Re-imaging business and work

Introduction

Do you sometimes imagine a company where profits are not the number one goal? Where competition is not the biggest or only force pushing employees towards better results? I do. And I really enjoy discovering more and more places where people dare to reimage business and work. Places where people try to put values such as personal growth, collaboration and social impact first and profits are in service of that.

We learn to find and implement new pathways for ourselves and others by trying, failing, standing in the way of ourselves, and retrying. And we learn from each other’s stories. Therefore I’d like to share such a story here with you all.

I met Rick[1] about a year ago in Vietnam and he inspired me straight away with his vision for the business he set up: a bakery with a social mission. This bakery provides employment and vocational training for people who are hearing, visually or physically impaired.

After studying electrical engineering and working many years in this field in Europe his company got to work on a big project in Vietnam. This made him travel to Vietnam on a very regular basis, putting lots of time and energy in the work. In the end, the competition walked away with the project. Rick, however, did not want to leave the country after having set up such a broad network and decided to start his own companies: a consulting business and a socially responsible bakery. This bakery expresses Rick’s long existing wish to do something for society and people who need it. It also expresses the encounter with a woman through couch surfing who was dealing with a difficult situation for her business. She had to fire people from her company because of the financial crisis and asked Rick if he wanted to start another company so that these people could have a job. All the right conditions came together.

About this starting period Rick says: “You always have to start. Do what is in your heart. You need lots of perseverance. You will encounter many setbacks but the people who continue will be successful.”

Indeed, they started out as a donut shop. It took another couch surfing friend three months to make good donuts. After a short while of running the business it collapsed and people started asking why they didn’t sell bread. So Rick got in contact with a 75 year old German baker who came and taught a small team of five deaf and mute employees how to make sourdough bread. The next setback was around the corner: summer. It was way too hot for the sourdough to survive and they had to find new ways of working. The bakery grew from selling bread to also selling sandwiches and food in their own café, and now even providing lunches at schools. With their international menu the school lunch project is a great success.

“If you persevere your dream will be fed. There are things that happen around you that bring you on the right path. People continuously walk in asking if you need something. People visit by ‘coincidence’, contacts through other contacts, it flows. There is a great synchronicity.” Rick shares about this start-up period.

 

The burn out

Then running two businesses took its toll. It started with a 2 second panic attack in the middle of the night. Rick knew something wasn’t right. When he comes back from holidays he drinks a small glass of whiskey with his neighbour in the evening. The next day he wakes up in panic and fear. These feelings were so strong he didn’t know what to do and couldn’t be alone. He decides to stay at a friend’s place and doesn’t leave for another month. ‘If I knew what I know now, I would have solved it a long time ago’ he shares about this period in his life.

Rick identifies two important roots to burn outs:

  • The fast pace of life nowadays that leads to self-alienation. “We are pushed by technology and profits. There is an enormous amount of pressure on us resulting in us leading very stressful lives. The capitalist system and consumer society we created tells us we need to earn money and spend it. It draws you away from your own essence of being, the reason of your being. Because human beings continuously get to hear and see what he/she should be through TV and other media there is a gap between that image we are fed from outside and the reality of our being.”
  • Soil exhaustion leading to lower nutritional value of the food we eat. “Stress causes a magnesium deficiency in your body. Something we don’t get enough from our food nowadays. The soil is exhausted, the quantity of minerals is very low, and the people at the top of the food production chain only aim at profits, suppressing the people lower in the pyramid. It is all set up to produce more for a lower price.”

 

Picture by Kirsten Portengen

Picture by Kirsten Portengen

The individual path towards healing

Rick’s path towards healing was first and foremost through deeply examining and learning about his nutrition patterns and food production. He learns that the way we use the earth for food production exhausts her and does not leave time for the land to regenerate and produce minerals. The food contains less nutritious value.

Rick says: “Healing starts with your nutrition. When you are continuously stressed and you eat fast food and carbohydrates, at a certain moment your body will just stop functioning. You feel like you have a complete foggy brain, as if you’re walking next to yourself. You feel strange, you get panic attacks but you have no idea what you are panicking about. So it starts with trying out food and observing how you react to it.”

Rick starts a process of trying out different supplements and diets. His cousin brings him sea magnesium which has a positive effect on him. He tries out being a vegetarian, then a vegan, until his body feels too weak so he changes his diet again. He reads books and tests new insights on himself with the same entrepreneurial spirit he has when setting up a new business.

However, the burn out is not only something physical, it’s also mental.

“Stress in your body is caused by stress in your thoughts. When you have stressful thoughts your body reacts and starts burning double the amount of energy until nothing is left.”

After about 1,5 years Rick realizes he’s keeping the disease in tact himself with his own thoughts. That’s when he tells himself it’s enough. Besides nourishing his body well, he also stops feeding himself with burn out thoughts. This is the moment his burn out is over.

