“Being an entrepreneur, I half joke, but I’m very serious that being an entrepreneur is as hard, if not harder, sometimes than it was being in a combat zone with lots of uncertainties because as an entrepreneur it is nothing but uncertainties and time. Those are the two things that you’re working against always. And so I think it matters even more in that startup environment as an entrepreneur to hold those human relationships closer and take more care of them because that can cause products to fail, technologies to fail.” — Adam Locklin
In this episode of “Stories from the Field,” hosts Oana and Jason sit down with Adam Locklin, founder of Sustainable Business Solutions (SBS). Throughout the episode they discuss Locklin’s personal journey starting as a US marine and how he chose the path of entrepreneurship. They also dive into the topics under Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), the different terms and common misconceptions that surround these terms. Locklin also imparts valuable insights on how individuals can become more effective allies to the military and veteran community, particularly in the present context.
Learning Highlights from this Episode:
- Adam’s personal mission and his journey as a people-first technologist, volunteer, and US Marine veteran.
- Common misconceptions surrounding ESGs, stakeholder capitalism, and corporate social responsibility.
- What veteran allyship means and looks like.
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About Adam Locklin
Adam Locklin, a Marine Corps veteran, who jokes about his “choose your own adventure career” embarked on a journey of service and leadership, which led to the founding of Sustainable Business Solutions (SBS). SBS is dedicated to assisting organizations in navigating the complexities of impact investing, ensuring diligent impact measurement and management programs. The firm also plays a crucial role in guiding strategy and assurance aligned with various global Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) frameworks, regulations, and standards. Adam’s career is marked by a consistent theme of service, a trait he honed during his time in the Marine Corps.
His commitment to helping others transcends his professional endeavors. He has been actively involved with Team Rubicon and played a vital role in supporting the FoodBank of New Jersey during the pandemic’s peak. Furthermore, Adam is passionate about mental health advocacy and provides guidance as a Mental Health First Aid volunteer. He also dedicates his time to mentoring transitioning veterans through American Corporate Partners (ACP), offering them valuable insights from his experiences. In addition to his humanitarian efforts, Adam possesses extensive expertise in financial technology, compliance, risk, and regulation, skills he acquired from leading global financial service organizations. This unique blend of humanitarian spirit and technological acumen enables him to effectively bridge the gap between sustainability and growth. His unwavering dedication to creating positive societal impacts, combined with his deep expertise, has solidified his reputation as a respected and impactful leader in his field.
Resources & Links
Team Rubicon is a veteran-led humanitarian organization, built to serve global communities before, during, and after disasters and crises.
An evidence-based, early-intervention course.
Oana Amaria: So thank you so much for joining us, Adam. I always find it strange when people introduce me because I feel like it becomes generic, so I’m going to spare us all that effort and just ask you to introduce yourself. And for our listeners, one of the things that I found so fascinating about your background, Adam, is just this piece, as Jason mentioned, you’re a people-first technologist, which means so much, especially in this space. You’re interested in impact investment and ESG and you’re an active volunteer. There’s a huge passion for you around mental health advocacy and providing guidance and especially within your background of being a US Marine. So that is your prompt and I’d love for you to share more about your personal mission when it comes to veterans work and anything that I’ve mentioned, especially in the context of the workplace and what that journey has looked like for you and how will you know that you’ve been successful. I think that’s a really important piece as well when you’re done.
Adam Locklin: Totally appreciate that introduction. So I’m Adam Locklin. I’ll start at the, not beginning, but I’ll start with the Marine Corps piece and talk about my career and especially as it aligns to diversity, equity, inclusion, which even was happening in the Marine Corps back when I was starting. So I was in the Marines from 2003 to basically 2013, a good 10 years. And as they say, if you can do 10, you can do 20 and retire. But I was good with 10 and at that point in my career, I decided that I wanted to pivot away from a lot of the government work I was doing, even though I was very lucky to work with foreign governments in other countries and cultures, I just wanted something a little closer to home, which was New York State at that time or as New York State. And so I decided to go work in banking, financial industry.
