A Personal Journey to Innovation – Joni Carswell

Young Joni on her family farm

By Joni Carswell, Texan by Nature CEO & President

Recently I had the opportunity to speak about how women are innovating and leading. These are the musings from that session. I believe that every person’s individual journey prepares them to innovate in a way completely unique to them. So, what makes you an innovator..what’s your story? How are you using your unique gifts and experiences to push the envelope of innovation?

Heck, what is innovation? Webster’s says it’s a new method, idea, or product…I agree with this but push it further…it’s a state of being…it’s about being tuned in, creative, and engaged with your world.

I will start with what I know best – my own journey. I’ll start with where I am today, the road that led me here, and ultimately what I see as commonalities in the innovation landscape. The things that, when you peel back the messaging and layers, I see with most successful innovators and leaders I meet.

I am the CEO of Texan by Nature. Texan by Nature is a conservation nonprofit founded by former First Lady Laura Bush in 2011. I’ve been at the helm since November of 2017 after spending my formative years in a variety of roles and locations.

Texan by Nature fills a unique role in conservation in Texas. Not only due to our founder, but due to our focus and the way we achieve our mission and goals. Mrs. Bush founded our organization with two good friends with the belief that our long term prosperity and health are dependent upon our natural resources.

At Texan by Nature, we bring conservation and business together to positively impact people, prosperity, and natural resources. We have a unique model of conservation. It’s a service model, if you will. We act as a partner, accelerator for data-based conservation projects across Texas, and as a trusted strategic advisor for industry partners. We bring these two together. In doing this, we expand conservation efforts across Texas and increase both the spend and activity within conservation. Our long term goal is that every Texan and every business operating in Texas will have conservation as part of their mindset and decision framework. I’m happy to report that even during a pandemic we’re making great progress.

But how did we get here? And what does the journey have in common with each of you? We got here by owning our passion and experiences and bringing those to the table every single day…which every leader can do. We got here by asking a lot of ‘What If’ questions…What if we paired these groups together?…What if we used a different methodology?…What if we focused on bringing business to conservation and conservation to business? While every member of our team from Mrs. Bush to myself brings something different and asks ‘What if’ in a different way, I know my own journey best so I’ll share it.

Growing Up

I was born in Dallas and spent the first eight years of my life in Rowlett. My Dad was an engineering manager and my mom was taking a break from teaching to stay home with my three brothers and me. Even during this time, I had a front seat view of entrepreneurship in action. My mom ran a monogram and gift shop out of our house until she opened her own storefront while my dad transformed the back part of our yard with fruit trees, vegetables, and honeybee hives. He started extracting and selling the honey and developed a keen interest in farmer’s markets and what we now call ‘organic’ or ‘clean’ food. Ultimately my Dad turned this passion into a business. I like to say that we were granola before granola was cool.

Joni and her father at a farmer's market
Joni helping at the Farmer’s Market

We moved to a farming community called Champion when I was in elementary. This is one of those places that is outside of a town with one store which is outside of another town with two stores which outside of another until you reach Abilene which is an hour away from Champion. So, small…very small. My graduating class had 15 people, and that was considered a big class. My Dad bought land in the community and built commercial greenhouses with the help of my older brothers. We sold hydroponic tomatoes year-round. During the summer we did field crops including squash, Texas Sweet Onions, watermelon, and cantaloupe in addition to a variety of smaller crops. I grew up working in the greenhouses and fields and ultimately doing the farmer’s market by myself once I could drive. This honed many skills including math, which led me to Texas A&M University to major in Industrial Engineering. Some people call Industrial Engineering people engineering, some call it imaginary. We’ll go with people. Industrial Engineering is looking at how to most efficiently bring together people and process.

College and Early Career

I could spend a lot of time talking about Texas A&M and learnings from student leadership and travel, but I’ll fast forward to working as an operations consultant at Kurt Salmon Associates. At KSA, there was a partner who liked to show up unannounced at project sites and find you on the floor. He was a formidable man – played football at Georgia Tech – he took up a lot of space both physically and with his intelligence. Now the work that the entry-level consultants performed was a tad bit, ahem, monotonous. You might stand in one place for 4-6 hours straight, time cycling someone’s job which means using a stopwatch and capturing each piece of a job in 10-20 second intervals. It was easy to glaze over and see nothing around you, to zone out. Well, long story short, the formidable partner showed up for one of his unannounced visits one day and found me on the floor well into a time cycling shift. He asked me what three things I’d learned or observed that day. I stumbled through something completely uninspiring and then he took the time to point out ways you could tell the throughput of the facility in under a minute as well as how that might shape improvement recommendations. I was sufficiently humbled and more importantly, taught.

