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.

http://www.thesultanas.com

Julie Lineberger & Ellen Meyer Shorb