel even between these two cultures. And so that ended up in the story.
[39:59] Jennifer: Because the oracle also ends up in the story somehow.
[40:02] Nicole: Exactly.
[40:03] Jennifer: [00:laughs] Um, okay, so we're going to go back and talk about the sacred feminine. You did a TEDx talk, it's called Reclaiming The Feminine. What is the feminine and why is it worth less than the masculine?
[40:19] Nicole: Yeah. So I got a lot of, I don't know, attacks. Just using the word the feminine can trigger a lot of people, which is what I realized in this past 10 years. And which to me is indicative that there's a problem, right? If a word triggers someone, then there's a problem. So I think to me, and there's so many different ways one can define the feminine, but to me, we have two genders, right? Men and women, and I know this could also be questioned, but anyway, and there are within each human being different aspects to us, you could call it yin and yang with another cultural context, or you could call it masculine and feminine.
They're two polarities that are complementary and that are both needed. And so one could say that we have these qualities within us that we could call feminine because they're more linked to the giving of life and the nurturing of life which is what mothers do and women do in terms of actually giving life. And so these feminine qualities to me are about nurturing and caring, but they're also about empathy, about intuition. You could almost say left brain, right brain.
So one could put different words to it, but the more I looked into this, I felt like there was a parallel between what is being valued in our societies, and the feminine and masculine qualities, and then how men and women are valued in terms of what they offer. So let me explain. So we live in a model where in the business context, it's the rational mind that's being valued - you have to be objective, you have to be linear, you always have to be well, there's a certain stereotype of how we need to be in the workplace, that one could really map onto a certain type of qualities.
And then there's a whole other set of qualities that every human being has no matter what their gender is. Intuition, empathy, compassion, connection, ability to really sense and receive information in a way that is not through the rational analytical mind. And so I'm calling that feminine. And these qualities are not, have not been valued to the same extent.
And I think that if you look at our history as well, there were a lot of women, especially in Europe, the women who were the holders of some occult and esoteric knowledge, or who knew about plants, who knew about healing. These women were all killed, basically a million witches were killed during the Middle Ages. So we wiped out the women who were holders of a certain type of being and a certain type of knowledge.
And in our subconscious, this means that you cannot be like that, right? There's like this fear, this collective subconscious fear. As a woman, if you go down that way, you will be killed by the system. So if you put all of this together, there are qualities within each of us that we hold as less valuable, and therefore we don't develop them to the same extent. And then as a society, women who traditionally tend to have more of those qualities are not, or even nurturing, giving lives, staying at home as a mom, it's not being valued to the same extent like by our economic system. So the economic system is totally biased against a certain type of behaving.
And then the third layer is the earth, which is what we call it the Mother Earth, the ultimate source of all of life. And the way we have been pillaging the earth is again indicative of the same pattern of behavior, the same pattern. We are just taking-taking-taking-extracting. We have an economic model built on extraction of resources.
How is that ever going to be sustainable? It's completely absurd. You need the cyclical, you need the spaces for rest and regeneration, at the level of the earth and at the level of the human. So there's all these parallels within parallels of the masculine, the feminine, and how we are still completely out of balance.
[44:43] Jennifer: Thanks for sharing. I love that. What is the Heart of The Labyrinth? What does it signify?
[44:51] Nicole: So the labyrinths, there can be many metaphors, and again to mention Greece. I think a lot of people think of the labyrinth (on) Minos on Crete, this more square labyrinth. But originally, labyrinths used to be in a spiral form, and there was only one way in and one way out. And so in a way it's almost like a metaphor for the process of walking within yourself into the depths. It's the inner journey of walking into the depths of your being.
And there may be some minaturs that have to be slain which are your own inner demons. The heart is, well, what do you find when we go, when you go all the way down and deep into the center of your essence of your being, of who you are.
[45:41] Jennifer: Very nice. Do you mind sharing with us your favorite passage in the book.
[45:46] Nicole: Because we're talking about Greece and about the oracles. There's a part that came to me, which is, it is the oracle speaking. So we're talking several thousand years ago, this is the priestess who's dedicated to Gaia, and this is what she says. So I'm going to read to you what she says:
“I have been your guardian and guide for millennia, holding you in harmony and peace, protecting you as you were protecting me, blessing you with abundance as you were blessing me with love and gratitude.