It was an easy path for me. And I would have to say the culture shock I had when I landed in New York City working at JPMorgan Chase was something that I didn’t quite expect. And for a lot of the reasons that you don’t hear about when you’re getting out of the service or you don’t hear about if you try to take on your own initiatives and maybe get a mentor through a program like American Corporate Partners, which I did. And so that how I landed here in corporate America, if you will, JPMorgan being my first role. And then over the years, I’ve slowly and carefully, and I joke about this often, is I brand it as a choose your own adventure. If you remember those books, those pick a page, you go to the adventure, continue on. I love those as a kid.
And that’s basically what I’ve done with my career where when I find something that excites me or something more meaningful, I do everything in my power, which usually is learning a lot of something new, taking a big risk and going to work on something that might be new, might be controversial and not well-founded. And so that’s what brought me into entrepreneurship is after working for some big financial service individuals, I wanted to see what it was like to do something solo and do something with a small team. And thankfully doing that has been some of the most rewarding time in my career, I would say, outside of being Marine.
Jason Rebello: Adam, so great to have you here. And one of the things that really intrigued me as I was just reading about your background and your path is that there was, depending on where you look in your bio and your scope of work, you see terms like ESG, you see terms like stakeholder capitalism, corporate social responsibility, and I talk with a lot of, especially younger entrepreneurs that really want to create positive impact with the work and the careers that they do. And I would love to hear your thoughts on what are some key things that people should understand about these concepts or how to utilize them or how to make them a part of your strategy, whether you’re a startup entrepreneur or whether you’re a leader in an organization that you want to create a real shift or change in. I would love to hear your thoughts about how to hold all those things or how to utilize them effectively.
Adam Locklin: Yeah, thanks for that question, Jason. That is a very hard question to answer for yourself when you’re in the moment. I can assert there because looking back through my career, both in big organizations and small, when you have that hindsight’s 2020 set of goggles on you see where maybe you might’ve messed up or you didn’t really follow through on the strategy that you were trying to do, or maybe you weren’t being your whole true self, then that disappointed you somehow. And so to dig in a little more about what I am talking about when I’m say on this line is, for example, inside of a big organization, a lot of the times these DEI and ESG initiatives or other corporate social responsibility initiatives, you might get the email, you might hear it at all hands, and you just see it as maybe it’s help you with a career or maybe you just see it as this is maybe mandatory fun as we called it in the military.
And I think it’s a missed opportunity on a lot of folks, one, to get closer to their coworkers, but two, to actually make affecting and lasting change in that organization. And that’s where I know a lot of these topics where money spent and time is spent is still debated to this day and probably will forever. And so I look at it from two points of view. One, the people that you can see daily that you can talk to daily. That’s all we can control in the grand scheme of things, especially when you’re in these big organizations. And then the second one is what feedback do you want to give to that organization and how do you leave that feedback? It’s easier to give that feedback one-on-one with somebody. And that’s I would say one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned in my varying career is taking the time to ask somebody, “How do you want to give feedback? How do we want to talk when we’re at work about these topics?”
And that in itself can lower somebody’s guard and open them up to having a real good conversation about what it is you’re trying to do. Maybe it is, for example, at PricewaterhouseCoopers, we worked with some of the, and unfortunately, lowest income areas around New York City to give a better computers, technology, systems just to kids in grade school. And in my humble opinion, that’s crazy that it’s three blocks away from the financial district. And so that was something that we champion and we ended up being able to get a couple principles behind us and the boards and then we were able to send some volunteer hours, send some money, send some actually gear. And maybe that does have a lasting effect at some point. We won’t know until years later if one of those students is on something like this saying, “Yeah, I remember those people trying and didn’t know why at that point.”
So it’s things like that I think that the individuals can do inside companies. And then being an entrepreneur, I half joke, but I’m very serious that being an entrepreneur is as hard, if not harder, sometimes than it was being in a combat zone with lots of uncertainties because as an entrepreneur it is nothing but uncertainties and time. Those are the two things that you’re working against always. And so I think it matters even more in that startup environment as an entrepreneur to hold those human relationships closer and take more care of them because that can cause products to fail, technologies to fail.
