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Preserving Nature

Sep/17/2023 / by Brian Sodoma

Kavita Prakash-Mani works to accelerate environmental progress

South Asian woman with a white bird resting on her left hand
Photo courtesy: Kavita Prakash-Mani

As a child, nature fascinated Kavita Prakash-Mani, so as an adult, she set out to preserve it. Born and raised in India, her family moved quite a bit throughout her childhood due to her father’s army career. Her fondest childhood memories, she says, came from time spent in the mountain ranges of the Punjab region.

“We were always out in nature,” she recalled. “My father was an avid hiker. We would go up in the mountains, we lived in the mountains, and there was a real appreciation for nature from the very start.”

Her family eventually settled in Delhi, where she studied Commerce at Lady Shri Ram College and then completed an MBA with an emphasis in Marketing from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. She began to study the role of business and philanthropy in sustainability efforts. This would shape the focus of her environmental advocacy for the rest of her career.

Today, Prakash-Mani is the founder of Dragonfly, a sustainability consulting agency that works with investors, businesses and nonprofits to help investment dollars find their way to environmental projects and initiatives that offer the greatest impact. Here’s a closer look at how she does it.

Many Organizations, Many Efforts

Prakash-Mani’s primary focus now centers on how to get more investment into nature conservation, climate change mitigation, and sustainable agriculture efforts. Agriculture is a particularly tricky subject, as it’s likely the biggest threat to nature conservation, but it’s also integral to a region’s food security, she admits.

Through Dragonfly and board memberships, she often works with many different groups at once to build alliances, strategize, and create environmental solutions. Whether through her advisory work or simply participating in an organization’s board, Prakash-Mani likes the close relationships in her work. It’s refreshing after years of running departments in large companies and overseeing entire organizations.

In the past, she worked with Syngenta, an agriculture science and technology leader, where she headed its food security and sustainability agenda. She worked as a special advisor to the World Economic Forum and its New Vision on Agriculture team. She was also the executive director for Grow Asia, a multi-stakeholder partnership supporting sustainable and inclusive agriculture in Southeast Asia.

“I needed a personal break from running big organizations so I could just focus on content,” she said. “And I also realized after 25 years, while always having a hand in making things happen, it’s also time to advise others and educate new leaders.”

She is currently on the board of the Tara Climate Foundation, which works to find more funding for renewable energy projects. She is also on the board of the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market (ICVCM), where she has a voice in crafting better, more integrated, carbon standards. She also works with Wollemi, an Australian global climate investment firm, to help it maximize its climate program investment impacts.

Shaping The Dialogue Around Corporate Responsibility

Prakash-Mani came to the U.S. in 1997, after she’d completed her MBA. Her work with the World Resources Institute was an introduction to harnessing the power of business in sustainability. But she then moved to London to work for SustainAbility, a think tank focused on corporate responsibility and sustainable development.

There, she worked with John Elkington, the world authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable capitalism, who coined the term the “triple bottom line: people, planet, profit.” That almost 10-year run gave her a front-row seat to seeing how corporate responsibility and sustainability moved from fresh ideas to must-haves in companies.

“In the very early days, we were still trying to convince companies to try and do something. So, we went from ‘what was the business case of sustainability?’ to ‘So, what does that mean? What should I be focusing on and what should I be doing?’ to then actually helping them do it,” she said.

Challenges To Building A Sustainability Mindset

Today, economic cycles bring an inherent challenge to her work. When times are good, the importance of sustainable practices is a much easier conversation. But once corporate profits decline and economic weakness arrives, sustainability is often first in line for a funding cut. Knowing this highlights the importance of the work done in the past 20 years to ingrain sustainability into business and societal consciousness.

“What we’ve been working on for the past many decades is to make it [sustainability] so integral to the way companies and countries are run that you can’t move away from it,” she noted.

Great examples exist today in moves like the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act promoting renewable investments. Additionally, regulators and investors in many countries now mandate companies to have climate plans. That said, there’s clearly no room for complacency either.

“I think we’re starting to see something written into the DNA of countries,” she added. “But still, if suddenly there’s a big downturn, we know what happens. I think it’s a situation where you feel like you don’t have the luxury to take your foot off the pedal, and now this is more important than ever.”