Christine O’Neill made a career transition from marketing/advertising to personal coaching in 2018. The Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, resident chatted with me recently about the importance of coaching, how she learned to become a coach and her tips for finding one’s path. Because as she says, “Life is too short for just OK.” (Full disclosure: Christine and I are friends from our days at Kenyon College way back in the 90s – McBride Hall, yeah!)
Now, just the facts!
BD: What led you to start thinking about a career change?
CO: I came out of college and didn’t know what I wanted to do and kind of landed in advertising. And then I kept doing it because I really didn’t know what else to do. For all intents and purposes, I was successful. I was a Vice President and on a big account, but I really felt like something was missing. I really felt like I wasn’t a natural fit for it, and my talents weren’t being used and I really wanted to find something that was more meaningful. For me, it was not knowing what I wanted to do and knowing that there was something bigger out there for me. Not knowing how to get there was an incredible struggle in my life. It impacted everything—my happiness, my level of satisfaction and fulfillment, and it became just vital that I had to figure out what else I could and should be doing. So I reached a point where due to some personal changes in my life and professional changes at work—I often say change begets change—it shook me to the point where I said OK, this is the time where I have to make a decision and change. After first seeking therapy to figure out some of what was holding me back, that led me to career consulting, and I worked with a consultant for over a year to identify the things I most cared about, what were the skills that came naturally to me that I also loved pursuing, what did I most want and not want out of a career. We worked to define the top priorities in life and started to apply those to possible jobs. It was still a real struggle for me to come to the conclusion that coaching was what I wanted. But once I did, I realized I wanted to do something similar to what my consultant was doing.
BD: It’s amazing how the most obvious path forward may not be that obvious.
CO: I think one of the most interesting parts to me was when I finally said, ‘OK this is it, this is the thing that I want to do.’ That came in a couple of different ways. With my consultant I had created a prioritized list of things I wanted to have in my work, but I still couldn’t really figure out how I wanted to apply those to a career. I realized one of the ways could be coaching. It ticked off all these things on my list, and I still said, ‘No this isn’t what I wanted to be doing.’ I had cared about this problem for so long and been trying to figure out this problem in my mind for so long, it seemed too simple, not cool enough, or not crazy enough. [Coaching] is actually similar to what my father did in his career—he was in executive recruiting and then outplacement and so I learned about networking and job search strategy from him. That was something I always naturally helped friends and even colleagues with. So anyway, it was really a frustrating time for me because I felt like I had done all of this work, and I was so close but I still couldn’t come up with the thing I wanted to do. I reached a point where I was like I am going to shut it off and stop thinking about it. So I just shut down and stopped thinking about it. And I was sitting on the couch one day during the holidays, and it came to me: ‘Coaching, that’s what I should be doing.’ I had to stop thinking about it in order to allow it to come to me. That was my gut and heart talking versus my head trying to think through and solve the problem. I think we don’t allow ourselves to do that, we fight so hard to try to figure it out. And we think that if we don’t stop working toward something that we are not going to solve the problem.
BD: But you still had to prove yourself as a coach, or at least get the professional credentials to become one.
CO: I thought I had figured it out, and I was going to be this career coach. I found a program that I thought looked good and legitimate. I remember walking into that training the first weekend with a very specific idea of what I was going to learn. And I walked in and I thought, ‘What the hell is going on here, who are these people and what are they talking about?’ I resisted the new experience I was going through. [The program] wasn’t like me, or who I thought I was. It didn’t feel very pragmatic, and I was getting all this woo-woo stuff and thinking, ‘Are these people taking this as seriously as I am?’ I was distraught and had a conversation with another coach and trainer during that weekend, and all she said was, ‘You are exactly where you need to be.’ And honestly it was the biggest release and also an understanding of everything I was coming up against. Once I let go of that, I embraced this coaching world. I say this all the time, but I couldn’t have realized what I really wanted until I took that first step forward.
Since then I realized there was a much larger journey I was on. And I heard this the other day, it’s almost like goal grief – you get the thing, the job, the house, the car, and it’s like ‘oh is this all it is?’ And you still aren’t fulfilled. It wasn’t the job change in itself, but instead the coaching journey that has led me to a far greater understanding of how to create fulfillment and joy in the day to day, the small moments, and learning to align with those things has brought me to the level of joy that I was searching for all of those years.
BD: I’m guessing there are many people who have never experienced a career coach, a life coach or a management coach. I firmly believe there is immense value in coaching and have benefited from it. I think it would be great to hear from you about the power of coaching.
CO: How I think about coaching is thinking about you as the client, you are the expert. You actually have all of the answers within. And people think that’s not possible, they think if they had the answers then they would be more fulfilled and happier already. The power in coaching is in helping you gain a greater understanding of who you are and the things that are most important to you and all of the ways that you’re holding yourself back from the level of success, joy, fulfillment, meaning, whatever the thing is that you are searching for. The power to me is when you start to recognize that all the reasons and excuses you have of not being able to live the life you want are just excuses, it’s the most freeing feeling. The power in coaching is in helping you create that awareness of what you really want, and realizing you can actually have it. It’s shocking to me how many of us choose to settle into a subpar or status quo existence when there is that yearning for so much more.
BD: Why do you think we have these barriers that hold us back? A change can feel like this huge risk, especially when finances are involved, even when everything’s going to be fine.
CO: I think it’s a mix of things. We are a culmination of our experiences, and the beliefs and messages we got as kids. All of those things define in subtle ways the way we see the world and what’s possible for us. Toney mindset is a really big one. But really it all comes down to is fear. Whatever that fear is. A lot of times it’s the fear of failing, the fear of success. If I actually am able to achieve this thing, how is that going to change my relationships, are people going to think about me differently, maybe I’ll lose something I care about, maybe I’ll lose my freedom and all of a sudden I’ll be successful and have to work 20 hours a day. The financial fear is a big one. Those are all limits, how do you know that you aren’t going to make the same amount of money? How do you know that you can’t find more fulfillment in a current job and not have to leave it? How do you know that you even have to leave your job? For me personally, doing the same thing for the next 20 years became a hell of a lot scarier than taking the risk. That’s what motivated me to make that change.
BD: Something you and I discussed previously was along the lines of being curious and having fun, whether on the job or with friends and family. That really stuck with me.
CO: Part of the work I do is helping people realize, what do you value, what are the things that energize? What is the energy you want to bring forth to your day? And how much fun do you want to have—why are you waiting for that fun? Figure out what brings you energy and then do more of that thing. It’s really hard when you are coming from a drained, low-energy state to be creative and think in a new way and explore something new. So little by little, follow your energy, and see how things start to open up for you. It doesn’t mean having to figure out the big thing, just take one small step forward.
LaVonte Stewart is the founder of Lost Boyz Inc., which decreases violence, improves social and emotional conditions, and provides financial opportunities for the youth in Chicago’s South Shore community. With baseball training and competitive participation as core drivers, Lost Boyz achieves its mission through high-intensity mentoring, intervention, and social entrepreneurship activities.
LaVonte started Lost Boyz after serving four years in a Missouri prison on a gun charge. The organization has evolved to include an array of services for boys and girls in South Shore.
LaVonte's also spent many years working in state government. He completed his bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at Chicago State and also possesses a Master of Public Administration from DePaul University.
And now, just the facts!
