The Story of The Sustainability Mafia - Ganesh Shankar
9 November 2021
I wonder how some things just take great shape when the purpose is very clear from the start.
From the time I started watching English movies, which was mostly during my teenage years, I have been a big fan of Francis Ford Coppola's movie - The God Father. I might have watched the first part maybe 20 times and the opening scene in the movie by Don Corleone is my all-time favourite scene:
"You found paradise in America, you had a good trade, made a good living. The police protected you and there were courts of law. And you didn't need a friend like me. But now you come to me and you say, “Don Corleone give me justice.”
It's perhaps the first time I started thinking very deeply about the word 'justice' after seeing the movie. Especially in the opening scene where a shattered father comes to Don Carleione seeking justice for his daughter who is molested and badly hurt by two boys who get away from the legal system. Though the movie is fascinating and by far a classic in the history of Hollywood with some of the finest quality actors contributing to the storyline, I couldn't accept that Mafia has a role in providing justice, especially after watching the second part.
Twenty years later, in 2018, I had spent nearly eight years in the field of Sustainability and Climate Action. I had co-founded two startups in the field of Sustainability and Climate Action by then. It was during the same time, my wife and I were planning to have a child. Being in the field of Sustainability, I was to an extent aware of the painful truth pertaining to unsustainable means of access to natural resources, clean water, energy and food while aspiring to bring a life on this planet. The consequences of a warmer planet due to unsustainable human practices further stirred me to do something about it. It was during the same time Climate Activism had just started and taken some momentum. From a to-be parent mindset, I was emotionally drawn to the discussion on intergenerational environmental justice and climate justice with my friends in the field of Sustainability, whom I used to hangout a lot, obviously for the common interest in the field of environmental protection. During one such discussion, Don Carleione's approach towards providing justice to the shattered father seemed a workable alternative to environmental justice. As, like the boys who molested and hurt the young girl, the environmental offenders seem to continue to molest and hurt (read: damage) the environment without much fear. The question then was, what can we do as entrepreneurs and solution providers in the field of Sustainability? However emotional or angry we may have been, we didn't really think of taking guns and bullets - but the idea of coming together like Mafia seemed like a good start.
With that as a motivation, I wrote a blog post “Ganesha Chaturthi and a Mafia in the making” (going with the Indian tradition to worship Lord Ganesha before starting any important task). The blog with the photo of the logo "The Sustainability Mafia" with the tagline " Lobbyist for your grandchildren" attracted attention from my friends and fellow entrepreneurs in the Sustainability space through social media posts. We became a group of 20 to 30 in no time and the WhatsApp group was a good home for us. The conversation in the group further led to frequent informal meet-ups at my office in FluxGen initially. The first formal meeting happened at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS) facility in Bangalore, where we started discussing the purpose of The Sustainability Mafia. The first formal meeting also led to more conversations online and offline, which further led to more people joining the Mafia. While there was no structure to function as a group, it started becoming a common platform to collaborate and curate ideas in one place. By the end of 2019, we were about 60+ loose group with a mission to multiply the impact of sustainability leaders through goal-oriented collaboration. The mission statement of Sustainability Mafia was formulated by my dear friend Arjun Gupta, Founder and CEO of SmartJoules Private Limited.
The last in-person meeting of 2019 was very effective, as each of us shared our aspiration for The Sustainability Mafia. It was during the same time, we started thinking of setting up a legal entity for The Sustainability Mafia and also hiring a full-time Program Manager. We got a stall in CII CleanTech Expo to find more leaders in the space and we were invited to be the knowledge partners for the Indo Data Week (a Data Science Expo focused on Sustainable Development Goals). Slowly The Sustainability Mafia was transitioning from a passion project to a potentially powerful platform for the leaders in the Sustainability space to drive the vision to make Sustainability the default choice.
While scouting for the Program Manager, Arjun introduced me to Anirudh Gupta - a young Business Development Manager at Airbus, who had his bachelor's in political economy from UC Berkeley. It was during the same time I had returned from Berkeley after completing my executive education in Entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley. I really enjoyed the very first conversation with Anirudh as he came across as an absolutely passionate, idealistic, high energy and mission-driven person. When I came to know that Anirudh is contemplating on career transition to Sustainability and Climate action, I created the WhatsApp group called "AAG" - (Arjun Anirudh Ganesh, AAG also means fire in Hindi) to discuss the potential opportunity at hand in building The Sustainability Mafia with the three of us together. As I could see that the three of us are having complementary strengths and diversity in thinking. We started having regular online meetings every Wednesday at 8 pm to discuss the plan for SusMafia. The meetings further strengthened my friendship with Arjun and we started engaging in some really crazy, amazing and fun conversations about building The Sustainability Mafia. At times we started discussing it on Saturdays too.
