BRATTLEBORO—How does an entrepreneur build a successful, value-driven business by going slow?
More than 30 featured speakers and 140 participants explored this question at the sixth annual Slow Living Summit.
Business owners at the food and agricultural entrepreneurship summit, which ran from April 28 to April 30, shared their stories of success — often achieved on a bumpy path — and participated in workshops on funding and business planning.
But ruling the day at the conference was the theme of value: of people’s work, of the products created, and of the communities that support one’s business.
“We’ve got to give value to things that have historically been undervalued,” said speaker Clark Wolf, president and founder of the Clark Wolf Company, a food, restaurant, and food business consulting firm.
Paul and Barbi Schulick, founders of New Chapter, a vitamin company, shared how their company retained its core values after selling four years ago to Procter & Gamble Co., a multinational juggernaut whose brands include Dawn, Crest, and Pampers.
The Schulicks have 10 guiding principles that the B-corp company prints on each box of herbal supplements. These include sustaining the Earth, promoting health, and relieving suffering.
New Chapter keeps to these principles as it works hand in hand with P&G, the Schulicks said.
Staying small felt wrong, said Barbi of the couple’s decision to sell. She and Paul remain involved.
“Their adherence to quality is really fierce,” Barbi said of P&G.
New Chapter launched a “suitor process” when they decided to sell, said Paul. P&G was the best company to step forward.
P&G touches 3 billion people, the couple said. Prior to the 2012 sale, New Chapter at its peak touched 800,000 with approximately $100 million in sales.
With the resources of P&G, New Chapter has the opportunity to help billions of people, Paul said.
Barbi told the audience during the couple’s keynote address on Thursday night that the two met as meditation teachers in the 1970s.
The herbal business that eventually grew up to become New Chapter started as an arm of the couple’s first business, a natural foods store in Massachusetts. Customers wanted vitamin supplements, not herbs, said the Schulicks. So Paul sold vitamins with herbal ingredients.
“The whole is more than the sum of its parts,” said Paul who has studied medicinal herbs since 1973.
In the late 1980s, the couple started fermenting the herbs.
This represented a paradigm shift for the company, said Barbi. It was a new chapter.
‘Farmers were desperate, and we’re farmers too’
Valuing its members and their livelihoods drove multiple changes within the Agri-Mark Dairy Cooperative, said Bob Wellington, the co-op’s senior vice president for economics, communications, and legislative affairs.
According to its website, Agri-Mark markets more than 300 million gallons of milk each year for 1,200 farmers in New England and New York.
“We do right by them [members] and fortunately, they do right by everyone else,” Wellington said.
The co-op looks at sustainability for its member farms as a three-legged stool, said Wellington. The legs are the environment, society, and economics.
“Living within our means, ensuring our means to live,” he continued. “You can’t ask farmers to do more environmental things — and ask them to pay for them — if they don’t have any money.”
Agri-Mark includes the Cabot Cooperative Creamery in Vermont.
The cooperative weathered multiple market drops in the dairy industry. It merged with Cabot Creamery when the creamery experienced a financial squeeze after such a drop.
Many of Agri-Mark’s member-farmers were also a part of Cabot, Wellington said. Merging with the creamery and keeping it going was the best way to protect members.
A purchase of a cheese factory in Middlebury from Kraft Foods followed, as did the purchase of McCadam Cheese, an upstate New York cheesemaker.
“Farmers were desperate, and we’re farmers too,” he said, noting that all of Agri-Mark’s profits go to its members.
Agri-Mark can never compete with the Krafts or Sargentos of the world in marketing dollars. Instead, the co-op has turned to its community.
As one of its marketing programs, the co-op operates a traveling “Farmers Gratitude Grill” that provides free food for community groups like Habitat for Humanity, volunteer fire departments, and rescue squads.
Agri-Mark also has a program called Reward Volunteers that rewards volunteers with prizes. Volunteers track their time, and Agri-Mark’s partners — like King Arthur Flour —award prizes.
Hunger is a symptom
Tanya Fields stressed the value of partnerships.
Fields is the founder and executive director of the BLK Project, a Bronx-based organization addressing food justice and economic development.
She said that working together, with professional partnerships, with crowdsourcing, or with community members can circumvent systems that shortchange entrepreneurs, especially those dealing with issues of class, gender, or race.
Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is a myth, Field said.
She instructed workshop participants to sit on the floor, cross-legged, grab their shoes, and to pull themselves up. Nope. Not physically possible.
“I don’t know who was the sadist who came up with that saying,” Fields said.
Economic inequality, racism, gender inequality — those are the disease, Fields said. Hunger is a symptom.
Fields said entrepreneurs must consider their corporate structure carefully: Choosing to become a B-Corp, a nonprofit, or a cooperative will dictate the types of available funding.
Creating workable partnerships is key, she continued; partnerships that don’t work are “time sucks.”
Her other advice: Learning to say no is empowering, but it’s also about honesty. An entrepreneur’s word is valuable. Keeping one’s word is priceless.
In the final discussion of the summit, Clark Wolf and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne discussed the value of technology and authenticity.
According to Dunne, the Internet can support small, slow-living companies.
The Internet allows for specialized products to find their niche customers, he said. Marketing online can move slowly: “It allows you to have those relationships with people,” said Dunne, who worked for Google as the company’s head of community affairs from 2008 until this February.
Finally, he said, the Internet provides space for recognizing a “true value chain” where the real cost of labor, materials, or ingredients can be shared.
Dunne said that Vermont has stood poised as the artisan, slow-food, and slow-business capital of the world.
But in the fast-paced economy and a world dealing with climate change, Vermont fell behind, he said.
“We got so far behind that we got ahead,” Dunne observed.
Vermont has a creative, enterprising population, he continued, citing its prime agriculture soils and its own water supply.
“And an authenticity that we didn’t lose,” he said.
Wolf said, “This country underprices food across the board.”
McDonald’s hamburgers should cost $15, Wolf said, charging that this underpricing is a lie and it’s killing us with bad health.
Vermont values collaboration, said Wolf, calling it something to admire.
The challenge for a state like Vermont, however, is to find a way to correctly value what the state produces, who produces things, and the land on which the things are produced, he said.