Somebody not giving you the feedback that you want. If one of the designers on the product is having a bad day, that they might be ignoring something that’s key to getting that product launch. And so when I say I’m a people-first technologist, I didn’t start that way by any means. That was came through failures of on my side of just how I deal with technology and people and thinking it was very binary and thinking that if we have a mission and we have dates that we could get to where we need to go. And that’s just not the case. It takes people to build these technologies. So yeah, I’ll end there, Jason. Hopefully that answers your question though.
Jason Rebello: No, it really does. And this idea around in times where you’re dealing with uncertainty, the emphasis on holding the human relationships you have close and being intentional about fostering them in a healthy way because it’s those relationships that are actually going to help be the tipping point for being able to navigate through a challenging situation as a team. That was really powerful.
Adam Locklin: And I would say I noticed this actually, I didn’t realize it until years later, but when the last deployment I had in the Marines was in Afghanistan and I got to pick the Marines that would be working with me as something called company-level intelligence. It’s basically meaning people that are on the ground that talk to the foreign national folks and our other services daily. They just were on my team. And so we talked daily, we debriefed, and then I’d send up reports to hire. And I remember this one individual when I was interviewing him, he had a few funny things to say just about the Marine Corps motto, semper fidelis, it means always faithful. And he was just like, “It actually means strength and ignorance.” And I thought that was pretty funny. He was hitting on something he didn’t quite realize, which was that’s the thing that makes the Marines unique, is our togetherness is our strength together.
And during that six to nine months that we were together working daily, that individual still to date will call me up randomly and say, “Thank you for that interview and opportunity,” because that led him to then say, “What do I want to do when I get out?” And he followed college and kept on going. But it’s something that I try to be even more intentional about now in my career and even when I work for myself now as a solo consultant. So even when I’m looking for clients, I’m looking for certain type of work that I can do in environmental social governance or impact investing. And it’s not just a greenwashing or as I like to call social washing, which is happening everywhere right now.
Jason Rebello: Right, right.
Oana Amaria: Something that you just said now, Adam, gave me a light bulb moment. We spend a lot of time and a big part of our mission for this upcoming year is about building trust. And as you were talking about your experience, it just dawned on me, and you’ll probably chuckle at this, but I feel like we could learn so much from veterans about what it takes to build trust and how crucial that is in the context of the workplace. And so yeah, our lives don’t depend on it immediately, but I think our humanity depends on it. In the workplace, I think oftentimes we forget to your point about the human being in front of us with the hard days and the unknown battles and all the things that we’re facing individually. So that was quite the aha moment for me. So now my brain is running on fire wondering what should we do?
Let’s bring you in, let’s build on that. But it also gets at the heart of something that you’ve shared with me in the past about your passion for mental health advocacy. You hinted about this a little bit in your introduction and just your rude awakening to corporations. I think many of us have rude awakenings. I think there’s even programming out there for first-generation corporate employees where we don’t have parents that could help us learn the etiquette or the unknown rules. And so I’d love for you to share just a little bit more about the urgency behind this work and this passion for you just based on what you’ve experienced. And my sense is that there’s this gap that is not being filled that organizations don’t realize exist, right? And you’ve got this Venn diagram of lived experiences that make you this incredible resource that could really help us all understand or gain understanding.
And so I’d love for you to share a little bit more about the urgency or the burning platform for the work that you’re actively engaged in. And then the second question, just so you know where we’re going, is really this idea of how do we become good allies to veterans, especially now. There’s so much going on about homelessness and pick a city, right? There’s also the drug epidemic and all these other things. I think we’re failing veterans on so many levels. I think there’s a lot that is, this can be a whole other kind of spin-off podcast, about ability of men in society through military, and just how much that impacts communities and the lack of understanding of the sacrifice made in families. And it doesn’t have to be just men, but historically. So I feel like I’m rambling now, but there’s a lot here and I think you are the perfect person to bring us along on that.
