Celebrating Michelle Alfandari's Remarkable Journey to Biodiversity Champion and the Evolution of Homegrown National Park
By Doug Tallamy
Est. Read Time: 5 minutes
This December, four years after Michelle Alfandari began to build Homegrown National Park as a nonprofit, conceiving its flagship biodiversity map, recruiting its first board members, seeking and hiring our IT consultants, and generally acting day in and day out as ED, CEO, CFO, Chief Recruiter, and Office Manager, she is stepping down. She will still serve as President of the Board, but she is passing the daily grind of running the organization on to our very capable team of Brandon Hough (ED), Krista De Cooke, Arnon Fischer, Grant Jensen, and Eddie Jabbour.
Michelle calls herself co-founder of HNP, but there was little ‘co’ in the founding of HNP. True, back in 2007 I had the idea that if property owners across the nation replaced half of their lawn with productive native plants, that would restore an area larger than all of our major national parks combined, build connectivity between existing preserves, and start the necessary process of changing our culture from an adversarial relationship with nature to a collaborative one. It seemed obvious to me that we should call these new restorations ‘Homegrown National Park.’ But other than floating the idea in talks and my writing, that was all I did. It wasn’t until Michelle humored her neighbor by going to one of my talks that HNP became more than an idea. Michelle approached me after the talk and pointed out, in her diplomatic way, that I wasn’t reaching my target audience: the millions of people who do not know they have a critical role in solving the biodiversity crisis and an urgent responsibility to play that role. In effect, I was only speaking to the choir. I pointed out that it was only the choir who invited me to talk, but Michelle said “Exactly. That is the problem, and I know how to solve it.”
Michelle really did know how to reach the non-choir. Not because she had a life-long love of nature, an understanding of how important diverse ecosystems are, or knowledge of how to restore landscapes torn asunder by what humans naively perceive as their needs. What Michelle did have was three important personality traits: the ability to spot an unarticulated need (that is, a market); an attraction to the challenge of filling that need; and an entrepreneurial, risk-tolerant spirit.
Michelle grew up in Long Beach, NY, about 45 minutes from New York City. To her, nature started and stopped at the Atlantic Ocean. She had no interest in gardening, and a fleeting interest in the local woodlot and the creatures therein. Her mother was an amateur painter and exposed Michelle to the great art museums of the City, especially the Museum of Modern Art. Through her visits to New York she developed a love of urban life in general, its art, architecture, food, design and fashion, and these interests persist today. In short, Michelle Alfandari was a card-carrying member of the non-choir.
In high school, Michelle had plans to become a writer. Once in college, though, her passion for writing gave way to sociology and philosophy, perhaps because of the social upheaval of the late 60s and early 70s which fascinated her. After graduation, Michelle explored health services in Chapel Hill, marriage in Miami, and women’s reproductive rights in Florida clinics, but none of these pursuits held her attention beyond 4 years. Back in New York City, Michelle found her true love, renowned modern artist Tom Goldenberg, and her true calling, a business career that spanned 40 years. In 1988, she founded a full-service licensing and marketing agency focused on corporate brand extension licensing. Her agency, MODA Licensing, worked with big name clients including Victoria & Albert Museum, The New York Times, The Ritz Hotel - Paris, Tour de France, DuPont/LYCRA, Snap-on Tools, Mack Trucks, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Better Homes & Gardens/Meredith Corp., and many others. Developing strategies and then executing and managing the resulting businesses on behalf of her clients provided the creative challenges that Michelle loved as well as the opportunity for lots of exciting global travel. Today she and Tom live on a beautiful property in Sharon, Connecticut.
As some of you know, I hold the uncontested title of world’s worst businessman, which means Michelle and I could not have been more different. But it was the skill of leveraging an existing asset to expand new businesses that she brought to the creation of HNP. After hearing my talk, Michelle believed she could leverage my message and solution to the biodiversity crisis, along with my credibility as an ecologist, author, and educator, to create the HNP movement, if I would only let her. I did!
And so the credit for any success that HNP as a small nonprofit has enjoyed so far goes to Michelle (and to her tolerant husband Tom). Well, I guess I should get credit for “letting her” build HNP, which was harder on my part than you might think. The world of nonprofits, boards, budgets, strategic plans, and funding is a scary one for me, and there have been many days I have been a reluctant co-founder at best. But Michelle did not let me discourage her, and after retiring from MODA Licensing, she worked without pay for four years to create what we call HNP today. To say that we - - the nation’s biodiversity, the choir, and more and more of the non-choir - - appreciate what she has done is an understatement.
Speaking of the non-choir, Michelle has had to relinquish her membership. In the past 4 years, she has learned much about the natural world and the perils it faces and is now seeing and appreciating the life around her for the first time. But she has not forgotten how the non-choir thinks, what they know and don’t know, and how best to reach them. In that sense alone, she remains an invaluable asset to HNP. Michelle also serves as an encouraging model: if our message is strong enough to convert a businesswoman from Manhattan, we can convert anyone!