1987-1988: Banana Republic, San Francisco.
Much to my surprise, I love this job. Whatever qualms I had about sacrificing my political integrity for a regular paycheck have been overpowered by the sheer amount of fun I am having every day.
When I was a freelance writer, the mailman was only adult I could count on seeing every day. It was up to me to keep myself warm (in the lean years, never quite warm enough), fed, and entertained. Now I go to a place called "work" where all of my basic needsand then someare satisfied. There are bottomless pots of decent coffee in the kitchen, three kinds of muffins on Fridays, boxes and boxes of pens and printer ribbons in the supply roomand a paycheck twice a month, whether I stay up all night working or not. In appreciation for catalogue copy well-written and profits amply earned, Banana showers its award-winning Creative Department with goodies intended to maintain our creative edge: we take company-sponsored field trips to clothing outlets and airports and museums; eat expense account lunches, work in bay view offices in San Franciscos hippest neighborhood; hire top-notch freelancers and consultants.
In return for this embarrassment of richesand despite my utter lack of experienceI am expected to edit the Banana Republic catalogue, and to supervise the whiz kids who write it. By acting like I am a person who can do these things, I somehow become a person who can do these things. I love editing a particularly clever piece of copy, conceptualizing a catalogue cover, and then finding it in print in my mailbox six weeks later. I love filling my closet, and my friends closets, with the eight-dollar pigskin shirts and fifty-cent felt hats I scarf up at employee sample sales. Amazingly, I even love being a "boss," which mostly entails praising and doling out hefty raises to the talented young writers who "report to me."
Khaki is hot; sales are strong; spirits are high. My worklife, once politically fulfilling but lonely and poverty-stricken, brims with productive brainstorming, good news, shared laughter. My boss obliges the needs of a single mother by agreeing to let me work at home on Wednesdays. How did I get lucky enough to be having this much fun, and $36,000 a year, too?
The only thing that isnt fun is the fear. Theres this ripple of anxiety that reverberates through Editorial every time we send out a batch of catalogue copy for approval.
What if Mel (Banana founder and ultimate authority) doesnt like it? What if the buyers (who procure the merch about which we write such witty, if non-descriptive descriptions) dont like it? What if the customers dont like it? The fear fever spikes when copy comes back with "Weak," or "College humordo better" scribbled in the margins. For every one of us, there are ten hungry copywriters out there...
But heythis is on-the-job training for me. A bit of high anxiety is a small price to pay for the education Im getting at Banana U. Almost every day I do something interesting, learn something interesting Ive never done or known before. Almost every morning I look forward to getting to work; almost every evening I tear myself away and speed back across the bay before Peter and Jesses after-schol center closes.
Plus, theres this other thing I love about my job: the company I work for mails catalogues to several million people several times each year. There is evidence that many of those people actually read what we write. And the company has, at last count, 92 stores in cities all over the country. The unrepentant (if temporarily co-opted) radical in me cant help imagining: what if we could sell all those Banana Republic loyalists something more than safari fantasies and washable wool sweaters? What if we could sell them...political consciousness?
After all, every American is bound to do three things: pay taxes, die, and...buy stuff. What if every one of them had to think about whats going on in the world every time they thought about what to buy? What better place for consciousness-raising than in the marketplace?
One of the many perks of my job is the plethora of magazines the company supplies. In the December Esquire, my eye is caught by a photo of two grinning hippie guys, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. I read on. Ben and Jerry have an ice cream company in Vermont, and a vision of merging business with social change. Unlike me, these guys dont seem to think theyve sold out by going into business. They seem to think that their kind of business is a continuationnot a violationof what we were all doing in the Sixties.
Sounds good to me!
I rally the willing troops of the Editorial Department behind our new mission. Soon, subtle and not-so-subtle political messages begin to turn up in the pages of the Banana Republic catalogue. We name an otherwise nondescript garment "The E.R.A. Skirt," attributing to it such virtues as a back vent "that allows theres still much ground to cover." An Indian cotton shift becomes "The Ghandi Dress...sense its peaceful revolt against constraint."
