Jeffrey Hollender: A Story to Inspire Next Generation Impact Entrepreneurs
Courageous Conversations: Social Venture Network Interview Series on Transforming the Way the World Does Business.
Martha Shaw (SVN): Firstly, what is your title now?
Jeff Hollender: Well, I haven’t entirely decided on what my title is going to be. I do love my old title, “The Inspired Protagonist.” I even love a title that I had for a day that I had to give up, called “Chief of Un-fucking Up the World.” But, I’m still thinking about what my title is for the new business, Sustain, will be. CEO and President just don’t do much for me.
SVN: As an entrepreneur, what have been the most courageous moments for you in your career?
Jeff Hollender: Certainly in 1995 when Seventh Generation was a $7-8 million dollar company, we made the decision to sell the mail order part of our business. It was 75% of our sales, but we chose to focus exclusively on building our brand at retail and that was certainly a very untraditional and very unorthodox thing to do because we were a public company. We were a tiny public company of about $8 million in sales and we were selling off 75% of those sales. It turned out to be a wise decision, but not a decision that many people would have agreed with.
That’s on the business front, but I remember also about 15 years ago, when I was a board member of Greenpeace and a demonstration in Washington on climate change was scheduled for the same time as the Expo East, natural foods trade show.
We had a heated conversation with about thirty of our staff on the eve of that demonstration trying to decide if we should shut the booth down and all go to Washington to demonstrate against climate change, or not. It was a heated debate that lasted hours and I think that just having that conversation was important. Having that conversation to discern when business as usual needs to be abandoned to pursue things of greater importance. What we decided was that it would be unfair to our customers who had traveled across the country in come cases to meet with us, to totally shut down our exhibit. But our values clearly indicated that we needed to do something dramatic about climate change. So, half the people decided not to participate in the trade show and the other half went to Washington. That demonstration led to my being arrested, not something that was well received by my own board at Seventh Generation. They did not think that being arrested was an appropriate thing for a CEO to be doing.
I disagreed. I thought that the cause was deeply aligned with our mission and values as a company and we needed to show the seriousness of the challenge. I was quite proud to be arrested.
SVN: When you look for strength in overcoming fears, what drives you to face them?
Jeff Hollender: I think at the end it really comes down to my values and how to appropriately express them. That’s often a challenging question because we are faced with endless opportunities to make compromises and we have to be very careful about how and when we make those compromises. It’s often not a black and white situation. I try to ask myself, what does the world need from me that I am uniquely able to provide? That’s the big driver for me.
SVN: You are MC’ing the 2013 SVN Innovation Awards in October - what has SVN been to you?
Jeffrey Hollender: For over two decades the SVN community has been there to support me through the challenges, successes and failures that are an unavoidable part of building new types of business that are driven by a moral imperative to do the right thing as well as a financial imperative to generate reasonable returns for investors. There is no community quite like SVN anywhere in the world. I'm thrilled to be a member.
Jeffrey Hollender is the MC of SVN's 2013 Innovation Awards ceremony at SVN's 2013 Fall Conference. He is founder and CEO of Hollender Sustainable Brands. More than twenty-five years ago, he co-founded Seventh Generation, building the company into a $150 million natural product brand known for its authenticity, transparency, and progressive business practices.
Interview by Martha Shaw, founder of Earth Advertising, which promotes the growth of environmentally responsible businesses through brand strategy and media campaigns.
Social Venture Network:
Since 1987, Social Venture Network (SVN) has been the leading network of entrepreneurs who are transforming the way the world does business. SVN connects the leaders of socially responsible enterprises to share wisdom and resources, form strategic alliances and explore new solutions that build a more just and sustainable economy.
The 2013 SVN Fall Conference takes place October 17-20 in Baltimore and coincides with SVN’s 2013 Innovation Awards. Visit www.svn.org for more information.