Buddhists in the Boardroom

Do big business and Buddhism mix? Samuel Fromartz talks with three entrepeneurs who’ve tried to combine spiritual values and business success.

Samuel Fromartz
1 July 2002
Photo by Olu Eletu.

Do big business and Buddhism mix? Samuel Fromartz talks with three entrepeneurs who’ve tried to combine spiritual values and business success.

An executive at a large bank in the eastern United States begins meetings by ringing a bell. It’s not the start of meditation in any formal sense, but it reminds the participants to practice conscious awareness of the meeting at hand-to listen mindfully and to talk honestly, free of interruption, without anger.This type of mindfulness practice isn’t described as “Buddhist” or even religious. Rather, the purpose is to focus the group on the work at hand; it’s part of a larger project to slowly change the atmosphere of the division, which studies risk. “My job,” says Michael Pergola, the bank executive, “is to help people think together, minimize conflict and become aware of themselves.”

He doesn’t say a word about making more money. Of course, Pergola can justify his project because the immediate aim is to improve the way the division functions and thereby contribute to the bank’s fortunes-something that has occurred in the two years since the practice began. But a greater degree of kindness and understanding has gone hand in hand with that.

The challenge for Buddhists, indeed for anyone who has a spiritual practice, is to find a way to bring practice to an environment often divorced from, if not in conflict with, spiritual life. The job–with its stresses, time pressures, demands, competition and conflicts-might prompt you to leave your practice at the door. But work can also present a context to explore Buddhism-in the way you conduct a meeting, walk down the hall to the copy machine, consider the place of your work within the world, or ponder the degrees of separation from your spirituality.

“There’s really no difference between sitting on the cushion and doing work practice,” says Norman Fischer, a Zen priest and former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, who helps run a retreat for business people called “Company Time” at Green Gulch Farm, the Zen center in Marin County. “If people want to do spiritual practice and they have a job, then they really don’t have any choice but to consider the meditation of how to make that job into part of their practice. There’s no other way.”

Buddhists I talked to for this story bore that out. They manifested their practice in the ways they built their companies, approached conflict, set up or avoided partnerships, invested money, advertised, sold their products and went through their daily tasks. But they were clear that this is not an ideal world: outcomes don’t always measure up to intentions and compromises are made.

Many come from backgrounds in the 1960’s and “70’s when” business”-especially when coupled with “big”-was a bad word. They have no illusions about the fact that business can be exploitative, inequitable and wasteful of the earth’s resources. Or that it can often reward a single-minded aggressiveness that is at odds with spiritual practice.

But some of the people I talked to now regard business as nothing more than, as one of them put it, “relations between people.” Others spoke of the way the workplace could enhance practice, simply by allowing one to be mindful in a chaotic environment. For many, bringing Buddhist practice to work didn’t mean choosing a job from an appropriate list of careers and companies that met a rigid definition of “right livelihood,” because such a list doesn’t exist. Rather, right livelihood in the 21st-century might be better understood as “conscious livelihood”-being aware of what a company is doing and what choices and actions to take in this environment.

From the inception of soy products company White Wave in 1979, founder Steve Demos viewed it as a way to pursue right livelihood. He understood this at its most basic level as “doing no harm.” Demos had spent three years in India in the seventies exploring a number of spiritual traditions and was strongly influenced by vipassana mediation workshops with S.N. Goenka. After he returned to the States, he became inspired by a business idea that came to him during a six-week meditation retreat in California.

“Maybe I should have been doing something else there,” he says, “but I was thinking about soy.” A complex source of protein, it could be an answer to the malnutrition he had witnessed in India. In short, it met his understanding of meaningful work.

Living in Boulder, Colorado, at the time, he borrowed $500 from an upstairs neighbor and began making tofu. Pat Calhoun-a friend who had traveled with Demos in India and has practiced vipassana meditation ever since-soon joined him. “I was a waitress and didn’t feel good about serving alcohol,” she says. “I wanted to do something the world was better off with, than without.” She’s now chief financial officer, or as her card says, vice president of spare change.

They serviced small health food stores, ran a deli, and over the years tried dozens of incarnations of soy to build a market. They nearly went bankrupt twice and didn’t really begin to grow until the company came up with Silk brand soy milk in 1996. Sales rose from $10 million in 1998 to $80 million by 2000 and are expected to hit $140 million in 2001. The company is the largest producer of soy products in the United States.

Demos, 53, has been featured in Fortune and Forbes but those articles don’t dwell on what he sees as the most crucial aspect of the company: its philosophy of business. Demos puts it this way: “We only sell things that are good for me, good for you, and good for everybody who touches it.” But what’s crucial is that these values aren’t spelled out in a company primer, codified in a set of rules, or foisted on employees as required company jargon. Rather Demos tries to realize them through the decisions and actions of the company. And if the actions don’t always measure up, that’s part of the process as well. Spelling out the understated approach, Calhoun says, “We’re not missionaries. We’re not good at that. The only thing I can do is observe myself and how I act and know what my intent is.”