With the encouragement of my boss, Nancy, I appoint myself Banana Republics "Minister of Corporate Ethos." I write and distribute an eight-page "Conscience Report" that describes all the wondrous, world-changing uses to which 92 stores and a hugely read catalogue might be put. Banana Republic could beshould be!raising money for community groups and nonprofits. Educating customers about current political issues. Turning our workplace into a nurturing home away from home. Mobilizing our 2,000-person workforce into an army of activists.
Im on fire! Maybe I can have my free lunch and my politics, too!
While senior management is mulling over my wide-eyed suggestion that they "evaluate the conditions under which our products are manufactured and sold, and compare those working conditions to the principles with which BR would like to be identified," Im home at night taping a PBS series called "Growing A Business." Some soft-spoken guy named Paul Hawken has visited companies all over the countryBen & Jerrys among themto report on the emerging trend of people-centered, socially responsible business.
I institute a new lunchtime ritual in the Creative Department called "View N Chew." Every Thursday I fill the conference room with the enticing aroma of microwave popcorn, then force-feed my hungry co-workers episode after episode of "Growing A Business" while they munch. Witnessing the glowing reports of Patagonias on-site child care center, Ben & Jerrys "Joy Team," Springfield Remanufacturings employee ownership program, my cohorts begin to grumble. Why isnt Banana Republic as groovy as those other companies? Why dont we get to bring our kids to work with us, or have a say in corporate decisions, or own stock in the company?
Six months after I am hired, Nancy calls me into her office and closes the door. An industry survey undertaken by Human Resources, she explains, has indicated that I am grossly underpaid. My salary is raised nearly 20% to $42,000 a year. The people whose "boss" I am buy me drinks after work to celebrate.
This sure aint Ford Motor Company.
Early in 1988 Mel Ziegler launches his long-imagined travel magazine, Trips. In the galleys for the first issue I read a story about South Africaa story that I, as self-styled guardian of the corporations conscience, deem insufficiently critical of apartheid. Bristling with righteous indignation, I rush into Mels red-walled office to persuade him to kill the story, or at least have it rewritten.
Mel says: "The storys okay. We can get away with it. Were Banana Republic."
I say: "Thats another thing Ive been meaning to talk to you about. The name of the company is offensive."
Mel says: "The name of the company is offensive?"
I respond, haughtily, "Im not the only one who thinks so."
Mel says: "You dont seem to mind the name of the company when it appears on your paycheck."
The conversation ends. I return to editing catalogue copy and helping to transform Banana Republic into a model workplace.
Banana Republic is to be transformed, all right. And quickly. But not in a Ben & Jerrys kind of way.
It seems that we go to sleep one night working for a booming, top-of-the-curve business and wake up the next morning chukka-deep in doo-doo. The fall line isnt selling. K-Mart has racks of cut-rate khaki. The cost of producing and mailing catalogues is skyrocketing. The stock market crash has disposed of disposable income. Catalogue and store sales plummet. Employee morale follows.
To finance expansion, Mel and Patricia Ziegler had sold Banana to The GAP years ago. As long as Banana was raking in the bucks, The GAP was an absent, beneficent parent: funding the opening of 90 new stores (complete with antique steamer trunks, jeeps extruding through display windows, and two-story paper maché giraffes); underwriting start-up costs for Trips; providing sumptuous office space and seemingly unlimited cash to keep its eccentric prodigy child happy.
But as the bottom line begins to bleed from black to red, The GAPs generous open hand becomes an angry punishing fist. The Zieglers are the first to go. The second issue of Trips is yanked off the press. Panic-provoking emergency meetings replace creative brainstorming sessions. In the space of six months the carefully assembled Creative Department is dismembered. The bakery that used to deliver muffins to us every Friday morning now delivers afternoon Bon Voyage cakes with equal frequency. The friends I used to laugh and write copy and share dreams with are scattered to the winds.
Mid-carnage, our new GAP superiors ask Nancy and me to go to lunch with a buttoned-down guy were told is visiting from J. Crew. After two hours of polite chit-chat about the vagaries of catalogue production, our visitor beckons for the check and whips out his credit card.
"But youre our guest," Nancy says graciously, putting her company credit card on the table.
"Oh nothis is on me," he smoothly disagrees, handing Nancy her card with an unmistakably pitying glance, and scribbling out a generous tip for the waiter. Nancy and I exchange worried looks.
