As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Kindley Walsh Lawlor.
A champion of social justice and environmental sustainability, and a creator of multi-stakeholder partnerships, Kindley Walsh Lawlor is driving Park California’s core mission to make California parks more welcoming, accessible and relevant to all visitors. This work is done in partnership with California Department of Parks and Recreation, nonprofits, community groups, the private sector, and other organizations to expand park programs, amenities and resources.
Prior to joining Parks California, Kindley spent more than 25 years as a sustainability and foundation leader specializing in fair and productive global apparel supply chains, with a focus on women’s education and empowerment, worker rights and environmental impact.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’m the definition of someone who’s had a “spiderweb” career path! It’s taken a few turns along the way, but in retrospect it all makes perfect sense where I’ve landed — now and each time throughout my career. I started in fashion — first designing clothes, then making them around the world. But I always had so many questions about the people I was meeting who were sewing the clothes, weaving the fabrics… wondering if these were good jobs, how they were treated at work. So I spent the majority of my time in the fashion world focused on worker’s rights and, more specifically, women’s rights, including a focus on safety and security. When I heard about Parks California, and the reality that many people do not feel welcome or safe in parks, it caught my attention. How could I contribute right here in California where I’ve lived for more than 25 years in a justice oriented way?
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The pandemic has made us be more nimble, creative and humble — even as a new nonprofit. My leadership team began work in August 2019 and by March 2020 we were in lock down. I’m so proud that we used our newness to be scrappy — to see being new as an opportunity to show up where we were needed most by our key partner, California State Parks and to adapt our priorities based on our partnership.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I waited far too long to bring in IT support, that’s for sure! When your 10-year-old is acting as your IT expert (and department), you know it’s time! But we are small, so I had to learn how to “staff’ with part-time consultants for the work. My background for over 20 years was with a large international corporation, so simply learning how to self-start was fascinating (I mean that by the way — I learned that I really love building things).
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are SO many people along the way who have inspired, taught, protected, developed and pushed me. I’m a complete and total believer in mentor/mentee relationships — some are more formal than others — and for me all versions work. I’ll name just a few of the ones who have meant so much to me: Francesa Sterlacci (former college professor), Eva Sage-Gavin (former EVP/Gap Inc.), Sarah Degnan Kambou (President/International Center for Research on Women), Dan Henkle (former SVP/Gap Inc. Sustainability), Michelle Banks (former GC/Gap Inc.). It’s human beings like these — who used their positions of power to develop and teach — that most inspire me. People have always made time for me and I’ve always been grateful for that. And I hope that is how others would speak of me as well.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
It’s interesting — I felt more stressed out and worried in my past roles when I was younger and in more junior roles. I think there is something real about confidence and belief in self as we age, so even though this role as head of Parks California is higher stakes, I manage my emotions around it differently. I’ve also always believed in and leaned on my teams — I love building them, working closely together, seeing them truly become complimentary team members. It was the hardest for me the first 9 months in my role as CEO. I was the first hire and I was missing the yin to my yang — the people who knew things I didn’t, who had experiences I didn’t have and who were smarter than me! Having a solid, smart team around me always helps me manage stress. Also, in this role I’m not jet lagged all of the time because my travel is across the state vs. around the world… so I actually sleep now which is helpful 😊 . Oh, and if I’m getting in my own way, I always feel better if I plan a good outfit to wear for the meeting or event!
