Exit Interview: Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm

Exit Interview

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.

Makower: You did some remarkable things early on — Stonyfield was the first company to pursue carbon neutral status in the mid-‘90s. How did that come to be?

Hirshberg: Over the years, there have been some amazing consultants we’ve worked with. In that case it was Mark Trexler. And that’s what I mean by having Gary being so passionate. He would say, “Think big. Go far.” It allowed me to really vision what we could possibly be. We’re always thinking about what’s next, where’s our impacts and we’ve stood on the shoulders of some really great people, including you, Joel.

Makower: How hard was it to get buy-in from the rank-and-file employees?

Hirshberg: That is the ultimate challenge. If I had to pick one thing I’m most proud of, it was our MAP program. It stands for Mission Action Program. In the late ‘90s we had done all of the work. We knew exactly where our impact was. Gary and I had a clear vision of where we thought we should be. That differed very greatly from our VP of Operations. He felt, “Hey, we’re already better than our competitors. How great do you want us to be in terms of environmental practices and sustainability?” Our view was, “Think big. Think 100 percent renewable.“ We weren’t aligned.

We looked at The Natural Step and other programs and said, “It’s just a new language. We have a mission that is a vision of sustainability. Let’s bring that to life and hold everyone accountable for achieving it." And so we did that. We created teams.

We began MAP with  a series of what I call  our make-them-weep meetings to help people understand why we want to do this. Some people were motivated  because it’s their job. Some people engaged because they had children and were deeply moved.  And so we got them where we wanted them. Then we said, “Okay, this is your job. You need to set goals. And you can’t just set any goal. We’re going to approve whether or not that’s a bold enough goal. Where do we want to be in five years? Where do we want to be in 10 years? Where do we want to be 30 years?”

We have a whole program that holds them accountable annually for the action plan, and it’s tied in with the budget planning so you get the money to be able to do it. People now are bonused on it and it’s just been astounding.

Makower: You’ve done a lot with supply chain, particularly with organics. What did you learn? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

Hirshberg: For me, it’s not so much that I learned, it’s that I love it. When we first started doing our carbon footprinting back in the mid-'90s, we were asking a question, “What scope are we responsible for?” And back then we thought, “Well, we’re responsible for our little factories but we were questioning whether we were responsible for our supply chain.”

It was a real awakening to realize that we were responsible all the way back to the farm. I love working with supply chain because I love getting different groups together and getting their buy-in and solving problems together. It’s like a big mystery, you know? It feels like you’re a detective trying to solve a problem.

I remember one of my interns once said that a professor of his asked what was the most valuable course he ever took, and he said, “I took a storytelling course.” All of our work is about motivating people and getting people to work together. The rest is the technical stuff. So that’s what supply-chain work is: getting people together and being creative, thinking out of the box, being resourceful.

Next page: “They’re not our adversary. They’re our people.”

Makower: You mention storytelling. One of the things Stonyfield has been good at is telling stories. Is that something you just knew how to do because you were so passionate, or is that something you had to learn?

Hirshberg: It’s really easy to tell the story of what you’re doing if you’re passionate about it. For instance, when we switched our multi-packs to PLA from polystyrene, I was so passionate and proud of how holistic that work was. It was exactly what we should be doing with everything. So it was easy to tell that story. What I learned with that project was more how you engage stakeholders and make it two-way, listening as well as the telling. It is incredibly valuable.

Makower: It also strikes me that it has to do with who you’re telling the story with, how you align yourself with partners along the way.

Hirshberg: Yes. Both Gary and I came from a nonprofit background., They’re not our adversary. We’re them. They’re our people. I remember talking with some other companies and was surprised how they think of it as an us-and-them adversarial relationship. In our view,They want the same thing you want and we have to help them understand that we want the same thing they do. So for us, those kind of partnerships have always come easily because it’s second nature to us about engaging those groups.

Makower: And yet even despite that mentality and despite the leadership that you all showed, you got beat up by the NGOs, too.

Hirshberg: Oh yes. We became the big bad guys! We knew that would happen once we did the Danone deal. That’s where I learned from my friends at Starbucks and Ben & Jerry’s, that all you can do is be transparent, be open. There are always going to be people who will try and knock you down. You just have to plow through it. My skin is so thick now compared to when I started that things that happen now that just roll off me once would have devastated me.

Makower: How did you learn to cope with that?

Hirshberg: That’s where your peers really help. When you see so many groups doing good work and then getting nailed, it’s tough.  I think it’s just maturity that helps you get past it. The problem with it, which is really the frustrating part of it, is how much time it takes. It’s so destructive, and it wears on you.

Makower: You mentioned Danone. How did that acquisition affect the company’s sustainability push? As you well know, the road is paved with examples of companies where it didn’t work out so well.

Hirshberg: It sounds so corny when I say this — and I’m only talking from the sustainability standpoint — but I was stunned when we started working with them because they have done unbelievable work in sustainability. They were ecstatic about being involved with us. So here we were: little Stonyfield, and here’s big Danone reaching out to us to learn about sustainability.

It’s been such a great relationship with the sustainability people there, I can’t begin to tell you. And it’s exposed me to a lot of what is happening globally. We disagreed on our approach to some issues, but  they let us do our thing, but we got a lot from them. Our single biggest climate issue is enteric emissions from the cows and they helped us with that more than you can imagine.

Makower: I’m sure there’s a lot of things you won’t miss about your day-to-day job over the past 20 years, but what will you miss?

Hirshberg: The hardest thing was I was doing the job of three people and it was just too much. It was ridiculous and I won’t miss that at all. Working with the farmers was absolutely the best thing. I learned so much from them and will miss them. They’re at ground zero.