Insights from The Nature Conservancy: A chat with our CEO

We recently had the pleasure of hosting Sherri Hammons, CTO with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), here at Box and Box.org. Sherri joined our employees for a lunch-time Q&A. After an introduction from our environmental employee resource group, and a competitive environmental quiz between our CEO, Aaron Levie, and Sherri, we settled into a dialogue and gleaned some impressive insights around TNC’s work. Below are some abbreviated snippets from the conversation.

The Nature Conservancy at Box Friday Lunch

Aaron:

We know that TNC is the world's largest nonprofit on environmental issues, and is a solid Box partner and customer, so we really appreciate the support and you joining us today. I'm hoping to start first with the mission of the Nature Conservancy, so we have a holistic understanding of what it is the organization does every day, and then we'd love to understand how you think about technology.

Sherri:

The Nature Conservancy is really about bringing people and nature together, and in a stable way. We believe people depend on nature. At one time TNC was primarily a land preservation organization. And so they bought up lands all over the world, and then they also had easements all over the world, and would protect certain things. If there was a bird that, perhaps it was endangered, TNC might come in and buy that land. And TNC did some coastal preservation as well. So this was the focus for about the first 60 years of its inception. And then in the last couple of years, we've been pivoting slightly to really tackle some of the bigger and broader issues that we're facing today. We have four main pillars:

One is to tackle climate change. Two is provide food and water sustainability. Three is protect land and water. And four is building healthy cities. Now any one of those can take organizations many, many years to do. But we are trying to tackle all of them. 

Aaron:

What's does the structure of the organization look like? How many chapters do you have?

Sherri:

We’re about 4,000 globally. We're in 72 countries. We have a chapter actually in every state, so there's a state chapter here for California, and one in every state. So it's a very decentralized kind of environment. I'm the chief technology officer, and came into TNC about six months ago. We never had a CTO before. So my whole mission has been…what do we need to do? How do we take what we do, along with emerging technologies, and what do we need to do to break [down] the barriers.

Aaron:

How does your organization participate in a global issue like climate change? What is your role? And where do you see progress being made? Where do you see more progress has to be made? How do you think about that?

Sherri:

That's one of the hardest ones. There are three ways that TNC really engages in climate change.

First is the political realm. At TNC we're at the table. We're in the Paris Climate Accord and everywhere that is talking about climate change or conservation in general. We work with the federal government here in the US, and governments all over the world to try to tackle climate change. Secondly, I would say there's a financial component that TNC is really pretty brilliant at, and that's where we are able to do things like insure the Great Barrier Reef and do some amazing things with funding to help protect our lands and waters, which also helps with climate change.

Third, there's the science component. We have about 600 scientists who arguably do the most and best conservation science in the world. The scientists will get on the ground somewhere, and they'll understand how carbon is actually being emitted, and how we can bring nature into an area where there is a lot of emissions and bring nature in because we know plants like carbon dioxide. So if we plant around a high emission area we can actually offset that, and plants are very good at carbon storage. Our scientists have figured all that out, and they've figured out a way to value that. And it's pretty brilliant!

Aaron:

When you arrived how did you find the state of technology -- is it an on-premise environment? Is it in the cloud already? Is everything in the cloud? Where do things land there?

Sherri:

I would say we're a hybrid but more on-prem than we should be. Although I will say-- our biggest footprint actually is at Box. We have about 400 terabytes in the cloud with you guys and about 70 terabytes on-prem, so it's great.

Aaron:

So your cloud usage is 100% sustainable.

Sherri:

I want to go more than 98%…

Aaron:

Okay. We'll take 98%.

When you look at the sort of business and Box, what are the use cases? Where do you see being the most maybe potent or powerful?

Sherri:

We're a global, decentralized organization, and we use Box globally and extensively. The cool thing about Box is if you're in Borneo, you're using Box just as much as if you’re in the United States. We have about 1,700 logins a day. Also, we use it with our external partners. We have a lot of academia, government, NGOs, and about 12,000 partners using Box.

Aaron:

Okay - so a lot of global collaboration – how to get distributed in teams on the same page. Using the cloud to do that is critical. I don't know if we've had any conversations around things like Box Skills and the potential of machine learning, but what we're working on developing technology that can pull out insights from unstructured content like a white paper, for example, using machine learning or AI. We partnered with a bunch of cloud providers to help do that. Would that be something your team would explore as an area of partnership?

Sherri:

Yeah, we would love to partner on that. And I'll tell you one thing that my team is starting to think about is there are a lot of white papers out there. And if we can start to process unstructured data we can start to look at how things are changing over time. I’ll give an example. In the healthcare space, they're doing a lot of that already. They're going at looking at patterns in medical papers and thinking ‘if A and B have like 50% in common, and B and C have like 50% in common, then A and C have nothing in common.’ That is somewhere to look because then you can actually solve cancer, or maybe you already knew the answer but you haven't put it all together with data. It’s the same with conservation -- we want to start to look at how these things actually intersect, even if it's not obvious.

Aaron:

What, beyond the AI and analysis, are there business processes or other areas where you feel like you need more automation, more workflow, that kind of technology. We have workflow automation, the power to bring more business process to our customers. Are there any areas where you'd love to see Box help you solve that problem whether it's collaborative or more workflow based?

Sherri:

Yeah, yeah, of course, I think the most the powerful thing would be being able to actually allow people to search through other areas, only because we have been decentralized for so long and now actually beginning to think about a global footprint. And how do you share that information that's maybe in a pocket somewhere? Those are things that do actually keep me up at night. There’s the management knowledge sharing problem of how do I make sure that these don't end up as little micro-silos of data. That's what I'm charged with solving.

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