A few weeks later, after sending Nancy off on a business trip, our new boss asks me if Id be interested in Nancys job, should it open up. Nancy, she complains, is so difficult, and insubordinate, too. "I could never stab Nancy in the back that way," I say, watching the GAP executives eyes glaze over as I speak.
I had it right in the first place, I think. Capitalism sucks. There is no room to be a human being in this set-up.
When Nancy returns she and I are informed that the man from J. Crew has been brought in to replace us both.
On August 15, 1988 I share my own double chocolate fudge cake and tearful going-away party with three others fired on the same day. I surrender my parking sticker, pack up my Conscience File and souvenir safari helmet, and return to the jungle of the unemployed from whence I came, it seems, just a few short happy days ago.
1990-1991: Smith & Hawken, Mill Valley
Fifteen minutes into my first day as Editorial Director at Smith & Hawken I place a call to Ann at work in Berkeley.
I love it here!"I whisper, lest my embarrassingly unbridled enthusiasm be overheard. There are hardly any offices at Smith & Hawken; like most everyone elses desk here, mine is one of many in a big open room.
From the moment I enter the wisteria-draped, beam-and-glass ark of a building that houses Smith & Hawkens Art Department, I am thrilled (Im working for Paul Hawken, the guy I used to watch on TV!), and dizzyingly, gratifyingly in love.
Im in love with Mill Valley, this hidden-away, foothill fairyland of a village. Birthplace of Banana Republic in the 70s, Mill Valley in the 80s became the company town to Smith & Hawken, which now occupies seven of the towns buildings, subsidizes the towns annual film festival, and ensures that a profusion of narcissus blooms along its redwood-shaded roads each Spring. For this New York-Jewish-Oakland girl its like shopping at Disneyland to shop at Mill Valley Market, where affluently attractive blonde people say "Excuse me" as they glide past each other in the aisles, and Smith & Hawkens account pays for company-wide treatsbaguette, brie, berries, and pastry for three hundredevery Friday. I feel Ive sneaked into an exclusive country club that hasnt yet noticed that Im not qualified to be a member.
Im in love with the fifteen bright, gorgeous, high-spirited women in the Smith & Hawken Art Department, who have, in the years preceding my arrival, created the work environment of my dreams.
Each morning, while the computers are booting up, the French doors are being adjusted for climate control and the fresh flowers freshened, the day begins with an exchange of the previous nights dreams, therapy sessions, and sexual or near-sexual encounters. Haircuts, new clothing purchases, and signs of emotional or physical distress are also noted and discussed; scarves imperfectly knotted are adjusted; shoes swapped or removed.
Later, when the phones are jangling incessantly and its too foggy to shoot the cover and the buyers change the product mix again and weve got to send out for lino tonight, someone might whisk a sample-sale damask dish cloth off a sample-sale Italian platter of homemade scones or banana bread. Someone else might offer up a jar of homemade plum jam. And then garden stools and teak tea chairs are gathered round and food is shared, breaths are taken, energy renewed, teamwork restored.
Special attention is paid each day to the person upon whom the bulk of that days work has fallenin Smith & Hawken parlance, the one who has, like a python thats bitten off more than it can chew, "swallowed the pig." A pink pig is placed on the appropriate persons desk so that support may be properly directed; the pig and the sympathy are relocated as the workload shifts.
For everyone, every day, there are back rubs, Pepperidge Farm cookies, dirty jokes, and clean arguments that flare, are tended and then extinguished. As there was at Banana Republic, there is a palpable pulse of paranoia that throbs through our department every time were awaiting approval of our work by the higher-ups; an expectation of criticism to follow whenever praise is offered. In defense we protect our bond fiercely; like siblings in an unstable family, we look out for each other with near-desperate fervor when disapproval snakes its way through the chain of command and threatens to strike one of our own. In fear and in joy we grow ever closer. In and around these most loving of labor relations the fifteen of us manage to produce twenty-plus garden, furniture, clothing, and holiday catalogs each year: an average of one full-color catalog every two or three weeks.