This symbiotic relationship is soon going to end. Ahead of us lies a time of great turmoil, a time when humans will separate themselves from my body and no longer live in harmony, but behave as a virulent parasite attacking its loving host. The disconnection will occur very slowly over millennia, accelerating with the passing of time. As the memory of past rituals and grace fall into oblivion, not all will be affected.
Some women and some men will continue to feel life pulsating through their veins. They will feel the pain of a dying tree in their own bodies and cry in bliss at the sight of dew upon a newborn leaf. They will strive to restore harmony, but their struggle will be arduous, and the outcome is uncertain.
[47:19] Jennifer: Thank you. This book offers a message of earth-centered wisdom. So for those of you who are interested, you'd have to read to find out what that wisdom is.
So now we're going to talk a little bit about the subconscious that you mentioned earlier. It's about dreams, which appears actually a lot in the novel, dreams and visions. Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, he saw dreams as the psyche’s attempt to communicate important things to the individual. He also believed that dreams are an important part of the personality development, a process that he called individuation. I know you have your own views on the dreams, so do you mind sharing that with the audience?
[48:06] Nicole: Yes, of course. I think Carl Jung is very inspiring, and his body of work is very, very important to everything he says. And in addition to that, I would say that a lot of indigenous cultures say that a civilization that is no longer dreaming is sick and at risk of dying. And what that indicates is that indeed dreams are, it’s information from the subconscious that is coming to the surface that is there to guide us, to give us insight, information, inspiration, creativity, anything really.
And so dreams are, to me, they're important. They need to be nurtured and they need to be shared and also acted upon on many levels. So I definitely agree with what Carl Jung said, and I think it's important to pay attention to that and to a lot of people say they don't remember their dreams anymore. Right? So why is that?
[49:08] Jennifer: I don't remember my dreams. I think I'm actually going through a period where I don't dream that much, or at least I don't remember them.
[49:16] Nicole: Yeah, I think our modern lifestyle is making it difficult because we're so stressed, we're so tired. We wake up with our alarm clocks, we have a schedule, we're not leaving any space anymore for the dreams.
If you compare that to some indigenous cultures where still today, they will get up maybe even in the middle of the night. And some cultures they had, you know, the first part of sleep and then the second part of sleep, and gather together around the fire and share their dreams. So the more you put attention on something, then, of course, the more it will blossom and the more that part of your life can have the space to bring that information to you.
So often when people say to me, yeah, I don't remember my dreams, and then we start talking about dreams, or we're in a group where people talk about dreams, then very often they'll come back the same day and they said, "Oh my God, I've dreamt last night. I haven't remembered a dream in 10 years." So it's just the fact of putting the attention to that and allowing that part to come up and there being space for it can make a big difference.
[50:23] Jennifer: And also a creative mind is a very relaxed mind. We can't create, if we are always on the go and stressed out about everything, that just blocks all the creativity.
Now we're going to talk about your current role, as the executive director of 1t.org, serving the global reforestation movement to conserve, restore, and grow a trillion trees by 2030, and catalyzing a new generation of ecopreneurs. It's almost like you're bringing together your background in natural sciences and public policy, and it's coming around full circle. You are working now to restore nature, how do you create this restoration generation?
[51:13] Nicole: Yeah, so the restoration generation, it's the hashtag of the UN decade for ecosystem restoration, which started in 2021 until 2030. And I find it very inspiring as a hashtag because it's if you think about it, we were talking before about an extractive economic model, right? So, I think we were, or we have been, and still are to some extent the destruction generation, to put it bluntly. And if we want to get on a sustainable pathway, even doing no harm is not enough anymore because we're way past that point.
So not only is it about doing no harm, but it's about restoring the ecosystems that have been damaged. So, and restoring, you could apply it to the earth, but also to humans. We were talking about burnouts and people being exhausted. And I think that's where all these different threads of my life come together because it really is about a one-health approach. If humans are well, the well-being within ourselves and our harmony and our inner balance - it's just a mirror image of what's happening on the planet and to the planet.
