Interview by: Bryan Rubin
Cullen Naumoff joined the Oberlin Project in September 2014 as the Director of Sustainable Enterprise. Naumoff leads the sustainable economic initiatives to drive smart growth in and around Oberlin, Ohio. Naumoff brings to this role innovative and inclusive strategies that aim to both attract and grow triple bottom lined businesses in the community.
Prior to joining The Oberlin Project, Naumoff was the Vision 2030 Project Director at the Charleston Area Alliance. The Charleston Area Alliance is a multifaceted, regional economic development entity re-charting the course of West Virginia’s economic future. She drove the long-term economic development strategy to capitalize on the strengths of West Virginia and match them with emerging megatrends to position the state to become a development model .
Q: What words would you use to describe the community of Oberlin, and why would you use these words to describe the 12 months that you have been here?
A: I would say Oberlin is a dynamic and diverse community that has a lot of energy and and a lot of ideas, and wants very badly to be on the forefront of progress. I think it’s about figuring out how to actively implement those ideas.
Q: And to follow up on that, how do you see that role and sustainability intertwined with those ideas? When you think of Oberlin do you think of sustainability?
A: Yeah, it’s interesting. Certainly from a third party looking in, I think everyone makes that connection both [regarding] social progress, social justice, environmental justice, and obviously this idea of what does a sustainable community look like, again from that third party. That’s standard no matter where you work, both the corporate sector and public sector.
Once you get here, you recognize, oh, there’s a lot of talking and we need to do more walking. We need to to walk the talk. But, that's hard right? Because of all of these ideas we have bubbling, because all the great talent from both the college and the community are at the forefront of “people have never done it before.” And so that’s scary. And that’s something I didn’t have a sense of coming into Oberlin. That even in a very progressive community, change is hard. And I believe that’s a statement that holds true wherever you are.
Q: How would you try to make those changes, with the work of the college and the community together?
A: I think part of that has to do with starting small and doing actionable things, and that’s something we have tried to do here at the Oberlin Project in the past 12 months by really deploying new initiatives. They’re not going to be game changers overnight, but we have to start somewhere, and you can’t improve or evolve before you start actually putting something on paper. What I mean by putting something out on paper, I mean getting money and investing and starting an initiative.
That’s kind of my strategy. The idea that we won’t ever have the perfect plan. There will always be uncertainty, and that’s okay. We have to be comfortable with some level of uncertainty, and use the relevant information we have to start, and then be willing to evolve as we go forward.
Q: What would you say, when going forward with these smaller projects, is the role of the community and of the college?
A: I think in Oberlin, and at the Oberlin Project, we approach things from a systems perspective. So when I think of the community of Oberlin, I rarely differentiate in my mind between the college and the community because they are a part of the same system, and the way systems operate most efficiently is if everyone is contributing at the balanced impact. That being said, leadership needs to be strong from all of the stakeholders in the system, committed to this idea of progress, and commited to the idea that we know we will need to evolve some of our behavior, some of our investments, some of our approaches, but we’re willing to do that in smart ways. There’s this concept of change management, and so how do you get people to change behavior, and again, change anything? If you think of a ladder, when you climb up a ladder you don’t go from the bottom rung and then jump all the way to the top. It’s rung by rung. In order to make change you have to meet people at the rung they’re at, and then move them one rung at a time, as opposed to asking them to make these giant shifts.
Q: You talked about the image of Oberlin being a progressive one, but there is more talk that change is still hard. How does that play out currently in the community as a whole?
A: I’m from a small rural town in Ohio originally. The level of diversity, diverse thought, and the critical thinking that happens in this rural town is orders of magnitude greater. I think that is partly because of the talent that Oberlin as a community at large attracts. That spirit and that idea of driving strides forward is really powerful and ever present here. Again, I would reiterate... how we actually make progress is where the rubber hits the road. It’s not just about talking. That’s something that as a community we can all get better at.
Q: How do you see the Oberlin Project, and your role in economic development at the Oberlin Project playing into that, and some of the smaller roles that get you up the ladder one rung at a time?
