SCA names Jaime Berman Matyas New President and CEO

SCA Board Chairman Steve Seward today announced that Jaime Berman Matyas has been named president and chief executive officer. Matyas, formerly EVP and COO of the National Wildlife Federation, will succeed the retiring Dale Penny on September 2. At the National Wildlife Federation, Matyas set organizational strategy, built new constituencies and managed day-to-day operations. She creatively advanced the organization’s mission – and her own personal passion – to protect wildlife by connecting young people with nature.

“We’re thrilled to welcome Jaime to SCA,” said Steve Seward, Chair of SCA Board of Directors. “She’s a perfect fit. With her spirit of innovation and commitment to diversity, we know she will take SCA’s nationwide student programming to new heights as we continue nurturing the next generation of conservation leaders.”

During her 20+ years with the National Wildlife Federation, Matyas rose through a variety of senior roles before assuming operational management responsibilities in 2005. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program and is a certified Black Belt in Innovation Engineering.

“I’m inspired by SCA’s national presence, interest to pursue new partnerships and track record of leadership development,” said Matyas. “I’m honored to lead an organization so uniquely positioned to meet the needs of young conservation leaders and represent the rich diversity of our nation’s youth.”

For more on our incoming CEO, read the official announcement and the interview below. Meanwhile, please join us in welcoming Jaime Matyas to SCA.

A Q&A with Jaime Matyas, SCA's New President and CEO

You’re the expert on this topic: who is Jaime Matyas?

I’ve played soccer since I was 10 and I love being part of and building high functioning teams and mentoring others. I am innately curious and get energized by learning new things. Growing up, I spent a lot of time outside riding my bike and getting muddy in our local creek; canoeing, kayaking and picking berries in the mountains of Pennsylvania; and camping and hiking in the west. After graduating college, my roommates and I hiked the Grand Canyon and neighboring areas. I find time in nature both peaceful and energizing. I’m someone who truly believes that an array of voices, perspectives and experiences, in an environment conducive to honest interaction, leads to better ideas and decisions and a more effective business. I’m excited about building on that belief: that diversity breeds strong organizations.

My priorities include continuing to increase SCA’s impact, and for me that means both increasing the numbers of young people engaged and the enhancing the depth of their experience – which affects both the people and the landscape. I’m committed to improving both quantity and quality.

Impact also relates to something that has long been important to me – something that’s a challenge for the conservation community and a great opportunity for SCA – and that’s to engage a greater diversity of young people. Geographic, ethnic, racial: diversity in all its forms. This will likely lead to some diversification of our programs – not straying from our core competencies, of course, but building on them to expand programs like those we offer in urban parks, and engaging young people closer to home.

Why is that important?

People come to conservation and this kind of work from different places. Historically, they may already have a connection with the natural world, they may understand it and are comfortable outside, but there are also more and more kids who are less and less comfortable outdoors because they spend less time in nature. A Kaiser Foundation study shows that young people today spend less than eight minutes a day in unrestricted outdoor activities.

To build more leaders for the future, SCA needs to meet young people where they are. That may be from an economic development perspective, a jobs perspective, or a community safety or health perspective. It may give us the opportunity to conduct more programs in local communities and establish connections between youth and nature there, locally, and then add the conservation elements for those who may not have started with a love of the outdoors.

What do you see when you look at SCA?

I see tremendous potential. I see a moment in this country where conservation has become politicized, which hasn’t always been so, and a moment where climate change, the economy and other factors are impacting our world in a way that our kids will inherit a very different community than where we grew up.

SCA has a tremendous opportunity to equip the leaders of tomorrow with the skills and experience that will enable them to lead effectively. When I read Liz’s thesis where she outlined her idea for SCA, for example, the breadth of SCA’s programs has evolved so much. It’s imperative that we continue to innovate in order to respond to – and even get out ahead of – the environmental challenges we face.

A recent National Park Service study indicates our parks are presently confronted by a variety of extreme weather conditions that will likely require a new approach toward caring for these resources in the future. I see SCA continuing to scale up Liz’s original vision and adding additional skill building and training into our programs to help young people become truly effective conservationists and leaders in our modern world, whether through traditional field training or on college campuses, or Gap Year training that could include teaching innovation, leadership development, problem solving – broad skill sets that youth may not have needed 50 years ago but are crucial to being an effective leader today.