Adam Locklin: I appreciate that. And please stop me if I start rambling as well because I do have a lot of knowledge and lived experiences across these categories, but let me start with being a good ally to veterans. That’s something that I would say when I mentioned of my culture shock to New York City and corporate culture, one, I should have found those because I am a first, I guess, American of in a corporate setting from a family. So I definitely don’t come a family that knows how to walk in a JPMorgan and get promoted or anything. And so I found as many veterans do, I found allies and other veterans, and it’s, to me, one of the most awesome diverse groups out there because what brings veterans together is why they are veterans. And this is something that it’s not born in you. It’s not in your DNA, it’s just who you are.
And that to me has, I know for a fact, saved lives, not even income. I mean, New York City has saved lives by veterans being able to support other veterans. And then there’s great even programs and nonprofit organizations out there that where it’s veterans supporting others, not even non-veterans. And the one I have to mention is Team Rubicon. They do disaster relief, and I’ve been a volunteer for them. And it’s amazing who I run into when we’re helping after a floods that happened here in Vermont or helping with the food banks across the pandemic when volunteers couldn’t volunteer, but Team Rubicon could because they’re FEMA sponsored. So first, being good allies to veterans is just giving them space to self-identify and talk about it as they want to because some veterans don’t want to talk about it, especially the ones that are older than me that have been around and were in corporate America when it was a taboo to be a veteran, especially taboo to be a combat veteran.
And so I think that’s one area is just see what they say. You might know from their resume or somebody might’ve said something, but I think just giving them their space and then I think you’d be very surprised of how open veterans are to just, I mean, again, I’m probably repeating myself here, but just such a diverse group of people inside any veteran. And it doesn’t matter if you’re Marine or Air Force or now a Guardian doing space items, but it’s just a type of individual that I’ve always found very welcoming. And it’s great to see how, I’ll say, veteran organizations have now taken on spouses and family as well. So a lot of the items that were there for veterans transitioning out of the service into a job or school, it was only just for the veterans. And now it has expanded to help that whole family unit, which I think is great.
So it’s no longer just the veteran seeking and maybe continuing their career in a civilian capacity, but also scaling up family members or providing support for children to go to school and so forth. And then I’ll say one more thing for especially the corporate, and these are even in small startups of business resource groups and the volunteering, again, you hear them in the all hands and, “Hey, we have…” Whatever the acronym is for the diverse group, but those things are open usually. They’ll say explicitly if they’re not, but usually are open to other individuals to be an ally. So for example, as one of the veteran leaders in an Affinity Network, I had also partner a lot with the female ran and female business leaders one just because I saw a lot of us had similar interests around startups. Even though we’re in a big company, we’re very curious about small companies.
And so we were able to bring in outside resources due to our network and just bring in some knowledge and share a good early evening or maybe a lunch or something and bring up everybody’s knowledge there. So I would definitely have a call to action to people internally of to show up to these events and ask about them and see, you’d be surprised what you’ll learn. To get to the first part of your question around trust and mental health, I took this course when I first got to New York City called Mental Health First Aid. And the premise is everybody knows what CPR is, or if you’re choking, the Heimlich Maneuver, and that’s immediate first aid response, but nobody up until Mental Health First Aid started was teaching what do you do for somebody that might be having suicidal tendencies or might be having an anxiety attack or maybe something’s going on at home, you can just tell this person something’s going wrong.
And Mental Health First Aid, they’re still around. I believe the National Council Federal Aid has picked them up now, but it’s a great program for those that I would say didn’t have the experience of growing up in a mentally health challenged environment or in the military, they’ve been trying to do better on recognizing, especially around suicide. But this program, the one thing why I bring it up is they taught something because it was taught by a mix of veterans and financial professionals of around the topic of stress and trust. And they gave an analogy around the lines of a banker or a team losing millions of dollars one day because of a bad trade or bad compliance or something went wrong. And then the same thing of you just broke a huge million dollar piece of equipment in the military and you both are stressed. There’s no light is on the line here on either scenario.
But that banker and those people in New York would never usually think that that felt the same way as somebody in the military in a foreign country where their water machine just broke. And in reality, that stress is almost identical, and studies are showing this as well as just how we hold our stress. And so I think that’s a key thing to understand when building trust with veterans and veterans in the same way. And if anything, it’s probably more veterans learning to cope with non-veterans and understanding that their stress is real as well.