Demos does set clear ethical boundaries, however. He refuses to take investment money in the private company from any entity associated with meat, alcohol, tobacco or weapons. “When we have meetings, the first thing I ask is, ‘Where did your money come from?’ Even if it’s three generations removed, if it came from the wrong place I won’t take it.” But he calls himself a pragmatist, one who must compromise to make sure the business works. Although he has never had layoffs he says, “I would fire people, or myself, if it meant the survival of the business and the values it represents.”

His goal now is to build the business, but without losing sight of the original intent. “The business could never be too big if it is rooted on the right principles,” he says. In short, for Demos, bigger is not bad.

Marc Lesser admits he was idealistic when he decided to leave Tassajara, the Zen community in the mountains of Carmel Valley, California, to enter the business world in 1983. He didn’t fully appreciate how much running a company would test the mettle of his practice, such as a recent crisis that almost forced him to shut down after 12 years in business.

When he embarked on his business career, Lesser had been a member of the San Francisco Zen Center for a decade, where he’d held a number of administrative roles, including director of Tassajara, and he wanted to build a business that reflected his practice. In some ways, he had already made the connection between the worlds of work and practice. During his administrative years at Tassajara, Lesser would rise before dawn, meditate for three hours, then remove his robe and work in the office. “It seemed quite seamless, the line between meditation practice and business practice,” he says.

When he left Tassajara, he finished up his undergraduate degree-interrupted when he joined Zen Center-and went on to get an MBA. After returning to San Francisco and working in a recycled paper company, Lesser decided to form his own company in 1989. He sought to combine his knowledge of recycled paper, which he thought would be in high demand, with paper goods featuring spiritual content. He relied on friends at the Zen center to come up with the cards, calendars and other products that were at the heart of the “spiritual lifestyle” company. He named it Brush Dance.

Brush Dance grew from a catalogue operation run from his home into a successful wholesale operation, but when the Internet fever hit in the late 1990’s, Lesser had another vision. He wanted to transform Brush Dance into a Web portal where people could buy products with a spiritual theme.

Since he had already built a business in the field, expansion seemed logical and profits possible. Investors bought into the vision too. In March, 2000, he raised several million dollars, doubled his staff and hired a CEO.

A month later, the NASDAQ peaked and began its long descent. Funding for web projects quickly dried up and Lesser scrambled to revise his business model. “Could we overcome the financial difficulties and hurdles that were created by pursuing an Internet strategy and return to a wholesale model? There were huge obstacles to overcome,” he says. By February 2001, with funding all but gone, Lesser cut the staff from twenty-four people to twelve. “It was a shock and very painful and there were lots of tears, but in some way it was not a surprise,” he says. “It was essential to the survival of the business; we had to take steps to stop burning through money.”

Lesser was stressed out. He wondered whether the company would survive. He also wondered whether this was still the spiritual quest he had set out on. “Is this the kind of activity I want to be doing? Was this nourishing?” he asked himself.

In the midst of it, he bumped into Norman Fischer, the former Zen Center abbot, and told him what a difficult time he was having. Fischer told him, “Well, the mind is definitely affected by conditions.” At that time, he says, “I realized that part of me wanted to be in a place where my mind was not affected by these things. I was facing a difficult time-there was no way around it. Practice wasn’t going to make it easier because practice isn’t about making difficult times easy. Practice is
seeing difficulty for what it is.”

After the height of the crisis, when he had ended the Internet strategy, he fought to keep the business going. He won the support of creditors and suppliers, and the investors gave him money to revive the underlying wholesale business. The key, he says, was approaching everyone with honesty, openness and integrity-letting them know exactly what was going on.

The company is now expanding once again in its original form as a wholesale publisher, and Lesser says he has learned a lot from the whole process. “The world of business in many ways could be perceived as being as far as you could get from spiritual practice,” he says, “but I think there are tremendous similarities.”

Wealth and power are often thought of as the two common pursuits of business people. Addressing the lure of accumulation, Jim Rosen, a Tibetan Buddhist of 25 years and vice president at Internet company Netegrity in Waltham, Massachusetts, points out: “This can be a trap. Wealth doesn’t make you happy; it brings its own burdens.” Fischer says that money and responsibility go hand in hand: the more you have, the more time you must devote to thinking about how it is used. “It’s a hard practice, very difficult,” he says. “It’s much easier to be a monk.”

Wayne Silby, the founder of the Calvert Group, the largest family of socially screened mutual funds in the United States, is no monk. He was cautious about my interview request: “I’m not some blissed-out Buddhist,” he said.

