Consumer Engager Ersilia Serafini

As CEO of Summerhill Group, Ersilia Serafini is responsible for direct action campaigns that make us stop, think, and make a positive impact on the environment. She works with energy companies to encourage people to make choices like LED light bulbs at point of purchase in hardware stores, or helping businesses reduce their carbon footprint through direct employee engagement. Serafini juggles this with raising two active daughters (aged 8 and 10). We wanted to know more about what she does, and how this intersects with her role as a mother.

Why did you start doing what you do?

I’ve been doing this for 16 years. By the time I graduated from university I knew that I wanted to work on business and the environment together. I always said that I was a capitalist at heart, and that I’d find a way to make money and still do good for the environment.

What does this work bring to your life?

The fact that I can create positive change is the entire motivating factor. That’s why myself, and others, haven’t moved elsewhere, because the sense of ongoing accomplishment is amazing. But there’s also so much more to do. You don’t really hit a point where you go, “Okay, it’s done, I should move on.”

Why is this work important?

The niche that myself and Summerhill have found is the ability to motivate people. We do not come at energy efficiency in a patriarchal patronizing way of talking down. We’re not doomsayers or anything like that. It’s really about just respecting us all and trying to motivate in a positive way, to create changes that have an impact.

Has parenthood changed how you view your work?

I think the easy answer is to say yes, but when I think about the work that I do, and the people that we’re trying to inspire, it’s not necessarily being a parent. I often talk about it as being a sister, or a friend, because our audience isn’t children. It’s a positive thing that I’m able to model for my children, but my audience has always been the average consumer.

What do your kids think about what you do?

I don’t know! I think they sort of understand what I do, and I’ve been a guest speaker at their school, and helped their school on Earth Day etc. So, they’ve definitely seen me from that perspective, “Oh there’s my mom, talking about how to change the earth.” At the end of the day I think that because of the size of our company it’s more me being a CEO — that probably has an impact on them than the substance of the work. They hear more about the fact that mommy had fire someone today or solve a big problem with a client more than the environmental impact.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about working/living with purpose?

I’m a big believer that you can truly have an impact in whatever your job is. For example, my husband works for the TTC, and it could be a simple decision on procurement or policies around photocopying and printing that make an impact. There really are about half a dozen different things that people can do –if you’re an office worker you could join or start a committee to create change in your workplace. Modeling it for your kids is super important. Those messages you tell your kids about not littering, about turning the lights off, shutting down your computer at the end of the day, you can do that in your workplace. I fundamentally believe that these little things are worthwhile.

What do you think you have in common with other moms?

Guilt is a constant theme in my life. I guess that’s a shared value with other working moms. It feels like there’s a community that is created around the school drop-offs and pick-ups, and hanging around at the end of the day. When you work an hour or more away from where your kid goes to school, you miss out on those conversations.

I don’t think it’s the same for the dads, I don’t believe that my husband spends a waking minute thinking about the things he misses by not picking up his kids. Ugh, and school trips! The guilt I’ve had for years with one of my kids being like, “You’ve never volunteered ever on a school trip.” That’s the biggest thing that I struggle with from a mom perspective. I have killed myself to be an active participant in the parent council at my kids’ school, because it is the only way I feel that I have any idea what’s happening within my kids’ community at school.

What’s it like being a working mom at your company?

Well, there’s only two of us that have an ownership stake in the business but I run it day to day. I feel very fortunate to model the kind of behavior that I would expect. For example, we have a lot of women that work here and I’ve had to manage six mat leaves at once. It is not easy when you’re a small to medium sized company but I think we’ve done an exceptional job taking a very individual approach to mat leave and to accommodate when they get back.

One woman has worked for our company for 12 years, almost as long as me, and has just come back from her third mat leave. We created a part-time role for her after her first mat leave because we wanted to keep her and she was not in a position to work full-time. A VP of business development role came up and she took it and is just now transitioning back to full-time. I don’t think that could have happened in another company. I recognize the challenges as a working mother. “I’m committed to working with you to figure out what you need, we can ease you back in if that’s what you need.”

What’s been hardest about what you do?

I took almost no time off working two days a week pretty quickly after I had my first kid. With my second, who was a nightmare of a baby and I think I still have PTSD from that one, there was a solid four or five months where I was drowning and couldn’t even think about stuff and then I was right back at it. I didn’t disappear from the business for six months. People judged me on that. There’s like this mom culture that exists in Canada and I was always an outsider. That’s a struggle when you don’t fit in, when you don’t do what’s expected of you.

The biggest stress as a working mom is that I think about my kids every waking minute. I’m driving to work and in my head I’m cycling through dentist and doctor appointments, the babysitter’s schedule, tutoring, what is happening, and I put this on myself. My husband is very helpful, and will do anything that I ask him to do, but the point is I have to ask him. Nobody has to ask me, these things are always on the top of my mind. I find myself thinking, if I shut down, what would happen to our life? How much mind space do we have for other people?

I’m lucky that this job allows me to have this positive impact for the environment and sustainability, but if I wasn’t doing it, when I got to work, would I really find time to consciously make an effort? I don’t know. That’s why I’m sympathetic and support people to make these decisions at the point of retail.

What other moms do you admire?

I certainly would put my own mom at the top of the list. We have a phenomenal relationship. She had four kids, I have two, and she is watching six grandkids single handedly this week and I don’t know how she is doing it. She worked. The energy she had. I think that now that I’m in a permanent state of semi-exhaustion most days, I admire moms that seem to have boundless energy.

I struggle now to stay up past 9pm to pick my daughter up from gymnastics, and I remember now my mom driving us around to all these activities and I don’t remember her ever being critical about it. I’ll be sitting there eating dinner with my daughter at 9.30pm and stating, “Can you just hurry up and go to bed because I’m dying.” I look at Hillary Clinton who has achieved so much, and has this amazing relationship with her daughter and that’s the kind of woman I admire, the ones who bond with their kids while achieving so much. I admire the other CEO moms and presidents of companies who are keeping it together every day, while working their ass off and trying to break the glass ceiling. Those are the people that motivate me.

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The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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