Lisa Colton plans to galvanize the Jewish community around climate change the same way she once sold Girl Scout cookies: with new ideas.
As a scout, Colton purchased a box of each flavor cookie with her own money, cut the individual cookies into small pieces and offered them as samples. She sold more than 1,000 boxes.
Now at 47 years old, Colton, who lives in Seattle in Washington State, has applied her marketing smarts to causes she cares about.
She spearheaded last year’s The Great Big Jewish Food Fest and the upcoming The Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest. The latter runs next Monday thru Friday to coincide with Tu B’Shvat, starting Sunday evening.
“Instead of just eating dried fruit and talking about trees, we could take the conversation up a few levels and really ground it in climate action and what we could be doing individually but, more importantly, collectively,” Colton said.
The Climate Fest was an offshoot of an earlier climate festival, The Urgency of Now: Seattle’s Jewish Climate Festival, that Colton started in January 2020 to rally the Seattle Jewish community to work together with the city council on climate change.
Last year, the pandemic forced the festival online, and Colton saw an opportunity to bring it to an even larger audience. The first Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest drew in 6,000 participants as well as 165 community-produced Tu B’Shvat events centered around climate change. The mainstage programs were organized and produced by two core partners, Hazon and Dayenu.
“Lisa is a force of nature. She’s somebody who is passionate about mobilizing the Jewish community on climate change and has the skills and commitment to create a broad platform for learning and action,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, founder and CEO of Dayenu.
Born and raised in Seattle, Colton, who attended Stanford University, has early memories of her parents’ dinner table conversations about how her mom’s educational software company, Edmark, could compete in stores against Disney.
“Disney had fluffy software with minimal educational rigor and was selling a gazillion units,” Colton recalled.
Throughout her childhood, Colton’s parents engaged her in these kinds of economics conversations. The importance of quality and marketing was ingrained in Colton.
“I earned an MBA at the dinner table,” she said.
Colton started her first company, Darim Online, in 2000 when she was 25. It evolved from an early content management system and web site developer to offering strategic planning and consulting around organizational change.
Next, Colton is considering disruptive innovation – innovations and technologies that make products and services more accessible and affordable – in the Jewish community.
“What I love about my work is that it’s entirely new about every two years,” she said.
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, executive director of the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, witnesses Colton’s brainstorming process firsthand during their regular walks together. She said inspiration – like program initiatives – hits Colton during those moments, such as her suggestion to purchase picnic blankets for Kavana’s High Holy Days outdoor programming.
“Lisa is a powerhouse in the Jewish community. She has a unique skill-set when it comes to developing projects and ideas, in that she’s both a visionary, big-picture thinker and also able to zoom way in on the details,” Nussbaum said.
Colton encourages businesses to be curious and playful. For example, she taught rabbis and synagogues with the UJA Federation of New York that it’s most important to be conversational on social media as opposed to simply broadcasting marketing messages.
“Bringing joy and awe into places that can feel professional and stiff is really where the magic happens,” Colton said.
Her vision for The Great Big Jewish Food Fest had “all the elements of a Venn Diagram,” according to Colton.
In the circle were chefs who couldn’t be in restaurants, cookbook authors with canceled book tours and people forced to stay home and cook for themselves. Colton assessed how to meet those varying needs. The sweet spot in the circle’s center? An online food festival.
Throughout the pandemic, Colton has consistently used this model to find solutions to unique problems. She collaborated with Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF) to form HighHolyDays.org, which designed a cohesive program across multiple Jewish organizations’ High Holy Days broadcasts, social media campaigns and learning opportunities. Plus, she helped curate a list of alternative resources, like a “Reverse Tashlich” beach cleanup.
“That was another very different pandemic project. It got a lot of people participating in things that they otherwise wouldn’t have known about,” Colton said. “I had to think about how to take a moment of crisis and loss and turn it into discovery and connection.”
Colton, who is married to artist manager Jason Colton and has two children, ages 14 and 17, goes against the grain in another way. She prefers to let her career bleed into her personal life. Even before the pandemic, she mostly worked from home and chose trade-offs, like working around midnight in order to take her children swimming in the afternoon.
“My personal, familial and professional life are three aspects of the same person, and I don’t feel the need to divide my work life into a different space,” she said. “I’m incredibly intentional about having my hand on the volume knob and being able to modulate as needed. I look at it as balance across my life rather than firm boundaries.”
During the festivals, like the upcoming one on climate change, however, the volume knob gets turned way up to around 60 hours of work a week.
That’s when one of her other talents comes to the fore: choosing the right team.
“While I may have ideas and vision, I could never bring those things without brilliant, passionate, wise and generous collaborators,” she said. “That has been the true highlight of my career.”
Lisa Colton has great big bold ideas on Jews and climate change