On carbon credits, composting, and the courage to make tough decisions.
FORTUNE — When her son almost died eating a cashew, Susan Hunt Stevens had a rude awakening. It eventually led her to find her life’s calling: making sustainability accessible.
How are those two connected, you ask? The path is winding. First, Stevens joined an allergy group. That prompted her to start reading nutrition labels, which helped her learn about the importance of environmental health. That led her to pursue a graduate degree in sustainable design at the Boston Architectural College. Today, it’s her life’s work.
As the founder and CEO of Practically Green, the 43-year-old Stevens works to help people change their behavior to be more sustainable at work, at home, and in the community. In short, she wants to make sustainability an easy part of one’s daily routine. Major companies such as eBay EBAY and MGM Resorts International MGM run their sustainability programs through Practically Green, which has an extensive library of content designed for sustainability education and social and game elements to engage employees.
She spoke with Fortune.
1. Which alternative energy projects are you most excited about?
I’ll name two. A friend of mine founded a company called Oasys, which has membrane technology that cleans up the most polluted water. At the last Fortune Brainstorm Green, I participated in a segment about the future of protein; Hampton Creek Foods produces a substitute for commercial eggs. That could change the impact of carbon emissions and treatment of farm animals. We could reduce the reliance we have on live animals as a form of protein, which has huge sustainability impact but also affects the quality of care for animals.
2. Which alternative energy projects do you find most overrated?
I think the whole point of the phase we’re in right now is to try a whole bunch of things to see what works. Once you do that, you find that some ideas were not great, and we can move on. I think we learned a lot from turning farmland into fuel. The ramifications became obvious. I’m not saying we can’t look into using biomass as fuel, but I’m more excited about the results of solar instead of using farmland for fuel. I think the consequences of the project weren’t well understood. There are alternative energy projects that have fewer system-wide consequences.
3. Which green business or person do you admire most? Why?
I am very impressed by companies that have tackled innovation from both a product and an access standpoint. I also admire companies who have opened up solar as an area of investment. They have come up with creative solutions to the major issues of access, [such as financing]. It really opens up the market when companies are creative about removing barriers.
4. Which other companies do you admire? Why?
I’m also really excited about what Microsoft MSFT has done with their green credit program. Basically, they’ve figured out the cost of carbon emissions for businesses, and they’re working with companies to set up benefits for reductions and an internal credit market.
I really like what Opower is doing to try to motivate people to save energy and change behavior. Opower [obtains individual household data] from local utilities companies, and people get inserts in their bills that show their energy usage compared to their neighbors. They’ve seen a 3.5% drop in energy usage.
5. What is the best advice you have ever received?
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is on the list. “A startup is a marathon, not a sprint” is another. I would think in general, the best advice I’ve gotten is the power of perseverance. It’s important to see life as a journey where you keep trying. You don’t assume you’re going to solve the problem in 12 months. It takes time.
6. What is your greatest achievement?
I think I’m still working on that. From a professional standpoint, it’s a work in progress. From a personal standpoint, I’m impressed with how my kids [ages six and nine] are turning out. You can build a great company and be a great parent at the same time.
7. What is one characteristic that every leader should possess?
Courage. I think every leader faces decisions that require you to have courage to make a decision even though the outcome isn’t guaranteed or known. They have to use the best insights they have. You can tell when a person isn’t courageous, especially in the sustainability space. It’s a new frontier.
8. What daily steps do you take to promote sustainability?
I run a company that helps with daily steps, so I have to practice what I preach! We compost. I have a renewable energy system in my basement called a micro cogeneration system. We generate energy as we create heat, which produces electricity. We eat organic. We have a home garden. So, a lot. It’s been a long journey, and we have a long way to go.
9. What was your biggest missed opportunity?
I wish I had studied architecture in college for my undergrad. Design is one of the greatest opportunities to try to create better living solutions, but from a conceptual standpoint, it would be great to learn how to design a building.
10. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I would love to be able to teleport and not take planes. I could just show up in San Francisco. I could be like Samantha in Bewitched and twitch my nose and be wherever I needed to be.
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