BD: Going back to the purpose of The Fact Sheet, I’m really curious about how people make the choices they make about their lives and their careers. There are a lot of ways people could invest in the youth of South Shore, but you chose to do it through a pretty unique means. I’m curious how you made that decision.
LS: It was kind of a confluence of my life experiences as a youth, as an adolescent and the troubles I ran into as a young adult.
I was incarcerated from roughly the age of 20 to close to 25. I came home from prison from Missouri, where I was attending college in a small town halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis. I was there on a double athletic scholarship, on baseball and football. I had been academically dismissed from an HBCU, Hampton University, where I had been part of an amazing football program. I really got off track a bit, from the glamour that came with being on the football team.
There was this toxicity that I believe particularly black males take from Chicago. It’s very authentic: you know a Chicago person when you see a Chicago person. You can really distinguish the true Chicagoan, especially a South Sider or West Sider. There is this toxic masculinity that I think ties back to gang culture and street culture. It impacted your life growing up on the South Side no matter what community you’re from. Given that, I came home after making that mistake in Missouri. I had a lot to think about during that four years in the Missouri Department of Corrections, and I knew I didn’t belong in that place for a number of reasons.
I was very productive there, and I did a lot there. I helped to create a major program that went across the Department of Corrections in Missouri called Therapeutic Communities, a model utilized in prison systems to deter violence and encourage personal development and personal responsibility.
BD: I can’t imagine how difficult the transition must have been for you after being in prison.
LS: I was really focused on working and getting some money in my pocket. I couldn’t just rely heavily on my parents. I returned to school at Chicago State. It wasn’t a bad option; it was affordable, sort of like an HBCU and it was easy to reach. My mom had gone there. But I struggled a lot.
I became a boisterous advocate for ex-offenders. Once you get that label on your back, it is really tough. I knew that I had a certain degree of intelligence that would be a tremendous asset in the future. And none of that mattered any more. Even with degree attainment, with potential employers all bets are off. Now things are improving for that segment, with a lot of talk of criminal justice reform. I landed a few jobs and was laid off. The struggle was real.
Fast forward a few years, and I found a flyer in the neighborhood. This guy had recreated my childhood Little League, South Shore Little League, which had been defunct for about 20 years. There was this nostalgia, and I wanted to be involved again. I loved sports, and my sporting career ended prematurely because of the mistakes I made. Baseball was the first sport my mom put me in so it was naturally a first love.
I reached out from the flyer and joined as a volunteer coach. I first coached an 11- and 12-year-old team and we won the league championship. I was kind of hooked right then, first year in. I kind of took a ragtag team they just gave me, and not with a lot of experience, and I worked hard and those kids worked hard. So I was hooked.
I coached for a couple of years until one day the coach decided to fold the league. And I’ll never forget I was in practice and I had to break the news to the 12 kids playing for me that this league is going to end. This team is going to end. I said I would help them find a team, if they were interested. And at the moment I was making that announcement, an incident occurred. A very traumatic incident. It was the middle of the afternoon in summer time, and I see two assailants chasing another guy across the park. And this was at a time when our park was pretty bad. The park had a notorious reputation and a lot of trouble went on in the park. I’m old school so I hit the dirt, and I noticed that the kids didn’t. They were standing around laughing, watching, talking. I had an epiphany that this generation of children is so desensitized to violence that this has become normalized. This is considered just regular behavior. It should have been fight or flight, and not this third option of apathy. My brain got to spinning. First there was this sense of guilt because I thought about some of the things that I had done in the community as a teenager, things my parents would not have been proud of about me. And just thinking through, how did I get here in the first place? I came from an upper middle class family, two parents. It was the American dream. So how did I get sucked into this side of violence and street life and drugs? It dawned on me that a lot of this was due to negative peer pressure, trying to assimilate with those around me. I stood out because of my unique economic condition. There was jealousy from peers. So as a child you’re not able to process that jealousy so you just want to fit in, like any kid. So thinking about all of that was the impetus to start Lost Boyz.
BD: What about the name, because some people might say it comes across in a negative way. And in fact, you serve quite a few girls now.
LS: It was thinking about the stakeholders and supports in my community growing up, and there weren’t a lot. There was not as much as there should have been for young people: mentors, engaging youth, or someone just being there for kids. At that point, I said, “these boys are lost. They’re lost boys.” Not because it was an indictment on the kids themselves, but you have to look at the community at-large because I truly believe in that village approach to social growth and development, that there have to be a number of touch points in terms of who’s involved with the child, their decision making. It’s not just the parents, it’s the schools, churches, youth organizations. With all of that in mind, that is where Lost Boyz the name came from. It was an indictment on the adults in the community. If you look at the definition of the word “lost,” it’s where someone relinquishes control over or supervisory obligation over. I was saying adults dropped the ball in my generation and now we’re dropping the ball with this generation. That’s how the name came up. It also had some shock value to it—and truth to it. It’s not a negative name, it’s the reality and it's designed to grab your attention.
BD: What was next after the league folded?
LS: At that point I didn’t want to let the kids go, so it became a barnstorming club. I started finding teams in other leagues to see if they would give us games. I went to local stores to see if they would donate money or items, and I was able to gather up pants and a little bit of equipment. I was then in the process of making it a legitimate nonprofit. I knew that to solicit donations, I needed to become a 501c3. That became a path, to seek the tax status to receive donations. It ultimately gave me a superior crash course on nonprofit management in coming years. By that second year or so, we started to grow from the 12 boys. By 2009, we had our tax-exempt status and received our first major grant, from the Black United Fund of Illinois, the largest African American self-help organization in Illinois, who I worked for at the time. We were granted $8,000, which for me was a huge amount of money. First year I had spent about $1,500, majority out of pocket, for umpire fees, traveling, giving the kids something to eat and equipment. From there we expanded to five teams and created our own league. We folded in our operation with Rosemoor Little League and have been part of that ever since.
BD: Lost Boyz has become about much more than baseball. How did that evolution take place?
LS: What I also discovered in those first two years, getting the kids to function is a difficult and daunting task, depending on the demographic I’m working with. It’s not necessarily race, it’s economic data and academic information and what schools are the kids going to. How much money are their parents making, where do they live, what are their lives like?
The average Little League kid comes from a stable, middle-class home. Kids that come from lower-income, less-stable homes, they’re usually not the best candidates for baseball because of all the support that has to come behind it from parents. Whether the money, uniforms, equipment, transporting them to practices and games. There has to be support for them to play. So I started delving a little deeper and noticing some kids were having academic issues, some kids social issues at home or with other kids. That’s when my focus became working with kids who are experiencing these different issues that are throwing them off. That’s where the reflection of my own life started kicking in. The things I lacked, the troubles I got off into, were the very things I was trying to prevent with these kids. So I started thinking deeper than baseball and augmenting with other components. I started fiddling along with a theory in my head, a connection of causation, so I was hitting on this existing social science theory called sport-based youth development, using and leveraging the power of sport to create individual and social change. I knew that relationships were important, that mutually beneficial relationships place kids on a better trajectory in life. With organized baseball, we took care of the social aspect from the sport. Then we started looking at academics, and added in academic enrichment, tutoring and homework help, and checking grades and tying that into the program and starting to track outcomes and figuring out where things relate. Then we started looking at civic engagement and cultural awareness, and getting kids involved in things that impact their lives on a daily basis. With so much segregation in Chicago, another staple was exposing them to other cultures so they are not so surprised when they see things but have a respect for other cultures. And visiting neighborhoods outside the South Side.