Early 2020 Anirudh left his full-time job at Airbus to become the Program Manager of The Sustainability Mafia - a full-time role. Though Arjun and I had promised to offer a decent salary for the job of Program Manager, we didn't have a solid plan to execute. Despite taking an unstable career path, Anirudh showed great character for the role. He ramped up his learning in the field tremendously and started talking the language of Sustainability and Climate action effortlessly in all the meetings that we started having with external experts whom we met for guidance to build the SusMafia. We met the founder of Greentown labs Boston to the director of MacArthur Foundation, former managing director of Shakti foundation to the founder of Terra.do, many were from Arjun's network. During our weekly meetings, we came up with multiple ideas for the Sustainability Mafia, which includes The Sustainability Master Class for the corporates, The Cross Pollinator, The Sustainability Talks (SusTalks), etc. While we didn't get immediate results, I can say it took its time to eventually become our offering.
If The Sustainability Mafia exists today it is largely to do with Anirudh's passion and his time commitment towards the mission and vision, especially in 2020, when it took real shape. He rebuilt the entire website and made it very functional and aesthetically appealing too. He even built an online community customized to SusMafia's needs. He conducted more than 150 meetings with potential members (read: Mafiosos) to recruit the suitable ones to the SusMafia ecosystem. Arjun and I managed to make time for the weekly meeting without fail and sometimes during the week on a need basis, as we were running our respective startups. During our meetings, we had our own disagreements, fights and clashes. There were times we had bitter arguments that could have potentially killed our plans to build the Mafia; however, the purpose kept us together in tough times and that eventually led us to form a legal entity called "Sustainability Engine Foundation" a section 8 for impact (non-profit) organization by mid-2020. Arjun and I decided to offer the director role to Anirudh, along with us, as he had put everything into making The Sustainability Mafia a success.
Another factor that kept us alive was the passionate volunteers, whom we called the Sicarios. The volunteers include Anusha Sheth, Manasa Hegde, Shreyas Kulur, Rohan Suresh and Dishant. I had the opportunity to work with each of them in different capacities in the past and was confident that they were the perfect fit in building The Sustainability Mafia. Anusha was passionate about building the Master Class for Corporates on Sustainability; Manasa was keen on making powerful marketing collaterals; Shreyas in running the SusTalks smoothly; Rohan in Mafioso recruitment and Dishant creating the Cross Pollinator. Fortunately, Anirudh also found them amazing and was able to derive maximum value out of their time.
The SusTalks that we conducted on Saturdays were very successful and brought all the members together. The SusTalks enabled the Mafioso (the Entrepreneurs and Solution Providers) to share their story and gave them the opportunity to collaborate and cross pollinate with other members through the discussion that followed the talk. Since the talks were very insightful, we opened many of them to our larger community which also constituted the Soldatos - the sustainability solution adopters. The Soldatos had access to most parts of the website and were able to get the regular newsletters to keep them updated about the development and the offerings of SusMafia. This way we were trying to complete the supply (read: Mafiosos) and demand (read: Soldatos) loop.
One of the most powerful value systems that Anirudh brought to the table towards building the community/ecosystem was his strong impetus on Quality and Trust. He didn't want to compromise on the quality whether in the communication, engagement or content delivery. As per trust, he devised the mechanism of signing a pledge by all the Mafiosos and Sicarios before becoming part of the Mafia. The pledge is not as binding as a legal agreement nor a handshake agreement - this way we kept members actively involved in the community with a high-quality engagement with trust to help each other multiply the impact.
The Mafioso engagement was initially challenging as we were experimenting with quite many ideas and didn't have any proven approach to achieve the mission. Besides, due to the pandemic, we didn't get a chance to have in-person meetings to get to know each other better. We did feel frustrated at times, but slowly we realised that building a community does take time and creating value propositions is also a slow process. However, we were surprised by some super Mafiosos like Radhica, Hari, Arundhuti and Shalini who came up with a plan to write an advocacy paper to build a post-pandemic sustainability-focused India with the help of many members in the group. We were thrilled to see Hari Dilip Kumar's leadership in driving the paper, which is now available on the website.
The success of the SusTalks did build a lot of confidence in us, to the extent, Anirudh went on to get the licence to host TEDxSusMafia for the COUNTDOWN event ( - TEDx event fully focused on Climate Action). We were thrilled to get the licence and it somehow coincided with the day we officially got incorporated as a section 8 - for impact (non-profit) organization. The TEDx licence further boosted the morale of all the Sicarios (volunteers) as it gave them the opportunity to work on something very impactful. The TEDx event gave us a lot of visibility and we worked really hard in pulling off a fantastic event last October with a 9.7/10 overall rating.