So if we move towards becoming the restoration generation, it means restoring ourselves, but also building a new model where the earth can restore herself. And it doesn't necessarily mean that we have to be restoring. Of course, planting trees is very important, but actually we can see that in spaces where the tropical forest, for example, has been cleared, if it's not too heavily degraded, the fastest way to restore it is natural regeneration.
So, it's actually not to not touch it, to leave it alone, and it will come back. And so, when we think about restoration, there's all these different dimensions again, right? Within ourselves as humans, what does that mean? And then what does it mean in terms of the planet and our interrelationship? And where is it just about leaving spaces alone so they can restore naturally? And where is it where we have to intervene? Because, for example, if I come back to forests, there's no more seeds because the space is so heavily degraded that you have to intervene. You have to plant trees for the biodiversity to come back slowly.
So that's the restoration generation, I think young people are driving it and are absolutely have the ideas, the passion, the vision, and it's just a matter of how fast can we grow this movement so that we shift also some of the fundamental building blocks of the economic system, of the way it works now to a way that is regenerative.
[53:59] Jennifer: And what is your message for the younger generation that's currently working on the restoration of this planet?
[54:05] Nicole: My message is keep going, and my message is also because there's so much eco-anxiety. I do think that the young ecopreneurs, we call them who are working on restoration, I think they're the ones who are leading and driving the change. So, I think the people who are in the eco-anxiety, they're more frozen because of the overwhelm of the situation and how terrible it really is and what's happening.
But I would say that the earth is, it's a miracle if you think about it. If you look at all the forms of life, it really is a miracle. And so there is a capacity for regeneration that is not linear thankfully, because otherwise, it would be very difficult to still have hope if you really analyze where we're at.
But there is a huge store of resources within life with a big L that can propel us into a different state, which we don't know what it is yet, but there is kind of an in between. And we're in the in-between zone where the old system is dying and things have to change, and we're starting to build the new piece by piece. And so, we need the young generation to continue acting like we can't stop, even if we don't quite see what is coming, because what is coming will be so different from what we know.
So we can't see it yet, but it's really important that we continue doing everything we can. And I would say to them, every action counts, and every action is very important, especially right now. And that's the only way we can build that critical mass, where suddenly we can get into a different tipping point of a different, you know, different society, different economy, and different planet.
[55:53] Jennifer: Yeah, thank you, I love that message, you work a lot with ecopreneurs. Tell us what is an ecopreneur and tell us some stories about these ecopreneurs.
[56:06] Nicole: Ecopreneurs are entrepreneurs who put the regeneration of the planet and the heart of their business model. So what we're trying to show with this and what they're doing already is that it's possible to start a business, to start an organization that regenerates nature. So again, shifting from this extractive worldview to a worldview that's regenerative. And so, we want to build this movement of entrepreneurs to inspire people to show that there is another way you can do it. Basically, there's thousands of people already doing it.
And so, a lot of them are working, for example, in agroforestry systems. Agroforestry systems, It's basically like a farm, but you have trees, you have crops, basically you have a certain biodiversity, right? Because one of the issues also is that we just have monocrop agriculture, which completely destroys the soil. So one way of restoring the soil is to have biodiversity on your land. And there's a lot of people now who are kind of this agroforestry movement that's showing that you can restore the soil, you can bring back water, moisture, which brings back, the insects and all the micro, biological organisms that you need to have a healthy ecosystem.
And it works as a business as well, because then you can sell your products on the market. A lot of our ecopreneurs are working in this space. So, for example, we have in Niger a company called Sahara Sahel Foods, and they're bringing back old food crops that people didn't eat anymore, because just like in Bolivia at a time, eating quinoa was perceived as like, if you quinoa, you're poor. So you shouldn't eat quinoa, you should eat rice. But the nutritional properties of quinoa are amazing, whereas white rice is pretty much devoid of anything useful.
So in the same way Sahara Sahel Foods is bringing back these old crops that are from the region that are restoring, that can restore the soil and that have nutritional benefits, and they're working with restaurant chains and with chefs, because it's all about behaviors ultimately as well, just to bring back. So that's a really inspiring example.
We also have a woman in Ethiopia who's working on honey, the honey value chains are quite interesting as well, or similarly a woman in Ecuador who is working on harvesting in protected areas, so this is a way of harvesting honey or crops, but in a way that is sustainable and can provide livelihoods for people living in protected areas without having to extract resources. So again, is there a different model around that?
