Socially Responsible Before We Had the Words. . . from an Interview with Hinda Miller, Author: Pearls of Sultana, Founder: Sultanas

Is someone a socially responsible actor if they work in business or politics without acknowledging social responsibility?  What about those who have taken social values — of equality, treating workers and manufacturers with respect, of caring for the environment — as a driver of their work before this field developed and the language of social responsibility or “Chief Sustainability Officer” or “corporate social responsibility” — were even in our lexicon?Hinda_Miller_010 copy

Hinda Miller is one of these people. Throughout her varied career in the private sector, as an elected official, then as a board member, author, and convener, she has stayed true to values that are the backbone of social responsibility efforts across industries today.  Thirty five years after she started Jog Bra, she now chairs the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Committee of board of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR).  Her committee produces an annual report with sophisticated measurement tools and a national model of sustainability.  But she started as a costume designer who decided to run for exercise.

Bring women into the running world

In 1977 Hinda, then an assistant costume designer at the Shakespeare Festival, was introduced to a new running buddy, UVM graduate student Lisa Lindahl, by costume designer Polly Palmer Smith.  In the late 1970s, running was not the sport it is today, especially for women.  Hinda and Lisa ran holding things together with their hands.  Lisa’s sister asked aloud why there wasn’t a bra for women runners. Along with Polly, the women started tackling the problem.

two jock straps JockBra“One night, magic happened!  We were putting things together from various bras when  Lisa’s soon-to-be ex-husband took up a jock strap and joked:  “Hey Look, Jock Bra!”  When the laughter subsided, the women, who did not consider themselves jocks, evolved the name into Jog Bra, and a business was born.

Their mission, vision and purpose:  “We believed that every woman, no matter age shape or form had the right to the benefits of exercise.  We were medium sized, we enlarged the respect for women of all kinds of sizes.  We had lot of respect for all of our consumers,” Hinda said.

At just 27, Hinda was going to bankers, all male loan officers and, she giggles in remembrance, “I was talking about bouncing breasts!”  With various loans and grants from friends, family, and one bank, Jog Bra was started.

Instinctively using SR operating principles

“We didn’t know about conscious values,” Hinda said of the business she and Lisa founded.   “We were passionate about the value, that it was made for women by women. We were feminists.  We knew this was an important piece of equipment.  We had the smarts to know they belonged in running shops. Women’s shoes and women’s shorts were just starting to come in at that time, too. We did it because that was who we were.

“Lisa and I were also very opposite, we had a lot of tension.  We didn’t know each other.  The thing we shared was a desire for personal growth, even if we yelled at each other,” Hinda remembered the fertile yet sometimes volatile time.  The two young women hired a consultant to assist and, in doing so, we created a list of principles we lived by.”

Operating Principles

Demonstrate gentleness, dignity, and respect.

Communicate with frankness, honesty and clarity; avoid blame and pettiness.

Keep agreements.

Assume good intentions.

Listen and be receptive.

Ask for help.

Avoid taking things personally.

Take risks; learn from what doesn’t work.

Take ownership for outcomes.

Attack problems not people; seek solutions.

“That’s how we operated the company.  We had it in our staff meetings. We even had it in our reviews,”  Hinda spoke of the developing company culture which was sometimes difficult when they were hiring representatives, once hiring 200 women at one time!  Inculcating a sense of values into so many new hires at one time can be daunting.  This focus on values, however, contributed to the success of the company.

Instinctively respecting manufacturers

“We manufactured with a factory in Puerto Rico.  I couldn’t find anyone here.  We called someone from a Women’s Wear Daily and who made swimsuits.  He was just coming out of bankruptcy.  We grew our business with him.

“As we got bigger and more prosperous, we got real toilets in the factory, as we grew more, we installed air conditioning.  It came from a sense of shared responsibility.   We created jobs for the Aquas Buenas mountain town women and these women put money into education, health and their kids,” Hinda smiled in remembrance.

“Years later when I ran for mayor questions were thrown at me; ‘Were the factories unionized?’  I don’t know. I saw how basic prosperity helped the local economy, and that was that.  We lifted the women because we got bigger and they took on more responsibility.  We created opportunity for people to have expansive jobs and create value.

“We actually hired whoever would work with us.  Men just kind of didn’t apply.  There was one man working in our warehouse who sued us for discrimination claiming we were prejudiced because he was a man.  Actually, we had proof he couldn’t count, and that is why he was fired.Jogbra Ad

“After 12 years, we could not do it together anymore,” Hind wound the story down.  “We were burnt out.”  Burned out, and successful with their goal of getting their fitness and wellness product to more people as it is now available nationwide through department stores.   Hinda was involved with the company from 1977-1990 in various roles, including President of a division for seven years, as Jog Bras was purchased first by Playtex and, after a series of purchases and mergers, finally by Champion.