A: I think it’s about showing action, showing tangibility. I’ll give you an example. We know politicians like to talk about economic development, but if you ask them how are you going to make more jobs, it’s sort of like crickets. Most often, traditional economic development is about recruiting big existing companies and having them put a big footprint up, so that hopefully you’ll have 400 new jobs. That’s not really the ethos of Oberlin, nor do we have the physical infrastructure from a housing perspective, from a school capacity perspective.
What we do know is that we have so many great ideas here. So how do we help our idea creators take those ideas and make something tangible that the marketplace will respond to? This idea of entrepreneurship, but often times, to be an entrepreneur, you have to have a lot of capital to actually take that idea to the market. So we started something call Seed Ventures. Seed Ventures is a pop-up incubator marketplace to both provide business education and a market so that entrepreneurs can test the marketplace in a very low risk, no cost way. This is an example of tangibility.
We’re saying, yeah, we ask this property owner who owns 29 South Main St. to go out on a limb that we’re going to sign only a five month lease with him. But we’re going to prove that by supporting these 5 to 10 entrepreneurs, he will get a long term lease out of that. That’s something that is tangible to him. So that begins to hit on people, profit and planet.
Q: So you see this as something that people will see in a bigger picture? For example, if this works, we can start implementing it more wide scale.
A: Right. I mean frankly, I’m not concerned about Seed Ventures' long term vitality. I’m concerned about all of these entrepreneurs, because that’s where we know sustainable economic growth will happen, as opposed to trying to attract this big manufacturer. If everyone can provide a product or skill relative to their neighbor, that becomes a really viable local marketplace where the dollars are retained within the local economy.
Q: Sort of like creating a sustainable ecosystem of sorts, within the market place essentially?
A: Yeah. Circling back, we can talk all day about the best way that we think we can grow the economy in Oberlin. All day, all year, and we’re probably always going to be a little uncertain as to what the right approach is. Right now we think, based on our analysis, that the approach that Seed Ventures is taking is the best one. I’m not ultimately saying that it is, but we’re giving it a shot. We are going to learn a lot from it, and then we can pivot from there in terms of how do we really support sustainable, economic growth.
Q: Going with a broader question, how would you define sustainability?
A: That’s a great question. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. One of the key things that we all have to work on in Oberlin right now is accessible language. Sustainability to people, sometimes that word turns people off. I was listening to NPR on the drive in and they were saying conservatives were immediately thinking about bugs and wildlife. That we have to eat bugs; we all have to walk. So really, sustainability to me is about doing things more efficiently. I think everyone can relate to efficiency. People want to save money? Great! Turn your lights off! You want to have less miles in your food, you want your food to be fresher, so it travels fewer miles? Great! Let’s eat local. So this idea of not having it be sustainability and then the accounting department. No! Efficiency needs to be embedded into the accounting department, so that it’s applicable to all parts of our lives. I think we really need to get beyond thinking about sustainability as a separate thing, because we’re just creating a silo again, which is a part of what got us in this place initially.
Q: In other words, pitching sustainability differently?
A: Communicating it differently. Early in my career I was like “I’m a sustainability strategist,” but right now I’m about making things efficient and really thinking about it from a systems perspective. Some of the issue is that our free market does not account for externalities. That’s where we lose some of the consideration of efficiency because the price at which something is set isn’t asked to consider my impact to the environment, my impact to the community, my impact to the person. That’s part of that thinking that needs to be embedded into every person's job/department, from the college and from the city to the community at large.
Q: On a personal level, how do the decisions you have made, like where you get your food or tend to shop, how does that connect to the community and/or sustainability of Oberlin, or the world at large? Has it impacted you personally and what you are doing?
A: I’ve lived in many communities; I’ve lived in mega cities, I’ve lived in gritty cities, but honestly, shopping at the Oberlin Farmers’ Market I’ve experienced some of the highest quality food I’ve ever had. That goes from our bread maker to our vegetable growers, and jam makers. And these Jams were an experience of complex flavors I don’t think I’ve ever had before, and the fact that he was either sourcing or growing all of his local and specialty fruit, and then really thinking invasively about what flavor is, creating this really amazing product, that to me is like I’m supporting my local farmer, hence reducing my carbon footprint in terms of how many miles my food is traveling, and I’m also really investing back in my local economy. That is really important to me because this is a cyclical effect. So now these guys, the farmers, now have more disposable income that they can reinvest back into the community. I think that’s the most tangible thing, in terms of Oberlin, where I believe there is a big triple bottom line win there.
