Natural Connections

Carol Tisch

Gardener, sailor, architect, builder, contractor—Leslie Hoffman has worn many hats during her eclectic career. But the paths she's traveled converged, as if by design, to the door of Earth Pledge, where her role as executive director allows her to pu

Cover Story
Natural Connections

By Carol Tish

BR>Gardener, sailor, architect, builder, contractor—Leslie Hoffman has worn many hats during her eclectic career. But the paths
she's traveled converged, as if
by design, to the door of Earth Pledge, where her role as executive director allows her to pursue her passion to reconnect people with the planet.

Talk about a purpose-driven life. Leslie Hoffman, the executive director of Earth Pledge, is indeed what she does for a living. It's as if the core of her being—the sum total of
disparate life experiences—led her on a path to the nonprofit agency's door, giving her the wherewithal to flourish in an open-ended job framed by a big-ticket subject like sustainability.

"Well, I'm a character," she says, tongue-in-cheek. "But as all of us move through life, we end up with a sense of ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. And I realize I have taken some odd courses."

"Odd" is an understatement. Not many infants are strapped into the cockpit of a sailboat before they can walk. Not many 19-year-olds list trans-oceanic sailings on their resumes. And not many women have the chutzpah to earn an architecture degree, and forsake a rather dignified career to become a nail-banging Yankee carpenter, and then a developer. "I never did aspire to be an 'office' architect," she confides.

Nature has been Hoffman's lifelong passion—she's embraced it and battled it in the form of gardening and sailing. Those two passions, which she continues to pursue with vigor, are constant guiding forces in her work today. Gardening gave her the capacity to embrace the concepts of green rooftops and sustainable cuisine, major initiatives she promotes at Earth Pledge. And she says, "Sailing taught me a lot about closed-lid systems. In particular, it highlighted for me the need to work with nature for our survival and at the same time work against it for our survival."

There you go; that just about sums up the mission of Earth Pledge. While all the roads she traversed ultimately led to the foundation started in 1991 as a United Nations committee chaired by legendary labor mediator Theodore Kheel, the Earth Pledge Hoffman joined 11 years ago in no way resembles the nonprofit organization that exists today.

"When I started, Ted Kheel came to me with a corporate structure that had outlived its initial purpose," she says. In fact, the original Earth Pledge Foundation was formed to stimulate interest in and support of the 1992 Earth Summit sponsored by the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro, and had raised millions of dollars through special prints of works created for the committee by Kheel's friend, pop artist Robert Rauschenberg. After the word was out and his mission was accomplished, Kheel found a new calling for the foundation: the promotion of sustainable development.

"He had attended the Earth Summit in Rio and came away with a sense of how the sustainability amendment could ameliorate the conflict between environmentalism and development," Hoffman explains. "As a mediator he was a conflict resolver. And that became the principal intersection between his interests and mine. I was both a developer and an environmentalist at the gut level. I never called myself an environmentalist, and I usually still don't.

"But I am a gardener and understood deeply and passionately this connection to the planet and nature. Our discussions centered on sustainable development, and although there really wasn't much there, I started to use Earth Pledge as a way to express my interest in, quote, 'environmentalism.'"

The circuitous route that ultimately led Hoffman to New York and Earth Pledge began in Stamford, CT, where she was initiated into a lifelong love affair with sailing practically at birth. When she was two, her family moved to the North Shore of Long Island. They were off to Rome when she was seven; and back to the United States, to upstate New York, when she was 12.

Hoffman's next move was to Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where she earned a degree in architecture and design. During college she worked for an architectural firm in Chicago, soon learning that she didn't "love" drafting. "This was pre-CAD-system, so I
didn't learn computer-aided design while I was in college. I have been passionate about the way things work since I was a little kid," she recalls, "and was more intrigued with the building aspect of architecture than the designing."

Ever the adventurer, Hoffman moved to Maine soon after graduation, and became a minimum-wage carpenter for a company called Yankee Housewrights. "I earned $4.85 an hour," she says. "Still, I was able to save money, and bought tools every week."
Hoffman's next career move was to a high-end custom building firm, where she "literally held the bottom of the ladder for the guys. I'd say, 'Hey, let me do that,' and they'd say, 'You can do the corner up against the woods that no one will see.'

"I loved it; I was learning a lot, becoming physical and strong, going from being a girl to being a woman. It was an empowering experience to create things using my hands," she recalls. When a client pulled her aside one day and asked if she would work on another project on her own, Hoffman's entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. Still in her early 20s, she replied, why not?

