Meet 2019 Forward under 40 Award Recipient Matt Kopac’01

UW Major: Economics, International Relations, and Political Science
Age: 39 | Durham, North Carolina
Sustainable Business and Innovation Manager, Burt’s Bees

When it comes to the business behind Burt’s Bees, Matt Kopac makes sure the company prospers while keeping its promises to people and the planet.

Kopac sees to it that every corner of the Burt’s Bees enterprise — known for its personal-care and beauty products — is socially and environmentally responsible, from ingredient sourcing and packaging through production facilities and industry collaborations that are reshaping the personal-care sector. And as vice president and treasurer of the Burt’s Bees Greater Good Foundation, Kopac extends the company ethos of “The Greater Good” to philanthropy and community service.

Kopac takes his commitment to social responsibility far beyond his day job. He chairs the Durham Environmental Affairs Board, and he helps to steer a campaign to promote living wages for workers in the Durham area.

“For me, the most enduring lesson of the Wisconsin Experience is that we are called upon to engage in an unrelenting search for truth and to commit ourselves to service,” Kopac says. “A world-class interdisciplinary education in the College of Letters & Science helped me to better understand the interconnectedness of the economic and social challenges we face.”

From his post-college Peace Corps tour in the Republic of Benin to his recent trip to study sustainable economies in Brazil and the Netherlands, Kopac has long infused a spirit of service into his career, life, and learning.

As a UW student, he was vice president of the Wisconsin Alumni Student Board, and he cofounded All-Campus Party, a week of alcohol-alternative campus events. As an alumnus, Kopac chairs the John W. Jung Memorial Scholarship Fund to honor the death of his close college friend and raise awareness about addiction.

“Student organizations gave me the opportunity to hone my leadership skills and explore real solutions to
the hard problems that matter,” he says. “Friendships that endure to this day continue to be a source
of inspiration and strength.”

Photo by Maria Davis

Q&A with Matt Kopac

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Focus more on who you want to be when you grow up and what problems you want to solve, rather than what you want to be.
What are you reading now?
I am reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and re-reading The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken.
What is the one thing every UW student must do?
Sit on Abe’s lap — but don’t wait for graduation. I recommend that when you have what feels like your worst day, go sit with Abe and dream about the future. Then go meet up with your friends on the Terrace.
What advice would you offer to graduating seniors?

Don’t follow anyone’s path but your own, expect that where you start is not where you’ll end up, and have fun along the way.

Also, since I am watching Magic School Bus with my boys right now, I will add, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”

What occupies your free time?
In my free time, I hang out with my amazing wife and kids and try to foster a beloved community in Durham through relationships and service.
What was your first job?
I was a cashier at the small-town gas station when I was 15.
If you could trade places with any person for a week — living or dead, real or fictional — who would it be?
I would trade places with my wife to better understand her lived experience as a woman, a mom, and a nurse practitioner in Durham’s safety net clinic. As well as we know each other after 14 years, I would love to see the world from her vantage point.
What is your favorite quote?
“Human rights are universal and indivisible. Human freedom is also indivisible: if it is denied to anyone in the world, it is therefore denied, indirectly, to all people. This is why we cannot remain silent in the face of evil or violence; silence merely encourages them.” — Václav Havel
Who is your hero, or who or what inspires you?

I often tell myself that I take risks, but I have always had a strong support system to catch me if I fall. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin, I saw women risk everything to create a better life for themselves and their children. In one instance, I was teaching an accounting course to a women’s cooperative, when to my surprise, three of my students got down on their hands and knees and hid under their desks. I looked outside and saw a group of men passing by; I quickly realized the women had disobeyed their husbands by attending the class. The fortitude the women showed on a daily basis continues to inspire me to help others have self-determination over their future.

I am also inspired by nature, which provides us with so many lessons for how we can continue to live on this earth without undermining the natural systems we depend on for our survival.

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