BD: The postsecondary and workforce component seems a natural next step after the kids participate in Little League.
LS: I’d ask kids, why weren’t you at practice? They couldn’t be at practice because my mom was at work and they didn’t have any bus fare. It’s like, wow—it eventually kept pointing back to money. Teenagers need pocket money. I have three teenagers now, and they constantly need money. So I thought this is the issue that drives black males into the street, it’s because of this desire for some money. And if the workforce isn’t open to them, then what can they do to have some money. I created SYL, Successful Youth Leaders, which became a continuum of service. It was part of the same program, but instead of playing we substituted being part of a team and earning a wage and creating jobs around the industry. We created four tracks: junior umpires, statistician, grounds crew and sports journalism. These could all be lucrative careers—there is a lot of money to be made there.
BD: Could you ever have foreseen being in this position all those years ago in Missouri?
LS: One of my favorite statements is if you want to make god laugh, tell him your plans. Starting Lost Boyz was really no surprise, that is who I am and have been all my life. Some way, somehow I would have arrived at this point.
Ellie is a high school freshman and the student commissioner for the River Forest Sustainability Committee. She has presented to the District 90 School Board about implementing a new sustainability unit into the science curriculum. Younger generations are taking inspiring action around sustainability as part of a global movement. I'm thrilled to have Ellie's voice as part of The Fact Sheet. -Bob
By Ellie Raidt
The world is evolving, previously hidden viewpoints are surfacing and progressive habits are becoming more popular by the day. While there are many new things happening, one thing nobody can deny is the increase in citizens who live a more plant-based lifestyle, citizens who refuse single-use plastic, and a growing wave of sustainable behaviors. Plant-based options and paper straws are making their way into more restaurants, mainstream grocery stores and the lives of millions. So why is this seemingly sudden change happening? According to Business Insider, Instagram has 700 million monthly users. Could this recent increase in sustainable behavior be the result of disquieting news on social media such as the Fairlife videos, evidence of a more dangerous or inhospitable future due to climate change, or first-hand photos of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
It is no secret that social media has an effect—positive or negative—on most all of its users. So perhaps social media is changing habits and lifestyle. This is what I like to call “Trending Sustainability.” In other words, people, particularly youth, are changing the way they live to be more sustainable due to what they are seeing on social media.
Examples such as the posts below are pushing youth to live more sustainably, often resulting in behavior such as eliminating meat and dairy in their diets, boycotting plastic straws, and the growing trend of thrifting clothes rather than buying firsthand items.
For years, parents and teachers have been concerned about social media because of its effects on adolescents. Reasons for the concerns range from cyberbullying to the negative impact aspirational body images can have on kids’ self-esteem.
However, over time, things change and rules change. It is becoming easier to track and prevent suspicious or harmful online activity. As the rules surrounding social media develop and expand, many users are taking advantage of these platforms for good and increasingly using them to fight the biggest threat to humanity yet: the climate crisis.
A collective message can be heard by harnessing the attention of hundreds of millions of users. People naturally want to fit in. They naturally want to be accepted. Social media can sometimes make that difficult. Maybe as a digital generation we can use social media to open minds to positive new ideas and to more beneficial participation. Trending Sustainability is an emerging landmark in the digital era. Due to the natural urge to fit in, perhaps people can expand their mindsets and help solve the climate crisis that we simply cannot ignore.
Nations like Canada are banning single-use plastics, and areas of California, Arizona and Illinois are banning plastic straws and bags. The world is evolving, and the way we use our resources is evolving with it.
Social media and engaged audiences could easily be the key to preventing a devastating future and replacing it with a promising one. Trending Sustainability is an opportune door to a greener planet.
Bob Dolgan was with the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 45 years, from 1957 to 1963 and from 1967 to 2006, when he retired. Forty of those years were in the Sports department. Dolgan has won sportswriting awards in five decades, from the 1960s to 2000s.
In 1985, the nation’s sports editors named Dolgan one of the top 10 sports columnists in the country. In 1987, he won the U.S. Football Writers Award for the best column in the nation for a piece on late Browns player Don Rogers. In 1997, U.S. sports editors named his series on black baseball pioneers one of the top 10 in the country. In 1998, he wrote a summer-long series on the World Series champion 1948 Indians, visiting the living players on that team, from New Jersey to California.
Dolgan’s sports columns and stories have been reprinted in Golf Digest, The Sporting News and Baseball Digest. He was inducted into the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame in 1999 by the Press Club of Cleveland. He's the author of three books, "America's Polka King: The Real Story of Frankie Yankovic and His Music," "Heroes, Scamps and Good Guys: 101 Colorful Characters from Cleveland Sports History" and "The Sportswriter Who Punched Sam McDowell and Other Sports Stories."
He now lives in Indian Head Park, Illinois, near his five grandchildren, with his wife, Cecilia. (He's also my dad.)
And now...just the facts!
Bob Jr: What made you think of getting into sportswriting?
Bob Sr: My best subject in college was English. And I was always involved in sports. I loved sports. So I decided to put the two together. I always thought sportswriting would be a good job. But I thought you needed a connection with somebody like a father-in-law or uncle to get a job on the paper. I made a decision about a month before I graduated that I would try to become a sportswriter since those were the two things I liked the most, sports and writing.
Bob Jr: Did you ever think about the fact that your dad was a laborer and your mom was a seamstress and you were doing something new for the family?
Bob Sr: My grandfather, who came from Slovenia and couldn’t speak a word of English, when I was about 10 years old gave me a mechanical pencil and said ‘You’re going to be the first person in the family to go to college.’ But when I was thinking of a job, I had no thoughts that I was going to be anything special. I was just trying to find a way to make a living. A couple of my friends said, ‘What are you going to do with that degree? You’re going to work in a factory with us.’ That filled me with dread.
Bob Jr: Who were your greatest writing influences?
Bob Sr: My favorite writer was Franklin Lewis, sports columnist with the Cleveland Press. Of course I knew all the guys with the bylines: Harry Jones, Frank Gibbons and Hal Lebovitz. They were the three major baseball writers (in Cleveland). But as I went along I developed some other favorite writers like Roger Kahn, I began reading him when he was at Sport magazine. He’s the guy who wrote “Boys of Summer.” I loved Red Smith, of the New York Herald Tribune. I liked Jimmy Cannon a lot, another New York columnist. And I got to know all those guys. Roger Kahn offered me a job later on with the Saturday Evening Post. And I met Red Smith at the World Series and at the Kentucky Derby. And Jimmy Cannon I knew from the baseball beat.
Bob Jr: What about outside of sports? I know there are some literary figures you admired.
Bob Sr: I liked the style of Somerset Maugham a lot. I liked F. Scott Fitzgerald. I liked Hemingway’s first book, “The Sun Also Rises,” and his last book, “The Old Man and the Sea.” But you can name just about every major writer. I’ve read Tolstoy, Sinclair Lewis. Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson. I really liked that. His first book, “Path to Power,” is probably the greatest biography I’ve ever read.
Bob Jr: Jumping to when you were assigned the Indians beat, what was it like being a baseball writer in the early 1960s?
Bob Sr: The overriding thing was, you were on your own. Those days, you never called the editor and said, ‘What should I do?’ I don’t know if I was right or wrong, but that’s the way I operated. I never asked anybody for advice and learned as I went along. Today it’s easy. After every ballgame they hold a press conference. They bring everybody in to address the media. You don’t even have to know anybody.