The journey of the Sustainability Mafia started progressing upwards post TEDx, as we had a substantial mass in terms of Sustainability leaders in the community and we were able to get more inbound requests to become part of the community. We got a one time contribution from each member to run the operations. We also got a generous CSR contribution from KG fabriks (a sustainable denim maker from Coimbatore) - all thanks to our Mafioso Srihari Balakrishnan sir. This in a way helped us to fuel our dreams of fixing corporate sustainability with the help of the Mafiosos as educators and enablers - The Corporado Program.
The Corporado Program was Arjun and Anirudh's brainchild. Arjun, who among the three, is the most knowledgeable person in the field of Sustainability by education and experience, had seen first hand that Corporate sustainability was a piped dream both as an employee in the past and as an entrepreneur running an energy efficiency startup. It was also the conversation with one of our early Mafioso Mili that made us think of building the Corporado Program. Arjun had Hari in mind to execute the Corporado Program - I was rather thrilled to have Hari lead the Corporado Program as my friendship with him dates back to two decades, including co-founding FluxGen. Hari could clearly see the value in the Corporado Program and hence he did accept the Program Manager role for the program on a part-time basis, to build the ambitious dream project with great enthusiasm!
I had the pleasure of working with Hari in creating the first version of the Corporado Program - it was also fun hanging out at a cafe near our place, and having those deep conversations as we both did in college. While the content was curated, we also parallelly engaged with many corporates to fine-tune the offering. We were fortunate to get the first Corporado in the form of one of the large facilities management companies in India that wanted to transition towards Sustainability. The decision-maker had been attending SusTalks as a Soldato for a while, which triggered him to reach out to us immediately after announcing the program. Hari and Anirudh together cracked the deal which also meant we were able to build the Sustainability Mafia in a financially sustainable manner rather than being completely dependent on grants, CSR funds and donations.
The Corporado Program in short is all about bringing design thinking and facilitated interactions in a 'network marketplace' with the Mafia community to accelerate the corporate sustainability transition in India. Though Hari did most of the planning and arrangements, the first run of the Corporado Program was turning out to be pretty exhaustive for all three of us - I mean, to Arjun, Anirudh and me. We decided to hire Project Associates to drive the program. We came up with a very challenging assignment to eventually hire two really amazing professionals - Payal Shah and Atul Shreyas.
Payal is an advocate with nearly a decade of experience, who was passionate about transitioning to a career in Sustainability, and Atul is an IIT Madras graduate in automobile engineering, who had a couple of years experience in consulting with a strong interest in pursuing entrepreneurship in the field of Climate Action. We figured the project associate job was a perfect fit for both of them as it served their career purpose very well.
Thanks to Hari, Payal and Atul, today The Corporado program has been course-corrected to the extent it can be scaled to meet the needs of hundreds of large corporates in India with the help of the SusMafia entrepreneur's ecosystem. We have been fortunate to recently onboard one of the world's largest beverage majors for the newly formulated Corporado program. Glad to say we have got inbound requests by many corporates as well.
As I come towards the end of the post, I am super excited about the TEDxSusMafia 2.0, scheduled this Saturday - 13th November 2021. We have been working on the theme "100 Climate Unicorns" for the last three to four months to have 30+ plus champions in the field of Sustainability and Climate Action as speakers. I must say maximum credit should go to Anirudh, Arjun and our new project associate Noora Yasmin for curating a fantastic lineup of speakers and events around the theme. I'm stoked about the possibilities and amount with which the multiplication of the impact of the Sustainability leaders after the event as I can imagine the large number of people in Sustainability and Climate Action engaging with the Sustainability Mafia after the TEDxSusMafia 2.0. If there was a specific reason to write this post today, it was to invite you to the event (link here).
As I'm writing this post, the COP26 is now happening in Glasgow. The whole world is trying to figure out the strategy for net zero(emission) in order to ensure climate 'justice' is not compromised. I'm reminded of the conversation we had with John Blabach of McArthur foundation (even before we incorporated SusMafia) - he asked us this question, what is that small enough to do (as SusMafia) that is big enough to matter? We are building SusMafia by asking ourselves this question in every step, as we progress to make Sustainability the Default Choice for the whole of humanity - Come join us in this effort for our children and grandchildrens' sake, in assuring Climate and environmental justice for all!
PS: If you work on any of the below themes, do reach out us - email@example.com