Values continue to drive — in the State Senate

Hinda spoke with earnest sincerity of her 10 years as a Vermont State Senator. In this role, again, she was values driven.

Most significant to her is values based work on a number of issues including achieving state recognition of Vermont’s Native American tribes.  “It was a mess. They’d been fighting for some time for recognition,” Hinda related.  “I’m Jewish.  I understand. It is an identity issue.  If someone is not giving you the respect of your own identity, you fight.”

Co Chair of the Committee of Economic Development, she oversaw the creation of the Vermont Seed Capital Fund.  “I also had the Honor of moving the Vermont Benefit Corporation through,” Hinda spoke of the legislation establishing Vermont as the second state in the nation allowing a for-profit corporation to incorporate a social mission with that of its financial goals.  Her initiative was recognized with a Legislator of the Year award from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

“I did not go in fighting for any particular issue or set of issues.  I went in thinking I could do well for women.”  And through a range of initiatives, she did.

Senator Hinda Miller

Senator Hinda Miller

Social responsibility comes of age — and Hinda is in the middle of it

Hinda meshed her business acumen with her Senate work when she joined Green Mountain Coffee Roaster’s Board of Directors in 1999.  She is currently Chair of their Corporate Social Responsibility Committee.

“I’ve been able to think about conceptual ideas, and how GMCR is such a leader in CSR thinking, programs, execution and measurement” Hinda spoke of her board work. “GMCR is now a model of sustainability, running quite a full program.”  From inception, the company’s purpose has been to provide the ultimate coffee experience from tree to cup.  At the same time, the Annual Reports show 30 years of developing CSR including composting coffee grounds and developing other earth-friendly programs.

“Now we are partnering with supply chain communities and documenting everything in transparent reports. It gets better every year,” Hinda shared her enthusiasm.  “Our pillars haven’t changed.  We are protecting the environment through many programs including sites getting to zero waste and creating a demand for sustainable products.  GMCR is the largest purchaser of Fair Trade in the world.  All of this started from that one value of treating people well.

“CSR Starts with basic values, as did both Jog Bra and GMCR,” Hinda continued. “When a small business wants to improve how they do things, it comes from the heart, like wanting to be a good citizen, . . .and you get profit. It doesn’t matter HOW you get into it, whether it is to save money or be a good citizen, there are so many ways to get into it.  Yet, it is funny.  I hear people on CNBC saying: ‘I didn’t really realize the economics of sustainability’!

“CSR reporting is a wonderful model for measurement.  How do you implement, measure, get stakeholders to agree?  GMCR added a lot of new employees in the last two years.  All new workers around the country were put through an awareness awakening.  That part is vital.

“In 2008 GMCR created a CSR Committee at the Board level.  We were proud of it.  There were only five fortune 500 companies who had CSR Committees at the board level, the governance level.  What I love about GMCR, is looking through the history of CSR Reports, one can see how it developed.”

Bringing women together — again

“In DAVOS, I was listening to women at the conference.  The research is so clear, when you lift up women, it lifts up the entire community. I think social responsibility has to do with bringing the men along.  We need everyone.  The hope is in the younger men.  We need our gracious sons to be there.”

These concepts, and more, are explored in her new book, Pearls of Sultana. “It is what I’ve learned about business.  It is talking about the spirit of us spirit mothers who lead with love and spirit wisdom: grateful, graceful, and practical.  We are part of the Shakti Feminine Universal Principle that deals with creation and change.  It is very powerful.”

Hinda came to the Sultana story from both being out in the world exploring in Turkey with her family, and from her personal interior voyage as well.  She heard a story about one sultana:  “She was the queen mother of sultan the omniscient.  She was co-regent, ruling from behind.”

Hinda is creating a group of Sultanas, bringing groups of women together to support each other.  “Why, in this time are we, the collective lucky we, able to expect 65 – 75 years of life? Why has our generation of women been given such health in these wisdom years?” Hinda queried.  “We are giving it back. I am imbued with a new feminism, an appreciation for the intuitive and for being very practical. We get things done, we’re warriors.”

Values drive SR

This is a theme we have seen consistently throughout our interviews.  Being “socially responsible” means playing out individual values at the corporate level — and this work is done by individuals that are living their values in their work. Hinda is a wonderful example of someone who has lived her values through various incarnations and, while not talking explicitly about “socially responsible”, very much being a role model and a change agent for the organizations and initiatives she was a part of.  Sometimes, action precedes a movement.

