Last week, the American Prairie Reserve honored Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the president and co-founder of Tompkins conservation, with the 2023 Ken Burns American Heritage Prize, which “recognizes individuals whose achievements have advanced our collective understanding of America’s heritage and indomitable American spirit.” Previous winners of the prestigious award include filmmaker Jimmy Chin, musician Wynton Marsalis, poet N. Scott Momaday, artist Maya Lin and writer David McCullough.
Tompkins is the former CEO of Patagonia, Inc. and one of the most influential philanthropic conservationists in history. She and her late husband, Douglas Tompkins, have made efforts to protect approximately 14.8 million acres of parkland in Chile and Argentina, and that work continues to expand. Tompkins’ incredible career is the subject of the new documentary Wild lifedirected by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the Oscar-winning duo behind it Free only.
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businessroundups.org attended this year’s Ken Burns American Heritage Prize ceremony in New York City, then spoke with Tompkins and Burns about starting a business and building it to succeed for generations to come.
What do you think is the most important thing a budding businessroundups.org can do to achieve success?
Kristine McDivitt Tompkins: You just have to fucking decide to do something, okay? Decide that you want to do something meaningful. It doesn’t matter what it is. You come in, you step on it, and you meet people you never would have met before, and it grows. People need to stop giving up on their future. My future is in the hands of the gods. Well, forget it. It’s not how it works. You have to participate in your own story. I mean really, what are we waiting for? And be useful. A lot of people in business aren’t really helpful. If you ever want to feel needed, take your business skills to organizations and people trying to do good in the world.
know burns: The poet Robert Penn Warren once looked at me with those captivating eyes and said, “Career is death.” And I never used the word “career” again. I am only referring to my professional life. Because what happens is we get stuck in the expectations, so we resign, and as Kris said, resignation doesn’t get you anywhere.
Between your work in the corporate world and your incredible conservation efforts, you mention the power of partnerships and “consulting the genius of a place.” How would you describe your leadership style?
Kristine McDivitt Tompkins: I believe in creating teams that know everything. Right after Doug died, I immediately began the process of making both teams in Chile and Argentina independent because I knew if anything happened to me, it would be harassed. If I drop dead tonight and they can’t do it in the morning, then we’ve failed. I’m very proud of what we’ve done over the past 30 years, but that’s not the point. That was then. What will we do in the future?
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You are such a great advocate for conservation. What do most people think they misunderstand about environmental efforts?
Kristine McDivitt Tompkins: There’s a very false sense that if I’m helping to protect a certain area or species, I’m sacrificing something. I’m going to sacrifice my life to help with these things. That’s bullshit. I can tell you, whether it’s Ted Turner or whoever, every conservation philanthropist who goes out the door and gets their feet wet realizes that the sacrifice you made was the life you lived. That beautiful house in the Hamptons or Jackson Hole or wherever? That’s a box. That’s the actual box you’ve put yourself in, because that’s the current success story. When you step out of that box, it changes your life forever.