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VBSR Celebrates 25th Anniversary : River Valley edition : Monday, 24 July 2017 14:28 EDT : a service of The Public Press
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Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility Celebrates 25th Anniversary

     by Stephen Morris

Why Here? Why Now? Why VBSR?

Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, the state’s second largest trade organization for businesses, is now 25 years young. How did it happen, and why here?

Mike Burak says it all began with an article called “Taking Over Vermont” by Richard Pollak, published in the April, 1972 issue of Playboy. Pollak, tongue firmly in cheek wrote: “Suppose the nation’s alienated young decided to stage a takeover of Vermont. Not by staging a weekend rock festival at Rutland and then hanging around the Green Mountains like freaked-out trolls. Not by lacing the water supply with assorted chemical brain scramblers. Not even by trashing the 14-karat-gold-leaf dome off the Statehouse in Montpelier. Suppose they decided to do it by the book, within the system, the hard-hat-approved American way — by ballot.”

“I thought it was a great vision,” says Burak, a native of Winooski who left his home state to complete a law degree at Harvard and to cut his legal teeth with Manhattan-based law firms before returning home. “The hippies would take over Vermont. I was all for it!”

Mike Burak
Mike Burak
Yola Carbough
Yola Carbough

Yola Carlough did not read the Playboy article, nor would she necessarily describe herself as a hippie, but she did know that New York City, her home in 1973, was becoming a place of increasingly mean streets, plagued by crime, political and generational divisiveness. She migrated north to the Stowe area and found herself beguiled by the bucolic life of rural Vermont. She never intended the move to be permanent, but year-by-year she became more and more attached to Vermont, eventually securing a position as Director of Social Mission for two guys named Ben and Jerry making ice cream down the road in Waterbury.

Bret Hodgdon is too young to remember anything about a hippie migration. Plus, he didn’t need to be concerned about moving to Vermont, because he has always been here. Raised in the Northeast Kingdom (Hardwick) and a graduate of Lyndon State College, he moved in the opposite direction of the long-haired migrants and now lives in “the big city,” residing in Jericho and as a partner in the accounting firm of Davis & Hodgdon.

Bret Hodgdon
Bret Hodgdon

He has, however, witnessed first-hand the impact of Vermont’s changing business landscape with mushrooming organic food businesses that have made Hardwick a poster child for the nation’s trend towards local, organic foods. Imagine ... Emeril and the Food Channel coming to Hardwick!quiet zone

What Burak, Carlough, and Hodgdon have in common is that all three serve on the Board of Directors for the trade organization Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR). With more than 750 active members, the organization is second in size only to the state Chamber of Commerce and is celebrating its 25th year. No other state boasts an organization anywhere near VBSR’s strength and vitality.

Why is that?

Explanations abound. Not everyone agrees on the meaning of “social responsibility,” let alone why the concept is so compelling in the Green Mountain State. On thing, however, is inarguable. Vermont is a state where people can agree to disagree.
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It’s the Culture

Russ Bennett
Russ Bennett

“You can’t underestimate the importance of town meeting,” says Russ Bennett, whose flowing, shoulder-length, grey locks give him the look of an ex-rock ’n roller which, in fact, he is, having worked on the design and artistic direction for some of the largest outdoor music festivals in the country. His day job, however, is as the owner/founder of Northland Design & Construction which specializes in energy-efficient, high-end residences. “At town meeting people say whatever is on their mind, and sometimes they says things that are completely outrageous. We may disagree, but there’s a recognition that we’re all in this thing together, so we have to get along.”

Helping each other out, he points out, is an essential part of living in a small community, something that holds true for Vermont’s business community, too. “95% of all businesses fail in the first five years,” he points out. “We’ll all find ourselves in a ditch at some point, so we better be willing to help each other out,” he says, sounding like the veteran of many a mud season.

It’s the People

Vermont is sometimes referred to as “the chosen state,” not chosen as in anointed, but in the sense that so many people have chosen this as a place to live. Melinda Moulton, CEO of Main Street Landing, Burlington’s innovating lakeside commercial development says 'The people of Vermont are locally-minded, community-invested, deeply involved in Vermont in the state’s future. They are strong and opinionated.”

