Five hours later I was still at the table with him. It had been quite an afternoon. We had gone deeper and deeper into my idea; he had tried, very creatively but unsuccessfully, to punch all sorts of holes into it from every possible angle; I had thoroughly enjoyed the grilling; our tones and temperatures had gone way up at times; and in the end, here we were, doing something I would never have imagined as I was cycling up to his house earlier that day: We were actually shaking hands and agreeing to chase a wild new business idea together! In some mysterious and very special way, I had found my weird match: another misfit, another passionate nonconformist, another hyperenergized and energizing dreamer. He knew nothing about my world, my work, my successes and failures before, and I knew nothing about his—but, in a totally heretic way that would have made every conventional business leader’s skin crawl, we were shaking hands on a downright crazy and fun new partnership. We would do this on our own: We wouldn’t partner with the big boys, we wouldn’t look to sell the idea—we would simply go and build a brand-new points program for Canada, and we’d do it in the most disruptive way possible. In a space filled with money and very wealthy competitors, we would pick the loudest and most visible David-versus-Goliath fights, on purpose, in order to quickly draw attention to our very cool idea. Dean’s theory was that if the concept could inspire him, the most cynical and most unenvironmental business guy and consumer, then it had a lot of sticking potential out there.
So, on the 31st of May, 2007, magically and completely unexpectedly, Green Rewards was born. It had been conceived in my sunny backyard a couple of weeks earlier, and it was born through our amazing five-hour debate at Dean’s dining room table that day. He would fund it; I would run it. We would follow our own, custom-designed method of turning on the risk tap one tiny step at a time; the more we assessed and confirmed, the more we would invest in it. And, for an extra dose of sizzle and inspiration for both of us, we built our beautiful fifty-fifty partnership on just a handshake and without a single piece of paper between us.
I still wake up, six years later, and think I was even crazier than my crazy mother—and I love it. What an unbelievable ride we had just launched ourselves on! Within a couple of weeks, we were already down in New York City, figuring out our technology providers for this monster we were about to build; within a couple of months, we had already hired half a dozen expensive, seasoned, sharp and well-known leaders from the industry; and by the end of the summer, there were articles in the newspapers, describing us as “the ones to watch.” The tiny snowball grew into a full-blown avalanche in an extremely short time, just because we were both going about it in such an unconventional way, tickling and teasing the media with our dreamy ambitions, hiring prominent PR and branding agencies and charming some of the biggest Canadian loyalty gurus out of their boring and uninspiring jobs. We were the shiny new thing, and we were very good at getting more and more influential eyeballs turning our way.
By the end of that year, we had already built the team up to about fifteen dream employees, and we were in serious talks with one of Canada’s largest banks about partnering on the launch of our country’s first real environmental credit card. Things were looking great. At the Christmas party for our Green Rewards clients and partners (of course, we had to have a Christmas party already!), we found newspaper reporters snooping through the pile of nametags at the welcome table, looking for clues on who our launch partners in 2008 would be! And at Dean’s family Christmas party a few weeks later, I found myself playing on a gorgeous baby grand piano that my eccentric and outrageously fun new friend had just bought that day, simply because I was going to be there. We were on such a crazy high and, beyond all the noise and the progress we were making with the business, we loved how our quirky partnership had also spawned such a deep and meaningful new friendship between us. At first it was just about the thrill of putting so much trust into a business relationship with a stranger, but then, over time, the bigger thrill was about discovering ever more layers of compatibility, vulnerability and powerful connections between the two of us.
I remember the first time my dad said it to me. Then he said it again a few weeks later. And he kept saying it, in one form or another, for many years. It was that horrible line about how he would prefer to lose a child than to find out that his child was gay.
I remember my heart pounding in my chest each time I heard him say it. I remember the panic and the desperate hope that swirled in my head that somehow I had it all wrong, that somehow this attraction I always felt towards other boys was something that would eventually go away. I had to be wrong about it—because otherwise life seemed like an impossible dead end. I was utterly terrified of what was in me.
People always ask me how old I was when I first knew, and they expect to hear one of the typical responses from a gay man of my era: fifteen, seventeen, maybe even twenty years old. My answer, of course, is quite different and so much scarier: six, seven, or at most eight years old! I was a tiny, geeky, “gifted” kid when I first heard my dad say those ghastly words—and that’s all it took. I knew instantly. I knew it with as much confidence and certainty as I do today. All it took for it to come to the conscious surface was that terrifying statement by my awe-inspiring father. It was the most crushing and revealing moment of my life. I was done. I was worthless. And I was maybe in Grade 2 or 3.
Greece in the 1970s was definitely a frightening place to be growing up gay; my dad was just an ordinary, progressive dad in that world. He was no more homophobic than his buddies or than a lot of my friends in school later on, but he was my god, the best and most intimidating communicator, and I had never doubted anything he said. So when that horrible line first came out of his mouth, it felt like the end of the world for me.