Many more working on water, working on plastics, working on even renewable energies. So it's really a movement that's growing and, uh, we don't hear about it enough because there's incredible inspiring stories from around the world.
[59:11] Jennifer: That's what I was wondering because you don't hear about these ecopreneurs to begin with, but thanks for sharing that with us. I have a few questions left, what does success look like to you and how has it changed over the years?
I think to me, success is about being aligned with your passion, doing something that is meaningful, but also that is regenerative to use that word. So that is regenerative, not just for yourself, but also for those around you. So, to me, success is also about giving and giving back, but it has to be done because we were talking about burnout, right?
So, there's this regenerative aspect. So being able to regenerate oneself at all levels through what one is doing, and then at the same time provide that regeneration. And it can have many different forms. It can be just in your way of being, of kindness. there's many ways that this could take form to others and to the planet.
[01:00:19] Jennifer: And how has it changed over the years?
[01:00:21] Nicole: I don't think I was ever really attached to a mainstream definition of success in terms of career, because obviously I've had a quite unusual career path.
But I do think there was something around the word achievement, right? That you're always doing more and that's the root cause of burnout for a lot of people, of always doing more, always having to, even if it's to serve your mission, right? I mean, this doesn't necessarily need to be to make money.
And (I) think that one is no longer part of my definition of success and has been replaced more with the regenerative, and it's almost a little bit of parallel for what needs to happen in terms of the shift of our economy - always more versus regeneration.
[01:01:06] Jennifer: Yes. And where can people find you, your book and the work that you're doing?
[01:01:12] Nicole: So, my book at the moment is no longer available because I'm changing publishers. So, it's a wrong time to be asking. However, people can find me on LinkedIn, and I will be republishing it and I will make sure to announce it publicly when the book is available again.
[01:01:32] Jennifer: Okay, yes, we'll add that to the show notes. And what does the founder spirit mean to you?
[01:01:40] Nicole: To me, the founder spirit is about this creativity of, you see a problem, you want to find a solution or you want to explore something new. It's kind of a creativity that is not limited, that does not let itself be limited by, oh, you can't, or it's too difficult, or it's this or it's that, right? So it's almost like not being held back and having that curiosity, that creativity and that willingness to create new things, whether it's an organization.
So it's this, in a way, the entrepreneurial drive and the capacity to crystallize things into an organization, into a project, take a vision and you're able to transform it into something concrete, operational, and you're not held back by any thoughts of this is not going to work. So I think these are the different ingredients of the founder spirit.
[01:02:48] Jennifer: It's so interesting because I think everybody has their own different notions of what it means to them as I have discovered.
So we're now coming to the end of our interview, and as you know, we end every episode with a quote. And for this episode, I have a quote from Rumi, who is a 13th Century Persian poet, Islamic scholar, and a Sufi mystic.
''The center of your heart is where life begins, the most beautiful place on earth.''
Nicole, thanks for joining us today and taking us to the heart of your labyrinth!
[01:03:23] Nicole: Thank you, Jenn, it was a pleasure.
[01:03:36] [END OF AUDIO]
(02:08) What Drew Nicole to Start Her Career in the Andes?
(06:27) How Did Her Deep Connection to Nature Crystallize?
(09:21) Her Motivation to Create a World of Equal Opportunities at the Workplace with EDGE Certified Foundation
(12:28) What Were Her Experiences with Gender Biases?
(13:57) Early Challenges at EDGE
(23:54 ) The Founder Burnout
(31:26) The Heart of The Labyrinth: A Spiritual Parable
(40:05) What Is Feminine and Why Is It Less Worthy Than Masculine?
(44:43) What Does the Heart of the Labyrinth Signify?
(50:23) Her New Journey of Restoring Nature and Growing a Trillion Trees by 2030
(55:53) What is an Ecopreneur and How Does This New Business Model Contribute to the Environment?
Social Media Links:
LinkedIn: Nicole Schwab | LinkedIn
Website: EDGE Certified Foundation
Website: Trillion Tree Community
TedX Talk: Reclaiming the Feminine