I’m a child of corporate America. My stepdad worked at Gillette, Schick, started his own company and finally became the CEO of Cuisinart. Our family experienced the best and the worst of corporate culture: ambition, hard work & upward mobility, but also alcoholism, relocation & divorce. Big corporations pick people up and move them around like pieces in a game. It broke my heart when my family was moved to Boston my sophomore year in high school. But it made me who I am and I would not change any part of my story.
My real dad was great guy with a serious drinking problem. He was murdered in a Chicago bar when I was a boy. Rumor had it that he owed too much money to a loan shark and someone made an example of him. It was awful and scary and sad, but my Mom was a rock through all of our struggles after his death. She was a teacher, guidance counselor, principal and school psychologist. She helped more kids than Santa Claus and was always able to give and forgive, probably because she put God in the center of her life. She raised me to believe that faith could overcome just about any adversity.
I think when adversity hits you at a young age you go back to the place you came from, and for me, that’s God’s unconditional love. I consider myself a Christian, but I accept all religions and feel most strongly connected with the divine through nature. The God I worship is loving and accepting, not harsh and judgmental. As a kid I used to ride my bike to church by myself, just to feel that love around me.
I kicked around a little when I got out of college- lived on a Kibbutz and traveled. When I settled down I started working on anti-nuclear campaigns with John Phillips; we were trying to stop Indian Point, Shoreham and other New England nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, I bought stock in a company that turned cow manure into ethanol. The stock went from 1 to 6 dollars. This demonstrated to me there was a better way to fund the causes I believed in: invest in the solutions and use the profits to fund activism.
I was tried of dealing with problems: I wanted to create solutions. I loved the outdoors and I wanted to be around others who are at the forefront of progressive thinking, so I moved to San Francisco. I went to work as a stockbroker at Dean Witter, where I had a wonderful mentor who encouraged me to be creative and bold. In the 1980’s, as the South Africa divestment movement was growing, a trustee of CALSTERS, the California teacher’s retirement fund, asked me what effect divestment would have on their endowment portfolio. My partner Ted Barone and I did some research which showed that their portfolio would have earned an additional 4.3% since 1981 if they had been South Africa free. This study was used to persuade CALSTERS and other state pension funds to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. In those days Dean Witter was owned by Sears, and when their executives heard about our work they said, “You can’t publish this report. Divestment is illegal.” The real problem was they were making a ton of money selling Union Carbide bonds, and guess where Union Carbide did business?
That was a turning point for me. Ultimately I got together with a couple of friends who were also interested in socially responsible investing and we decided to launch our own company, Progressive Asset Management (PAM) in 1987. Many of the original partners moved to Piper Jaffrey where we could continue our work on socially responsible investment at a larger firm with more impact. With the crazy wave of mergers and acquisitions in the investment banking space, I’ve moved around a few times over the last 25 years. I'm finally at a major bank whose corporate governance practices meet my own screens.
In 1992 a business friend offered me a chance to make a boatload of money. California had passed Prop 65, a toxic labeling law requiring disclosure of toluene and other solvents in household products. Prop 65 allows a citizen enforcer to file suit if a company fails to label products containing toxins that can create cancer or birth defects in pregnant mothers. That’s when I set up the As You Sow Foundation, which has since filed over 400 suits. I felt it was better to set up a foundation as the citizen enforcer because it would ultimately benefit the people of California by giving money to non-profits working on public health and environmental justice I was finally able to realize my dream of creating wealth to support environmental and social activism
As You Sow started out giving grants to the Ruckus Society, Rainforest Action Network, and groups working on toxics issues. We got heavily involved in Headwaters, a campaign to save the last old growth redwood forest in California. As You Sow grants supported the Headwaters activists and our access to donors helped us leverage over a $1 million in additional donations. We also realized we could use shareholder activism as an inside strategy to support consumer boycotts and other forms of outside activism. We ran a shareholder campaign while Julia “Butterfly” Hill was living for 2 years in a redwood tree. By combining activism and shareholder engagement, we won! It was an amazing community effort.
I realized that As You Sow could play a unique role promoting environmental health and corporate responsibility by combining proxy voting and advocacy. The Education Foundation of America gave us the opportunity to test this model. We worked with them to file resolutions on dioxin, electronic waste, sustainable forestry, genetically modified organisms and other environmental issues at more than 40 corporations. Then Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors asked us to help them develop the Proxy Preview, a tool to help foundations engage on social and environmental proxy issues. In the last few years, the demand for support for shareowner engagement has just exploded.
I continue an insider/outsider strategy in my own work. I am the founder and current Chairman of the Board of As You Sow, but I also work at the helping people move their money to socially responsible investments. In order to avoid any conflict of interest, I have never earned a penny from As You Sow.
I believe that markets are great tools for innovation and social change- if you make them work. And I believe that investment is the economic expression of your thoughts and values. Holding companies accountable for their social and environmental impact needs to be part of the system, and we need to hold ourselves accountable to how we invest our assets as well. I am really jazzed about what I do and affirmed in my faith that, with love, we can find the solutions we need.