The players didn’t care about the media as much in those days. They might talk to you because they were feeling good or because they knew you. It wasn’t important to them to talk to the media.
Bob Jr: It seemed like they didn’t think about what they were going to say, or plan on it. And the writers had all access. You could talk to players at any time, on the field, off the field, at the bar or at the hotel.
Bob Sr: I think we got to know the players better because we traveled with them. It was all much more personal. The Indians’ traveling secretary treated me like I was a member of the ball club. Just have your suitcase outside your hotel door by 9:30 in the morning.
Bob Jr: You were alongside the players more than separate from them. You had to create some boundaries, though, because if you wrote something that made them mad they might not talk to you again. At the same time, you were fighting for scoops.
Bob Sr: That was the tricky part, dealing with the players and still not being a PR man. I didn’t want to be known as a PR man. I was among the first to really treat the job like a news thing. But at the same time you had to be friendly with the players. That was the tricky stuff.
Bob Jr: I remember the story where someone got mad at you and gave you the cold shoulder, and another where you were called names, like with Jim Piersall. Were there other examples?
Bob Sr: Well, John Romano, he was a catcher, a hard-hitting catcher. But he wasn’t very good behind the plate defensively, just average. The team was struggling and all of a sudden Romano wasn’t playing, he missed five games in a row. I thought they were giving him a rest. So one of the ballplayers I was drinking with said, ‘You know why he’s not playing. The other day when that winning run scored on the wild pitch he got hit right in the mask by the pitch.’ We couldn’t see it from the press box because we were up on top. But it hit him right in the mask, more like a passed ball, and the manager benched him. I wrote the story and we even had a cartoon of Romano being in the doghouse.
When I came to the dugout the next day—I always showed up. I didn’t hide out. You couldn’t hide out. If you hid out they’d really hate you. Bubba Phillips, who was Romano’s roommate, said ‘That was the worst story I ever read. You ruined his career, he won’t ever be able to play again.’ Romano came out waving a bat and said ‘You better never write anything about me again!’ He was threatening me with a bat in the dugout. Then we went on the road and he hit five home runs in six games.
Bob Jr: Whatever happened to Romano?
Bob Sr: Romano had a substantial career. I called him up years later and we had a very nice conversation. He probably forgot all about it. [laughing]
Another guy, Frank Funk, a relief pitcher, during a game it was announced they’d send him down to the minors. I went down and talked to him and Funk lashed into the manager, Mel McGaha, and I wrote all the quotes down and put it into the paper. That night the television station read my story and called Funk and asked him for an interview, and he said ‘I never said that, it’s all baloney and I don’t know where he got that.’ The next day Gordon Cobbledick (sports editor) called me up and said, ‘Bob, Funk said you never talked to him and the story is all baloney.’ I said, ‘Cobby, take my word for it, I swear to god, I talked to him and that’s what he said.’ And Cobbledick said, ‘OK, Bob, we’re standing by your story.”
Bob Jr: Do you think that today’s media climate results in less interesting coverage?
Bob Sr: Oh definitely. When’s the last time you saw anybody come up with a big story? I felt the writers should hang around with the ballplayers. There were always seven or eight guys who liked to go out at night and hit the bars and I’d go with them. And I picked up stories that way. For example, Johnny Antonelli was a starting pitcher and had been a big star in the National League. One of the guys told me, ‘He’s going to quit the team tomorrow night when we get back to Cleveland.’ Antonelli had been with the Indians for half a year. So I walked up to him and said, ‘John, can I ask a question? Is it true you’re quitting the team?’ He said, ‘How’d you find that out?’ I questioned him further and he said was going to go in and talk to the general manager as soon as we got home and tell him he was quitting. He was finished, retired.
Bob Jr: Did you break the story before it was announced?
Bob Sr: It wasn’t ever announced. My story was it. You would never get that today.
Here’s another one. Gabe Paul was the general manager of the Indians. He joined the Indians early in the 1961 season. He had left his previous team, the Reds, and I got word from a broadcaster who’d give me stories. He couldn’t put them on the air because he was working for the ball club. He said, ‘Bob, I have a good one for you. Gabe Paul still owns a piece of the Cincinnati Reds.’ [laughing] He was the general manager of the Indians, that’s a conflict of interest.
So I walked up to Gabe and said, ‘Is it true that you still own a piece of the Cincinnati Reds?’ Even though we were friendly, he called me a ferret...muttered it. He said, ‘You know I’ve been trying to sell it.’ I wrote the story and he sold the piece the next day.
Bob Jr: Your goal must have been to tell the stories so that all the fans out there knew what was happening.
Bob Sr: I was writing for the fans, the readers, more than the editors or anybody else. Some guys only wrote stuff to make the players happy. There were players who were having good years and doing well, and I wrote that, too. I wasn’t just looking for the bad stuff.
Bob Jr: Tell me about Art Modell (longtime Cleveland Browns owner) because you wrote about him a lot.
Bob Sr: Here’s one for you. A season ticket holder called me and said that Modell for the first time is making me buy tickets to exhibition games, which are worthless. They never did require buying tickets to exhibitions because all the subs were playing. I called Modell and said why are you doing this. He said, ‘Well, other teams do it. I could have had three exhibition games to buy, but I’m doing it for only one.’
Bob Jr: But his job is to make money for the team. And he found a way.
Bob Sr: He was making tons of money already. He was drawing 80,000 people every game! He had the biggest stadium in the league!
Bob Jr: Did it surprise you that he then moved the team to Baltimore in 1995?
Bob Sr: Modell committed the two biggest sins in Cleveland sports history. First, he fired Paul Brown, the greatest coach in football history. But moving the team, that was a shocker. Again, he had the biggest stadium in the league, drawing 80,000 people. The Browns had some success, but overall his teams were below .500. At one point they didn’t win a playoff game for 20 years. But he always talked to me, that was the good thing. [laughing] One time he said, ‘Where’d you hear that? The bowling alley?’ He’d heard I was bowling.
Modell was mad because the Indians got a new ballpark and were getting all the attention at Jacobs Field. He even said at one point he was going to have the stadium remodeled. He wanted to be the top guy in Cleveland sports. It was like he wanted to drive the Indians out of town, he made life miserable for them. Gabe Paul said he was trying to drive him out of town.
Bob Jr: But the Ravens did win two Super Bowls with him.
Bob Sr: OK, but that has nothing to do with him taking the team out of Cleveland. And they didn’t win two, they won one.
Bob Jr: Well, I think the vestiges of his regime were in charge in 2012 when they won their second Super Bowl.
Bob Sr: There should be a law against moving. These teams are institutions. They are such a big part of the city. There should be a law that if a team is losing money, the owner should at least have to sell it to somebody that would keep the team there. Then if they can’t do that, let them move.
Bob Jr: I wanted to switch over to some of your non-sports writing, interviews with the likes of Cesar Chavez. Was that any more challenging than covering sports?
Bob Sr: The only challenge with him and the United Farm Workers, the only tough part was finding him. They told me he was near Bakersfield, California, that was his headquarters. But he wasn’t in an office in a city. He was up in the hill country, and I talked to him up in a retreat in the country. Very nice guy. I agreed with everything he wanted.
