Thousands of years ago, Vedic philosophers divided human life into four stages, each with its own roles and responsibilities: Student, householder, forest dweller, and renunciant.
Rose Marcario was doing quite well in the second stage. As CEO of Patagonia, she had steered the outdoorsy retail company to its most profitable period ever, while deepening its environmental commitments. She topped Fast Company’s list of the 50 most influential LGBTQ women and nonbinary innovators. Former President Barack Obama named her a “champion for change.”
“My values and the company’s values were completely aligned,” said Marcario, who practices Buddhism. “Everything was working together to create that dream of right livelihood.”
And then, with little warning, Marcario resigned in June 2020.
It was time to head for the forest.
“I took a different turn and made myself more uncomfortable,” she explained. “That’s the thing about Buddhism: You get ever more acquainted with being uncomfortable. It has to be a friend to you. I left a comfortable, prestigious role to make myself uncomfortable and hopefully help change the world.”
Marcario doesn’t plan to literally live in a forest, but she has stepped back to think and work on the big problems, especially protecting the planet. We have only a decade to make major changes, she said.
To that end, Marcario mentors young entrepreneurs engaged in climate ventures, including a company developing a mycelium-based “meat.” Her ambitions are big, but her ego is blessedly small. She’s funny, smart and, as you’ll see, hopelessly optimistic. Marcario spoke to Tricycle recently from her home in California.
What attracted you to Buddhism? I’ve always been interested in the big existential questions: Why are we here? What does it mean to be free? At a certain point the religion I was raised in, Catholicism, felt foreign to me in terms of the way it explained life. What attracted me to Buddhism was the feeling that it’s a big open field with lots of room to explore. There’s a guidebook about how to navigate the field with different techniques, but it’s up to the individual to explore and be curious.
Are there any particular traditions or teachers you’ve followed? Usually, I meditate in the morning and night. I use a lovingkindness kind of meditation. Often it helps me to read Shantideva, Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, or Krishnamurtri—something that makes me think beyond my own ability to sort through a big problem. If I had to identify a personal teacher I would say Pema Chödrön. She seems like such an accessible human and dharma teacher.
I also feel it’s important to be self-reflective and go deep inside your own mind. The world will seek to impose a lot of ideas on you, and you have to be comfortable with your own mind and belief system.
When did you begin to practice Buddhism? I was working in Silicon Valley in the 1990s when I started practicing Shambhala Buddhism in earnest. I had achieved success by any financial measure but didn’t feel fulfilled. So I went on a journey to figure out how to align my personal values with my livelihood. I went to India on a meditation retreat and it was helpful, a great resetting time. I realized that it was important for me to devote some small part of my life to going on retreat. We spend so much time at work.
How did Buddhism influence your work as a CEO? You have to have a vision of what the company is and what it stands for and then reflect that in your actions. There are elements that are very close to Buddhism. If you’re leading a company, you have to be infinitely curious, able to synthesize a lot of information from a lot of different sources and come to your own assessment. You’re dealing with people all the time, so you have to practice patience and lovingkindness. And Buddhism has all these wonderful stories about teachers that don’t take themselves too seriously. The tricksters. I always wanted people to leave my office smiling or laughing, because I wanted them to feel good.
Speaking of work, it was a surprise to some when you left Patagonia. Why did you retire? I had been there for twelve years and I was questioning myself: Did it make sense to contribute to selling more and more products? The most important thing is to help accelerate a transition to a more just form of capitalism that takes into account people and the planet, and continuing to sell more jackets—even though Patagonia has an amazing environmental ethos—I felt I could do more. My team was ready to take over. Also, I grew up in a business culture of older white males whose mentality was, You hang on to your job until you die. I mean, you had 80-year-old men holding onto their VP title.
I read that the Vedic stages of life informed your decision as well? It came to me during the last few years at Patagonia that I needed to transition into a different kind of life, and that took me back to looking at the Vedic stages. I am 56 now, and I have some hindsight about my 20s, 30s, and 40s, and it fits really well into that system. I found myself in a very rich stage (vanaprastha, or withdrawal) because you have a lot to offer the world. I still believe, after more than 30 years in business, that business can be the biggest change agent in the world if it focuses on people and the planet. We have an incredible young workforce that wants to do work with purpose.
Business and capitalism seem to have gotten us into a mighty mess. What makes you think they can be a force for good? It’s interesting, because you could take the idea of Samsara as super-pessimistic or you could take the attitude that it’s kind of liberating because there is no perfect world. You have to engage the world as it is and capitalism is like that.
I’m in the middle of it and I have seen a lot of transformation in capitalism. You see that in the Benefit corporation movement and more companies becoming responsive to the environment. To some degree, almost everyone is putting together environmental and social goals. There is still a lot of “greenwashing” out there, but there’s also a lot of transformation and it’s not just happening at the edges.
We have to transform our current reality into an aspirational vision of the future where we have clean energy, protect the environment, value care-giving and have a society that doesn’t serve fewer and fewer wealthy people and dis-serves the rest. I don’t think you can answer these huge questions without looking at them very deeply, and Buddhism trains you to look very deeply.
How do we make these transformations though, when the rich (and their politicians) are so invested in things as they are? The hardest class to convert has been the investor class because they have benefited from the status quo. They don’t understand that we need a more regenerative economy that works with nature instead of destroying it like the last 100 years of capitalism. I believe capitalism has a lot of good things associated with it, it promotes innovation and competition. But the greed and destruction of the environment and demeaning of people has got to end.
It does seem like businesses are taking more of a stance on political matters. Companies have pulled out of Georgia, for example, after the state passed a law restricting voting rights. This was really close to my heart at Patagonia. When Trump backed out of the Paris Accords within minutes CEOs from major companies saying their companies were staying in the climate agreement. When Trump did the Muslim Ban, Google and some of the other companies made a public statement and pushed back. It’s become more and more important for business to have a voice.
Everything feels like a life or death choice right now, but I also think there’s an incredible amount of hope. Buddhist philosophy talks about having the seed of enlightenment in us and it’s usually crises that help us understand that. We are at a very important inflection point to potentially lose this planet we have.