In the remote hilltop village town of Drapanos in Crete stands an angular building in earth tones. The structure’s beige and green hues blend charmingly with the surrounding olive groves. This presumably humble space is the European Sustainability Academy which opened in June of 2012, hosting prestigious leaders from all over the world to learn about sustainable business.
Founder of ESA Sharon Jackson envisioned and developed the center to help inspire and educate business owners about sustainability practices.
Jackson defines Sustainable Business as “an enterprise which makes profit and at the same time contributes a positive net impact on the environment and the community it is located in.” The success of the business is thus evaluated by much more than profit.
During the course of her teaching career giving lectures on sustainability, Jackson often felt frustrated by the fact that many attending students and managers would very rarely implement changes in their business. She says, “Very little actually changed in their thinking at a profound level or in their behavior…My view is that truly understanding about ‘sustainability’ requires an experimental intervention and a connection with personal values.” Thus, Jackson began writing experiential action learning-based leaders programs. She has been running them in Tasmania and Shanghai since 2001.
In 2006, Jackson suffered a bad fall during a wilderness trek in New Zealand. She fractured her hip, and was unable to continue traveling with ease. This led to her decision to invest her life savings in building an ecological haven for sustainable management training.
The ESA helps businesses gain the skills necessary to implement sustainable business practices. This is an educational opportunity currently overlooked and unavailable in mainstream business school programs.
Out of many possibilities, Jackson chose Drapanos, Crete for the location of the center because of its natural beauty and sanctuary-like atmosphere. The hill top village offers panoramic views of the sea and 2,300 meter white mountains. She also wanted to find a central European local easily accessible to visitors from all over the world.
Jackson considered Croatia and Cyprus, but made Crete her final decision because it reminded her of what she loved about Tasmania. She observes that Crete is “an island state which is part of a larger country with a unique identity. From a teaching perspective, Crete has a strong history of story-telling, traditional communities mixed with contemporary modern communities, and there are natural wonders combined with worrying environmental neglect and degradation.”
The Drapanos villagers, however, were somewhat suspicious during the beginning of the building process. Many locals were troubled at the thought that the ESA center may disrupt the familiar methods of land ownership policies.
Eventually it became apparent that the center would benefit the area in several ways. Jackson was determined to build the center in a location that would help the local community. The ESA offered many employment opportunities for the citizens of Drapanos. Jackson employed mostly people from the local villages and taught them ecological building skills. “The team of people who worked with me to build ESA has gained more work in ecological construction during the past years,” Jackson says.
Even after the construction finished, villagers continue to work at ESA in different capacities. Since it’s opening, ESA has provided 60,000 Euros of revenue to the local community.
The methods of construction embodied the teachings of ESA. All materials used for the building have no toxic content and the wood was only used from sustainable forests. Jackson specified that no trees or rocks would be damaged during construction. This was quite unusual for Greek construction workers who were quite accustomed to the destruction of natural flora and fauna for the purposes of building property.
Due to these unique concepts and processes for the local people and government, the construction proved an extremely challenging process. Jackson says, “Our building of straw, wood, stone and earth hand-made bricks was not understood.” The team was consistently pressured to use more steel and concrete than what was necessary.
Architect Antonia Diamantaki and Zeta Chrysafaki both applied their studies in sustainable architecture to help defend the methods and particular requirements of the ESA building. They provided evidence of other earthquake sensitive areas which were built with very little cement, for example. When Jackson and her team continually rejected toxic materials, the construction team became frustrated. Jackson made every effort to explain the motivation and role of the ESA building. Diamantaki’s and Chrysafaki’s contributions and arguments helped her educate the builders, and even led to changes in planning regulations in Crete.
Jackson deliberately sought qualified young females for the position in order to offer confidence and skill building opportunities to young women starting their careers after graduation. “I was very lucky to find Antonia and Zeta,” Jackson says, “They attend many of the ESA events as guest speakers and explain to students and prospective builders from around the world about the technical aspects of designing and building ESA.”
A selection of ESA programs include health and wellbeing coaching, women in business seminars, experiential workshops engaging in nature, leadership courses, organized company retreats, and leadership retreats guiding business owners on how to employ sustainability strategies.
Participants of ESA conferences respond most to the beauty of the natural setting, the gracious hospitality, the eye-opening seminars, and vibrant exchange of ideas. There is a strong sense of community among all attendants. Founder and Managing Partner of At Stake Advisors in the UK Sean Ansett says, “Sharon developed such an inspiring space and community. I look forward to returning and watching the center evolve straw by straw and fingerprint by fingerprint.”
“Participants of ESA conferences respond most to the beauty of the natural setting, the gracious hospitality, the eye-opening seminars, and vibrant exchange of ideas.”
Founder and CEO of Ethical Corporation in London Toby Webb said, “I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but ESA exceeded my expectations in every way, and that doesn’t happen often…”
In an acceptance speech for an award in London in May 2014 for her work helping women in business, Jackson said, “I had a simple vision of creating a space of safety, balance, and harmony. A space of natural beauty, where people could learn, grow and change, through sharing knowledge, stories, and experiences with others. If we re-connect with and care for ourselves, our families, our communities and our ecology, then we can start to improve the health of our organizations and heal our natural environment.”
Additional bio info for Sharon Jackson: Sharon Jackson held senior positions in the global commerce market for fifteen years before launching her teaching and researching career in 2000. In addition to her role as ESA Director, Jackson is also Director of the Carlton CSR-UK, Associate Faculty at Cranfield School of Management, Associate Scholar at University of Cumbria, Visiting Lecturer at Murray Edwards College, and also a Visiting Research Fellow at the Athens University of Economics and Business.