The job was tougher in the baseball world because I’m dealing with people close up and trying to tell the real story. As a result, you have conflicts with some of the players, managers. What I found, I wrote columns for most of a year, on politics and other things, and they all wanted to cooperate with the press. Talking to Chavez, he wanted to get his message out and so he was happy to talk to me.
I did a column on John Wayne, who was a big advocate for the Vietnam War. And I wrote what right does he have to talk about it, when he was young he didn’t go into the army.
Bob Hope was another advocate for the war. He was at a press conference in Cleveland, and I asked questions about Vietnam and he got mad at me. He yelled out, ‘Look are you in favor of the Viet Cong?’ I wrote a whole story and he came up and said, ‘I’m sorry I said that, people ask me questions, and it really bugged me.’ It was a front page story.
Bob Jr: How did the autobiography of Frankie Yankovic, “America’s Polka King,” come together?
Bob Sr: I had met Yankovic a couple times in my younger days. My father was a boarder in his house. So I began interviewing him. He was a great interview. I’d talk to him and I’d come over to his house. He was telling the story, and I wrote it. Then about 20 years later, I updated it.
Bob Jr: Turning back to sports, you were able to get interviews with a lot of athletes who didn’t want to talk to the media. How did you do that? Ted Williams, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Dave Kingman, Jim Rice, Kirk Gibson, Steve Carlton and Albert Belle to name a few.
Bob Sr: I’ll give you an example. I was talking to the Detroit Tigers' manager, Sparky Anderson, in the dugout and a couple writers were there. I said, ‘Where’s Kirk Gibson? I want to do a column on Gibson.’ And the writers said, ‘He won’t talk to you. He hasn’t talked to us all year. He doesn’t talk to anybody.’ So I thought I’ll give it a try. So I walked in and said, ‘Hello Kirk, I’m with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, mind if I ask a few questions?’ He said, ‘No, sit down.’ [laughing] Then when we were finished I said, ‘You know, the guys said you didn’t give an interview all year, why did you talk to me?’ He said, ‘Some people know how to approach a person and some don’t.’
Ted Williams was another one. Both times I talked to Ted Williams, we had a real long conversation.
Bob Jr: I was going to ask you about the column on the death of Browns safety Don Rogers.
Bob Sr: It’s the biggest response I ever got. It may have been the biggest response in the history of the Plain Dealer. Of any piece. Of anybody. He died of an overdose. I was astounded when I was starting to get letters and people calling me. I got close to a thousand letters, they were bringing in boxes full of letters from the mailroom. And an equal number of phone calls. The response was favorable. Everybody loved it. This went on for two weeks. It kind of scared me because I never had that reaction before or since.
Bob Jr: What's the best team you ever saw?
Bob Sr: The most impressive team I ever saw was the 1961 Green Bay Packers. They came into Cleveland to play the Browns. They got the ball on the 20-yard line four times in the first half and they drove down and scored each time. Jim Taylor was the running back and Bart Starr the quarterback. It didn’t seem (Hall of Fame running back) Paul Hornung had done much in the game. I went down to talk to Coach Vince Lombardi, who was very shy by the way. Not at all the tough guy. I said, ‘Who was the guy blocking all those ends, taking the ends out.’ And he said, ‘Hornung. Yeah, he’s a great blocker.’ So I talked to Hornung and wrote a story about him as a blocker. Everybody else wrote that he was a decoy.
Bob Jr: You also covered The Drive (1986 AFC Championship game).
Bob Sr: They used to say, ‘No cheering in the press box,’ but I ignored that. Because I used to see the old guys do that (cheering). I did it when it was deserved. I didn’t always do it. But in the fourth quarter against Denver, I was saying ‘We’re going to the Super Bowl!’ I was cheering. That team deserved it.
Bob Jr: Who else did you enjoy interviewing?
Bob Sr: I was one of a group of writers traveling with Pete Rose in the final week as he pursued Ty Cobb's hit record of 4,192. I saw him tie the record in Wrigley Field, and two days later he broke the mark in Cincinnati. Rose held a press conference before and after each game. He was always a great interview. I also interviewed him one-on-one several times before and after he broke the record.
Bob Jr: We’ll close with this. Could you tell me the story about World B. Free, who joined the Cleveland Cavaliers late in his NBA career, in 1983?
Bob Sr: He was a great character, always talkative. The Cavs had a rookie coach, George Karl. They started the season winning two and losing 19 right off the bat. I was thinking they’d break the NBA record for fewest victories, which was nine. So I was pursuing a story on that angle, about setting the record for losing. I asked World, ‘Do you think the team can win nine games?’ He said, ‘You kidding? I’ll win nine games by myself.’ [laughing] After that, they went on a hot streak, played over .500 basketball the rest of the year and almost beat Boston in the first round of the playoffs. He was a great guy.
Welcome to the fourth edition of The Fact Sheet. Throughout 2019 I'll be posting these one-of-a-kind conversations with social impact innovators.
Bob Raidt is a marketing professional who most recently has served as an EVP, Group Account Director at Leo Burnett Group, where over his 22-year career Bob has held global account leadership roles on McDonald's, Samsung and Coke. He also served as CEO of Arc Worldwide. Bob received his MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. He has long been active civically, and is currently a board director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), as well as Chicago Tennis Patrons—making tennis available to kids in disadvantaged communities.
Bob recently wrote an op-ed for Little Black Book on the opportunity brands have to gain greater traction with Millennials and Generation Z by being more assertive on social issues.
And now...just the facts!
BD: Why don’t you think brands have acted in a more socially responsible fashion in the past two to three years even though we’re in a cultural moment that demands action?
BR: I do see some brands taking braver, more assertive positions on social issues. But, in looking across the marketing landscape, I think there is plenty of opportunity for more brands to do more of it. A good and useful starting point for brands is action regarding environmental sustainability. This is low-hanging fruit. While policy-makers may be weaponizing their rhetoric around the subject for political purposes, the National Climate Assessment released in November, among many other studies, leaves little room for doubt that the dangers of climate change are very real and particularly meaningful for younger consumers who are most threatened over their lifetimes by the consequences of today’s inadequate government policies as well as insufficient action by corporations and individuals. I believe Millennials and Gen Z will reward companies and their brands who are bold and proactive in helping to address the problem.
As I said, there are brands that are stepping up. In the quick service restaurant segment, for example, it’s great to see McDonald’s participation in the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. And Dunkin’ announced they will discontinue use of polystyrene cups in 2020, eliminating 1 billion foam cups per year from the waste stream.
I admire Columbia Sportswear for pledging $10 million in tax savings from the GOP’s corporate tax cuts in order to fight climate change. And, I’d love to see more companies do what Allbirds recently did by applying a carbon tax on themselves based on a study they commissioned that identified the carbon impact for every pair of shoes they produce.
I’m impressed by these commitments, and I’m eager to see brands do more in response to climate change and other charged social issues. I was also encouraged to read recently Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh say, “It’s imperative that companies not be afraid to weigh in on the issues that are really impacting the world, whether that’s gun violence or climate change."
BD: It seems to me that brands that are reactive rather than proactive appear out-of-touch with the present reality of 2019.