"I went from girl carpenter to lady contractor," she says. "Standing with the other contractors at 7 a.m. at the counter of the lumber yard was a significant part of the experience." Growing and learning, she simultaneously started getting into green building, and says, "In my last five years as a builder, virtually every project was new-tech, high-tech, passive-solar, active-solar, super-insulated.

"I was pushing the limits, going into the lumber yards and saying to the manager, 'I need to start installing air-to-air heat exchanges so radon gas in the granite in the basements of these houses will be ventilated mechanically.' At the same time we learned how to capture or recover the heat as we exhausted the air to the outside.

"I became intrigued with and fascinated by, and explored the materials and techniques that are the foundation of green building," she says. It was through her love of building that Hoffman came to understand and appreciate other elements—planning and landscape—that she says make up the bigger picture that ultimately led to being a developer.

"In the big picture, how it all works is the driving force," she says. "It's not just mechanical things; it's also social structures, industries and political structures. I am super curious about the world. One of my major approaches to life is to be curious.

"While I'm picky and I love detail, I was blessed with having a very good eye and very good hands, which made me good at what I was doing. I designed a lot and built a lot and worked with architects and owners." She prefers to think, then implement, skipping the boring stuff. "I spent a lot of time in Maine as a carpenter sketching design details on the backs of napkins over lunch. It's more direct: Imagine it, then do it. I'm more of a thinker, talker and doer than a writer or a stylistic designer."

Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Earth Pledge, holds a degree in architecture and design, and worked as a carpenter and green builder for 10 years. She has led the Earth Pledge team since 1994. Hoffman is an avid gardener who has maintained a small organic coffee farm in Hawaii since 1990. She was nominated by Interiors & Sources as one of its Top 25 Environmental Champions in 2004.

As most of us do with second careers, Hoffman used her personal interests as a platform for a new entrepreneurial enterprise. "In my personal life, I ran with a band of poets and composers, sculptors and painters, so I started to produce arts projects and special events. I represented the arts as an opportunity for business, and looked for the appropriate intersections between business and arts.

"The idea came to me when I was introduced to the woman who was the granddaughter of the cultural attaché under Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, that I would organize and produce a festival called the New World Festival of Africatude," she says. Convinced the time was right to promote the African attitude and spirit, she brought her big idea to New York.

Soon she was introduced to Earth Pledge's Kheel. "I had no idea who he was, but was told he had a strong connection to the African American community. In his background was a deep commitment to the civil rights movement. He was a very good friend of Martin Luther King, and a mutual friend thought we should meet for that reason."

Kheel found many elements of Hoffman's background well-suited to his foundation—so much so that he repeatedly asked her to work for him. But she wasn't looking for a job; she was intent on producing the New World Festival of Africatude. "One of the great assets of labor leaders is tenacity," she says, "and Ted kept coming back to it. When he finally asked me to run his foundation, I said, 'OK, let's try it.'"

Kheel, now president of the Earth Pledge board, gave Hoffman the reins. The big ideas kept coming—and they got backing. First she created a division for sustainable media focused on using the Internet to communicate the message of sustainability. "Initially, I had the naïve notion that our initiative would impact the publishing industry, resulting in less paper. I realized quickly that goal was not real."

In 1995 Hoffman put together the First Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism, out of which grew the Earth Pledge initiative on sustainable agriculture and cuisine. With celebrity chefs and Whole Foods Markets as partners, programs like Farm to Table and the annual Windows on Long Island Wine event held during April continue to thrive. Another notable project, the Food Waste=Fuel initiative (to convert New York City's vast quantity of restaurant food waste into energy through anaerobic digestion and biogas reception), won No. 1 in the country in the Environmental Protection Agency Innovations Work Group awards.

Theodore W. Kheel, founder and president of Earth Pledge, is a lawyer, arbitrator and mediator. He is a former president of the National Urban League and member of numerous government- appointed fact-finding boards. The New York Times has declared him "the most influential peacemaker in New York City in the last half-century."

Earth Pledge is perhaps best known for its Green Roofs initiative, which aims to lower New York City's ambient air temperature and prevent pollution in its waterways by creating a city-wide green roof infrastructure. It all started with a phone call from the office of noted landscape scholar, author and designer Diana Balmori. Hoffman says they asked if she knew anything about green rooftops, as they thought it was an interesting idea but had never done one. "I said, 'No, I don't, but I've been a passionate gardener for a long time, and I know building; I think this is a really good idea.'"

She attended a presentation on green roofs by American Hydrotech of Chicago, and after conversations with the company's representatives decided to add a green roof to the Earth Pledge headquarters. After exhaustive work and occasional bouts of skepticism, the city's first engineered green roof system was installed atop the foundation's townhouse in New York.