Bruce Seifer, a business and economic development consultant, who as an adviser in several of Burlington’s recent political administrations has had a front-row seat to the region’s economic development cites “Vermont’s healthy quality of life, an innovative entrepreneurial spirit, and live and let live approach to life' as factors.

Melinda Moulton
Melinda Moulton
Mark Curran
Mark Curran

Mark Curran moved to Vermont in 1974 at the age of 20, primarily to ski. Four years later he opened a natural food store with partner Steve Birge. Eventually, the retail business morphed into wholesale distribution at just the time when Vermont was developing its reputation as a mecca for specialty food products. Black River Produce now has more than 150 employees. Curran was honored this past year as the winner of the Terry Ehrich Award, presented by VBSR to an outstanding entrepreneur. “This is a great place for business to prosper is due to the strong work ethic of Vermont’s employees,” he says. More than outstanding individuals, however, successful businesses need strong families and “There’s no better place to raise a family than Vermont.” He and his wife, Margie Straub have raised four sons, to prove his point.

Christopher Miller, Social Mission Activism Manager and the current board chair at VBSR, also cites the lifestyle options: “In Vermont, it’s easy to encourage and foster proper work life balance.  With so many outdoor opportunities so close to where we all live and work, it’s easy to jump from work to play, and back to work again. It’s good for employees which is in turn good for employers.” When he’s not working, Chris enjoys the outdoors, eating lots of local food, and has recently tried his hand at running marathons.

Jennifer Chiodo
Jennifer Chiodo

Board member Jennifer Chiodo owns a consulting engineering company whose mission is to reduce the environmental impact of Vermont’s buildings. “I love owning this company,” she says, “because it provides the opportunity to share common goals that make work rewarding and projects and business successful.” She’s a Managing Principal in Cx Associates.

The various strands of culture and personality converged at the dawn of a new decade, the 1990s. By then the upstart, non-traditional enterprises started by the migrating hippies were past adolescence, almost fully-grown, but not yet ready for middle age. They now had the same networking needs as other businesses, but were not stylistically well-suited for the buttoned-down, traditional organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce. A murmuring began about “a chamber for the rest of us.”

The initial organizational meetings were held in the offices of Seventh Generation, a mail order marketer of alternative lifestyle products, founded by Alan Newman, a Garden Way alumnus. Bruce Seifer, then Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle’s Assistant Director of Economic Development, was part of the formative group, along with Peg Devlyn and Pat Heffernan (co-Presidents of Marketing Partners, a Burlington agency, Ben Ptashnik (founder of the importing company Via Vermont), and Matt Rubin (Vermont Guardian’s Business Person of the Year and leading proponent of building wind generators in the Northeast Kingdom).

Pat Heffernan Pat Heffernan

The group decided they were FOR social responsibility, although they stopped short of defining what “social responsibility” was. “We decided the members would define the term over time by their actions,” says Bruce Seifer, “and that’s what seems to have happened.”

Their name, initially, was Vermont Business Association for Social Responsibility, but that was more than a mouthful. They explored becoming a local chapter of a national trade association, called Businesses for Social Responsibility and invited a representative to present options to the Vermonters. But, in the words of Pat Heffernan, the national group “blew it!” by wanting too large a percentage of membership dues and restricting political activity on the state level. The die was cast, and the Vermonters would go it alone.

“We formed a steering committee,” says Heffernan, “and did bylaws with help from our attorney, Ken Merritt. We finally launched in ’91, a year after our original organizational meeting.” Ben & Jerry’s and the city of Burlington provided seed capital to help the organization through its most formative years. The activities, then as now, were to provide education and networking opportunities for its members and to establish positions in public policy that could be championed with legislators in Montpelier.

