Written by Jessie Panazzolo
Ten months ago I was sitting on my couch feeling defeated and alone in the conservation industry, but since publishing my very first blog in January, Lonely Conservationists from around the world have flocked to the ever growing LC family. In May, I was overwhelmed when I discovered my little cry for help had since welcomed over a thousand Lonely Conservationists from around the world. I felt a sense of responsibility for these people and at the same time realised the imminent need for the conservation industry to develop a compassionate side for the people who are working so hard within it.
That same month, a Lonely Conservationist came to me with an application form for an environmentally based business incubator that he thought I might be interested in. The requirements for applying for the incubator stated that you must have a Wild Idea and it must help to save threatened species, with a specific focus on New South Wales, Australia. I knew that by helping conservationists around the world, there would be positive implications for species everywhere, but I didn’t know if that was good enough to be able to apply. I emailed to ask if my tribe of Lonely Conservationists could make the cut and they urged me to submit an application. A month later, I was accepted into the Wild Idea Incubator Program.
If I’m being super honest with you, I was not sure if I even wanted to be a part of the program in the weeks before I got accepted. I was just a girl who had no business experience, no solid idea for my business and a bunch of people from across the globe who I felt very responsible for. That very fear followed me to my first intensive retreat in a small and very green town, Wisemans ferry. The first day, I was abnormally anxious. I am usually a very confident person and excited by new adventures, but this was very different. I looked around at the people who also got accepted and it was very clear what their businesses were. I looked at myself and all I saw was just a conservationist.
Everyone there was amazing and very welcoming and the activities we did which featured wellness and creative thinking components brought us closer together. One day Susie, from the Grow Love Project mentioned that farmers don’t have time to write grants. I looked at her and instantly thought about all the unemployed conservationists who have grant writing skills- including myself. That thought sparked the direction for my Wild Idea evolution and I decided that conservationists should help farmers around the world with their conservation projects and biodiversity management.
I couldn’t believe it. I- Jessie- had an actual business concept. The last night of the incubator, the founder of Odonata (the organisation who ran the program) told me that my idea was a solution to a problem he had been trying to solve for a while. This boosted my confidence and cemented the direction I was to head throughout this program.
Between the first and the second intensive retreats, I hit a wall trying to prove that farmers actually wanted or needed this service. I knew the founder of the program definitely needed it, but farmers I talked too didn’t seem so urgent in requiring help. I called a Lonely Conservationist who offered to help me and I told her that I felt so defeated. It was hard and I was only a conservationist.
I will never forget what she told me that day. She said:
Jessie, think of all the skills you have because of your work in conservation. You can do risk assessments, surveys, analyse data, write reports, talk publicly about your work, do first aid, produce maps, drive off road…etc etc the list goes on. Nobody is ever JUST a conservationist.
Life got busy after that. I remember lying on my couch very sick and burnt out listening to myself on the Ecoscientist Podcast speak about avoiding burnout. The irony was too much. Never the less, I went to Sydney a second time, arriving in the dark rainy night and feeling like death. Susie was there once again to save the day, wrapping me up in a hug and assuring me that nobody had their lives figured out – and that was okay.
On that retreat, I had my second turn around after I realised that farmers themselves weren’t my clients, but rather, the organisations and businesses that work with or own private land. I needed to talk to people who needed to report on biodiversity as I realised that monitoring biodiversity was more important than managing it. I also realised that success meant something different for me than it did for a lot of my business mentors. Success to me wasn’t scalability or owning a million dollar empire, success to me meant actually being out in the field myself and creating positive outcomes for threatened species as well as helping people and building positive relationships.
The next week I went to meet with the founder and declared that I didn’t think I was ready to run a business, and I was more a project management kind of person. He told me that that is not necessarily true and that I could easily be a sole trader and go through the journey of scaling up as the necessity presents itself and a light bulb went on in my head. Nothing had felt more right in this whole journey and all of my anxieties flew out the window in that moment. If I go through this journey of contracting myself out and creating a framework to help private land conservation, I can share this with Lonely Conservationists all over the world and I don’t need to employ them all.
Give a conservationist a job and they will work for a year, teach a conservationist to make their own job, and they will work forever.
That same day he presented me with a project I could work towards, which I knew I needed the help of another Lonely Conservationist for. Already I could help people and do on the ground field work at the same time.
On the last retreat, the weather echoed my mood. It was a stunning day in Bondi and we were staying right by the beach. I had practised my pitch to the NSW sponsor the week before and they were very impressed. For the first time, I walked into a retreat with nothing but belief in myself and excitement for the last week of the program. The people surrounding me had evolved into family, just like my idea had evolved into a business. It was still exhausting to refine my pitch over and over as well as do course work, but I was emotionally strong and so grateful for this experience.
The final event, the big pitch night finally rolled around. There were two long tables lined with wine glasses and delicious plant based foods which seated professionals from many industries from; waste management, to nature conservation, journalism, education and large corporations. I stood in disbelief as people sat at my end of the table while others walked up to me, excited about what they had heard about my project. I pictured myself on the first retreat, full of impostor syndrome and not believing I was worthy of my place in this program. I couldn’t believe how far I had come.
When Dave from Owl Bnb finished his presentation, I knew my time had come- lucky last. I stood up in front of the room and shared goofy stick figure representations of myself being sad and defeated on the couch in January, and told everyone about the need to value conservationists both financially and emotionally. I told them how 60% of threatened species are impacted by agriculture and how there are conservationists all over the world with the skills to reduce that number. I proposed a vision of a world where conservationists and private land holders work hand in hand to conserve biodiversity and a world where we value the people working tirelessly to save our planet.
When I was done, the room erupted in applause. Professionals from multiple industries approached me that night asking me to work with them to monitor biodiversity all over Australia that was previously unreasonably expensive to do. I was elated, but also in shock. The people who spoke with me also spoke genuinely. My presentation set the tone for the amount of honesty and humour that I required in a conversation and all of the following discussions were authentic and playful.
I stepped outside into the garden, amongst the trees and smiled into the darkness.
Jessie! You did it! I can’t believe it! You’re a business woman!
On last day of the retreat and the entire program, we all sat in a circle on the grass, looking over the coastline. As it’s tradition, we honoured each other for what we brought to the program and the unique qualities that we showed throughout. Tears welled in my eyes as I was honoured and I felt genuinely proud of myself and how far I had come.
Ten months ago, I was defeated on a couch, wondering if my future in conservation was over. Now, ten months later, I feel invincible with almost two thousand conservationists by my side. Let this be a lesson to you all, to do what scares the absolute shit out of you- I promise you will be stronger for it.
For more of Jessie, follow @ecolojesst on Instagram