Exit Interview: Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm

Exit Interview is an occasional series profiling sustainability professionals who have recently left their job.

Nancy Hirshberg is one of the “originals” — part of a small group at the vanguard of corporate sustainability, starting in the early 1990s. For much of that time, until her departure from the company last month, she was Vice President of Natural Resources at Stonyfield Farm, the yogurt company co-founded by her brother Gary Hirshberg. In her role there, she continually pushed the boundaries of what a company could do, environmentally speaking. For example, in the mid-1990s, Stonyfield was the first company to offset its greenhouse gas emissions to become “carbon neutral.” The company also has been a leader in organic farming, biobased packaging and environmental philanthropy. Even after the company was acquired, in the early 2000s, by the French food giant Danone, the company and its sustainability culture remained intact.

I spoke with Hirshberg recently on her reflections about her 20-plus years at Stonyfield — what she learned, what inspired her and what she’ll miss. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: Nancy, tell about your trajectory at Stonyfield. When did you start? How did you start?

Nancy Hirshberg: I started in 1991. I came to do a three-month project for them. I had been working in education and realized that I was not going to be able to accomplish what I wanted in terms of the environment. I decided I wanted to work in business. I actually have Ben & Jerry’s to thank for my job because, while I was doing this project at Stonyfield, they had an environmental position open. I said, “I’m going to apply for that.”

Gary couldn’t stand the idea of me working for Ben & Jerry’s. He said, “We really could use one of those here.” So that’s how I started. I look now at what people are doing — it’s 20 years later and everyone is tracking and measuring and managing to key metrics. Well, back then there was nothing. We were inventing the wheel.

Makower: So you have Ben & Jerry’s to thank for your job offer, and you also have your brother Gary. How was it working for your brother?

Hirshberg: I think we both deserve medals. It’s astounding that any siblings could work together for that long. I think the reason it worked is because I didn’t work with him, I worked for him. If I worked as an equal to him, it would never work.

Makower: Do you think it made your relationship with your brother stronger, or did it make you want to avoid him during non-work hours?

Hirshberg: We were both very good at separating the two. But I did leverage the relationship. I would say things to him that other people in the company would not say, and that was an advantage for us because I was the truth-to-power person in the company.

Makower: And you didn’t have to worry much about being fired.

Hirshberg: No, that’s not true. Nepotism runs wild — not just Hirshbergs but many different families at Stonyfield, and over the years some have been fired. I was not afraid of being fired because it’s how I live my life. I would call him on the weekends to say things to him that other people would not say. And I think the company benefitted from that.

Next page: "Think big. Go far."