It turns out that Silby is less a practitioner than a sympathizer, one who has been involved with various Buddhist organizations over the years. He meditates on occasion, including in an isolation tank. In fact, he says, he’s come up with some of his best business ideas in that tank as the chatter of his mind quiets. Given his profession and his inclination, Silby has thought a lot about money and has addressed head-on the issue of accumulation-what does it mean to have money and what should one do if one has it?

Silby has always been responsible for his own money-making, since he has never worked for anyone else. In his twenties, he started out with a partner in the then nascent field of money market funds. They quickly grew to manage more than a billion dollars, getting a further jolt when interest rates spiked and the funds grew popular in the seventies. But in 1979, he attended a conference on right livelihood in Vermont, and began to reconsider his work. “I realized that there was more to life than a few extra basis points,” he says. (A basis point is 1/100th of 1 percent, but it can add up when funds are in the billions.)

After the conference, he started to think about a socially responsible investment fund. “It would be based on our values, the kinds of companies we liked to invest in, and we would make choices about these investments-they call them ‘screens’ today,” he says. Although many mutual funds now offer some sort of socially screened investments, when Silby started to talk about the idea in 1980 he says, “People looked at you as if you were still on drugs.”

He faced resistance in his own company-his management team tended to rule by consensus and veto his more outlandish ideas. “But I decided this was really something I wanted to do and told my partner I would throw a real tantrum if I didn’t get this,” Silby says. He worked with a small team to brainstorm about the idea, never really intending to create another large business. “It just seemed like it ought to be done in the world,” he says. “We already had $1 billion in assets, so why not put our money to work in ways that are in sync with how we want to live?”

When Calvert Social Investment Fund was launched in 1982, the press picked up on it and before long it started to grow. Calvert finds financially attractive companies and screens them on their broader societal impact, through their record on the environment, labor, human rights, community relations, product safety and defense. The funds invest a small portion of their money in communities through vehicles such as low-income housing funds, community development loans and micro-enterprise loans. Calvert also backs start-ups, through a social venture fund. Altogether, it has $7 billion of investors’ funds at work.

“I think about money as our promises-about the integrity of our promises,” Silby says. “If you have money, you have a fiduciary duty for that wealth and you become a trustee for society.” On that score, he thinks saving and investment are more important than consumption. Investment can help an enterprise expand and create jobs and a livelihood for people. As for consumption: “I have a problem with people building 5,000-square-foot homes that they use only once a year.”

Social investment becomes a way to “take responsibility for your money and how you’re creating the world,” he says-not unlike the idea expressed by Fischer of the inseparability of money and responsibility.

Not everyone can own or work for a high-minded soy foods producer, spiritual greeting card maker, socially responsible mutual fund company or one of the many other businesses that try to make a living with a conscience. Nor will everyone become a social worker, work in a refugee camp in Pakistan or become a monk.

Lewis Richmond, a former Zen priest and owner of a small software firm, Forerunner Systems Inc., in Mill Valley, California, points out that we don’t have to. In fact, the majority of people-especially people with less formal education and without many options-will likely end up working for companies that don’t have an “enlightened” outlook.

With that in mind, Richmond, in his book, Work as a Spiritual Practice, explored how practice could be brought into everyday work life: how can you maintain awareness even when time and attention are not always under your control? Richmond’s premise is that you can practice regardless of the context in which you work. Indeed, he has said that the enlightened business is really beside the point. Rather than create businesses that are overtly spiritual, business people should create businesses that work, and realize their practice in the way they treat employees, deal with partners and carry out their daily tasks.

Right livelihood, Richmond believes, is too often conceived in the rigid Judeo-Christian sense of “right” and “wrong”-What type of work is right to do? What should I avoid?-rather than in the sense of pursuing an “aware or conscious livelihood,” which might well be more in tune with the original meaning of the term.

“Even if your business operates within the limits of the ethically acceptable, we always do harm,” he says. “That’s the dilemma.” Or as Fischer puts its, “You know you’re causing suffering in being alive, and with trepidation you do what you can to cause as little as possible.”

A friend of Richmond’s, who was a policeman and a Buddhist, struggled with the fact that he had to carry a gun. “But would I rather see him as a policeman or someone else? To have him confront criminals with a sense of awareness, well, that’s very difficult and very great work,” Richmond says.

Practice, then, isn’t just a matter of looking for the list of the “right” places to work, or the “right” careers to pursue-it’s doing the work itself, whatever it may be. “We all have to deal with the situations we’re in,” Richmond says. “And maybe if the ideals were less public, more sincerely integrated, they wouldn’t be remain as mere ideals. They would be actualized.”

Samuel Fromartz

Samuel Fromartz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., and a participant in the Capitol Hill Mindfulness Community.