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Commencement 2013: Address by Gary Hirshberg

The 2013 Commencement address, as delivered by Gary Hirshberg, L.H.D., co-founder and chairman of the organic yogurt producer Stonyfield Farm.

President Spencer, trustees, faculty, staff, members of the Bates community, parents and family of graduates, and of course graduates, you have juggled so much to make this day possible, and I honor you.

I, of course, have a special affinity with the parents today, being one myself. So before I focus on our graduates, let me say something to you fellow parents, for this is obviously no less a day for you.

Mixed in with your justified pride are a wide range of emotions: disbelief that the little creature you have swaddled is now a college grad; shock at how fast this phase sped by; and terror that they might in fact move back in with you.

Graduates, I have two things to say to you. First, since I know many of you had a very, very, very very, very long night, hang in there. This won’t be long. And second, I offer, honestly, my deepest, deepest congratulations.

Commencement speaker Gary Hirshberg told the graduates that "challenging the conventional wisdom can be scary. But everything that’s ever been important has happened because someone asked the powerful two words: Why not?" Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

Commencement speaker Gary Hirshberg told the graduates that “challenging the conventional wisdom can be scary. But everything that’s ever been important has happened because someone asked the powerful two words: Why not?” Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

To be clear, my paternal pride is for not just our son, but a whole bunch of young men and women who I have had the privilege to host, watch and enjoy over these far-too-fast four years. So I did some homework to get to know you all better.

It turns out that you have been highly productive. Or at least you had been highly productive right up until about a month ago. But I’ll try not to go there and let my envy show.

But seriously, I am especially proud to honor you today. Your Pledge of Social Responsibility is truly and utterly one of the most hopeful and inspiring statements I have ever read from any graduating class. And I hope everybody here has had a chance to read it. It is truly inspiring.

Your class and your college mates have confirmed what many of us expected from this incredible place. You have balanced your amazing academic achievements with an equally extraordinary output of community service and involvement.

Community involvement is clearly at the heart of the Bates identity and mission rather than relegated to the margins of the college.

This year, Bates students gave 13,000 hours to volunteer projects, both locally and farther afield. And over a third of you were engaged in learning out in the community. Taken together, you and your schoolmates have invested close to 60,000 hours of service and learning outside of campus and in your communities.

Community involvement is clearly at the heart of the Bates identity and mission rather than relegated to the margins of the college. I truly believe this is what makes Bates special.

Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient Gary Hirshberg and his graduate son, Ethan '13, pose for a photograph after the ceremony. Photograph by Jose Leiva.

Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient Gary Hirshberg and his graduate son, Ethan ’13, pose for a photograph after the ceremony. Photograph by Jose Leiva.

As I hope to make clear in my few minutes with you, I have no doubt that this level of community engagement and real world applied learning will be as critical a contributor to your futures as any academic achievement.

To be blunt, you face far tougher social, societal and economic challenges than what we parents faced at your ages.

Especially troubling is that fact that many of our most heralded financial institutions and leaders have been culpable in fueling the nation’s economic instability with short-term, greed-driven thinking. Here in the U.S., we got into a fiscal mess that will take years to repair by borrowing money we didn’t have to buy stuff we didn’t need or couldn’t afford. We voluntarily put on blinders and willfully ignored the consequences of our short-term thinking.

The bottom line is that many of the so-called experts have been wrong and now need to be second-guessed. And that is actually your job. We now know we can’t export away our manufacturing capacity. We can’t expect to have a growing economy while enriching the wealthy but squeezing down the middle class.

In short, 20-century rules don’t work anymore. We need new rules now.

We can’t build a strong nation without investing in infrastructure. We can’t just assume that good education happens by itself without serious investment in our teachers. And I surely don’t understand how we can subsidize troubled banks, businesses and farms, but load our next generation of college-educated leaders with crushing debt that will take a generation or more to pay back.

In short, 20-century rules don’t work anymore. We need new rules now. And not being able to rely on experts and conventional wisdom surely spells special challenges, but also opportunities for you.

It is clear that we have brought the same short-sighted, greed-driven entitlement we used to guide our economy to how we manage our planet and even our health.

