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Toby Usnik, 59: Living Purpose and Social Justice

For Toby, time is the most critical resource. What can be done with what we have? Living his purpose, Toby Usnik is out to make a difference in as many ways as he can, while also taking care of himself for the long haul. He created a book and a  podcast to help him get the word out. There is no time like the present...

One of the gifts of our age is gaining the wisdom that, as much as we need a central organizing purpose in our lives, as much as we want to improve the world around us, we also need to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first, if we are to help others.

Purpose powers our health and health underpins our purpose. They go together as the twin north stars for living well at any age. Midwestern native Toby Usnik’s purpose is caring, at scale, via his work at the UK consulate in NY, and through his popular book and podcast “The Caring Economy.” Taking care of his health, renewing his energy spending time in nature and with his family, and nourishing his mind through travel are essential. Work is important to Toby, making an impact through carefully allocating his time and energy, but to do so he has learned it can’t be all go-go; there need to be regular respites from the energy of work life. 

How do you conceive of time these days? Why is it so valuable?
Time is everything. It flies, it stands still, it is on our side until it’s not. We can waste it or we can save it. It’s precious! I value every minute of every day and encourage others do the same. Once we identify our purpose — what we’re uniquely put on this planet to do — then I say use every moment to reinforce it. For me, it’s all about making a difference through daily discovery and adventure. So whether I’m interviewing for AGEIST or helping a college student envision her career, or asking a business leader about stewarding a brand through Covid, I am discovering and growing while I’m helping others. I’m also accumulating more knowledge along the way and then get to pour that wisdom back into other conversations and adventures and connect more people to purpose-driven people and projects. I liken my life to kneading dough, never wasting a moment or an experience, always factoring each moment and action into my life journey. 

“I value every minute of every day and encourage others do the same”

What are the areas you want to personally impact now?
I’ve always been an outdoorsman so climate and the state of our planet have been important to me. I fondly remember great TV ads growing up: Smoky the Bear telling us to beware of forest fires and Iron Eyes Cody telling us not to litter as he shed a tear to “Help Keep America Beautiful.”  But social justice came front and center as I grew up and came out, first spending a couple of decades advocating for LGBTQ rights as a board member of the Empire State Pride Agenda and more recently around BIPOC lives in the aftermath of so many outrageous murders, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Through my work, my writing, my podcast and volunteerism I try to keep social justice front and center in my life.

Book launch in London at Fortnum & Mason

What is your podcast about and why are you doing it? 
The Caring Economy, like my book by the same title, is about the role of business in society. Each week I spend 30 minutes with an accomplished executive at a leading brand, discussing his/her/their career journey — hits and misses — and learn how they’re stewarding their organization through the challenges and opportunities of our times, including climate, Covid, economic disparities, social justice and more. It’s a great resource for established leaders as well as millennials just beginning their careers and looking for guidance and inspiration on how to do so.  

Toby’s podcast, The Caring Economy

Is your audience’s age a surprise to you?
Not really. I think we all land somewhere on a spectrum of caring. Some of us are keen to serve others more. Some of us don’t make it a priority. I try to meet individuals and brands wherever they are on that spectrum of caring, and help them move further along to an even more responsible or empathetic place. This mindset is not limited to a certain demographic. So my show enjoys an even spread of young, aspiring professionals as well as grey-haired veterans who are perhaps disrupted by the system or just looking for a second or third act with more purpose. My audience demographics affirm that each of us has a purpose and we can tune into it, or not. And my podcast gives listeners a Whitman Sampler of great personalities doing great things. So listeners can tune in to those who are most relevant to their lives and career ambitions. 

“My audience demographics affirm that each of us has a purpose and we can tune into it, or not”

How did you meet your husband?
A Valentine’s party! Harlan was head of retail development at Sony and in 1996 he organized a huge Valentine’s party at their Madison Avenue HQ to “bring downtown uptown” and experience Sony Wonder. Our mutual pal Dr. David Liu introduced us amidst 2,000 guests and 26 years later we remain happily married, thanks to “Dr. Love.” I think we were a first for The New York Times with
that love-at-first-sight story! 

New Year’s in St Barts

How has the pandemic affected you?
It has focused me all the more and affirmed that I’m doing what I’m meant to do with my work, my podcast and my family. I’m spending my time and energy helping individuals and brands be even better, more inclusive and relevant. It’s meant distancing myself from divisive forces and personalities so that I can be more helpful to others, such as my dad who is in hospice, my work in demonstrating Her Majesty’s Government as a force for good, and my podcast listeners who are committed to creating a better future for all. In a sense, the pandemic has speeded me along to where I wanted to get — working remotely with my family in the country, helping steward a great and global brand, and podcasting on CSR in order to scale my impact — all the while having some fun. 

“I’m spending my time and energy helping individuals and brands be even better, more inclusive and relevant”

You’ve had a place out of the city for a while. How does that affect your life?
As a middle-class Midwesterner, I joked when I moved to NYC in the late ’80s that it’s the only place I’ve lived where ‘weekend’ is a verb. While most New Yorkers happily stay in the City year round, there’s a significant percentage of us who share summer houses or weekend homes outside the City, and some eventually buy a second home for weekend escapes. Over my 32 years here, I’ve enjoyed the yin-yang of winding down to the weekend on Fire Island or in the Hudson Valley and then ramping up again for the work week and social activities of the Big Apple, and all that it affords us. That movement creates energy in me and all around the city. It’s palpable. As well, Harlan and I are both pilots and we keep a Cessna 172 near
our home in the Hudson Valley where it’s much easier to negotiate the Class G airspace Upstate than the Class B airspace of NYC. 

