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SURI meets Terracycle

SURI meets Tom Szaky of Terracycle


Our Co-Founder, Gyve caught up with Tom and talked morning rituals, juggling the work-life balance, and tapping into the power we have to change the world.

Tom Szaky founded TerraCycle at the age of 19, fast forward 22 years later and it's now one of the largest recycling companies worldwide. They've been tackling items that nobody really wants to recycle from nappies and cigarettes to, well, toothbrushes. They also have amazing offices made from recycled waste materials!


Gyve:
So to start I thought we'd focus on rituals. What's one of the golden rituals that you never miss when you start your day?

Tom: My mornings tend to be very ritualistic. I wake up, get a cup of coffee going, get a shower. Usually I wake up before any of my family or kids are up. So I'll read the morning news, enjoy my coffee, kiss everyone who's sleeping, and then go out quietly and get to my office. It’s usually early in the morning because I have calls with Europe around five or six AM. 

Gyve: You're extremely busy. How do you manage the work life balance? I have one daughter, and I'm barely surviving, but you have four kids!? Is it something that you're constantly working on, or something you've got nailed down pretty well now?

Tom: Well, I think it's a constant meditation on how to balance and get it right. I make sure there's time for my wife and our relationship, our kids, myself, the business, there's a lot of different things and only 24 hours in the day.

So you know what, the way I tend to try to solve these issues is, if I'm going to work more, I'm going to go more into the mornings, because then I'm always able to spend time with my kids and, and my family. That’s one way to solve the work creep that comes up when you’re running a company and dealing with everyone.

And then there are things I like to do, like exercise, where I've tried to find different sports and activities that I can enjoy simultaneously with my kids. So for example, we go horse riding, and I get on a horse and they get on a horse, or more recently, we picked up fencing and the class we found, I get to fence while they get to fence. And I mean, if you're a five year old kid who doesn't love playing with real swords, right? So there's a lot of really neat ways to overlap and deal with the ebbs and flows so you can lead a balanced lifestyle while still being a hardcore entrepreneur at the very same time.

I've been doing this for over 20 years. And so, you know, at the beginning there was no balance, right? It was living in the photocopy room, dedicated 110% to the project. But you can't sustain that for decades. And so it's so important to be able to find the right way to squeeze it all together.

Gyve: That's amazing, I love the fact that you're fencing and riding horses. I wish I had more time to do that! But I think you're absolutely right. It makes sense to find time in the mornings otherwise you just end up working all throughout the night.

Tom: That's right. And you know, look, if I had to do sports where I'm just a parent dropping off my kid and sitting and waiting for them to do it, then there's no way all that would come together. So I think there are a lot of ways to do fun things together and lots of opportunities for that.

Gyve: You speak a lot about the lack of momentum in corporate sustainability. And we're all consumers at the end of the day. I'd love to know what one piece of advice you'd give to our audience that they could follow to make a bigger impact on the world.

Tom: I think the biggest ‘moment of enlightenment’ I've had is, if we think about democratic systems, we get really fixated on the democratic action of a political vote. And not all of us have the privilege to vote. I don't in the US because I'm not a citizen here. If I was incarcerated in the past, I wouldn't even have the privilege to vote, or if I was below a certain age, all sorts of things would preclude me from voting. And even if I have that privilege of voting, I only get to do it, what, once every four years? And I get to choose between A and B?

I mean, that's an important decision, but it's infrequent and very binary. And what I've realised is the more fiercely democratic action we take – and we take this at any age, any background, multiple times a day – is the act of what we buy, and what we don't buy.

Because if we stop buying something, that item disappears, and if we start buying something that item flourishes. It's fiercely democratic, and it has high frequency with real dollars, for many choices, not just a binary one. And so I think the challenge in this is we don't realise it. And so we are going out to the polls and voting multiple times a day, blindly.

Imagine if it was a political election yesterday, and I asked you, how did you vote and you said, Oh, I voted but I didn't check who I voted for, that would be an odd conversation. But in the world of commerce, we do that all the time. Because when we vote for things, we are voting for their impact to occur so that their existence is there.

Whether you care about the mass extinction we're in the middle of, or climate change, or waste, forever chemicals, or even Palm Oil. These are very complicated issues. But what's so fascinating is that every one of them has a very simple genesis, which is we vote for their existence by buying things.

And so if you accept that, I think the first thing to do is honour the concept of not buying. You know, let's try to live smaller lives, frankly, like we used to up until the 1950s, when gluttony and commerce exploded. Let's buy things that are made to last, can be repaired, can be reused, instead of things that are cheap and disposable.

We can change the world incredibly quickly. By becoming aware of this power we hold anyway. And we influence it. Let's just do it with a little bit of consciousness.

Gyve: It's such a great concept to think about. I mean, when we were starting SURI, we weren't paying ourselves for quite some time. And it was amazing how I was able to just look at what I had to spend, and I’d say ‘I only have £100 to spend this whole month, what am I going to buy?’ And once you put a certain amount aside for food etc. you realise you don’t really need all these new things. In fact I ended up selling most of the things I owned to keep me going because I just wasn’t using any of it.

Gyve: When you have a startup at our stage, there are great days, and there are difficult ones. How do you take an ‘off day’ and turn it around or do you not or do you just embrace it?

Tom: Well, I think there are two parts to this. As I reflect, I look back at those really difficult, 'I'm going to go broke, how do I make payroll' type moments. Of which there are many. And I really romanticise them now. When you're living through it, it's gut wrenching, but have the hope that one day you'll look back at that and be like, Wow, that was the genesis. That was the big moment of tension where we decided do we go up, down, left, right, which way and take some comfort in that.

The second part that helped me get through those moments, is reflecting on what truly is the worst case, and it's not so bad. Right? The worst case is the idea doesn't work. It's not like I'm gonna go hungry, or sleep on the street.

Even today, the more we innovate, the more we encounter failures. But it’s a form of tuition. We always start meetings by looking at what we’ve learned, so that we can honour that investment, what we lost, and really frame it as tuition. Because if we don't, we have the chance to repeat it, and that's like going to school again, for the exact same thing. This also allows folks to not be scared of failure, because if you're scared of failure, you're scared of innovation.

But it's about embracing it in a positive way. versus, you know, with emotions, like anger or frustration or other more unproductive emotions.

Gyve: I love that, so failure is the innovation and also the failure is the lesson learned. And if you're not taking that away, you're not moving.

Tom: Yeah, I would say, failure is a certain outcome of innovation, and the more bold and exciting the innovation, the more failure will come. It's just natural, it's not going to get perfect from day one. And the question then is, how to view that failure. And if you can view it as a productive learning, frankly, to not be repeated as a learning, then I think, you know, that's a really good way to take the next step forward

Gyve: Cool, and then I guess my last quick-fire question is: where would we find Tom on a Friday night just before the weekend starts?

Tom: At home with my family, not doing work. This has been a very important part of being able to intensely work is really drawing a good line between work and non-work activities. I'm maybe more of a traditionalist, I love working from the office. I come in every day. We're a hybrid environment here, you know, for all of our team, and so everyone can do what they wish but for me, I come in every day because it creates a very clear delineation between work and not work and the amount of times I open a computer at home is very rare.

Gyve: Well Tom, thank you so much for giving us your time today, massively appreciate it, really enjoyed hearing from you.

Tom: It was entirely my pleasure and I'll make sure to hit you up next time I'm out on your side of the pond.

Find out more about Terracycle and the amazing work they’re doing here.
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