BR: I believe that brands that will have enduring success in the coming years will successfully and consistently express both their yin and their yang. By that I mean the yin is what the brand does for consumers by way of product or service, and the yang is how consumers see the brand behaving based on its beliefs, its values. Where I think marketing tends to overcorrect now is by focusing much more on the yin—promoting product attributes and benefits (differentiated if possible) to drive immediate commerce. But the opportunity cost for marketers is that many aren’t sufficiently nourishing their brands to have more meaning in people’s lives, to give consumers more reason to care about them and regard them as being proactively on their side in addressing the generational problems they face. Again, I think this is particularly true for Millennials and Gen Z, who have inherited profound social problems whether they be climate change, gun safety, social justice…you name it….that in many respects require all hands on-deck to solve – government, individuals and, very importantly, corporations and their brands. Unfortunately, there are still too many brands that are malnourished because attention to their yang and communication to consumers about it have been insufficient.
BD: Do you think it’s always been true that younger generations are more attuned to the yang part or do you think that it is especially prevalent now with millennials and Gen Z?
BR: What excites me, and gives me great hope, is the willingness that I see among young people to speak out and act. I think the Parkland Students’ March for our Lives initiatives and the way Greta Thunberg has spoken climate truth to power are super inspiring examples. I want to help them. I want to see brands help them.
I continue to see observations that political divides are becoming increasingly generational. I recently had the privilege of attending an Economic Club of Chicago event where Bono was interviewed by Mellody Hobson. It was inspiring, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what was said in the interview. When asked about capitalism and globalization, Bono said he certainly supports them, particularly the innovation and commerce that they enable, but that we are all threatened by the fact that capitalism has been “off the leash,” that capitalism is more in control of humanity now than humanity is in control of capitalism. Consequently, vast populations have not been sharing in the prosperity.
I think younger people see that capitalism has not been sufficiently balanced by democracy, by civic participation to influence better policy. They see that a strong Dow Jones Index isn’t by itself a sufficient measure of prosperity. Quality of life, quality of society matter just as much and more. The consumer opportunity for brands today is certainly to enhance consumers’ lives through their products or services, but to demonstrate that they care just as much about helping to nurture the quality of society that consumer life occurs in, and that they are acting on that care. Corporate social responsibility isn’t just a nice to do; I think it’s now a must for successful, enduring brands.
BD: Let’s turn to the Colin Kaepernick Nike ad. There was a boycott and a ton of criticism of it from some circles. Your piece noted that Nike stock rose by $6 billion, though. Does that suggest more brands should take that authentic approach and ignore the noise and the naysayers?
BR: There is a very long list of morally virtuous stands that brands can take to help improve quality of society. I think it’s useful that the stands brands choose to take be anchored in relevant brand associations. I applaud Gillette, for example, for taking on toxic masculinity. To me, it was sufficiently close to home for their brand. They have grooming products that enhance the civility and expression with which people present themselves. But, civility, of course, isn’t just about the way one physically shows up, it’s also very much about the way one conducts oneself and communicates. Consequently, with civility and personal expression being close to home, I do think it makes sense for Gillette to share its POV on this larger social problem that consumers care about. As for Nike, the brand has always been very much about competition. For competition to be real and beneficial, there must be fairness, equality, a level playing field. Colin Kaepernick has taken a position to put the spotlight on inequality in our society and, its tragic and fatal consequences, and he’s done it at considerable personal sacrifice. I think it’s highly relevant for Nike to express its support for an athlete, an individual who is fighting for fairness and equality.
BD: In your op-ed, you mention that a friend was incredulous when you said you set out in your career to make the world a better place through marketing. Can you tell me what’s been behind that goal?
BR: Every person deserves to decide what mindset is going to propel their performance in life and career. Driving revenue and profit—yes, that’s obviously crucial in the marketing profession and it's a crucially important priority for me in a marketing leadership role—but that’s solely not enough for me and, I’m sure, for most everyone. We live in a vibrant culture, and marketing has resources behind it that can have a positive impact on that culture. I think there’s an opportunity with marketing and advertising to not only use creativity to help brands perform commercially, but to use creativity to help brands perform in a society that is made better by what brands do and by what brands say. It’s in a brand’s radical self-interest to help create a higher quality, more livable society. I always want to challenge myself to contribute thinking that can help make the world a better place by what we do and say on behalf of a brand. I believe brands ultimately benefit from that aspiration.
BD: I know of your charitable involvement and wondered about your participation in Dancing with Chicago Celebrities and what drew you to that. How does one decide to do that? It is not only giving time to a cause, but it’s learning all these dance steps.
BR: There is a book I read a number of years ago called 30 Lessons of Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, which I highly recommend. A social psychologist visited all these nursing homes, and he interviewed 80- and 90-somethings about their lives. And one of the lessons that he drew from them was just the importance of saying yes to new opportunities. Sometimes fear can prevent people from stepping out of their comfort zones and doing things that they can really benefit from. My friend who is one of the organizers of Dancing with Chicago Celebrities has asked me to participate in the event for a number of years and I kept saying no, because the idea of performing ballroom dance in front of an audience is kind of terrifying, especially if you have two left feet like I do! Plus, I’m certainly no celebrity! It was something I’d never done, so it was definitely outside of my comfort zone. But, this year, in the spirit of that book, I said yes. And, I’m glad I did. What I discovered is that while I’m not particularly good at it, I really do enjoy ballroom dancing. It was fun! Also, I was very inspired by Arthur Murray Studios and my professional dance partner and instructor, and what I saw that they do for people every day. If you really think about ballroom dancing, it enables so much positivity in participants’ lives: emotional well-being, communication, fitness, connection, creative expression and just a lot of fun. I’m very grateful to those who helped me raise nearly $20,000 for breast cancer research and care access with my dancing effort. I found it all to be a great life experience in doing something to raise money for a great cause and discover a side of myself I didn’t know was there.
Yes is a great word. Earlier in my career at Leo Burnett I was asked to work as an ex-pat in Singapore and Tokyo. I said yes, and my family and I had six amazing years in Asia. Initially, the prospect of doing it and being away from many friends and family and the American life I’d always known was kind of scary. I look back now, and I realize how exhilarating it was and how much of a confidence builder it was to adapt to working within so many cultures across Asia. For example, to work in Korea on a Monday, the Philippines on a Wednesday, and to finish the week on a Friday in Thailand was a rewarding, unforgettable life and work experience. It’s good to say yes.
Welcome to the third edition of The Fact Sheet. Throughout 2019 I'll be posting these one-of-a-kind conversations with social impact innovators.
Kalyan Ray-Mazumder is a full-time MBA student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, graduating as a Wallman Scholar in June, and has just launched Prepmedians, an entertainment-focused standardized test platform. Kalyan is a perfect-scoring tutor with 5,000-plus hours of tutoring the ACT/SAT and also a professional off-Broadway/film actor. He earned a BA magna cum laude from Yale University. Prepmedians is participating in the semifinals of Booth’s Social New Venture Challenge on May 28, with the finals to come on June 4.
And now...just the facts!
BD: How do high school students typically prepare for the SAT or ACT?
KRM: It’s a really good first question because it gets to the heart of the inequity in the system. The answer to that depends on each student’s socioeconomic demographic. On the high-income side, you’ll see students who prep for six to eight months, spend $200 and $300 an hour for tutoring and end up spending anywhere in the $8,000 to $10,000 range for the span of that time to prep for the SAT or ACT. On the low-income side, you’ll see students pick up the red ACT book or the blue College Board SAT book and they’ll leaf through it the night before the test and do a few problems. They might read the explanations in the back and maybe they search the internet a little bit looking at Reddit, YouTube, or Quora, but the extent to which they’re preparing is largely determined by their financial means and time. There are a lot of other things happening in their lives that need immediate attention.