At first I chalk up my sense of being a stranger in a strange, if wondrous, land to the difference between WASPs (nearly all of my co-workers) and Jews (I was the second one hired into the company; the woman who hired me was the first). "Just try to think of yourself as an exotic, dark flower in a field of cala lilies," my boss advised me during my first interview, when I fretted that I might not fit in. Not only is the workforce predominantly femalethere are so many beautiful blue-eyed women in this company its hard not to believe they were hired for their looks.
But after a while I realize that theres another explanation. Smith & Hawkens corporate culture is best described by one word: emotion.
In this beauty-driven company, loveor its dark sideis the currency that underwrites each transaction. Loveor its dark sideis the current that charges each interaction. Love and beauty, beauty and love: the scent of dried roses in the halls all year round; a company-sponsored child care center opened next door because a favored employee wants to nurse her first baby.
Love, and its dark side. Everythingjob descriptions, salaries, hirings, and firingseverything is personal. Everything is about relationships. Relationships, and the power they confer, are reconfigured hourly. Policies dont exist; those that exist on paper dont count.
The same brilliant, impulsive man who hired all of these wonderful people because he loved them has built a company as manic as he is. Paul Hawkens moods soar and plummetwhen sales rise or fall; when a catalog fails or succeeds; for reasons unknowable to the rest of usand his tremors reverberate through the company. His irresistible affection and laser attention dart from this department to that, from this person to that; those who hope to hitch their career wagons to a star spend a lot of time hitching, unhitching, surveying the ever-shifting landscape, and hitching again.
Like its founder, this company is more emotional than most people I know. It weeps, exalts, sulks, coos, rages. It puts its arms around me and squeezes tight. Breathless, I surrender. For the first time I imagine myself working somewhereworking at Smith & Hawkenforever.
As enlivened as I am by the magic of my new workplace, though, I soon find myself numbed by the mundane nature of my task at hand: to discoverand then rediscover, over and over and over againthe twenty-five (or less) informative, clever, vaguely British-sounding, yet accessible words that have not yet been written about paperwhite narcissus.
In one catalog alone: Paperwhites in a green crate; paperwhites in terracotta; paperwhites in blue glass; paperwhites in green burlap; paperwhites in an English-style bird bath. Whatever artistry might survive the sheer repetition is squelched by the pace of catalog production. In one fall alone: the Spring Garden catalog, Spring Garden Two, Retail Furniture, Trade Furniture, Spring Clothing, Bulb, Sale.
Predicting this problem when the Editorial Director job was offered to me, I negotiated a second, juicy set of responsibilities that I hoped would offset it. Paul agreed to appoint me Smith & Hawkens first Social Mission Director. I would help him scout new ways for Smith & Hawken to walk its environmental/socially responsible talk. Id work to integrate the companys politics into catalog copy and editorials. And, along with Paul, Id be representing the company at meetings of the Social Ventures Networkan elite association of progressive entrepreneurs (including my heroes Ben and Jerry).
Having edited plenty of (far more interesting) catalog copy at Banana Republic, theres not much growth for me in editing catalog copy at Smith & Hawken. But I resolve to do my job with all the enthusiasm I can muster, spurred on by the yummies I already feel I cant live without: the daily joys of working with exceptional people; the satisfaction of having a hand in the making of beautiful catalogs; a passport into the other-worldly gentility of Mill Valley; the chance to learn the art of socially responsible business at the side of Paul Hawken.
Then one day in a new product meetingfour months after Id been hiredI notice that the buyers are rolling their eyes at every suggestion I make. Paul stops returning my calls. Some copy Ive circulated for review comes back covered with scathing Post-Its. After avoiding me all week, my boss calls me into her office and tells me that there are questions (she cant say whose) as to whether Im the best fit for the position, after all.
I am terrified, enraged, distraught. If I lose this job, in this economy, how long might it take me to find another one? Ive been schooled in the company lore; I know that far more entrenched souls than I have been lost to Smith & Hawken in exactly this manner. Early on, my co-workers warned me that every writer before me had been deified, then discarded a few catalogs later. Smith & Hawken old timers still grieve for the good parent they lost in the wrenching divorce, a few years before my time, of the legendary Smith (Dave) from Hawken (Paul). Six months after I was hired, the Art Department lost its original director and matriarchal mainstay. There had been many others, too: gone, inexplicably, but not forgotten. Now, it appears, my number is up.