Q: And would you say since coming here that you have done a lot of your shopping locally, compared to buying on Amazon, or something of the like? Or do you think it’s a hard battle, because as you pointed out, Oberlin is small, and it doesn’t have everything.
A: I think it’s a buffer question for me because this is something that I truly believe in, to minimize my Amazon shopping, and minimize going to Walmart, or whatever it might be, but I think there is some truth to that quite frankly. That’s an interesting question to ponder, as a person who has experienced more diversity in products or restaurants, or whatever that might be, how do you manage full time in Oberlin if you know that there might be something more. I think it’s a balance. That’s the ultimate thing of the ultimate triple bottom line, that’s what sustainability is about. It’s a balance. So if I need to make a drive to Cleveland once a week, that’s okay. I think that’s something I want to communicate about sustainability. It’s not the extremes. That turns so many people off, and rightfully so. There’s no point in starting to have the conversation if it’s an extreme. And also we know extremes don’t lead to good outcomes. It’s a balance.
Q: How do you further the goals of the community and the Oberlin Project to do what you have been talking about?
"In order to make a bigger impact in the world, we have to have smarter consumers"
A: In order to make a bigger impact in the world, we have to have smarter consumers and smarter consumers have to be willing to ask questions. That is what I would ask every citizen of Oberlin to do. I would ask them to ask questions and be curious about how their product was manufactured. Where is their product coming from? Even in their own home, have curiosity. For example how much electricity am I using? How do I reduce my water waste? Once we have a meter consumer base who are driving demand to those companies, to those utility providers, that’s when we’ll see the bar shift.
Q: How do you think that could be achieved?
A: I believe it’s in communities like Oberlin frankly. Communities who have a density of people who have a bias towards curiosity and asking questions anyways. These are the first movers, because right now, because of the way that our accounting rules work, there really is no incentive for consumers to be conscious consumers, they are only coached on the price point. So we need people at Oberlin that again, have this bias, this conscious of thought regardless of the only information they are immediately fed is that price point.
Q: And how that could be related to sustainability for example?
A: Again I would ask every consumer to ask three simple questions to their waiter: where did this food come from? How much are you paid? How much is your company reinvesting into the community? Something around the triple bottom line. It doesn’t have to be these highly intellectual questions.
You start to create this consumer awareness, giving market signals to the market, and the market has to respond because the consumers are demanding something different. Then you have this microcosm of sustainable economic growth in Oberlin, and you know what happens is these businesses start to do really well and we start to see this balance within our community at large. Then people in Cleveland are like, “what's going on at Oberlin? Something is working down there. They’re getting these really holistic outcomes." So they start thinking about it and you see this is how these things grow. But this is also to your previous interviewee’s point, why Oberlin does have an opportunity to be a microcosm in a macrocosm. My call to action is to get Oberlin citizens to ask more questions, be conscious consumers, and be educated. Once you're educated, don’t buy that product if it does not suit how you define what conscious consumerism is. Because if you buy it, you’re still giving that signal to the market that you want more of this.
"My call to action is to get Oberlin citizens to ask more questions, be conscious consumers, and be educated"
Q: So Starting small, using Oberlin as a model, so that others could see and do the same?
A: That’s frankly why the size [of Oberlin] is to our advantage. We belong to some commitments like the C40 cities. These are cities around the nation, around the world, that have committed to carbon neutrality. San Francisco is in this bunch, New York City, but if you talk to San Francisco they're not doing it on a city wide level. They’re doing it on a scale of Treasure Island. So even smaller than Oberlin in terms of population, but here we are. We’re a vibrant active community, with all of the pieces. It’s not like we’re just picking out Treasure Island. We have the opportunity to be a true model.
We’re banking on Oberlin citizens because of Oberlin’s history, because of the type of people it attracts, to not need as much of a tangible incentive. From more of a systems perspective I understand how I interact with the world. We can have this discussion, but it’s different than taking it into action. Both personally, at project levels, and leadership levels.