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I first became interested in Parks California when someone said to me that there were justice and equity issues in parks and on public land. Honestly, it shocked me. I had been so focused on other countries (including Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Cambodia) and so focused on a different industry, that I had not truly realized the inequities that exist day to day in my own backyard. I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with global teams who were local to their countries, who as my team members, took me under their guidance and expertise and taught me about their birthplaces, their cultures, religions — who invited me on their life journey whenever we were together. People like Tamanna, Pradeep, Nga, William, Conor — I saw more similarities than differences. But in our differences I saw value and opportunity to think and act differently. As CEO and President, I see DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) or JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) as the core foundation for why we are here, both as an organization and a team. As a white woman leading an organization that’s intentional about building welcoming and inclusive outdoor spaces, my role here is to continue listening to the people most impacted by past and existing injustices and use my privilege in this space to share power by amplifying and lifting those voices up. Beyond allyship, I am continuing to learn how I can best be an active accomplice in dismantling the unjust systems, stories and approaches so we can build equity and parks that are truly for everyone. The term “equitable access” is talked about a lot in the parks space — and it’s our core foundation. Parks must be equitable, just, relevant and welcoming. So our work is to find ways to create or support work that achieves this. At Parks California our diverse backgrounds contribute to our mission and our ability to create more inclusive programs for everyone.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
In order to create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society, my team is doing a lot of research, reflection and introspection. We’re building foundational knowledge to guide us through our mission — this is the crucial first step. Without this, there is a lack of direction and purpose. We’re also listening to many partnering organizations and communities to understand how we can help meet their needs to have more inclusive, representative, and equitable state parks. Here are a few examples of how we are tackling these areas in our work.
Inclusive: The team at Parks California is so honored to be working on something called “untold stories” — partnering with California State Parks to help research the history of the parks, identify key stories that have not been told and bring them to light, while also ensuring State Park interpreters (the teachers) are trained on how to tell these stories. We want to help all feel welcome at the parks — and a big part of that is relevancy.
The Untold Stories project works to uncover and share a more accurate and comprehensive narrative of the events that occurred on state parks lands. By telling more stories, parks connect with a broader set of visitors, strengthening the relationships people have with parks.
Representative: This year we launched a pilot grantee program called Natural Resource Stewardship Career Pathways. We, as a team, recognize that not everyone has the same access to the state’s breathtaking parks — both as a visitor and as a potential employee. We also recognize there is great need to build and strengthen an inclusive community of stewardship practitioners and leaders that represent diverse perspectives and backgrounds across the state. Only then will we be able to face the pressing landscape-scale challenges. In order to ensure career opportunities in the outdoors are more equitable, the Natural Resources Stewardship Career Pathways grants directly funds organizations with programs that offer natural resources training and career development programs to historically marginalized communities. Through this initiative, we seek to support and learn from natural resources training and career development programs across the state that also share our commitment to create opportunities for all in the environmental stewardship field.
Equitable: Early on after my leadership team had joined the organization, we launched our first grantee program called Route to Parks. Now in its second grant cycle, it focuses on community level engagement, and providing funding for local organizations to help connect their communities to nature.
Our goal is to improve park access for all so people can create authentic connections with nature. We want to:
- Reduce the transportation barrier to park access
- Reach communities who may face financial challenges getting to or enjoying parks
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I see my role as one that has to look at the work from all angles — from the big picture to the smallest detail. That doesn’t mean I have to own or do all of the work, but that I can pull back and work on long term strategic plans, I can create, build and maintain culture for this new organization, that I can build up a team of people who are unique from each other but respect and like each other and work in a complimentary way. I think it also means when I have to go deep, I do. Sometimes I’m on the ground in a park working with state parks leadership, local community members and other nonprofit partners. In that situation I have to know the details — what is the situation? What is the relationship between all of the people and organizations? It’s about knowing when to zoom out, and when to zoom in.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