I take the advice I am given by those who have weathered these episodes before. I swallow my terror, treat this like a small but dangerous earthquake, hide beneath my desk until the temblor stops. And it does stop, or at least, it does stop for me. The mucky-mucks stop frowning at me and start frowning at someone else; my boss starts talking to me again; I get warm voice mail messages from Paul again. I breathe a sigh of relief, dust myself off, assess the damage, and go on. Even if my joblike everyone elses in this intense, unpredictable companyis on shaky ground, my heart has taken root here. I am determined to survive.
A few months later, employee dissatisfaction reaches critical mass. People are fed up with the fear and the inconsistencies; with the contrast between "the book" (Pauls reputation as a new age business guru, as embodied by Growing a Business) and "the movie" (real life at Smith & Hawken). While Paul is off accepting awards for environmental and social responsibility, his employees are at home working long hours for unglamorous wages; feeling insecure, unheard, unappreciated. Groups of disgruntled S&Hers gather in Mill Valley cafes at lunchtime, over after-work margaritas; from these kvetch sessions arises a movement to make Smith & Hawken a less volatile, more democratic workplace.
I muster my courage and tell Paul that people are afraid of himtoo afraid to tell him so. He says he wants things to be different. He encourages staff people to form task forces, conduct employee surveys, hold special meetings, create a People And Practices Committee to establish personnel policies uniquely suited to Smith & Hawkens temperamental soul. The Chief Operating Officer, a former Zen priest, prints and distributes buttons in tasteful forest green that say, "Blame Less." In response, many people sport hand-made buttons that say, "Im Not Less." I take a bit of White-Out to my own button so it reads "Blame-Less."
At a company-wide meeting on Earth Day, 1991, against the beatific backdrop of the Mill Valley Art Club, with daffoldils and iris blooming and blue skies overhead, Paul declares his commitment to repairing Smith & Hawkens internal ecology. He proclaims this "The Year of the Company," and promises that on Earth Day 92 well be celebrating breakthroughs yet unimagined. His words are greeted with grateful tears, skeptical snorts, and riotous applause.
Ive also been given Pauls approval to start a committee called C.A.U.S.E.: Community Action Unites Smith & Hawken Employees. The idea is to make the resources of the company available to employees who are doing world-changing workto give the staff a chance to help shape the companys social priorities, long the private domain of its founder. Anyone can come to the monthly meetings, present a favorite cause, solicit support. Twenty-five people from all over the company show up at the first meeting. We agree to take up a collection and buy Christmas presents for kids in a battered womens shelter. C.A.U.S.E. quickly becomes a Smith & Hawken institution.
Work is exhilarating. I bring all of me to Smith & Hawken every day. All of me is welcomed here. My forthrightness with Paul has earned me a gratifyingly close relationship with him, and a special place in the hearts of my co-workers. Even the editorial part of my job is becoming more satisfying: were working on what we affectionately call the "P.C. insert," a few pages in the upcoming Holiday catalog offering products from companies owned by friends of Paulssocially responsible and women-owned small businesses.
The biggest problem Im having is balancing work with the rest of my life. Actually, Im having a hard time having a rest of my life. My connection to Smith & Hawken is compelling and consuming. I feel more appreciated, more known, more loved in the Smith & Hawken family than I ever have in any group in my lifeand my lifelong hunger to feel that way all the time is distracting me from finding it in my own family. There are Smith & Hawken parties on the weekends, Smith & Hawken friends calling every night, Smith & Hawken dramas to lose sleep over, Smith & Hawken triumphs to rejoice over and analyze, endlessly.
Then suddenly, I have another problem. A really scary problem. Once again, there are rumors that someone up there doesnt like me. Once again, my work is inexplicably found wanting. Somehow I know that its serious this time. Two months after she gave me a stellar review and a 10% raise, my boss takes me out for coffee and tells me there is concern about my priorities. The same unnamed people who once questioned my qualifications now worry, she tells me, that Im too busy with Social Ventures Network and C.A.U.S.E. to do my real job. "You need to stop everything else youre doing and focus on your editorial responsibilities," she says. "I understand that this may not work for you."