Of course the ecologic challenges also have huge economic impacts on you and on all of us. For instance, scientists now widely agree that hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the unprecedented powerful tornadoes we’re seeing are climate events resulting from putting too much heat and energy into the atmosphere.

The Center for American Progress estimates that climate-related disasters just last year cost our nation $188 billion in foregone prosperity as we diverted investment from future-oriented progress to repairing damage and staying afloat. And just last week, 500 of the world’s leading water scientists, after a four-day conference, came out with a statement that in two generations, a majority of our world’s population will actually be struggling to find clean water, and they charge that this handicap is self-inflicted and entirely avoidable.

Our failure to factor long-term consequences into our thinking also shows up in our health system. Thanks to a several-decade love affair with cheap, carbohydrate-rich but nutritionally deficient foods (not here at Bates!) and an overall reduction in activity, two-thirds of Americans are either obese or overweight.

The average 10-year-old boy today weighs 13 pounds more than in 1960. Treating obesity costs the U.S. over $80 billion a year. And with one out of three kids born after 2000 likely to be a diabetic, we are spending another $174 billion on this sister of the obesity epidemic.

And these examples of our failure to think systemically about consequences go on and on and on.

The President’s Cancer Panel reports that 41 percent of Americans alive today will be diagnosed with some kind of cancer, and they point to day-to-day chemical exposures as the cause. This will cost our society, and you, trillions of dollars.

A baby born in Lewiston or St. Louis this morning will have over 250 toxins in her cord blood, traced to pesticides, stain removers, wood preservatives, heavy metals, industrial lubricants and flame retardants.

Now aren’t you glad that Bates invited such a depressing guy to come talk to you today?

Honestly, my personal story shows that considering and preventing consequences like we have talked about in fact offers opportunities. Time and again we see situations like the recent and horrible tragedy in Boston that brings out our best. And you have had your own share of tragedy here at Bates. And it has brought out your best. So let me turn from this depressing stuff to talk about bringing out your best.

But this is now your path. There is no program.

Simply put, the meltdown of traditional ground rules and a tough, albeit improving, job picture means you have to think differently.

Today you are stepping through your looking glass. Your lives up until now have largely been programmed to follow a pretty logical and, in your case here at Bates, as we heard in this remarkable address earlier, a blessed path. But this is now your path. There is no program. Someone said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. And now the only person who can invent your future is you.

In reflecting on your situations and on my 30-year business career, I recognize that you are beginning your journeys exactly as I began our business: Broke, scared about the future and in deep debt.

So, in thinking about how I can be helpful to you, I want to offer four lessons that I have learned since sitting in your seats:

First, think on your own. Don’t trust so-called experts or their dogma. Challenging the conventional wisdom can be scary. But everything that’s ever been important has happened because someone asked the powerful two words: Why not?

At Stonyfield, countless “experts” told us, for example, that we would fail unless we bought commercial advertising, but in the early days we couldn’t afford that. So instead we invented our own alternatives.

One morning in the 1980s on a Boston morning talk show two guys named Joe and Andy mentioned us on air. Joe was this athletic, healthy guy had been lecturing Andy, who was most definitely not into healthy eating, that he ought to try eating Stonyfield instead.

Andy replied that he would rather eat camel manure than yogurt. Now most reasonable companies would have tried to duck down and stay under the radar screen until the manure reference had been forgotten, but we asked why not use this an opportunity to strut our stuff.

So one wintry morning, my wife Meg and I drove over to Benson’s Animal Farm where they had camels. We filled a large yogurt container with frozen camel “nuggets” for Andy and yogurt for Joe and drove to their studios.

Of course by the time we got to Boston, the manure had thawed and the odors leaking out of the cup were especially noxious. Now for you graduates, think of Sunday mornings at the White house here at Bates and you’ll get the picture. Anyhow, we won our first on-air endorsement as Andy, faced with a difficult menu choice, did agree that Stonyfield tasted better than camel shit.

When another chain agreed to start selling our yogurts in the 1980s, their first question was what we were going to do for advertising to help excite consumer interest. Again, we had no money, but we had our 19 cows. So we decided why not put our cows up for adoption.

