Interview: The Oslo Business for Peace Award (SF Chronicle)
San Francisco Chronicle / March 20, 2011
William Rosenzweig learned he had been awarded the prestigious Oslo Business for Peace Award from a Google news alert - and immediately assumed it was spam.
"I thought, this is one of those e-mails you get that says, 'Send us $50 and we'll put you in the Who's Who of Business for Peace,' " said the founder of do-good venture capital firm Physic Ventures. "I printed it out and went around the office and asked people, 'Does this look for real, or is this like a scam thing where somebody generates an e-mail that inserts your name here?' "
But the next morning when his assistant called Oslo, Rosenzweig found that, in fact, he had been selected as the U.S. winner of the Nobel-level award - and was invited to receive it at Oslo City Hall in 10 days, along with the winners from six other countries. In addition to the October ceremony, the award provides a doctorate fellowship in each recipient's name at various graduate business schools.
The recipients were culled from 3,000 nominations from 47 countries and ultimately chosen by three Nobel laureates, one in peace and two in economic sciences.
Award a surprise
"It was a complete out-of-the-blue surprise," said Rosenzweig, 52. "They said, 'We have been following you for a while.' "
Anyone who has been watching the Southern California native for the past few decades would have noticed a consistent theme: finding ways to invest that generate strong financial returns at the same time they make a social and environmental impact.
Rosenzweig was UC Berkeley's first professor in social entrepreneurship and became the first director of the school's Center for Responsible Business, founded in part by Paul Newman.
Without realizing it at the time, Rosenzweig's childhood would prepare him to operate within what he refers to as the "schizophrenia of capitalism."
"I am the product, literally, of a rocket scientist and a humanities professor who's a Shakespeare scholar," he recalled recently from his Financial District office. "I grew up with this weird amalgamation of theater and the arts and music from my mom's humanities world. ... On the other side, I grew up with pictures of astronauts in my room and building models of the Apollo and Gemini."
His father, who earned his doctorate in aeronautical engineering in 1958, immediately was recruited by the space program to build rockets, a post that moved the new family from Ithaca, N.Y., to San Pedro (Los Angeles County), where Rosenzweig grew up with a younger sister.
It was the stuff of Beach Boys songs, "all open space - it was California Dreaming," he said. "As a kid I remember having a Stingray bicycle and just having this wide open frontier to explore and ride over. We lived on a cul-de-sac and all the kids gathered every day and we played games and sports. It was always warm, and it was ethnically diverse."
He added of his parents: "They were very working class. They were super educated but they didn't come from wealth at all. My dad got a full scholarship for college; they started with humble means."
The family's Japanese gardener was also a seminal influence.
"One of my very first memories is of him teaching me how to plant a rosebush. There's something powerful about being entrusted by an adult who's not necessarily a parent with the care of something else when you're growing up.
"It instills a sense of responsibility, care. These are qualities that I learned early in various places in my life that have ended up playing an important role in my outlook."
In his 10 years teaching at UC Berkeley and two years at the London Business School, Rosenzweig strived to cultivate the same values in his students.
Many of the books that fill his office were written by former pupils. His classroom was the birthplace of such socially responsible ventures as Revolution Foods, which now provides 70,000 healthy school lunches a day.
Rosenzweig also worked to instill corporate responsibility as the founding CEO of the Republic of Tea and as a top executive at Odwalla.
In the early 2000s, he said, the Rockefeller Foundation set up a venture fund to invest in companies that furthered its ideals. This led Rosenzweig, who had been successful with a small pilot fund, into the venture capital area. He started Physic in 2006.
Homage to London site
"Physic" refers to the science of healing, and the fund's name is an homage to the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, which hosts the largest collection of medicinal plants in Europe.
The tagline on the company's brochure is "Investing in keeping people healthy: Consumer-driven health and sustainable living."
The fund has invested in 12 companies; their stake generally is $6 million to $12 million. Among them: On-Q-ity, which provides personal diagnostics to improve cancer care; Recyclebank, which devises reward programs for recycling; and Gazelle.com, a re-commerce site where people can sell and recycle their old electronics.
Physic Ventures doesn't name its backers, but Rosenzweig said they include large institutional investors like pension funds, a small foundation focusing on sustainability and health, and big corporations.
Rosenzweig remains a bit awed by the October award ceremony, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of India's Ratan Tata.
"It has been a little life-changing. How do you live up to that? What do you do?" he said. "It called me to ... take seriously the role that we have to play in this mission of investing and keeping people healthy and building bridges between entrepreneurs and companies and governments and really focusing on innovation as a lever for change in society."
Like a garden
Meanwhile, the self-described "obsessive gardener" continues to utilize the lessons learned from his childhood mentor.
"In a garden you have to pay attention. You have to do things at a certain time for them to pay off. Also understanding ecosystems. ... it's about integral design strategy.
"A great garden becomes self-sustaining, so all your clippings become your compost for the next year," he said. "Entrepreneurs should be thinking the same things about the lifecycle of their inputs and outputs, their relationships with their customers."
- Work: Founder, managing director, Physic Ventures
- Age: 52
- Family: Wife, Dr. Carla Fracchia; son, Sam, 22; daughter, Lily, 16
- Residence: Mill Valley
- Hobbies: Gardening, growing food, cooking, playing the trumpet, practicing magic
- Can't live without: Family and seeds - "They just embody all the potential of what could come."
- First job out of college: He was the mime mascot for San Francisco Candy Co.
- Quote: "Gardening and entrepreneuring are very similar: You've got to be resourceful, you've got to get a whole group of disparate pieces to work together to flourish and thrive, you have a certain amount of input, then you've got things you can't control. And there's the element of care. It's not about building something and flipping it; it's about sustaining it."
By Suzanne Herel, firstname.lastname@example.org.