Rick Fedrizzi Headshot

[Photo: Michael Dambrosia]

“People coming together at one time with one mission, one focus, energy, and passion, that’s what changed the world. I think it changed the world forever.”

CEO of the International WELL Building Institute, cofounder of USGBC,
and author of Greenthink: How Profit Can Save the Planet

“I learned early on the spirit of teamwork.” Fedrizzi has had a job since he was roughly 14, when he lied about his age because you had to be 16 to deliver newspapers. On Sunday mornings in Syracuse, he struggled to lug those heavy papers from house to house, but his father was eager to help. That laid the foundation for him to continue to work hard and work smart as part of a team.

“Work was always a really big part of who I was and what I believed in.” Teenage Fedrizzi went on to scoop ice cream, work in a meat department, put himself through undergrad, run a liquor store, and work at UPS before getting a full-time job with Carrier and United Technologies.

You can take all of the knowledge you’ve learned over the years—how to grow a business, how to care for customers, how to market a product or system efficiently—and make that work for the environment. When Fedrizzi met David Gottfried, who also cofounded USGBC along with Mike Italiano, late in his career at United Technologies, he had an epiphany. “The intersection of capitalism and value-driven environmentalism blew my mind.”

You can solve anything with time in nature. Fedrizzi’s father always said, “You think you have problems—there are no problems that can’t be solved by a long walk in the woods.” He inspired his son to be an environmentalist and to realize simply being outside gives you time to open your mind to new ideas. “You may be at the end of a road and things are terrible, but that compression time—it’s a wellness strategy—those moments give you the ability to catch your breath, regroup, and think clearly. It has never failed me.” Fedrizzi’s favorite spot is his Syracuse garden, where he escapes from Manhattan on weekends to unwind among his 25 species of trees, each of which he brought home himself.

People can change the world. Gottfried told Fedrizzi they would change the world. “I thought he was a lunatic,” he laughs. “Gandhi changed the world, Mother Teresa changed the world, and you could argue a few others, but I don’t think David Gottfried and Richard Fedrizzi are going to change the world.” And, he says, they didn’t. Not exactly. “We didn’t change the world—it was the thousands of people attached to the movement that banded together in a way I don’t think we’ve seen in 30 or 40 years. Those people coming together at one time with one mission, one focus, energy, and passion, that’s what changed the world. I think it changed the world forever.”

We’re making buildings better. Many people ask Fedrizzi why transition from USGBC to the International WELL Building Institute, but he refers back to how buildings were when USGBC started. “The buildings going up were cheap glass facades. They were lifeless.” Class A office space meant Italian marble in the hall and ridiculous gold fixtures in the bathroom. “It was a broken model for what mattered.” The USGBC and the advent of LEED made a difference in how we value our buildings, even if developers slammed the door in Fedrizzi’s face at first. “Early on developers told us, ‘You’ll never do it.’ We were too stupid to quit.” That renaissance for sustainability was the first wave, and focusing on people inside the buildings is a logical next step.

We are not going to save the planet by chaining ourselves to a fence. No disrespect to anyone who’s had the guts to do that, but we have to find a way to incentivize the people who are most against environmental regulation.” USGBC has many examples that show successful bottomline on ROI with happy boards of directors and inspired employees. “It’s a model President Trump has no clue about. He’s the poster child for the old way, thinking it’s either you pollute the hell out of the planet to inspire business or you protect the planet and business loses.” But Fedrizzi says we won’t go backwards. Of the many CEOs he’s asked, all laughed when asked if they planned to change their product development plans. “Everyone has said, ‘Are you kidding me? We want our business to be a healthy, successful business for the next 100 years. A political cycle is meaningless to us.’”

“If we can transform every school, not only in America but around the world, we set the baseline for the future. The children will benefit, the teachers will benefit, the connection between teachers and students will benefit, and kids will have more self-esteem, be healthier, and it will give them the incentive to want a better life … That’s a long-term play but, my god, it’s the most important play we can make.”