Looking back, I think that this moment may have been one of the most useful turning points in my entire life. That realization of being different, of being alone, of having to compensate for what I thought was going to be a massive handicap, of having to manage and cover and navigate around my nature, all of that quickly morphed into incredible strength and skill. It was no different than what happens to those scrappy little kids who grow up on the street: they may be afraid at first, but they end up developing unbelievable layers of confidence and survival skills.
So there I was, growing up with this enormous and enormously premature secret. There were traps and scares everywhere, and I had to constantly manage. I worked really hard to change my feminine handwriting, to hide or eliminate all my expressive hand gestures on the piano, to speak differently, to play rough, like all the other boys in school. It was all conscious effort, all the time. And every time my dad would repeat some variation of that line, I would work even harder at it—and I would panic, thinking that maybe he was onto me.
I had a gay uncle and a gay teacher. They were both warm and caring, and my parents actually seemed to have a nice connection with them, but that didn’t make me feel any better. They were grown-ups, I reasoned, so whatever little respect they got must have been because of that; as a kid, I must have been worth nothing.
By adolescence, the hormones were overflowing, the fantasies were overwhelming and the guilt was almost unbearable. As a ten-year-old, I had felt frightened because I knew I liked boys. As a fourteen-year-old, I felt trapped and terrified because I couldn’t stop thinking about boys. I was ready to do something about it, no matter how huge the risk, and the only reason I didn’t was because I couldn’t quite figure out how and with whom. As confident as I may have been by this point in my own sexuality, I still felt like an extreme aberration and I thought that finding someone else like me out there would be next to impossible.
I am different. I have always been different. I grew up scared of being found out, scared of my natural inability to fit in, to conform, to look and sound and dress and behave “normal.” I was always drawn to the different ones and I observed them in total fascination—but the thought of being even a little bit like them totally mortified me. I was desperate to fit right in.
It took me a very long time to grow up. That relentless pursuit of “normal” continued to dominate my life until not that long ago. My fear of being found out ruled over my childhood, my adolescence, my twenties, thirties and most of my forties. I was terrified of rejection and I always linked any form of it (from bad customer service to losing an employee to fighting with a lover) back to who and how I was. I stretched myself all the time so I could blend in and found all that effort exhausting and demoralizing. And nothing ever really changed (I felt): I fit in as little at forty-five as I did at five.
But then something remarkable happened: I call it audience response. As my life and career took an unexpected turn in my mid-forties, and as I wrapped all my passion around a cause, I suddenly found my own voice. I stood on public podiums, wrote for newspapers and magazines, debated with big thought leaders and politicians, preached to followers and employees and discovered an enormous fuel source in me. Not only did I stand out, not only was I different, more passionate, more outspoken, more intense, more bizarre and much more controversial than those “normal” people on the other side of the podium—I was also less afraid than they were. It was incredible: one day I was (or at least thought I was) the biggest lover of convention and conformity—and the next day I was carrying a flag and didn’t even care to count how many were actually following me.
It all happened in a flash. On a beautiful spring morning in 2007, sitting in my backyard and licking my wounds from a spectacular career derailment, I came up with a big idea—and I found myself contemplating the most daring and unconventional pursuit of my life. My strange genes had already helped create a thousand jagged edges in my career trajectory, but nothing had come close to the wild turn I was about to take.
At a time when others were still trying to figure out that new “green” thing and understand how climate change would reshape the business world, I accidentally became one of the earliest eco-entrepreneurs in my country. I invented something completely new, triggered a mini-revolution within my industry and inspired all sorts of brilliant minds to follow me on a wild journey. I blended my deep passion for climate with everything I knew about influencing human behavior and dreamed up a way to change our world a little bit by simply rewarding people when they made responsible choices. Somehow, maybe by pure luck or maybe through weirdly wired brain advantage, I landed on that idea before anyone else—and it ultimately became my legacy and my source of endless appetite for disruptive innovation. The dream and the venture snowballed for years, and along the way I grew into a natural and very public evangelizer, proudly sharing the tale of how magnificent it is to stumble into that magical intersection of passion and skill. I had finally discovered my very hidden and very particular ability to bring a little bit of change to the world, my world.
My story isn’t especially profound. I am not a psychologist, and this book contains absolutely no scientific theories or facts; it’s just a simple human case study. It is the story of how an erstwhile geeky and paranoid kid suddenly, and almost by accident, discovered his real purpose in this world, and how that enabled him to repurpose the sum of his unique attributes—eccentricities, skills, fears and passions—into a changemaker’s toolkit. Once the realignment had begun, the rest happened quite naturally.