Consumers could send in five yogurt lids and receive a photo of “their” cow, a certificate naming them the co-owner of “their” cow and then twice per year “their” cow would send them letters about life on the farm. Today, our carbon-conscious cows actually email four times per year, thus avoiding paper. Some of them Tweet, many of them blog, and hundreds and hundreds of people have adopted cows.

At a national and societal scale, much of the so-called conventional wisdom is instead a fabricated aura of inevitability bought and paid for by massive lobbying and campaign finance donations as special interests use their pocketbooks to fill the airwaves with experts and arguments that support their point of view.

Given the failure of so many expert proponents of economic and ecologic gospel, we must question authority as never before.

Climate change is still being disputed by a handful of zealots, but when you follow the money, you find coal or oil interests cloaking their cases with arguments for jobs or some other short-term gain that postpones the inevitable: We really do have to stop burning carbon.

Given the failure of so many expert proponents of economic and ecologic gospel, we must question authority as never before. As was mentioned, I am heavily involved in trying to get genetically engineered foods labeled so you and I can know if we are eating them. Sixty-six nations around the world give their citizens the rights to label including really progressive countries like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Syria. And yet, we don’t have it here in the U.S

Their gospel of the chemical companies who own these patented crops is that we need these new life forms to feed the world, create crops that endure in drought conditions or with poor soils, and help improve productivity.

Now one day, GE foods may in fact deliver such real value. And I think we have to keep working towards those ends. But despite decades of putting forth these arguments, there is not yet any independent evidence that these crops have delivered any of these benefits.

Despite assurances to Congress and regulators over the last two decades that crops engineered to be herbicide-resistant would lead to less chemical usage, as you read in The Wall Street Journal earlier in the week, science now shows that the three major GE crops in the U.S. have increased overall herbicide use by more than a half billion pounds since 1996 compared to what it likely would have been in the absence of GE crops.

The U.S. Geological Survey now measures this herbicide, glyphosate, in the air in all Midwestern communities throughout the summer. It wasn’t there 10 years ago. We’re breathing it. It’s in our water.

So, GE crops have been primarily engineered not for any increased nutritional or consumer benefit, but to make it easier to spray insecticides and herbicides on growing crops, leaving the genetically transformed crops unharmed but killing the weeds. (Now, I tried to explain this on the Bill Maher Show this winter, but if you have ever seen his show, you will understand when I tell you my big mistake was mentioning “weed” in his presence. Anyhow, I got him back on track. I think.)

GE technology is a real moneymaker for the industry, which charges much more for these seeds, and then sells more herbicides to the same farmers.

So it should not surprise any of us, least of all an educated Bates grad, that the very same chemical companies who own these crops are spending tens of millions of dollars to fund lobbying efforts to stop them from being labeled. Lily Tomlin says, “No matter how cynical I get, it is hard to keep up.” I agree with her.

Challenging their conventional wisdom is key. Asking loudly and repeatedly “Why not pursue an alternative?” is your job.

So whether it is the gun lobby, oil, gas, fracking interests, or the chemical companies, it is essential that you speak up for what you believe and not just what the advertisers and lobbyists tell you. Challenging their conventional wisdom is key. Asking loudly and repeatedly “Why not pursue an alternative?” is your job.

The key takeaway here is that you did not just gain knowledge here at Batesyou learned how to reason and how to think, and the world needs you to be doing that more than ever.

Second, follow your heart and live your life. Steve Jobs, in an amazing commencement address, said, “Life is short. Don’t waste it living someone else’s dreams and ambitions.” Simply put, he was saying, you can only succeed if you love what you are doing. So do what you love.

During my last years in college in the mid-70s, I was fortunate to participate in some cutting-edge research on predicting the rate and causes of climate change. My adviser wanted me to go on to grad school to continue the research and even offered to go to bat for financial support, which he felt certain I could get.

And like a lot of you, the bills had mounted, and I felt pressure to make money, but I wanted to learn practical skills about solutions, not just studying the problems, so I instead went to a renegade ecological institute and bartered my college-taught skills as a writer and editor for learning how to build windmills, use tools and grow food. I worked as a bartender, tennis instructor and sous-chef to make ends meet, and I lived in friends’ basements to save rent money. I scrounged and got by.

