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Reshaping the Face of Business

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

From what began in the 1980s as a small company, Jeffrey (73F) and Sheila (74F) Hollender (pictured above) sparked a movement in environmentally responsible businesses. Their vision goes beyond making profits to recognizing the social and environmental impact of corporations. "I always felt a great responsibility and obligation to contribute to the world in some kind of positive way," says Jeffrey.

At Hampshire, Jeffrey studied the intersection between mass communications and psychology, but he ended up leaving before graduating. "I was breathless to contribute to society," he says, and he has continued to be a lifelong learner. Sheila studied early English literature and worked with the law program at Hampshire. She graduated in 1976 and went on to law school, after which she managed a successful practice in real estate litigation in Manhattan.

In New York, while Sheila worked in law, Jeffrey started an adult education nonprofit, served as president of Warner Audio Publishing, and wrote his first book, entitled How to make the world a better place, a beginner's guide. After 12 years, they decided to move to Burlington, Vermont, and take over a small catalog company, Renew America, that produced energy and water conservation products for households. This business blossomed into Seventh Generation. "Our belief," says Jeffrey, "was that if we could sell products that were better for the environment, we could grow the business and be environmentally sound."

The first dozen years were challenging, as Seventh Generation did not generate a profit. At that time, Jeffrey says, most people were not concerned about their impact on the environment, but the Hollenders persisted. Sheila says her biggest concern, and the reason why she believes so strongly in their company, is her family's health. "If we don't have safe products, we are endangering our children," she says. Jeffrey agrees, adding that sustainability is not just about the environment—it is about active efforts to change disparities in the world. Through writing, speaking, and heading Seventh Generation as its CEO, Jeffrey reaches out to students and business owners. "When I talk to students," he says, "my goal is to help them see business in a different light." In talking to corporate leaders, "I help them see business as a powerful way to bring about positive change in society, rather just being about making monster profits."

Both Sheila and Jeffrey are actively involved in the community. Sheila, as director of corporate giving, is responsible for the philanthropic side of Seventh Generation, supporting organizations in the community. Jeffrey serves on the boards of Greenpeace and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, the largest state organization in the United States of responsible business owners. He says, "At this particular moment in time, in order to generate change, business is the place to do that." Sheila adds, "We have made a difference in people beginning to realize that products they use at home directly affect their health." One of their projects is working with Whole Foods as part of Whole Planet, a microcredit organization that spans the globe, empowering people of lower socioeconomic status and striving to counteract the negative impact of American businesses on other countries.

Sheila says, "My biggest achievement is my three children, who are all focused on the environment—it's in their hands now." Through the risks they have taken running a viable company that is socially and environmentally responsible, the Hollenders have become pioneers in changing the way individuals in society view their impact. Jeffrey says,  "The paradigm I experienced at Hampshire, which gave me the space to figure out what I really care about, is in many respects the paradigm I've gone on to live the rest of my life."

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