I stare at her, stunned. Who wants me out of here, and why? I ask. She averts her eyes. I dont ask the bigger question: How could you betray me this way? Easily, I realize, and for what must seem to her an excellent reason: to please the person or people who told her to get rid of me. To keep her job. To get a better one someday, if shes hitched her wagon to the right star.
This is The Big Onethe Smith & Hawken crisis I wont withstand. I spend weeks arguing, grieving, looking for someone to reason with. But no reason is available. Paul says, "You belong here," assures me again and again that he wants me to stay, but still the untenable ultimatum stands. Word gets out; support is mustered. Day after day people take me aside and whisper,What can we do to stop this?
But there is nothing my co-workers can do to stop this. Their initial surge of outrage is followed by bitter resignation: So much for the Year of the Company. So much for making this company safe and sane.
The runaway train of my leaving is roaring down the tracks. I could jump out of the way. I could duck for cover once again: give up the most important, Social Mission part of my job; accept my demotion to Editor-Only. But even this betrayal by a socially responsible business cant squelch my passion for socially responsible business. The work of making progressive business progressive is as much a part of me now as my fingers. How ironic: it appears that all the affirmation Ive been soaking up while Ive been dodging bullets in this crazy company has had some positive effect on me. Thanks to Smith & Hawken Im too healthy to subject myself to Smith & Hawken any more.Im forty years old. I wont be infantalized. I can do better.
I mourn in the arms of the Art Department while negotiating my severance package. On my last day I am called to a special company meeting in the conference room. As towering bouquets of lilies nod in hand-painted ceramic vases, Paul presents me with a huge seed packet conceived by Paul, produced by the Art Department, and circulated throughout the company. "Seeds of Change: Sprinkle Through the Garden of Life," it says. It is filled with love notes, memorabilia, gift certificates and trinkets from the co-workers I have loved and lost. Earth Day 92 will have to happen without me.
As it turns out, Earth Day 92 will also happen without Paul: he leaves the company a few months after I do.
At a Social Ventures Network meeting a few months ago, Peter Barnes offered me a job in his company. Working Assets offers three services: credit cards, a travel agency, and a new long distance phone service, all of which generate huge donations for non-profit activist groups. I call Peter and tell him Id like to be considered for the positionwhich is now, he tells me, on the verge of being offered to someone else. I fear that I wont get the job at Working Assetsand then what will I do? I fear that I will get the job at Working Assets but that I will never again experience the ecstasy and the agony that I have known at Smith & Hawken.
Immediately after beginning my new job at Working Assets in downtown San Francisco, I realize that this is true.
1992-1993: Working Assets, San Francisco
Working here is exactly the opposite of working at Smith & Hawken. My favorite things about Smith & Hawkenthe relationships, the ambiance, the high-pitched melodramaare the things I miss most at Working Assets.
Instead of listening to a meditation tape in the car each morning as I cross the Richmond Bay, curve into the sheltering crevices of Mount Tam, and arrive at a destination so desirable that I wish I could afford to live therenow I cram myself onto BART, elbow my way through the bustling cement canyons, and ride an elevator to an office that smells of new carpets and Melamite furniture and reverberates all day with screeching sirens and car alarms. Now, I cant wait to get home at night to the relative calm of Oakland.
Love and beauty are not priorities at Working Assets. Progressive politics, social activism, altruistic goals may enter here, but hearts are best checked at the door. Employees are hired and valuednot, as at Smith & Hawken, for their good looks and extraordinary personalitiesbut only for those parts of themselves recorded on their resumés.
As at Smith & Hawken, there is a chronic low buzz of worker discontent. Why does Peter Barnes, the companys founder, get to work at home and work erratic hours, when everyone else is expected to be present from eight-to-six, Monday throught Fridayand then some? Why does Peter get to change his mindand a weeks worth of a whole departments workon a whim? Why do he and CEO Laura Scher make unilateral decisions that affect the whole company without consulting the staff, or even the top managers? Why are meetings so tense, so grim? Instead of drawing the employees closer to each other, the unrest at Working Assets depresses and divides.
My taste for the aesthetic and the genteel, nourished in the ambient greenhouse of Smith & Hawken, is seen by the activists who work here as proof that I am superficial, snobbish, uncommitted. My few failed attempts to make soulmates of workmates and improve the office ambianceto serve meeting muffins in baskets instead of plastic bags; to hang a Smith & Hawken wreath or two on the flat white wallsleave me feeling foolish, vulnerable, and lonely.