Texas A&M Photo
Texas A&M

I took my KSA knowledge and transitioned to an industrial engineering/operations management role in the medical device industry. In this role, I had the opportunity to lead the planning piece for our manufacturing expansion in Costa Rica and Ireland. I found the work fascinating and it allowed me to work with marketing, sales, and finance. I quickly realized that my farming, engineering, operations background had a completely different vocabulary than these functions. While math is math, messaging is special and critical. I also realized that I loved long term planning and strategy. It was a fascinating puzzle for me. This led me to go to business school where I did a dual degree MBA and Masters in Engineering Management. This set me up for a big career change into marketing and strategy.

Coming out of business school, I worked in technology planning product lines, developing market perspectives, and setting up three-year planning processes and teams. This broadened my analytical skill set and set me up for my tech startup journey. I joined a six-month-old tech startup – pulled in by a former boss. I took turns at marketing, planning, and product management. Two years in we had an exit event – an acqui-hire which resulted in Groupon acquiring an instance of the technology for a completely different use case as well as hiring our founder and development team. Our original investor wanted to keep going with our original focus on K12 family engagement and for me to be the new CEO. I took the opportunity and rebuilt the team, growing our userbase to a million, acquiring other technologies, completing a funding round, and setting a growth plan for multiple years. Three years in, I took the first real vacation I had managed in years. It was a soul-searching vacation as I was aware that the next few years were going to be sales heavy with less emphasis on my passion and skills. I came home ready to find joy in the challenge and then the phone rang.

Machu Pichu
A rare vacation to Machu Picchu

Texan by Nature

A business school friend had given my name to a recruiter looking for a CEO of a conservation nonprofit. The organization was looking for someone with a strategy background to take the organization in a new direction. As we talked, my wheels started turning and I got very curious about the conservation landscape in Texas and beyond. The players, the key concerns, the gaps. I started having deeper conversations with the organization and got very excited about the opportunity to apply everything I’d learned in operations, marketing, planning, and strategy to a new problem – one that impacts the planet. I had an opportunity to merge my technology firm with another and place their CEO over the top – one who was very skilled in sales. I took that opportunity and became the CEO of Texan by Nature in November 2017.

As I mentioned, Texan by Nature brings conservation and business together. It was founded on Mrs. Bush’s journey – growing up in Midland, spending time in El Paso, learning about stars, birds, and the outdoors from her mother and grandmother, respecting Lady Bird Johnson and her impact on the roadways of Texas, caring for our national parks as First Lady of the United States, developing a vast following in these roles. Mrs. Bush embraced this journey and worked with her friends to found an entity that could take care of the state she loves and change the model of conservation.

In 2017, the Texan by Nature board was looking for a way to build Texan by Nature’s impact and work with industry. They decided to hire a person with a background in business strategy. That’s where I entered and brought market development, service experience, strategy, and a passion for changing the model to the organization. Since 2017, we’ve built our conservation partner network to 80 strong, worked with almost every industry in Texas, transformed our programs, and accelerated projects that impact every one of Texas’ 11 ecoregions and 65% of our counties. We’ve created opportunities for action at the individual, community, and corporate levels. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give it a plug – you can join us as an individual or an organization.

So that’s my story and where we are today. Born in the city, raised in the country, large public university, consultant, operations manager, business school, technology marketing, strategy, and product management, technology CEO, conservation nonprofit CEO, nature lover, data geek, challenge seeker…with a somewhat patient but always supportive husband and two special boys along the way. It’s a meandering path. But it is 100% unique to me. It’s uncovered many lessons that I’ve used to innovate throughout my career, particularly in the last few years at Texan by Nature. These are lessons that I’ve seen applied by innovators across many industries. I invite you to think about your own journey and unique learnings as I share my own lessons learned.

Joni's Family
Joni’s Family at Big Bend National Park

Learn more about the lessons that Joni learned along her journey in this blog and listen to her keynote presentation from Dallas Startup Week’s Women in Innovation.