YPDaily: Mike Soron

Mike Soron’s professional work centres around studying and teaching sustainability for a student-focused not-for-profit. What’s notable to him? “Creating something – a business, a garden, a book, an idea – that is useful for a hundred years or more.”

Elevator Pitch: Describe your job in a nutshell.
I provide leadership and day-to-day management for a sustainability and student-focused not-for-profit doing work at Simon Fraser University campuses in Burnaby, Vancouver, and Surrey. I help young leaders develop plans and projects to ensure SFU is a safe, healthy and useful institution in 2013, 2113 and beyond.

Why did you start working at your company? What was the inspiration for this career route?
After leaving a position in government relations at the University of Calgary Students’ Union to go to grad school, I swore off working in higher education and was eager for something different. But after I finished my Masters in Urban Studies, the many rewards of working with students on issues I’m very concerned about drew me back. The sustainability and not-for-profit sectors overflow with cynicism and pessimism these days – and not without good reason. The optimism, urgency, and passion of the typically young students I work with is an energizing antidote to the direness that can come from working in this field.

Although I knew I would work in some way with sustainability and large, complex institutions like cities or universities, I didn’t plan for a not-for-profit management position. I planned to continue in academia or private research and analysis. But, I was also eager to get to work on real-world projects and saw that opportunity in an organization with a genuinely dynamic portfolio of projects, partnerships, and advocacy and an unusually long-term focus. I’m motivated by the problem of “how to get stuff done” and this path will help me tackle more daunting and impactful challenges with the expertise and relationships I develop over time.

What is the best part of what you do on a day-to-day basis? The most challenging part?
The best part of my job is mentoring student leaders to solve problems or accomplish work they didn’t know they could. When success also means reducing our climate risk or making healthy, campus-grown food available, it’s even more rewarding. At the same time, this mentorship is also the most challenging; university students have many competing commitments, diverse levels of experience and knowledge, and in some cases are also my bosses. Being in a learning-focused environment that appreciates failure as a teaching tool helps overcome some of that challenge on both sides. Working day-to-day at a university keeps me focused on my own learning as a professional and encourages a commitment to ethics, public service and knowledge transfer.

The environment that underpins our economy and society is in a lot of trouble. We have a lot of work to do to keep our communities safe and livable, but working day-to-day with such tenacious and impatient young people in a space dedicated to research and action gives me tremendous hope for our future.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I try not to plan in detail and instead be ready to act on things I haven’t anticipated. I want to be doing useful work, in the real world, that leaves my community better than I found it. And I hope to have at least as many failures as successes racked up, otherwise I likely won’t have been taking on meaningful challenges and I certainly won’t be developing much in my career.

What does success look like to you?
Success is bringing a project, organization, or idea to a point that you can pass it off to someone else who cares about it as much or more than you did. You’ve really succeeded when your work thrives and grows even after you’ve moved on. If you want to sustain more than a few useful pieces of work in your life, you need to learn to let go and love doing it.

What is the most memorable milestone in your career?
I’d like to think that it hasn’t happened yet! Still, relocating from Calgary to Vancouver was a major professional and personal milestone for me. Being in a city where you and your work can thrive and connect is crucial.

Do you have any advice for other young professionals?
We live on a completely different planet than our parents did at our age. Bill McKibben calls our new home Eaarth, to emphasize the point. Do not forget this. The jobs, opportunities, pressures, and prospects for young professionals are rapidly changing – and not only because we’ve altered the composition of the planet’s atmosphere and oceans. Pay close attention to environmental change and its impact on the economy and society or you will be left behind.

We’re going to have to do things differently than our parents did. And we are. I am amazed by the number of worker cooperatives, ultra-lean startups, crowd-funded projects and social enterprises being formed by my former classmates and colleagues. At the same time, there’s a resurgent demand for too-long-dormant qualities like durability, authenticity, repairability and simplicity in what we buy, share and use. Be ready to deploy all sorts of tools and strategies – new and old – in ways you nor your parents can anticipate. If you look to the past for inspiration, look to your great-grandparents’ generation. Their artisanal economies, small-scale manufacturing, and mutual aid societies have more to teach us than the un-repeatable, cheap energy-fuelled era of our parents and grandparents.

Do you support any charities? If so, which one(s) and why is that important to you?
I support charities doing work on environmental and social policy that affects my community. Some of the most intractable obstacles to addressing urgent crises are about information and policy; we have ample resources and technology to act but lack political and public will. I support groups like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Vancouver Public Space Network that focus on bringing research into action for the public good. Other groups are doing important work building public support for action on the global warming crisi – which is having an incomparable humanitarian impact – including 350.org and the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition.

What is Notable to you?
Creating something – a business, a garden, a book, an idea – that is useful for a hundred years or more. A deep commitment to be useful to people not just today, but well after you’re gone, is notable. Make something that endures.

Blackberry, iPhone, Android, or Other?
I pledge fealty to Apple.