Overnight, Ive gone from Shangri-La to urban jungle. From folk hero to distrusted interloper. From house radical to house yuppie. Finally, Im working with people whose politics match mine. And I cant find more than one or two among them Id want to go to lunch with.
On the other hand, my new jobCreative Vice President, they call mehas eliminated the biggest problems I had at Smith & Hawken: the repetitiveness of the work; the continual effort to imbue high-priced, largely non-essential products with social value; the dissonance between the companys (Pauls) tony editorial voice and my own; the subjectivity with which my work was judged.
At Working Assets I dont have to sneak political messages in around selling cotton skirts and teak benches. The companys product is social change. The services it offers are merely tools to accomplish that end.
Here, I am given a high-stakes task with a measurable outcome. In its first year Working Assets Long Distance has signed up fifty thousand customers; they want to have twice that many a year from now. My mission is to invent a direct mail package that will convince fifty thousand people to switch from AT&T, Sprint, or MCI to this upstart, unproven but unquestionably p.c. phone company.
The task is challenging but doable. I know how to appeal to Working Assets potential customers, because (unlike the upper-class Connecticut Republicans who constituted Smith & Hawkens customer base) those people are just like me. Highly invested in my success, management gives me what I tell them I need: $60,000 a year; the freedom to work at home one or two days a week; the budget to hire my favorite designer; the authority to strategize, conceptualize, and implement the project.
Working Assets competitors are offering big prizes to people who switch phone companies: up to $100 in cash, a free month of long distance calling, complicated money-saving calling plans. What kind of small-ticket, alluring, yet consummately cool bribe would work on people like mewhile clearly communicating the difference between AT&T and Working Assets? What about some kind of yummy food...some kind of yummy food that costs enough to make it a real treat...some kind of expensive yummy treat that screams socially responsible business...of course!Well let them eat Ben & Jerrys!
Ben Cohen agrees to let us give a coupon good for a free pint of Ben & Jerrys to anyone who switches to Working Assets. We agree to pay B&Js the going rate for each coupon redeemed. Ben writes an irresistible letter on his own letterhead endorsing our phone service; Jim designs an irresistible direct mail package into which we insert Bens letter.
The mail drops. The package is wildly successful. New Customer Service reps are hired to handle the deluge of orders. We sign up nearly twice as many customers as was projected. A second floor of office space is leased; a new commercial long distance service is launched. Working Assets is dubbed "The Ben & Jerrys of phone companies." I am given an unexpected $5,000 bonus for "saving the company."
Still, I am so unhappy here.
After a year at Working Assets I have yet to experience the kind of collaborative breakthroughs or loving laughter that made catalogs effective and life worth living at Banana Republic and Smith & Hawken. My bright ideas are conceived at home alone, or on the phone with Peterwho also works best at home, alone. One day, in the middle of a fax-and-phone brainstorming session, me in my house and Peter in his, he shares with me his vision of the ideal workplace: a room full of modems interfacing with each other. I know he isnt kidding.
The companys management style grates against me like fingernails on a chalkboard. Despite the companys progressive mission and progressive employees, its culture is hierarchical, undemocratic. I feel oppressive as manager, oppressed as managee. I wear my VP title with discomfort; it draws distrust from below; precious little respect from above. People dont make friends with their bosses here. The Smith & Hawken Art Department still gathers monthly for Girls Nights at one of our houses or another, but I have yet to socialize with a single Working Assets co-worker after hours.
Despite my successful career, despite my position of power on the Working Assets management team, despite my big fat salary and my abiding respect for Working Assets lofty mission, despite my awareness that most people who have jobs at all do them under far more onerous circumstances for far less money...I am still so unhappy here.
I believe in the product, but I cant stand the process. As the company grows larger, I feel myself growing smaller.
Whats my problem, anyway?
Why cant I be more like Ann? For eight years now, since right after she got to California, shes worked happily at the same companybeginning as an $8-an-hour part-time publicist, now as a $55,000-a-year Software Marketing Director. Whats the difference between us that led Ann quickly and permanently to a cool yet steady company like Noloand keeps leading me into these impossibly unstable job situations?