Why are public lands today often partitions instead of “common ground?”

In my experience over the past twenty years in the conservation arena, different communities and audiences prioritize different uses for our public lands including, for example hunting, hiking, climbing, camping, grazing, logging and even siting for wind and solar installations. Some view these uses as complementary while others see them in conflict.

What we at SCA can do is create an environment that lends itself to that inclusive dialogue – host working sessions with groups we want to engage more to better understand their needs, problems and interests and determine how we can relate to the interests of those communities and how we work together. Because we are grounded in serving young people, we can engage these young people in a discussion of programming relevant to them and how to engage their peers. It could be urban, tribal, native communities, people of certain ages, gender, with disabilities – we need to determine what audiences we want to serve more, and engage them in information gathering and in a program development process.

We also need to consider the diversity of our parks—urban parks, national parks, the beautiful spaces that serve as places of community, respite, and contemplation for today’s young people. To the extent that SCA can meet young people where they are and expand their horizons, we will have achieved a great deal. At the same time, we can help these parks to become more resilient to the many threats that confront them—from encroachment, pollution and climate change to lack of funding.

How do you innovate in a field that is so frequently rooted in institutional conventions?

I don’t have any specific answers for you yet but the methodology for successful innovation starts with the customer and finding out what their problems are and what solutions may exist to solve those problems. From there, we identify the business models and revenue streams that lead to sustainable solutions. Pilot projects then let you test your hypotheses and make improvements in rapid cycles of iterations.

To the degree policy changes are required we will need to create coalitions of unlikely allies with voices that are important to officials creating those policies and making those decisions. Innovation requires you to understand what those constituency needs are and how policy changes can remove some of those barriers to progress.

What about integrating technology into the outdoor experience for youth?

Technology plays such an integral part in teenagers’ lives. I expect we will infuse technology into more of our programs so, as a movement, we don’t look at technology as separate and distinct from the outdoors. Young people are on their screens at home and outside, so how do we utilize technology in a productive way to enhance their outdoor experience? I have two teenagers and their phones are part of their lives. When those devices are used as part of the experience – GPS, looking up a species of bird, sharing photos – they can be used as an enhancement tool. Technology can make the outdoors more accessible and interesting to generations raised on virtual reality and Discovery Channel.

Every CEO to date has been a man. How do you feel about breaking that trend?

It was really an honor to meet Liz and hear her story and have her welcome me to the organization. For me, there’s something really personally powerful about being the first female executive of SCA. It’s a genuine privilege and I want to make the most of this opportunity, for the organization and for young people we are serving – not just women, but everyone.

As one of the few women leaders of a conservation organization, this is an opportunity for SCA to lead by example and show the young people we are serving that we believe leadership can come in all forms. We need to tap the leadership skills at all levels of SCA and of our young leaders. They need to be able to look at us and see themselves in the not too distant future. Personally, I have thought a lot about the possibility of becoming a CEO and I hope to use this opportunity, whether directly within SCA or indirectly within the conservation community, to demonstrate it is possible for a woman to work her way up in this movement.

Statement from SCA Founding President Liz Putnam

Jaime Berman Matyas is an accomplished and devoted leader in the conservation field and I am delighted to welcome her to SCA. Jaime is a proven innovator with a brilliant mind and the innate ability to bring the right parties together to accomplish common objectives. Teamwork and diversity have been such crucial factors in SCA’s prosperity, and it’s good to know that Jaime also shares that spirit of collaboration and partnership.

As the woman whose thesis would launch SCA 57 years ago, it is so rewarding to see Jaime moving into this executive position. SCA has long been committed to creating a more inclusive conservation community, and Jaime’s appointment is an important step forward in that ongoing quest.

Finally, I will be forever grateful to Dale Penny, whose caring presence and uniquely humane leadership led SCA to unprecedented accomplishments while maintaining the values that make SCA such a special organization.