You might be able to cope with stress better or hide it better, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there. I think in a team organization, or even if you’re the director, VP, or president, just knowing that and walking into a meeting with that or a tough conversation, will start organically building that trust and you’ll be able to therefore have a better conversation and get better feedback from them making their day better, maybe the organization better, who knows? Maybe the product better. So that’s how I look at trust and mental health is really trying to put your, I mean, as cliche as it is, put yourself in that other person’s shoes. But we can do that by talking to them as well.
Jason Rebello: I definitely think what I have experienced over the years from my own mental health is that dialogue and having the tools to have the types of self-reflection and then to have the type of conversations that are healthy with, again, people that you trust and with safe spaces, it is been genuinely life changing for me. So it’s something I definitely advocate for everyone, especially men, given the stigma attached to mental health in our spaces.
Adam Locklin: Yeah, I’d have to say I’m glad I hear BetterHelp ads everywhere. To me, it’s just being able to see, and if I’m not mistaken, it’s one of the biggest killers of men across all races right now of that was 25 to 45 is self-harm. That’s not acceptable in my opinion. And I think it’s something that I think when you open where the broader of what’s going on in the world or mainly America, I should say, and I think by people having more authentic conversations and opening up a little more, you realize there’s more similarities and there’s more help out there than you really would’ve thought otherwise.
Jason Rebello: Absolutely. Absolutely. Adam, I’m curious, what are you working on right now that you’re just really excited about that you’re looking forward and that really gets you hopeful and up and out of bed every day?
Adam Locklin: I guess there’s two areas. One is very hyper local. I live out in Lake Champlain, it’s called Lake Champlain Islands here in Vermont, and there’s a lot of farming, and I’ve just started working with a local farm to open up their basically retail business here. So it’s fascinating. I’ve never done farming before, and as I’ve been talking about, my career has been everywhere, so I thought I’d try out farming, and it has been fascinating to open up a retail store and deal with farmers that have been doing this for generations. So that’s one area, and it’s just something that has always been on my radar and I wanted to do it at some point or another, and I’m doing it. And then what pays the bills, I should say, is the work that I’m doing and continue to do in the new year around environmental, social and governance strategy and audit assurance work, and then specifically impact investing, which they cross over a little, but I’ve been finding a lot more people need help on the ESG side because they’re conflating it into something that it might not be.
And so I’m basically trying to help people not greenwash or social wash and keep them out of trouble, give them the feedback that maybe they won’t get internally for many different reasons and provide that. Again, I use audit or assurance as the colloquialism terms that people in the industry know, but basically what that means is having a conversation with these people that have written these ESG reports or governance strategies or these are the policies or employees have to follow. And some of these organizations are as small as 12 people to as big as thousands publicly traded companies. And I’m just trying to give them the insights that I have seen way before the pandemic took off, and ESG became front and center to everybody is these issues have always been there. And I think with ESG and other ways that this is going, we can start to change.
Although some of these organizations slowly, they’re big ships, they don’t move on a dime like a startup. And so that is something that I really enjoy, and I could use an example with no names or anything, but a organization came to me saying that they wanted to work, they’re in private equity, and they wanted to have a new fund that focused on social, but they didn’t know what that is. They were very old school private equity folks, cut checks, just all the things that go along with that you can imagine. And when they came to me, I started having conversations with them. I’m like, “Well, what do you mean you want to invest in social? What does that look like to you?” And they would say lots of things that I would say aren’t really polite, but it got down finally to they wanted to invest in women and minority-owned businesses.
So I was like, “That’s great. That’s a starting strategy thesis that we can work with.” From there, working with this team, I walked them through basically a due diligence process of we know what exactly are they looking for? Is it ownership? Is it certain types of brands? It was only in the US is what they were looking for. And so after a lot of conversations and teaching them of, as the adage goes, that doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get managed, and things of like this, that again, because my experience I can put into the terminology that resided with them and that they learned. Then next thing I know, they’ve raised $180 million and started cutting checks. And that was only because of going through many.
