Brandeis International Business School

046: Protecting Our Rainforests & Following Your Heart

Atossa Soltani is the founder and board president of Amazon Watch and has served as the organization's executive director for 18 years. Currently, she is the director of global strategy for the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative, working to protect one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on Earth. The initiative is led by an alliance of Amazonian indigenous nations of Ecuador and Peru, with support from Fundacion Pachamama, Amazon Watch and the Pachamama Alliance.

Amazon Watch and the Sacred Headwaters Initiative works to protect the rainforest in the Amazon basin with the indigenous peoples who know best how to protect the forest. They work in partnership and solidarity at the regional, local and global level to halt the destruction of the rainforest, to increase levels of protection, to advance land rights and indigenous peoples' rights to their territories and their way of life and their self-determination and human rights.

From the Dorm Room

Atossa immigrated to the United States when she was 13. She went to live with her uncle in Akron, Ohio, and while they waited to get legal status, she had to stay in Akron. She went to University of Akron, where she initially majored in computer science because she thought that was what she wanted to do.

She quickly realized that computer science was not for her. She felt too strongly about social issues, politics, world affairs and the environment to sit at a computer programming all day. She had fallen in love with nature as a kid in the mountains of Iran, and the revolution sparked a curiosity about the political system that she had to see through.

In her first year of college, Atossa learned about the Gaia hypothesis: the theory that the Earth is a living system that is interacting to maintain conditions for life over billions of years. This made a huge difference in how she related to the world and other people. As an immigrant from Iran, suddenly these political boundaries didn't matter so much.

She changed her major towards the end of her first year and moved to public policy management, which is a cross between political science and public administration. She also worked as a secondary minor in Latin American studies and remained interested in economics.

When she changed her major, she had to add on some credits, and the only thing she could do was an internship. She interned with Ohio Citizen Action, a public interest group that worked on local laws and statewide laws and legislations around the environment and public policy issues around consumer rights and labor rights and environmental protection. That eventually turned into her summer job, and that's when she started as a canvasser and political activist.

As Atossa worked her way through college, it seemed that everything that she was learning in school felt like it had some relevance to her work or vice versa. Everything she was learning from her work, she would see and learn from in the theoretical sense in the classroom. That jump starter her career instantaneously. It was difficult working while being a full time student, but it made her college work so much more relevant and interesting.

Her best friend in college told her about the Amazon rainforest, and between that and the Gaia theory, it sparked something in her. She decided this was a realm she wanted to explore. That became a calling. And she decided to follow that path.

To the Boardroom

In 1996, Atossa founded Amazon Watch. Or, as she likes to say, it found her. Between 1982 and 1990, when she moved to California after graduating from college, she started work with the City of Santa Monica in water conservation. She learned the practical skills of program implementation and public relations and public policy. Besides that, she was doing activism and dreaming about the Amazon and working in the rainforest. It became an obsession for her.

A friend drove her to the Rainforest Action Network and got the director to agree to meet with her, and he told her to go in there and tell him that this is what she wanted to do with her life.

She volunteered for them for several years until the Rainforest Action Network saw the value of her skill sets and they decided to hire her. It was a huge leap of faith to take this part-time position over her completely secure public service job that was guaranteed with benefits that she also happened to enjoy. But this was her dream moment. So she took that leap and quickly rose to full time.

In 1996, Rainforest Action Network was invited to an event with the President of Brazil. Atossa knew that several of his policies were detrimental to human rights and the future of the Amazon, so she felt like she had to speak up, but she didn’t want to speak for Rainforest Action Network. She stood up outside the event with a bullhorn and started speaking to the President before he drove away, leaving her to face the press. When they asked who she was with, she made up on the spot, “Amazon Watch.”

That forced her hand, and she went ahead and started Amazon Watch in 1996 with support from many organizations, including Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace and others. And now, 23 years later, they are one of the leading voices in the Amazon working with indigenous peoples.

Atossa’s biggest piece of advice is to be a student of nature, see nature as your teacher, and look for metaphors in everything you do as something that nature's already got an elegant solution for that you can learn from. And that ultimately, we know through science that serving the greater whole and connecting within communities that serve life enriches our lives.

The Entrepreneurial Edge

Every week, we highlight one piece of advice for aspiring, struggling and successful-but-want-to-be-even-more-successful entrepreneurs:

In the West, we learn the idea that we're driving change as a way of making things happen. Our mindset of driving change or dominating things teaches us that success comes from perseverance and making stuff happen.

Atossa has long been a student of the idea of the way, the Tao, nature's way. This sounds spiritual, but it is really embedded in systems of science that says to start with a lot of humble observation. Scan the horizon and wait for the right action. Be ready to take spontaneous action towards your goals.

We don't push towards our vision, we allow it to emerge.


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