Julie Lineberger & Ellen Meyer Shorb


Deriving Joy from Socially Responsible Manufacturing. . . from an Interview with Allen Arseneau, co-founder JOIGA: Manufacturing for All

Can you drive your business with a social mission in an industry that does not reward for social purpose?  Allen Arseneau thinks you can, and he’s doing so by manufacturing goods in China.

Allen grew up poor and ended up with a good education and career.  As a manufacturing engineer and now a business owner, he identifies with the workers on the floor of his factory in China.  In fact, he has a vision of a manufacturing community that supports workers.  

At the same time, Allen believes that work should be joyful.  So he named his company JOIGA (a coined word that sounds like “joy” and can be pronounced equally well in English and Chinese) and is building it with the mission of “fostering innovation throughout the US and improving the lives of factory workers in China and across the globe.” 

JOIGA provides soup-to-nuts high-precision manufacturing, from product design to the actual production of products to helping their clients sell those products into retail outlets.   JOIGA is currently expanding their design capabilities, as well as adding a merchandising division so that they are better able to help their customers sell products into large retailers.  At the same time, JOIGA is committed to improving the lives of its factory workers, by actively providing housing, counseling, healthy food, and a career track for its employees.   If JOIGA’s initial results are any indication, socially responsible manufacturing will sell itself.

Breaking Ground In Manufacturing
     Allen started out as a process engineer with a medical device company in Europe for about one year, before moving back to his hometown of Boston, where he worked as a process engineer for a pharmaceutical company.  After graduating from Stanford’s business school, he was recruited to Las Vegas to help tennis superstars Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf build a lifestyle company that provided healthy living options, through real estate, fitness clubs, and healthy food offerings.  “I was hired to help Andre and Stefanie build their business.  However, all employees there were required to spend time volunteering within their network of social and philanthropic ventures.  That was the most fulfilling, and moving, part of my work.  Andre and Stefanie are all about philanthropy; they support a charter school in one of the worst parts of Las Vegas and I got a chance to visit and work there. I love Andre and Stefanie’s mission.  They are wonderful people and are doing wonderful things.

However, I still felt that I could be doing more.  I wanted to know that I was making the most of all of my skills and education, and at the same time making a significant difference in the world.  I guess I was at odds with myself, I was part of a social mission in Vegas, but I was left not feeling complete.  So when the economy began to crash, I left Las Vegas, and moved back to my hometown of Boston.”

The work being done in the charter school resonated with Allen.  He had grown up in a low income, single mother home in Boston, MA. His family received food assistance and he was the beneficiary of welfare programs on occasion, and GlobeSanta.  “There is no question that without government assistance, and without the much-needed guidance that I got from my big brother (Big Brother Association) or from the local YMCA programs, I never would have gotten out.”  Allen left home at age 16, made his way to Northeastern 1.5 years later, and eventually, to Stanford Business School.  Allen, now himself a parent of 5 year old Shauna, wanted to give back.

The opportunity presented itself two years ago. Allen joined a company that produced biometric locks and safes.  Allen and a key executive of the lock and safe company looked at all potential revenue opportunities,and discovered underutilized factory space.  There appeared to be an opportunity to build a business larger than just locks and safes.

One of the brothers running the original company, another Northeastern engineer, Sheng Deng, joined Allen to start what was first named Manufacturing Integrity Partners.  Sheng is a Chinese-born American that came to the US at 12 years old, and now spends most of his time in China.  “After six months, we proved we could make the business work.  Then I introduced the idea of a social mission.  I look at the factory workers and see myself in them.  I want them to be happy people.  Sheng is supportive, but I am driving this part of the mission.  It is very counter to what is done in China these days, but we love what we do, and our workers are very happy because of it.”

Creating Healthy Factory Communities
While JOIGA often utilizes a network of factories to produce various products, the one factory it does own is different.  When customers visit China, they are often disappointed in what they find in factories.  Typical factories in China are dirty and dark, and there are few smiles.  Our factory is a very different place.  Our factory has open doors, windows that let in a lot of light, and people are smiling.

We look at ergonomics, a clean work environment, protective equipment, on-the-job training, and culture. It is so important to us that our workers enjoy their work, and our proud of what they do on a daily basis.  And as we grow, we want to share our standards and culture with our partner factories.”