One of the things that’s happening we see across the entire spectrum is that no student is starting the academic race from the same starting point. And furthermore they’re not wearing the same “shoes” and so inevitably you’re going to see differences in outcome that don’t necessarily reflect differences in academic ability. ACT itself did a study that demonstrated that on average a higher-income student will get what is equivalent to 26 percentile points more than a low-income student. That’s a pretty staggering statistic to think about. That’s another reason I’m bringing this to market because I truly believe that students who go through the Prepmedians platform will see staggering growth in their performance.
BD: The next round of tests is the first week of June. Is there time, especially for students who already might be at a disadvantage, to truly prepare for those tests?
KRM: Students will typically start preparing for their tests in their junior year. The SAT from the College Board is the primary state accountability test for Illinois they are going to take. Their schools will have paid for them to take the test for free inside the school during the school week. There is a June option available to them, whether June 1 SAT or June 8 ACT. What we’re trying to do with Prepmedians is because we teach in such a unique way, through sketch comedy, parody, music and rap, it’s something where we want to be able to jump in right now and help these students in the last three or four weeks before they take the test to have a fresh voice and a way of teaching them the material that is easily accessible to them. So they can try and get these next points along the way. We started with the ACT English and SAT Writing & Language sections because these are the sections that schools don’t necessarily have the resources to effectively teach. When I was tutoring, regardless of where they started, the majority of my students would end up in the 95th percentile or above for the English section. Because you teach them parts of speech, independent versus dependent clauses, different types of punctuation, subject-verb agreement, verb tenses and then the strategies for actually tackling the harder structure questions. Students can access that. It’s something they can learn. The short answer is quite distinctly yes, in the ACT English and in the SAT Writing & Language section the amount of time left until the June test is definitely sufficient.
BD: How big is this market? I’m sure you and your team have thought about this.
KRM: Presumably there are about 4 million students who are taking these tests. Of that, 20%, or roughly 800,000 students, are test takers who are low-income. These are the students we really want to help and provide this service to. We’ve already begun conversations with local Chicago and also New York public schools about how we can bring our services to market to help prepare for upcoming academic years and new students. What we envision is that there will be both these partnerships developed with schools and also a way of providing access online direct to consumer for students who might have different learning needs, which is also part of our market. And these students may have more financial needs at times. So we need to also make sure we maintain our affordability. For example right now through June 15 it’s only $30 to access the ACT English section or SAT Writing and Language section. That’s the full 20-plus videos that are all shot with our professional Broadway singers/actors, sketch comedians and with me as the host. And our 350-plus practice questions and the ability for students to create complete learning profiles to track their progress along the way. We are very conscious about making sure we are able to access and use the power of business to spread our impact and ensure it’s something that remains affordable and accessible to students in need. Our goal is to help create a generation of college-educated, engaged students.
BD: What are the benefits of being a web-based service versus in-person tutoring?
KRM: One of the things Prepmedians strives to do is really take advantage of what video- and web-based technology has to offer, in terms of it being a quite distinct medium from in-person tutoring. With video-based technology, we can cater to the particular needs of students. If they are visual learners, we have closed captioning for them. We have the ability for students who might have different needs in auditory processing to slow down the videos according to what they want. We have the ability for students to review a question set in a randomized order so they can continue to practice rather than memorizing. The ability for students to rewind and fast forward and understand that however they need to learn they don’t need to feel ashamed about that, or need to be in a situation where they don’t have the courage to ask a question. On their own they can rewind, replay and so forth.
We filmed with a professional set in Brooklyn with a full production crew who have done incredible work ranging from television to commercials and film. We have really taken advantage of film as a medium and the ability for us to have the sketch comedy players act out scenes. I am in a sort of a John Oliver role providing through graphic interfaces the necessary pedagogical component. The idea is to tap into students’ emotional part of the brain, the amygdala, and allow that to aid the hippocampus, the memory part of the brain. So much research recently has demonstrated that if you engage the amygdala in the learning process, you increase awareness, attention, motivation and retention. As we say, learning is worth laughing for.
BD: You’ve said that the idea is to create a generation of college-engaged students - that’s a really powerful statement. What’s driven the socially conscious approach for you and your teammates?
KRM: One of the things that I’ve learned through business school is that business isn’t evil. Corporations aren’t necessarily as evil as, in my former life as an actor and educator, I might have thought. I have complete respect for people who believe that the way they can make an impact and obtain fulfillment in their life is through a business engine. What I came to realize is that I tick differently, though. I’ve realized that there is an important element in play here. The time I spent when I was working with the 1% of the 1% and making good money and enjoying the people I was working with, I wasn’t feeling completely fulfilled even though my bank account was more than sufficient for the life I was leading. The realization that there’s more to what I want to do personally than make a lot of money came to fruition when I was able to re-engage with the reason I came to business school, which is to spread this social impact mission. I admit the first year I was caught up in the consulting phase and I spent a summer working at the Walt Disney Company for strategy. All this was a necessary part of my development as a person. I’m not a corporate America guy and I’m actually grateful for those experiences because now I am dead set on the path I’m on. I feel for the first time in my professional life that all of my cylinders are firing. To see these students who have been traditionally disadvantaged in this education game, to see the looks on their faces when they see the materials that they now have access to. One of the most powerful things to see a person do is to smile and learn at the same time and to have a hand in that is an incredibly fulfilling process.
Prepmedians is currently offering their entire Basic Tier for free and then providing a $29.99 add-on for the next two tiers for full access to the ACT English or SAT Writing & Language sections through June 15, 2019, which gives students 20-plus entertaining educational videos, 350-plus practice questions and explanations, and individual profiles to track their progress at prepmedians.com. This launch comes in time for students preparing for their June ACT/SATs.
Welcome to the second edition of The Fact Sheet. Throughout 2019 I'll be posting these one-of-a-kind conversations with social impact innovators.
Tim Frick started Mightybytes, one of the oldest digital agencies in Chicago, in early 1998 to help purpose-driven companies, social enterprises, and large nonprofits solve problems, amplify their impact, and drive measurable results. A Certified B Corp and Illinois Benefit Corporation, Mightybytes uses the power of business for good. Tim is also the author of four books on digital strategy and sustainable design, including O’Reilly Media’s Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services, the first-ever book to help design teams incorporate sustainability principles into their digital projects. Tim’s books are used at higher learning institutions around the world. He regularly presents at conferences, has given a TEDx talk on digital sustainability, and offers workshops on sustainable design, measuring impact, and problem solving in the digital economy.
And now...just the facts!
BOB DOLGAN: Can you explain what a B Corp is in terms that, say, my 6-year-old daughter could understand?
TIM FRICK: [laughing] In its simplest terms B Corps are companies that are for-profit and that use business as a force for social good. That’s the broadest way of encapsulating what B Corps do. We want to grow and build a sustainable and inclusive economy. That bigger picture shared prosperity is what drives all B Corps. We are verified by B Lab, a third-party nonprofit, to meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. That’s the simplest way to explain it.
BD: You’ve really made it a mission of yours to promote the B Corp sector. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s behind that? You could apply your social impact focus in any number of ways.