The twist was that the VBSR positions were often diametrically opposed to those of the established business interests. While the latter group thought in terms resisting any legislation that restricted the ability of members to generate profits, the newcomers talked in terms of “sustainable jobs,” “livable wages,” and even “family leave.” Instead of bottom lines, says Don Mayer of Small Dog Electronics originally of Waitsfield, but now with stores in Rutland and Burlington, “We ascribed to the ‘dual bottom line’ - i.e. profit and socially responsible involvement. Over the years we have refined this concept and now refer to ‘multiple or triple bottom lines.’”

Early policy decisions were key. The organization would be about business, not social agenda or style. There would be no screens or criteria to determine who could join. You pay your dues, you’re a member. Secondly, the group would play actively in public policy. If you like the political and social positions the group is taking, you are inclined to join. If you don’t, you won’t. It’s a process of self-selection.

The message resonated. Mike Burak had dutifully tried going the traditional Chamber of Commerce route, but was not satisfied. “Nothing against the Chamber, but I found that only one side was ever represented, the side that served the interests of the business owners and the bottom line. When I discovered VBSR it was like a breath of fresh air. There were other people like me who wanted to examine both sides of issues.”

Dave Epstein, an architect and the managing principal at TruexCullins (TXC) is another long-time VBSR member whose story mirrors Burak’s. “I was going to a lot of different business association events, and they were speaking a different language. It reminded me of going to a frat party in college and feeling like I just didn’t belong. Then, when I went to my first VBSR spring conference, it was like I had finally found my people.”

David Epstein
David Epstein

No one remembers who first used the phrase “a chamber for the rest of us,” but suddenly the description fit. Today, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) is an unquestioned economic force. Membership stands at more than 750 businesses and organizations that collectively employ more than 35,000 Vermonters and generate more than an estimated $5.5 billion in annual revenues.

While the jury is out on whether the concept of socially responsible business works at the mega-corporation level, no one disputes that the idea is thriving in Vermont. Social responsibility has taken its place alongside dirt roads, maple syrup, fall foliage, mud, and wacky ice cream flavors as commodities that distinguish Vermont from the rest of the world.

 

So Does Green Living Journal

25 Years of “Practical Information for Friends of the Environment”

In 1990 in the triangular corner where Vermont meets both Massachusetts and New Hampshire, an ex-stockbroker fresh from Wall St. was trying to figure out how to make a living. He had walked away from a successful, but emotionally hollow, stint as a stock and bond broker in Manhattan. He took his financial windfall to Vermont where he bought a piece of “the good life” not far from where legendary homesteaders Scott and Helen Nearing had settled in the 1950s. He lived simply and frugally, partially by necessity, but also by choice, making his decisions by fully considering not only his own needs, but those of the environment.

Marshall Glickman
Marshall Glickman

Eventually, the ex-stockbroker, Marshall Glickman, decided to start a print publication dedicated to providing “practical information for friends of the environment.” It could be managed from his home and launched without an outlay of a great deal of capital. He remembers “Green Living always felt like a humble undertaking, done on a shoestring budget for the sake of its mission. The first issues were especially trying, as I did everything myself, including teaching myself design on a $39.99 software program that, frankly, stunk. (So did I, in design.) In time I got help in ad sales and design, eventually making the publication sustainable.”

After 15 years at the helm, Glickman moved on to start Echo Point Books, a business that both sells the damaged books of other publishers but also publishes original titles, specializing in bringing “the best titles of the past into the future.”

Marshall Glickman, now in his early 50s still has the look of a greyhound, tall, thin, with close-cropped hair. Even though he has started two successful businesses, he retains the simple, grassroots values that have always been at the heart of green living. “As an ex-New Yorker, it was clear to me that you don’t move to Vermont to become rich and famous, but because you care about the quality of life.”

With more than 15 employees, Echo Point is now one of the fastest-growing businesses in southern Vermont. Rich and famous? Not yet, but who knows? Marshall Glickman may figure out how to have the best of both worlds.

(Editor’s note: I took over Green Living Journal in 2005, and have tried to maintain the course that Marshall established. I’ve also been an active participant in VBSR since the early 1990s. Therefore, I am doubly pleasured to be celebrating our mutual 25th anniversary throughout 2015. Let’s have a party! Stephen Morris)

Stephen Morris
Stephen Morris



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