Maybe if Id had a different family I wouldnt need my workplace to be one. Maybe if I wasnt a woman Id care more about the reward than the journey. Maybe if Id stuck with companies like Ford Motor and National Semiconductor I would never have expected to find spiritual, economic, creative, social, and political gratification in a workplace: bizarre idea, but one that is epidemic among those of us who seek sanctuary in the promised land of socially responsible business.
I want work that makes me happy. Work that has obvious, unquestionable value. When I chop wood with Ann, our bond grows stronger and our cabin grows warm. When I write a poem or a letter, I am better understoodby myself, at least, and possibly by the recipient. When I spread compost in the garden, the artichoke leaves unfurl. When I pull a baked-from-scratch pie from the oven, my kids and my lover come running from all ends of the house and we eat it happily together.
When I come home from work in the city my muscles dont ache; theres no flour on my nose or dirt dug into the calluses on my hands. But when I come home from work in the city Im not sure what good I was doing all day. What good did that boring meeting, that frenzy to meet a deadline, do meor the world?
Big surprise: it turns out that I have not escaped the harsh reality I thought I was leaving behind when I fled Marxism and the Ford assembly line and landed on the soft, inviting shores of new age business. Too bad, but true: business is still business: undemocratic, monolithic, subsuming the needs of the many to meet the needs of the few. Working for a living is still working for a living. Whether the boss is Mel or Paul or Peter, whether there are advertising awards or hydrangea wreaths or Greenpeace posters on the wallswherever there is a boss who controls the paycheck of a worker who needs it, there is imbalanced power, and secrecy, and fear.
Progressive companies vow that their workers need not leave their values at the door. Yet no matter how well-intentioned the owner, no matter how assertive the worker, no matter how beneficial the product, the very nature of business requires us allowner and worker and everyone in betweento leave some portion of our selvesof our value at the door.
Companies like Smith & Hawken and Working Assets offer their customers a real alternative: a chance to shop for a better world, to vote with their wallets. But when it comes to their employees, all that Paul or Peter and the people who work for them can doall that socially responsible business can dois tweak the details. Create a workplace that minimizes fear, or one that escalates it. Hire people who want to reach for the stars and give them a ladder; or squelch people beneath the steel-toed boots of mediocrity. Reward teamwork, or promote individualism. Encourage laughter, or silence it.
<I dont want to work on Maggies farm no more. I know I am an impossible employee: incorrigibly rebellious, unmanageable, chronically discontent. The older I get, the less willing I am to be supervised, reported to, reviewed. A child of upwardly mobile Jews, a teenager of the sixties, I cant help but look for something better, anywhere, always.
I am plotting my next move. And feeling there is nowhere else to go.
I dont want to get another job until I figure out how to have one. I dont want to gather up the stinky, untidy bundle of my ambivalence yet again, just to dump it on the doorstep of yet another well-intentioned but imperfect company.
And then a miracle happens: I get a book contract. So I can quit my job and I dont have to get another one. Not right now, anyway.
Since I quit my job Ive been doing some work for a few Social Venture Network companies, including Working Assets. But Im a part-time consultant now, instead of a full-time employee. In Monopoly terms, Ive gone from "In Jail" to "Just Visiting."
Its not a perfect escape. I miss the engagement, the urgency of a real job. I miss the medical benefits and the psychic benefits of working full-time, full-on. But this is what works for me. For now.
The slogan of my consulting business is "Will Work For Food." These days I mostly work for companies that make things my family and I like to eat: Odwalla Juice, Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, Ben & Jerrys ice cream. When I can, I arrange trades: juice for a slogan, yogurt for a brochure, free ice cream coupons for a consultation.
They think its funny, the hippiesnow millionaireswho started these companies, when I tell them why: thanks to the safety net of my book contract, I have a chance to simplify my life, get back to basics, exchange labor for food. They think its funny because thats what they were trying to do fifteen years ago when they started squeezing oranges in a garage, or milking cows in a barn.
But my slogan is more than a joke. Its also a statement of intention. I want to feed the socially responsible business movement. And I want to be fedto find joy and camaraderie and meaning in the work that I do.