Pictured: Sharon Keilthy, with her daughter.
Sharon Keilthy owns an eco-friendly toy store and is knowledgeable on the amount of plastic in the toy industry. 90% of toys are made from petroleum, releasing up to six times their weight in CO2. Scaled-up for the global toy industry, we’d have to plant one billion trees to absorb this. These toys then travel 22,000km by sea, adding an additional 10% to that carbon footprint. Keilthy is trying to buck this trend. She recently spoke at a toy industry conference alongside Lego.
What was your first job?
I did odd-jobs for neighbours for coins from age 12, market research surveys in the car parks my dad ran from age 15. Taught English in China right out of college, came back and started my own ‘business in Asia’ support company at age 22. 3 years later joined McKinsey & Co as a management consultant. So I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘job.’
What pushed you to pursue a career in this field?
I heard the headlines of the 2018 IPCC report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and decided to be a full-time eco activist. I considered how to be most helpful – protesting, organising, even film-making – but realised the skills I had were business skills. So I decided to do my bit by focusing on one industry, and changing it in a hands-on way – by being the toystore I wished the others were. That is, climate-neutral, trash-free, and totally transparent on the eco impact of our toys.
What would you regard as your greatest achievement to date?
Not giving up! Nothing worthwhile is easy, and mostly I’m very high-energy, high-motivation. But like everyone I have days when the doubts dominate: I tell myself I’m wasting my time, I’ve chosen the wrong thing to do, I’ve made a mess of it. Success on those days is carrying on anyway and waiting for the energy and motivation to return.
Career wise, would you do anything differently?
I’ve made a lot of career decisions others would have advised against: starting my own business basically fresh out of college aged 22; taking two 6-month periods off work; leaving a senior role in an American multinational with no “what’s next” lined-up and no plan; starting an activist retail / wholesale business with no experience of retail / wholesale. They were all the best decisions I’ve ever made! Only thing I might do differently would be, with Jiminy Eco Toys, to more quickly move from “doing everything myself because I just started and have no money” to “go out and get investment and pay professionals to do it properly.”
In one sentence, how would you define success?
Making the world better, for as many people as possible, whilst holding-on to your own sanity and, at least some of the time, happiness!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Attack your own business; try to make it fail as quickly as possible. If it’s destined to fail, better to find out sooner! And if you can’t make it fail, well great, you have a viable business, keep going!
How do you motivate yourself and your staff?
Start with why. We exist to make toys sustainable, as part of keeping our world liveable and safe for our kids – because otherwise, that’s under very real and immediate threat. That’s very motivating!
How do you handle adversity?
I find a learning mindset is really transformative. If I approach every situation as something to learn from, to improve myself and my activist business, then suddenly I can handle most anything and anyone pretty well.
How do you relax?
I get out for a walk, take my daughter swimming, or watch a docufilm or high-school rom-com on Netflix. Honestly relaxing is not my talent and I don’t make much time for it, but I’m trying. I should totally meditate and do yoga but I just can’t.
What are your aspirations for the future of the business?
Success for our eco-activist business will be that we’re not needed anymore – that eco becomes the new normal for toys. One day, you’ll walk into a big-name toy retailer, and everything on every shelf will be climate-neutral, made from natural or recycled materials. You’ll pick the toy you think will bring the child most joy and not worry about it wrecking the planet. When that day comes, our job will be done and we’ll be off working on some other issue!