It certainly doesn’t need to be an ego or power game. Nor do you have to be tough or mean to make a point. I don’t subscribe to a leader separating themselves from team members — we’re all in this together. We are here because we believe in the work and we all have a unique and important role to play. I may be able to clear the path, provide the budget, or even get us attention that helps us move work forward — but it’s the team that creates and drives the work that allows me to do those things.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I’ll try to put it in context for the U.S., since I worked with leaders around the world for most of my career. I think family and home responsibilities often still largely fall to women in a marriage or relationship — also, family calendar management (happy to talk about that anytime — I’ve got a whole collection of calendars I manage from online to an actual blackboard!). Oddly, I think there is still a lack of respect for women who hold leadership roles — although less so in the fashion industry or nonprofit world, from my experience. And finally, I have seen many women feel they have to be absolutely perfect to “deserve” the promotion, the raise, the recognition. There are a few things I’ve read that help me laugh when it feels tough or disrespectful or just overwhelming. Here’s one of my favorite quotes: “Starting a girl gang of women aggressively supporting other women so hands up if you want in because if we get enough people, we’re totally getting jackets.” 😊 Things are always better when there are jackets…
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I was terrified to change course in my career in my late forties. I knew I wanted new challenges that were still rooted in equity and justice, but didn’t know if I’d be any good at this job, or if I would love it (like I loved my career in the past). I think the biggest surprise is how much I completely love this work. And a lot of that is because the dedicated career-long parks professionals (government, nonprofit, etc.) that I work with love what they do as well. I didn’t know what to expect from this work or the people I’d be encountering, but I’ve been welcomed in, as has my team.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I’ve found that great leaders that have inspired and mentored me are comfortable with a few key things: the unknown and their ability to adapt (after all, the only constant is change), being able to multitask (physically and mentally), and see their work from the 50,000-foot level some days, and then focus on the smallest detail the next. I don’t think there is one type of leader, but I do think belief in yourself is a non-negotiable for all leaders.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Well first, hire a team of people that make you better — that makes you smarter. And in general surround yourself with people who are driven by your organization’s mission. So even with our differences, there is always common ground and purpose.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am immensely fortunate to have found a way to do things I love that do focus on equity, justice, and fairness. I was raised in a very humble way — both of my parents were teachers, and my father was a former Franciscan monk. We lived on a small farm in Northern Vermont, growing most of our food and making clothes and quilts. My parents always showed my brother and me that it wasn’t things that made someone richer or better, but how we treated others was what made a positive difference, and what created more good in the world. Going back to our earlier discussion, the career that I have wasn’t perfectly designed, or even expected. But in retrospect, it’s exactly where I need to be — where I’ve needed to be all along the way.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- That you can drive for days within the state of California and never cross into another state!! This matters because there are 280 parks in the California State Park system that we need to visit and work with!
- That a global pandemic would begin just 14 months after launching Parks California — we could have upskilled on virtual tools way earlier than we did!
- That building something from the ground up requires A LOT of patience and planning. Being a “Type A” personality works well in this situation because I embrace a good checklist of to do’s. I wasn’t surprised by the amount to sort through, more that it takes so much time to build a great team, develop a strong, equitable culture, and ensure we have the tools needed to do good work.
- That I would have so many wonderful people cheering me on and supporting the work I do, thus calming my fears of my career change.
- That midlife career changes are possible — and can result in something joyful and purposeful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to help people harness their strengths and traditions, and create livelihoods from them — can you imagine identifying something you love to do (sew, cook, write) and figure out how to live off of it? To feel confident and capable because you are doing something you are good at, that brings you joy? I’d love to be a part of that movement!!!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s from Mary Oliver: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life”. This sums me up well — I see life as one big, inspiring, wonderful, challenging, sometimes heartbreaking, adventure. But I want to live it — regardless if it’s perfect or not.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I have tremendous respect for Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani. He is a refugee who found a place for himself in the U.S., who’s built a company from the ground up that’s connected to his early days in Turkey and a food that was meaningful to him growing up, and he helps to employ many displaced people now living in the U.S. To me, this feels like the perfect marriage of good teams, good business, and good food! I’ve always wanted to meet him to say thank you for all that he does. And I have to give a shout out to Ashley Judd as well. I had the honor of speaking on a panel with her during United Nations High Convening meetings in New York City four years ago, and her commitment to women’s safety and security is incredible. I know she’s been through so much just this past year, and I think about how she’s had to pull on her own strength to heal and get through it all.