But this experience changed my life. I learned how to feed 10 people three meals per day, 365 days a year, on a tenth-of-an-acre intensive organic garden. I learned how to build solar greenhouses in which food could be grown efficiently year round using no fossil fuels and no toxic agrichemicals.

I wound up being pretty good at fundraising, mostly because I was so passionate about the work we were doing, but Reagan budget cuts in the early 1980s left us with no grant support. So we started Stonyfield with seven cows and a $35,000 loan from that ultimate venture capitalist group, the Sisters of Mercy, a group of Catholic nuns. Not bad for a couple of Jewish guys.

In summary, from this critical period in my 20s, I learned:

First, there was no way to plan this scenario. It happened from following my heart.

Second, changing gears was the best and smartest thing I could have done.

And third, reflecting on my education, as you reflect on yours, it was not what I learned and studied that was important. It was learning how to learn, learning that I could learn anything I put my heart into and that knowing how to write and speak to make my case were most crucial.

Third, believe in yourself and be determined even when others doubt you. Fear of failure gets you nowhere.

Winston Churchill summed up my career beautifully when he said that “success is the ability to move from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.

We knew nothing about business when we started but we knew a lot about the importance of growing and eating organic foods. But talking about this stuff was pretty lonely. There weren’t too many folks listening.

If you scratch the surface of any big success you are looking at, you will find a labyrinth of errors, pain and struggle underneath.

Actually we had a wonderful company. We just had no supply and no demand. But we stuck with it and this year our annual sales will be $350 million, and we’ve generated over $2.5 billion of revenues.

But don’t ever be fooled into thinking that any business or person was successful from the start. If you scratch the surface of any big success you are looking at, you will find a labyrinth of errors, pain and struggle underneath.

For us, it took nine years until we made a profit and it was only my partner’s amazing yogurts and our determination that got us through. Lily Tomlin, again, says, “Reality is the leading cause of stress for those who are in touch with it.” Sometimes, you just have to ignore reality. And we did that in spades. You know, like Puddle Jumping on Newman Day. That kind of thing.

We did that repeatedly all through our careers.

In 1984, we had been trying to get our yogurts into Bread & Circus (now part of Whole Foods) in Cambridge for about a year to no avail. They already had a half a dozen organic or natural yogurts made by some nice hippie in New Hampshire who lived in their tee pee with their wet goat, and they repeatedly told us that they did not need another one.

So one July afternoon, about 20 of my Boston-area friends, actually my old Ultimate Frisbee team, came to the farm to celebrate my 30th birthday, and when I blew out the candles, I thanked them for coming, but told them that if they really wanted to give me a great birthday gift, they should go to Bread & Circus and ask for our yogurt. That was a Sunday. On Wednesday, the buyer from Bread & Circus buyer called and told us that “demand for Stonyfield has gone through the roof and would I please make a delivery at once?” So we delivered that afternoon. We became their number-one selling yogurt, and we have been for 30 years since.

An even more extreme leap of faith literally saved the company back in 1988.

We had outgrown our little yogurt works and had begun processing at a friend’s dairy, but five months into that venture, he went belly up, bankrupt. So suddenly faced with no production and with a business doubling every three to four months, we brought everything back to the farm where, due to our inefficiency there, we began to burn about $25,000 of cash every week. It was a nightmare.

I began borrowing money from everybody I could. I even had to ask my wife to contribute the $40,000 her dad had left her in her inheritance. Thank you, Sweetie.

On many nights, thinking my wife was asleep, I would tiptoe to the next-door office to call my mother-in-law to see if she could lend us another $5,000 for payroll. And on many occasions, I would hear the click-click of call waiting as Meg was on the other line saying, “Mom, don’t do this.” Thank you, Sweetie.

After a few months, we came to a deal with a large Vermont dairy to become our processor, allowing us to focus on sales and marketing and effectively save us. Finally on the big day, as we prepared to drive north to close the long-negotiated and -awaited deal, Meg asked me if there was anything that could prevent this deal from happening and to our getting our money back. Absolutely not, I told her confidently, and rode off to battle and certain victory.

