Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Calling

It's been months since my last post. Forgive me, but I've been, well, thinking.

I met Judy Wicks in 2003 in Philadelphia at a meeting of the Philadelphia Sustainable Business Network. She encouraged me to go to an SVN conference in the Fall, and seeking like-minded entrepreneurs, I did (and seeking campaign contributions, sadly).

It was there that I learned about Greyston Bakery and dozens of other businesses designed to have social impact through the daily act of building and growing business. Greyston has an open hiring policy,  meaning that if there's an opening, they'll take the next person in line for the job regardless of their personal history, credit rating, homelessness, criminal background, etc.

Their motto is "we don't hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people". Last year they did about $10 million in business; if you've had Ben & Jerry's ice cream with brownies in it, you've helped to hire people.

That commitment, that act of love, that recognition of basic human dignity, all delivered daily--that moved me and troubled me at the same time. I was on the way back up from losing a fortune from ChiliSoft by refusing to sell SUNW all the way down, and felt I needed to hit another home run. That feeling led to a great company, but also led to some bad mistakes, including, I think, delaying the transformation of my admiration of the Greyston commitment to my own commitment to something that reflected a similar basic love.

That bugged me for some time. Ten years. Last year I posted about the gnawing that I've felt about living a meaningful life, and what my life's work is or should be.

That was 18 months ago; I continued to delay, wanting one last swing. So when Vic asked me to lead BigLeap, well, it served the purpose of take another swing while doing something that could have positive impact.

When something gnaws at you for so long, you need to address it. Clearly I believed that this was important work. Why wasn't I diving in?

Part of it was money. I had none up until the sale of my last company this summer. Part of it was fear. Building a business is hard enough, and adding a requirement like open hiring at wages that reflect human dignity is that much harder.

This Fall I recognized that I wasn't pulling as hard as BigLeap needed me to. I wasn't nailing it. Yet I was looking for a place to live in the Bay Area or New York, and was about ready to get a realtor and make a move.

I rationalized it, thinking that I needed a break from Lancaster, that the space would do me good, that I should swing for the fences again. New York easily won out over the Bay area.

Then one weekend I took a hike with a new friend, someone I had only met once before. The conversation was all over the place, but it was one of the most important I've had in a long time. At one point she said something about how it was important for her to "claim her priorities".

That resonated with me. I hadn't set any priorities. I talked about my values, about how Lancaster seems to refuse to talk about poverty or deal with it on a human level. I complained (the optimism of dissent). But I hadn't claimed my priorities. Defined them, set them, committed to them.

I lived in New York City during 9/11; lost a dozen neighbors and one friend, and had trouble dealing with the regular reminders for months, especially when the wind would shift and blow the smoke north; I lived on Great Jones, which was close enough for the building to shake when the towers fell, and close enough to be smokey depending on the wind.

New York offered a lot, but I never felt a sense of community. As usual, I was doing it wrong, choosing to live in Manhattan while my friends were in Brooklyn, running in circles that cared little about me personally.

I felt alone after 9/11, except occasionally when I was with a friend from high school. So I retreated to the beach, where for two years I felt alone and no sense of community.

In 2004 I moved back to Lancaster to build the company. It took a while, but finally I found a lot of friends and now feel a very strong sense of community. I can't say I never feel alone anymore, but I do feel at home and there's comfort in knowing that good friends are just a few blocks away.

In looking to move to New York I wasn't honoring the importance of that sense of community. I knew it and felt it. I knew that by moving I'd be starting over to some degree, though I do have friends there, but it would never be my home, and I'd never be a New Yorker. And I know where home is--it's here in Lancaster.

That hike somehow triggered a real sense of purpose and focus. I've felt a calling for a long time, but haven't honored it, and that's what the gnawing was about all this time.

Not long after that I cancelled plans to live in New York. I talked with Vic about stepping down from BigLeap, which I did and now serve as an advisor. I decided to work full time in Lancaster on building the economy south of King Street, and ending poverty here as a moral imperative, or at least reducing it. (And yes it sounds grandiose to me too. It's a good sign of a an entrepreneur or a sociopath, take your pick).

Doing that isn't particularly complicated; people need jobs that at least pay living wages, and those jobs have to be within the reach of their skills. Recently I've been thinking in terms of thriving wages, and employee wealth through equity. How can we make that happen?

And what wage reflects human dignity? $7.25/hour?

Walmart pays poverty wages to many of its employees. To me that's simply morally wrong and we should not as a society accept that. Lancaster County businesses and consumers should also reject poverty wages by cutting off the companies that continue to do that.

actual sign at a Walmart in Cleveland this month
We end up subsidizing those companies through poverty support programs like food stamps, WIC, EITC, and a host of other programs. It's offensive that our taxes go to subsidize Walmart's lack of humanity, to support its poverty culture, not to mention its negative impact on US manufacturers. </end of rant>

So about a month ago I started working on this full time. And to leave tech.

Initially my job would be to organize social impact entrepreneurs, evangelize about values-driven businesses, raise investment capital for businesses committed to ending poverty through daily business practices, and a long list of other things we need to develop a healthy social-impact ecosystem which leaves no room for poverty or poverty wages.

That lasted a week :)

By the end of the week I realized we really don't have many businesses like this, or social impact entrepreneurs starting new ones. I felt like I'd be pushing around the edges, but not actually doing. And if anything I'm a starter, an entrepreneur.

So I decided to start a new company that will, metaphorically anyway, bake brownies to hire people. I'll still evangelize, still organize and convene (Judy's kindly agreed to speak at the Ware Center on December 6th as part of a monthly speaker series, and we started a social impact meetup), but my day gig will be the new company. I'm starting it with a close friend; we'll give more details when we're further along.

So that one conversation on a long hike down at Tucquan Glen had pretty powerful effects.

Instead of leaving again, I decided to go all in here in Lancaster--to stay here, buy a building here, invest here, build a new business here (south of King Street), organize like-minded people here, and make an honest attempt to serve the calling. To commit.

It's going to be hard (I've failed before and easily can again), but this is a great city and our people have open hearts and generous spirits. I'm happy this is my home, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to try to make an impact on what to me is our biggest problem.

We can call it social justice or economic justice, but what it comes down to is this: business can serve as the vehicle for our highest aspirations, and sometimes it's as simple as giving someone a chance to work for a living, at a dignified wage, a chance that others (so far) won't give.

Or if you're an existing company or consumer, it's as simple as buying something from a social enterprise instead of from Walmart, or a supplier who doesn't reflect your values.

Vote with your dollars. It matters. 

Ending poverty seems lofty. Maybe crazy. Simplistic. But if we embrace it as a moral imperative, and convince ourselves and other business owners to make our businesses reflect our personal values, to value people regardless of their backgrounds or skills, I'm convinced we can create a self-sustaining, overflowing wealth of opportunity that rewards all of us, in ways far beyond profit.

To me this is meaningful work, and if there is such a thing as a calling, for me this is it. I'm all in. That was one hell of a hike.

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