Flying our Cessna Skyhawk 172

You have worked in many “2 level” organizations. Pleases tell us a bit about that.
Two things have struck me during my career. First, the older I get, the older the brands are that I work for — from 150- to 200-year-old brands (Columbia University, American Express, The New York Times) in my early career, a 250-year-old brand in my mid-career (Christie’s) and now a 500-year-old in my later career (Her Majesty’s Government). The older the better in my mind — there’s so much to work with and such great provenance. I love and respect the history, culture and tradition of these organizations, but most importantly I subscribe to their missions. What could be a better fit for me at this chapter in my career than joining an organization that strives globally to be a force for good? I say, “sign me up” and thankfully, they did!

Bid to Save the Earth

Second, I’ve tended to thrive in ‘bifurcated’ organizations where the ‘upstairs’ might be the tenured faculty (vs. administration), journalist in the newsroom (vs. publishing side), specialists/curators (vs. administrative), or diplomat (vs. local hire staff). People are people in any part of an organization so I enjoy finding the common points of interest and purpose and move the brands forward together from those points. For example, at Christie’s we conceived of A Bid to Save the Earth which was a highly successful, 3-year collaboration with our specialists, staff and clients in support of four amazing environmental NGOs: NRDC, Oceana, Conservation International and Central Park Conservancy. We were on the vanguard offering such a carbon-neutral event and even bringing in Nicki Minaj to bust a move for the planet. We raised climate awareness, we raised a few million dollars for action, and we had some fun. But even better, 10 years later, Christie’s was primed to join the Race to Zero, pledging to be net zero in carbon emissions by 2030. I like to think our Bid to Save the Earth was part of that ripple effect. 

British Consulate

What is your job at the British Consulate?
I’m Head of Communications for the British Consulate General New York where I oversee media relations and digital media for the New York ‘patch’ which includes PA, NJ and Fairfield, CT. My team and I are actively engaging the media and larger public in fantastically important policies and efforts by the UK government around climate, DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion), trade, defense, education, culture and more. One day it’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson visiting for the UN General Assembly and the next day it’s rallying dozens of television crews at JFK for the return of transatlantic consumer travel, culminating with our Consul General, the CEO of British Airways, and actress Blake Lively lighting the Empire State Building in Union Jack colors to welcome Brits back. Another fun and informative initiative this year has been launching our
Brits in the Big Apple podcast with Deputy Consul General Hannah Young, which showcases amazing British cultural personalities who are rocking it in NYC, including Sir Clive Gillinson at Carnegie Hall, Sheena Wagstaff and Andrew Bolton at the Metropolitan Museum, Henry Timms at Lincoln Center, artist Shantell Martin, and Errol Barnett and Steve Ellis at Viacom CBS.   

What are some of the things about the diplomatic community in NY that others may not know?
Actually, it’s the largest diplomatic and consular community in the world —193 Permanent Missions, 114 Consulates and the headquarters of the United Nations — and we work with NYC’s Commissioner for International Affairs, Penny Abeywardena, to promote our shared goals for a more just and equitable society. New Yorkers too often equate us with traffic congestion around the UN while we’re actually a much more positive force and are integrated throughout the tri-state area. We are your neighbors who support the same schools, businesses and community organizations that you do. Just scratch the surface in conversation with a New Yorker by asking them if they know a diplomat or have visited the UN and you’ll be on your way to an international adventure.  

“The ‘international’ has always been my north star”

You have traveled a lot. Where are some of your favorite places?
The “international” has always been my north star, from backpacking across Europe my junior summer in high school to delaying graduate school to study Spanish in Ecuador, to visiting the DMZ from the North Korean side, to skiing next to the Great Wall of China at the Chongli Olympic venue. I strove to reach all 50 states by age 30 and all 7 continents by age 40. Now I’m thinking about space by age 60 or 70! It’s important to have goals and declare them. As for my favorite spots, I usually strive to try new places when I’m on an adventure. (I’ve been lucky that my work has always allowed me to revisit cities that I love, particularly, London, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and Beijing and even 3 trips to the Vatican on business.) Yet there is one place that has called Harlan and me back regularly: the village Jose Ignacio along the coast of Uruguay. It allows us to turn back the clock by 30-40 years to a more idyllic and simpler time as seaside resorts go. Folks there are incredibly sophisticated, have a real appreciation for multi-generational time together — family time — and enjoy the simpler things in life. I also have to say that one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been exploring my adopted home state of New York these past two summers for what I call my Excelsior! Tour — visiting progressive places and moments from the Adirondacks created by conservationists, Seneca Falls and the women’s suffragist museum, the Roycroft Inn that is the home of the American Arts & Crafts movement, the Chautauqua Institute’s community dedicated to exploring the best in humanity, and Cooperstown’s National Baseball Hall of Fame, the home of America’s great pastime.

North Korea

What are the three non-negotiables in your life?
I try to never waste time and energy where it can be used on more positive impact — this is a discipline or exercises, not a point of arrival. I think the wisdom of age helps me considerably. And I won’t compromise on taking care of my chosen family or in my daily exercise. Luckily for me, these priorities sort of reinforce each other throughout the day — sort of like kneading dough.

2 COMMENTS

  1. How do you help the third world?
    What is your opinion on nursery provision around most of the world so that women can work?
    How does flying airplanes tie in with being sustainable and caring!?

  2. Hi, Cherry, Thanks for your interest. On your first point, I tend to work with global organizations that include developing nations in their efforts. On your second, I don’t think there’s a satisfactory solution yet, but I am encouraged by employers that are stepping up on the issue (see Working Mother magazine’s annual Top Companies for Executive Women). On your third point, you’re right, I can do more. I’ll look into offsetting my carbon emissions and check out PilotsnPaws.org who do great animal rescues. Again, thanks for your comments. -Toby

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AUTHOR

David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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