And at the end of the engagement, what I realized was, and they thanked me for, they were like, “It wasn’t the policies you wrote at them or everything that you drafted for us, it was those learning lessons, those lunches, those meetings that went from an hour to three,” because we were talking about pay equity and how you measure and track pay equity across portfolio companies. What questions do you want to ask and which questions do you not? They actually were a little wanted to stay clear of clean technology and green technology, but they did want to focus on, again, women and minority-owned businesses, which, hey, great. So working with them and just going back and forth, it was again, building up trust because I could tell that this group, this is something that they wanted to do, but they weren’t quite sure how to, maybe I don’t watch a little too much news about this whole topic. And when we got into it, then they realized, they’re like, “Wow, we should have this data on our normal portfolios, not even just our social ones.
This fund could be so much more and this could just be part of our normal business. And I’m like, “Exactly.” And that’s the goal is to have this whole ESG topic be a part of normal day business. And I think that’s the way a lot of folks are trying to get it to go, where it’s not finance and ESG, it’s just business. And so that’s what excites me is talking to these decision makers, these asset owners and asset managers that have the opportunity to move billions and trillions of dollars and make life so much easier and better for so many people. And I think it’s going in the right direction, but I know there’s a lot of work to do, and I’m a little scared of when the Security and Exchange Commission, the SEC comes out with their ESG regulation or note, because a lot of people will just do that bare minimum, and then we might be back to where we started. So I think it’s a challenge and opportunity for everybody to take these disclosures and work on transforming things that you have been wanting to do.
Jason Rebello: I love that we shared that same sentiment, Adam, that the desire to have ESG just rolled into the normal way of operating the exact same way as it relates with diversity, equity, inclusion. It shouldn’t be this separate conversation that we’re constantly having to have and manage. It’s just a part of being a good leader, and it’s a part of being a high-trust, high-performing organization for the future, right? Speaking of the DEI practitioners, if you had a parting request for those of us in the inclusion space, what would that parting request be for those of us that want to show up and do even better work?
Adam Locklin: Could you say that one more time, Jason?
Jason Rebello: So your parting request for inclusive champions? Yeah. Yeah. Your big ask.
Adam Locklin: Yeah, that is a big ask. I would say don’t give up on people. Don’t give up on the ones you think don’t want anything to do with DEI. Don’t give up on the bosses that it’s at the bottom of their 20 point list of things to do. Don’t give up on the ones that think it’s corporate social responsibility or philanthropy sorry. And yeah, just stay diligent with them. And I think that’s where DEI practitioners and along with other volunteers and folks that are carrying these candles inside these organizations is don’t give up. And next thing you know… And why I say don’t give up before I say this next thing is because then you’ll find yourself in a silo. And that’s not the point. The point of this is to be inclusive, and it is to bring in people with different outside of other things that make us diverse, but mindsets, life experiences, and so forth.
And as the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. And I think that’s what I’ve embodied in my career of when most people hear Marines and finance, they get, oh, single tracked mind. That’s helped me and hurt me though. And I think that has helped and hurt a lot of DEI professionals as well, where they’re branded as this one type of person. And in reality, they’re probably not, we’re complicated creatures withholding a lot of contradicting opinions as well. So I would say that’s what I would carry on is just don’t give up on folks and keep trying to bring others into the fold.
Oana Amaria: That is so powerful and that is so on point with what we’re going through externally, internally with the conversations at Firefly, because things are changing and I think we have to change and we have to evolve. And one of the things that we say at Firefly always is we leave the BS behind, which is the blame and the shame. And I think that more practitioners need to be in the right relationship with themselves first to get to a place where we let go of that judgment or those assumptions. Because for all we preach, we’re humans too, and it starts with us. So that’s such a powerful call to action. Thank you for that, Adam.
Jason Rebello: Thank you, Adam. This was a fantastic conversation. So glad to have you on to share your journey and the incredible work that you’re doing. So thank you again for taking the time to be here.
Adam Locklin: Yeah, I appreciate you all having me, and yeah, I look forward to carrying this and continuing on all of our journeys here.