When the roof was finally ready for planting, she recalls being overwhelmed by how much better it was than she had imagined. "It was like being in a yard up in the sky. It's wonderful, and you don't even have to change your land use. You're using a wasted resource to create beauty to grow food or flowers; to mitigate the urban heat island effect and retain storm water, preventing it from overflowing sewage into the water. Green roofs are an elegant solution," she says. And Earth Pledge continues to promote the concept with a Greening Gotham Tool Box, complete with building instructions and a newly released book called Green Roofs—Ecological Design and Construction.

Eleven years into Hoffman's tenure at Earth Pledge, it appears as if the foundation's carefully orchestrated initiatives were the result of a long-term strategic plan. In truth, like green roofs, many were opportunities that presented themselves. While in her mind all paths led to a single road, Hoffman says she was criticized often in the in the early days. "People in the food community didn't understand the green building thing, and green building people didn't understand the food thing. When I got into energy, they said I had no focus.

"I kept scratching my head, because to me it all made so much sense. I kept trying to explain myself. And I had to explain it to Earth Pledge staff so that they really got it and could live it, breathe it and communicate it."

Embedded in the definition of sustainability, she says, is a focus on long-term health and security that highlights and takes into account the interconnectedness of everything. "If you believe that, it makes complete sense, so you would be (involved) in fashion, food, energy and waste."

Hoffman's highly diversified initiatives all apply to the common goal of sustainability, and she cites specific examples. "I started working with Whole Foods Markets on promoting local sustainable agriculture," she explains, "and now we're working with them on waste issues. Super-markets have a lot of organic waste, although they try to minimize it. The fact is, if you peel the ugly leaves off a head of lettuce they have
to go somewhere." Tongue-in-cheek once more, she says she's now completely fascinated with garbage. "I never thought I would go so far that garbage would become my main interest, but I'm getting there."

Partnerships with companies like Whole Foods Markets pay off for Earth Pledge, and this year 13 of the chain's supermarkets in the Northeast pledged to contribute five percent of all sales on April 19 to the foundation as a kickoff to planned Earth Day celebrations.

Hoffman says she enjoys working with the private sector, guiding them toward sustainability, "because when they move a degree or two, they make big change." In contrast, when a small nonprofit like Earth Pledge moves 180 degrees, they still have less impact than a major corporation. "Partnering with the private sector, both as a way to encourage them and a way to get support from them, is synergetic."

Some of Earth Pledge's best synergies have resulted from projects with companies in the architectural and design community. "No doubt about it, the big names in contract furniture and fabrics, particularly the part that services the high-end corporate market, were definitely pioneers (in sustainability)."

And corporations that are consumers of contract furnishings are more open to green design than residential customers, she says. "Companies are savvy about public relations and also understand they have to service their employees. So when there is a decision on corporate headquarters, it is green. I realize there are financial reasons for green building and image reasons, but there is also a genuine desire to take care of their employees.

"Unfortunately, in the residential market sustainability has largely been a niche opportunity. I know it's changing. I was a custom residential builder 25 years ago and truly felt like I was on the edge of a tidal wave. I felt it coming. I knew it was right; it made sense. As energy issues and health issues become better understood, I think we will continue to improve the quality of green building out of necessity."

To jump-start the change, Earth Pledge continues to launch big ideas like February's Verdopolis—The City of the Future. The event brought together leaders in sustainability across sectors, from cutting-edge designers to politicians. Sponsors included companies like Bosch, DesignTex and Steelcase, among others.

In partnership with Natureworks and Ingeo, Earth Pledge has even more projects on the drawing board, ever mindful that promoting sustainability depends on the "wow" factor. And how does one sustain the wow factor after 11 years? "Follow your passion and the world will support you," says Hoffman. "I do what I do out of passion."

Earth Pledge is a nonprofit organization that originated as a United Nations committee chaired by Theodore W. Kheel to promote interest in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. To aid in his efforts, Kheel enlisted the support of his friend and internationally acclaimed artist Robert Rauschenberg, who created "Last Turn, Your Turn" (1991), the official artwork of the Earth Summit. The proceeds from the sales of these limited-edition prints were contributed to Earth Pledge.

Earth Pledge identifies and promotes innovative techniques and technologies that restore the balance between human and natural systems. Through demonstration, education and research, it delivers viable models to government, industry and communities. The New York region is its laboratory for implementing replicable solutions that will inspire and facilitate a global transition to sustainability. Earth Pledge is perhaps best known for its Green Roofs initiative, which aims to lower New York City's ambient air temperature and prevent pollution in its waterways by creating a city-wide green roof infrastructure.

For more information, visit

Earth Pledge
122 East 38th Street
New York, NY 10016
(212) 725-6611