Well, to make a long story short, by the time we got to Vermont, our future partners had decided to re-trade the entire deal and essentially to steal our company. We got up from the table, said some things I cannot say here, and walked out into what had of course now had become a rare April blizzard. As we drove back, the only lunatics on the roads with several feet of snow piling up, Samuel and I began out of desperation to start designing our own yogurt factory, cutting costs everywhere we possibly could.

When I got home that night, my sleepy wife asked if the deal was done, and I said, “No, we aren’t going to do that deal, but we have a much better idea now.”

After I slept alone that night, I got up early the next morning and I was at the SBA office in Concord when they opened, and I told them that for $592,000, we could build our own yogurt factory and that I had investors willing to provide 25 percent of the funds (not quite true) and a bank willing to do the rest (also not quite true) if the SBA would provide an 85 percent loan guarantee.

The SBA officer huddled with his superiors for 30 minutes, then came out and blessed the deal, so off I went to see the Bank of New England, to whom I presented the same earnest, if slightly exaggerated, story. You’ve heard of stone soup. I was making it.

After they blessed the deal, we convened our investors in Boston the next night and told them that we had the bank lined up, we had the SBA lined up, all we needed was a $150,000 from them. We got our commitments that night, began construction a month later, opened nine months after that, and became profitable within about six months of that opening.

My simple summary is when the chips are down, you must believe in yourself. Because in the end, that’s all you’ve got.

Four, finally, show up. Never underestimate the value of performing service and doing “good.”

Clearly by your pledge of social responsibility, you understand that.

The question we asked ourselves when we started the company in 1983 was, “Is it possible to create a business that could help be part of the solutions to our planet’s ecological challenges while also making money?” The answer today is an emphatic yes.

Today, our milk purchases support 1,400 organic dairy farmers who currently earn twice what they would receive for non-organic milk. For instance, here in Maine in 1996 there was one certified organic dairy farm. Today, thanks largely to our purchases, and by the way to yours here at Bates, there are 68. Twenty-two percent of Maine’s farms are now organic.

Stonyfield buys more than 300 million pounds of organic ingredients annually, which support several hundred thousand chemical-free acres of farmland, encouraging biodiversity by bringing back hundreds of animal species to healthy, pollution-free streams and fields of carbon-rich topsoils.

Our solid waste reductions have kept more than 20 million pounds of waste from landfills and incinerators. And our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint have saved us over $30 million just since 2006 alone.

By using lighter-weight plastic resins for our cups, we haves avoided production of many thousands of tons of plastics that never have to be used, let alone recycled, both of which take energy. But that’s not really success. Success will be when you finish eating the yogurt, you eat the cup. I am now part of a company that is doing just that, and this fall Stonyfield will be testing the first edible packaging that’s ever been done.

Another bit of conventional wisdom we challenged is the idea of that mythological place called “away” where we send our waste. I’ve yet to figure out where that is.

When we had to build a waste treatment plant at Stonyfield, we learned that the traditional waste processing method would have led to production of a truckload of sludge every single week. When we asked the local authorities in Londonderry where we to send it, they said it’s very easy. You send it to Vermont. That was there definition of “away.”

In short, there is no place called “away,” and we need new solutions to stop deluding ourselves.

I’m picturing Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont sending it back to New Hampshire, and thinking maybe we could do sludge swaps on the Connecticut River. Anyhow, I didn’t want to have any of that, so we built an innovative biogas digester that produces a clean burning gas that we use to replace purchased propane and also produces miniscule amounts of sludge. So now we don’t have to make midnight runs to Vermont. We’ve turned a major cost into a source of profits. In short, there is no place called “away,” and we need new solutions to stop deluding ourselves.

Indeed, what we discovered from doing good is a new business formula that’s now being mimicked by the largest companies on Earth. And we’ve also learned that doing good helps to build loyalty. I’ll explain it very simply.

A few years ago, I was standing in Florida holding a competitor’s cup at the supermarket reading an ingredient. An older woman came up to me, tapped me on the elbow and said, “Young man, someone your age should be eating the Stonyfield instead of that stuff.”

This is a true story. So I said, “Thank you, Mom.” No, it wasn’t my mom. (Who is here.)

When I asked her why, she told me that this company gives away 10 percent of its profits to environmental causes, offsets its carbon emissions, supports family farmers, etc. I interrupted her to ask, how she knew all of that?