“People are having fun.  We are helping our workers be happy, and productive.  They are paid more than a fair wage.  There are bonuses based on profit-sharing.  We purposely rotate people through various functions for variety and ownership and to move workers up in skills.  Some workers take the initiative to learn so many skills, that we promote them to floor managers, in which they also take on a mentoring role for other workers.  We want our workers to stay with us. As we grow we’d like to see them grow with us.”

“There are other companies that have built nets to prevent workers from committing suicide, we do coaching instead.  Sheng spends part of every day on the factory floor.  He consciously provides counseling on the factory floor.  He asks, ‘How are you doing?  How is your wife, your family?’  Our workers have many daily stresses in their lives.  We’re trying to be very respectful and caring.  If people need time off, we give them time off and plan for it.  It’s communication.  It’s family.”

JOIGA improves a worker’s typical living conditions by paying for their rent, and bringing in a chef for lunch and dinner.   “You’ve heard of how hard it is for workers to get home more than once a year during Chinese New Year, so we’re looking at how to make it possible to go home more often.  If we can make it work for us, why not?”

“It makes business sense.  Our retention is way up.  We make deadlines, our workers rally together, it is incredible.  Our workers stayed until past midnight one time to make a deadline.  So we take people out for karaoke and drinks.  I bring them chocolate from the U.S.  When I am in China, I spend time on the factory floor.  I don’t mind getting dirty or tired.  I like the fact that I can work side-by-side with these guys, as long as I don’t get in their way”, Allen says with a laugh.  “The first thing I do when I get there, is go around and say hi to every worker, shaking their hands – no matter how dirty those hands might be.  I want our workers to know that we really are one big family.”  

“I envision growing JOIGA into a much larger organization than we are today.  I am looking into building a healthy and vibrant community of workers by leasing, purchasing, or building additional factories in China, and potentially around the world.  There is a brand new factory that is being built right now that is literally next door to our current site that we are looking at expanding into.  We would like to offer our workers a lifestyle that keeps them and their families happy and healthy.  I am committed to improving the lives of our workers and of their families in both the short-term and the long-term.  We are also expanding the services that we offer our clients by adding additional design services, as well as building relationships with retail outlets around the country.

Young Customers Value Social Mission and Sell the Company
      JOIGA has a somewhat different business model, which initially attracted a younger clientele who appreciated the socially responsible mission, and were excited about the ability to simply manufacture in China – an opportunity normally available only to established retailers.  However, JOIGA’s clientele has since expanded to include entrepreneurs both young and old, as well as larger retailers, who are enthusiastic about the social mission and excited by the ease of manufacturing well in China. 

Traditionally, manufacturing in China has been an inaccessible option to many entrepreneurs and companies alike because of communication issues, and quality and intellectual property concerns.  JOIGA has not only created a model that has minimized risk in working with factories in China, but has also bundled services that will ultimately help its clients be more successful in the long-run.  “In fostering innovation, we want our customers to feel they can in fact innovate.  They don’t have to be paralyzed by the fear of failure; we are here to help them every step of the way.”

“Our customers love our social mission.  They want to talk about it.  Our customers then advertise us because they want to talk about us and our mission.  It’s a huge market differentiator.  We’ve done minimal marketing, most of our business has come from word of mouth.”

Social Mission Drives Higher Quality    Allen is clear:  there must be no sacrifice on quality for the social mission.  JOIGA can only succeed if it continues to place a high value on quality.  Not surprisingly, Allen and Sheng have found that the more they put into their workers, the higher and more dependable the quality.  “It makes business sense to do what we are doing.  Manufacturing must be efficient.  We are proving we can make manufacturing socially responsible and fun.  Initially it cost us more money, but our retention went up and our labor costs went down.  We do this without passing along the cost of our social mission to our customers – our customers benefit because our turnover is low, quality is high and consistent, and prices are competitive. JOIGA has proved to me that SR can be profitable.”

Changing Conditions through Manufacturing (rather than boycott)
     Diana Hudak, who lives and works with Allen, told a story that summed up the work JOIGA is setting out to do.  “I spent a year not buying products from China because of how workers are treated.  But I realized that I was just one consumer.   When I joined Allen, I saw that we could actually change the lives of workers overseas.  We could make a difference in an individual’s and a family’s life.  I couldn’t do this by not buying things from China.  There are a lot of ways in your work life that you can leverage changes that impact the whole world.  That is what I am doing here.”

Allen ended our interview with these words “I am living my dream.  I get to help people right here in the US build competitive companies that will grow and eventually hire more people, and at the same time, I am improving the lives of our workers in China.  I can’t tell you how happy this makes me.  I have high hopes for JOIGA.  We really do make dreams come true.”

Partners Allen and Sheng

Ellen Meyer Shorb