TF: There’s a few things going on there. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of business, or more particularly, the excesses of unregulated capitalism. I was a reluctant business owner when I started my first company in 1995. The internet happened and I realized it was a great way to make a living on my own, but I also didn’t want to associate myself with what I saw as capitalism-run-amok in the 80s and 90s. As a business owner, I wanted to make sure I was building my own personal well-being and that of the company while also having a positive impact on society in some way. At the time, the only way I knew how to do that was through nonprofits. As a company we were doing social impact work by instinct, but the thing I really liked about the B Corp certification, and why I was so passionate about it, is because it addresses a lot of the social and environmental problems we are dealing with right now. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to make money, but it is a bad thing to make money and be an asshole about it. Because it’s verified by a third-party, the B Impact Assessment makes you walk the walk no matter what. It gives you a roadmap to building a better business and helps you balance being a good corporate citizen with making money.
BD: At first glance, it feels like a design company might not be a natural fit for being a B Corp since you don’t make a physical product. It’s a fairly abstract idea for a design company to do this.
TF: It is and it isn’t. At its core, design is about solving problems. When we first became a B Corp, many of the questions were about supply chain and where the company sources its materials. And we were like, well, we’re not really a product company, we’re a service company, an agency that designs websites for a living. So our supply chain is made up of pixels and people. When you’re trying to reduce the impact of that, what do you do? That’s when we started researching and learned that the internet—the thing that we, as a company, build every day—has this massive environmental impact, bigger than that of the commercial airline industry. So we thought, well if we could create a more positive social and environmental impact for our agency we could help others do this as well. We started digging a little bit deeper and found that, often because of bad design decisions, companies were putting out really bloated websites that were neither people- or planet-friendly. If you think back to 2011—the year we first became a Certified B Corp—trying to book an airline ticket on your phone, for example, was a nightmare and a thing that took forever. So we did the research and tried to find efficient ways to create easy-to-use digital products using fewer resources—and then power them with renewable energy.
BD: How dire is the environmental impact of the internet and specifically servers? It seems a truly bad situation, as you explain very clearly in Designing for Sustainability [2016, O’Reilly Media].
TF: Data centers house and serve society’s collective data. They play a huge role in the internet’s environmental impact. But there is still energy lost in transmission from the server to your device. Then there is the energy used to power the device itself. This is especially relevant when you think about the nearly 4.4 billion people who are online as of January 2019. The data and server farm infrastructure supporting all that and the users on the front end require s huge amounts of electricity. According to last year’s Mozilla Internet Health report, if things continue on the same track, by 2025 the internet will be responsible for more carbon emissions than any country on the planet except the United States, China and India. So it’s massive.
BD: As we speak, you’re overlooking Lake Superior from your home in the snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan. How much does being from the UP inform your world view?
TF: It’s huge. I was raised in a very small UP town and, growing up, always had access to nature. That formed the person I am today. It gave me a deep appreciation of the natural world that has only grown as I’ve gotten older. On the social spectrum, I spend a good portion of my time in Chicago and understand all too well the challenges millions of people from diverse backgrounds face when living in close quarters. Conversely, my place in the UP is very rural. Politically, it's deep red. It's economically depressed. Good jobs are hard to come by. It's very white, heteronormative, Christian, etc. Growing up, we had one African-American family in our entire town. I'd never met anyone Muslim, Jewish, etc. until I went to college. Talk about sheltered!
As an out gay man living in rural upper Michigan I have to be cognizant of all this. While my partner and I haven't experienced any bigotry or homophobia firsthand, we do think about it regularly. Growing up in this environment, I saw firsthand how cruel people can be to those who are 'different.’ If we are to cross any sort of divide that's happening in this country, these two worlds must learn to co-exist.
If, by running my small digital agency, I can address some of the issues mentioned during this interview while also building shared prosperity for our employees, the community in which we reside, our customers, and the planet overall, I will feel happy that we have achieved our mission as a company.
Next >> Read the first edition of The Fact Sheet, featuring Jessica Droste Yagan, CEO of Impact Engine.
Welcome to the first-ever edition of The Fact Sheet! I'll be regularly posting these one-of-a-kind conversations with innovators who've committed their lives to making a social impact. Expect to see more of these here at Turnstone throughout 2019.
Jessica Droste Yagan serves as the CEO of Impact Engine, an investment firm with a mission to bring more capital to a market where financial returns are linked to positive social and environmental impacts. Jessica has co-authored two Harvard University case studies on public-private partnerships and currently serves as a board member for nonprofits Metropolitan Planning Council, OneGoal Chicago, The Honeycomb Project, and the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at Chicago Booth, and for-profit impact company Fixer.
And now...just the facts!
BOB DOLGAN: One of my realizations in my MBA program was that there are a lot of different ways to make a social impact beyond traditional nonprofits. What’s led to the choices you’ve made about your impact approach?
JESSICA DROSTE YAGAN: I was originally focused on public policy. In college, I thought the only way to make an impact was through government or nonprofits and that business was working against impact. I realized in college that capitalism can and does create positive social good. And that we can be intentional about that. I got really focused on making the intersection between capitalism and social good stronger and more apparent. I also didn’t believe solving big issues such as climate change and income inequality could be done with government and nonprofits alone. It is possible to both care about the planet and people and make money. It can be about both. I thought what if you optimize that from the beginning. That leads to different decisions when you think that way.
BD: So that must have been on your mind when you went to grad school and later at McDonald’s (leading the creation of global and U.S. sustainable sourcing strategies).
JDY: I thought if you could align profit and social good in a big, public corporation, you could do it anywhere. I ended up at McDonald’s and saw that there could be a lot of win-wins in its supply chain. They had been reactive to every campaign; I thought they could be proactive and build a sustainable sourcing strategy.
BD: That makes a lot of sense. If McDonald’s makes one change to its supply chain strategy, like switching to cage-free eggs recently, that may have as big or bigger impact than what a nonprofit could do.
JDY: You need all the players. Nonprofits play a big role. At McDonald’s, we partnered with nonprofits because they have unique expertise. It’s frustrating that activists never compromise, but you realize that the things you’re trying to do need the activists to be unhappy. They helped move the needle too.
There’s an important distinction between [making an impact on] the environment and on people, when you think about scale. With the environment, bigger is better--save more forests, save more energy, etc. With humans it’s not so straightforward. Touching more people’s lives doesn’t mean you necessarily had the biggest impact. I might touch 100,000 farmers through technical assistance, but a friend who works in social work might truly and deeply change the trajectory of 10 lives. It’s hard to compare the two.
BD: What is it that Impact Engine looks for when it makes investments?
JDY: I joined Impact Engine in 2014 because it was authentic and thoughtful about making money and doing good. In our Venture Capital fund, we’re looking for software companies that are capital efficient, making a social impact and that have a huge market size. Our priorities are education, health, economic empowerment, and environmental sustainability. We’re looking for a direct line to impact rather than companies that are giving back to charity.
BD: Impact Engine made the choice not to invest in “Buy One, Give One” models like those of Toms Shoes and others. That’s a pretty popular concept in the social impact world. Why not do that?
JDY: We don’t want to invest in companies where the impact is disconnected from the profit driver. That can create tension, whereas we’re looking for one to reinforce the other in a virtuous cycle. Also, personally, I’m weary of giving things away that may displace a local industry.
BD: You’re on four nonprofit boards. What do the organizations have in common?
JDY: I tend to focus my time on initiatives that I think create leverage--changing systems or thinking in a way that can multiply time and dollars.
The only social impact Q&A on the web
The idea behind The Fact Sheet is to document interesting conversations with super-interesting people.