Everyday Icon: The Philanthropist

Want to meet an everyday icon leading social change throughout the globe? Read our interview with philanthropist Libby Cook.

Image Credit: Kassia Binkowski

It takes an especially creative and passionate individual to twist a traditional law degree into an inspiring career path that builds and supports businesses to impact social change. Libby Cook is just such a person. After resounding success in the natural food industry, this social entrepreneur is leveraging her expertise to challenge for-profit and non-profit businesses around the world to operate in socially, ethically, and environmentally responsible ways. When she’s not surfing, you can find Libby on a Skype call to Nigeria, at a board meeting in her barn, or on the phone with a nonprofit partner in Mexico. Our dear friend Kassia Binkowski was lucky enough to steal a few minutes of Libby’s time to learn about how her career has evolved and exactly what sort of legacy she’d like to leave behind...

You’ve had such an impressive and varied career path. Is this what you planned to do when you went to law school? Tell us more about how your professional ambitions evolved.

I was probably influenced by some old black and white television shows and originally planned a career in criminal law, of all things! A career in business and tax was never the plan, but I started my law career in corporate and tax law working for a small firm whom I had clerked for while in school. Then I took a job as in-house counsel working for a large multi-national company, in their International Tax Law department. It was while working at that job during the day that I pursued my Masters of Tax, and at the same time I was building a natural food business in Boulder, CO. Eventually my interests in law and business intersected as I was co-founder and general counsel for both of my business endeavors, Wild Oats Markets and then later, Sunflower Markets. At the end of the day all of that experience opened the door for me to bring that law and entrepreneurship background to the international development work that I now do with my foundation, Philanthropiece. This was a natural next step for me. I never had to walk away from my legal and entrepreneurial background but rather leverage those skill sets to pursue my passion for social entrepreneurship.

So from building businesses to changing lives, how has your training as a lawyer served you across all of these endeavors?

Many people find the field of law intimidating and overwhelming but in reality, having formal legal training teaches you how to embrace and understand the law so you can put it to work for you. Thinking back on it, I can truly say that I have drawn on every area of law that I was exposed to in school (and some areas that I later learned on my own) in both my personal and professional life.

Tell us more about your passion for using businesses as a platform to catalyze social change.

As I said, I am very passionate about promoting social entrepreneurship and it is a component of every program we have at Philanthropiece. I also am very interested and involved in social impact investing because I believe mentoring and investing in social entrepreneurs has the ability to transform how companies and organizations conduct business. Getting companies and organizations to see that conducting business in a socially, ethically and environmentally responsible way creates good business outcomes has been a challenge. Change is hard. Fortunately there is a lot of progress being made in this area, and there are lots of other successful entrepreneurs like myself who are also committed to this work of mentoring and modeling, and keeping the dialogue going.

Change is hard, but you’ve seen some great successes in your career to date. What is the legacy that you’d like to be remembered for?

It’s great to be able to say “I founded X” and have people know what that business is. And ultimately it’s that success that allows me to focus now on my greatest passions and to be able to spend my time giving back to my global community. If there’s any one thing in particular I’d like to leave as a legacy, or be remembered for, it would have to be for providing mentoring and leadership skills to the next generation of global change makers. Social entrepreneurs and social impact investors are certainly part of that group.

Ok, with so much on your plate what does a typical day look like for you as a lawyer, entrepreneur, world traveler, and nonprofit leader?

That’s a great question. When I’m travelling I like every day to look different, unless I’m in my secret beach hideaway and then I want every day to look like good surfing. But what is a normal day? Today I started my day early, attending to emails in advance of an early morning phone conference with a group in Nigeria that wanted advice on their new nonprofit initiative. After that it is fitness time and then I have a little bit of legal work that needs attention before our weekly Philanthropiece staff meeting in the afternoon. Later in the afternoon, I have a Skype session scheduled with a partner organization in Ensenada, Mexico to discuss our work around community mobilization in an effort to garner federal protection for the last wetlands area in Ensenada. Later this afternoon I’ll slip out with the dog and my partner for our afternoon walk and then tonight I have a dinner event with a local organization. Then after all that fun, I’ll head off to my weekly bridge group for some “no holds barred” bridge!

Wow, the number of organizations you’re influencing on a daily basis is impressive. What advice would you give to young women looking to pursue a career in social enterprise?

Do something you are passionate about! Start locally, think globally. Nothing is too small and nothing is too big. Go for it, and reach out. And above all else, ask for help! There are so many others who are ready to share what they have learned. And of course, networking really is key.

And last but not least, what personal motto or mantra keeps you going?

Be passionate. Do good work. Have fun.