She told me that her husband had recently died from colon cancer and that she and “the girls” from her local bridge foursome had all had lost their spouses, and all decided that they want to stick around to see their grandchildren graduate from Bates or wherever they were graduating, so they go to the websites of companies to learn which brands to support, and Stonyfield had clearly passed the test.

So I hired her on the spot. That’s isn’t true, but I did give her a lot of coupons.

In that one incident I learned all one needs to know about business. When you make it better and you do good, you get loyalty. And with loyalty comes the most powerful purchase influence in commerce — word of mouth.

So let me conclude by summarizing.

As you go forward, live your lives, trust your choices. Don’t be afraid to change gears a couple of times. And for goodness’ sake, don’t fear failure, for it’s actually the only way we learn to succeed.

Do remember that even when you make the right choices, life often hits you with a brick. Manure happens, is what we say. The successful person is not the one who got the best GPA, or made the most money. It is the person who gets back up after being knocked down, often repeatedly.

The good news is that by attending to our social and environmental problems, there are endless opportunities. If you are creative, determined and opportunistic in putting your amazing Bates experience to work, you and the world will benefit. Those of you who question conventional thinking will be in the best positions to seize the next wave of jobs and economic opportunities.

There will be more jobs in renewable energy, energy efficiency, light-weighting or avoidance of plastics, preventative health care, organic agriculture, green textiles, polymers, transportation and cleansers than in continuing with the polluting, resource-consumptive, 20th-century ways.

The good news for you is that you don’t have to choose between doing good and doing well. Indeed in my experience, the best ecological practices have actually turned out to be the most profitable.

So, whatever you do, be a force for positive change — in terms of what you do and what you buy. The world needs those of us who’ve had the blessings of an education such as you have to attend to its needs. It doesn’t matter where you set down a stake; it only matters that you contribute. As consumers, we wield enormous power to choose the polluting, consumptive and failed ways of the past or the renewable and sustainable ways of the future.

Please don’t forget the power of those two words: why not.

When we purchase anything, we’re voting for the kind of communities, society and planet we want. And believe me, corporate American spends billions to tally those votes. If with your consumer dollars you vote to support energy-efficient vehicles, products and appliances, less packaging, smaller footprints, organic food and renewable energy, those are what corporations will sell.

Please don’t forget the power of those two words: why not.

Why not push our politicians to support campaign finance caps so that we can get back to citizens having as loud a voice as corporations?

Why not subsidize only foods that are actually healthy, so we don’t have to make people obese and sick then have to pay again for health care? Preventative health care is far less expensive than treating us after we’re sick.

Why not convert from taxing income to taxing consumption or carbon?

Why not be charitable first and judgmental later?

I believe that we stand at the edge of the next wave of economic progress, the sustainability revolution in which we use green chemistry which leaves behind no toxic residue, cradle-to-cradle technology which generates no waste, renewable energy with no carbon footprint, industrial ecology with waste from one process being the food for another, healthy eating to prevent disease: These will be the norms. And I believe this will fuel enormous job opportunities and growth opportunities for you.

So whether as producers in the new economy or as consumers, as you graduate into the “real world,” this now becomes your moral obligation, but also it is your opportunity.

I don’t know what the future holds, and neither do you. But I do know who holds the future. And you are right in front of me.

And I do know that Gandhi was right when he said that anyone who feels that they are too small to make a difference has never been in bed with a mosquito. (I think it’s the state bird here, isn’t it?)

So, Bates graduates: Go forward, do good work. I know you will. Be sure to smell the flowers and eat plenty of organic yogurt along the way.

But for today, Class of 2013, as you bid adieu to Orloff, Jimbos at the Goose, Range Pond, campus golf and Commons crushes, celebrate your successes. You’ve earned it. I honor and I congratulate you and your families.



One Response to “Commencement 2013: Address by Gary Hirshberg”

  1. Elena Delgado says:

    Thank you Mr. Hirshberg for delivering an on point, timely and forward thinking address. We especially appreciate your courage, passion, wisdom, and good humor. Your story resonates and inspires the whole Bates community. We hope your sensational speech and underlying messages spread quickly into other communities.

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