 

The collective path towards healing

Rick recognizes that healing is both his personal learning journey as well as a learning journey of society as a whole. Our society is conditioned to search for security, for control. It’s our collective fear of losing control and leadership in our own lives which shapes the societies we are all living in. Rick describes the chain of interconnected causes. The food production system provides us with nutritional deficiencies as well as unhealthy comfort foods making us sick. Chemicals in products like shampoo and in the atmosphere are another thing that can cause health problems. Our healthcare system will treat the symptoms of our diseases, not the root causes. Our health insurance guides us towards those symptom treatments we might not necessarily need. It’s quite difficult to keep a human being healthy.

According to Rick our society needs to change and this is a slow process of growing awareness in each and every one of us:  “We don’t have much time nowadays to think and reflect anymore because we all have to be busy making money and consuming. But when you do step out of that cycle there is an infinity of possibilities. The internet provides a great means of gaining knowledge and getting in contact with smart people all around the world. There are many solutions not just one. We can bring all those ideas together and make them work.”

 

New directions

This personal journey Rick is on also provides him with new ideas and new directions professionally.

Learning more about health and plants brought Rick in touch with Vietnamese herbal medicine. Rick shares: “In the countryside when people are sick, they go to the forest or the rice fields to pick the right plants they need to heal.”  There is such knowledge on medicinal plants and herbs which Rick would like to promote and bring to those people who lack the knowledge or access to those plants.

Also with his current business he has a chance to have a positive impact on others. His company provides 700 children at school with lunches. Rick says: “Now I know what to give them. I see those children; they only eat what they like. They don’t eat vegetables. So we try to hide the vegetables in the food.”

Besides the lunches, Rick also realizes it’s important to have good health education at schools, not only for the children, but also for the teachers. “There is an obesity explosion in some parts of the world. No-one knows why. Everybody thinks it’s because we’re eating fast food and not getting enough exercise.” But according to Rick it’s more than that. There are toxins in foods that our body doesn’t know what to do with. Rick names corn syrup as one example. This toxic sweetener used foremost in the US is made harmless by our bodies by encapsulating it with fat. We need health education to empower all citizens to take good care of their own health and become aware of the power mechanisms behind food production and advertisement.

Rick is optimistic. He says he now has the capacity to be healthy and live differently. Sometimes doctors say we cannot heal this or that. According to Rick this is because we only learned one way. Luckily there are many other ways to become healthy again. He says: “These kinds of processes have happened in similar ways over the entire course of human history. Some people say the earth is round and they end up being burned for it. A few 100 years later people find out they were right after all and society changes.”

With the bakery Rick and his co-workers create a different way of collaborating. The goal is not to increase profits. The business mission is interconnected with the social mission. “The business mission needs to support the social mission. All HR decisions are made based on the social mission. When you stop putting profits first, you feel so much better. Of course you need to be able to feed yourself at the end of the day, but you don’t need to earn that much. Something magical happens then. We don’t recruit on professional experience and degrees, we recruit you because you want to change your life and you have a passion. It’s about changing mindsets.”

That’s why Rick prefers calling persons with disabilities: people with great abilities. They have developed other capacities and senses. His employees can recognize him by his smell and footsteps. Rick shares: “A blind person is far better on the telephone because they build customer relations through deeper contact with them.”
Rick chose very consciously set up a business, not an NGO. They can support themselves and feel self-respect. Many employees when they start have very little self-confidence or self-respect. Working in a business, making money, dealing with competition, needing to be professional and developing skills brings about a lot of respect and self-respect. Self-confidence of the employees grows and they start blooming.

Rick ends with an anecdote that illustrates very well the growth mindset of the company:

“One morning I was called to come to the bakery as fast as possible. Two of the boys were running after each other with knives. These two were continuously fighting therefore one worked dayshifts and the other nightshifts. However, that day they encountered each other.

I believe that every person has a basic goodness inside. They are some of the best employees so how to solve this situation? It was a whole process for sure. In the end we sat around a table with the whole management team and the two boys. They are deaf-mute and started to swear at each other in sign language. However, in our company we look forwards, not backwards. We set up a contract saying both guys stop fighting. One more fight, and they are out of the company. After that we served them a luxurious lunch, for just the two of them. One of the guys was confused and walked to the kitchen. He was scared but we took him by the hand and walked back to the room. We told them to eat together, help each other and treat each other with love. The management team served them the lunch and they both almost cried. Now they are best friends and the company is incredibly happy with them.”

 

Conclusion

I am very grateful for Rick sharing his personal story that relates to all of us individually and to us as a society. It takes courage to change the well-known path you always take and face taking wrong turns and getting lost. It’s very inspiring to hear the story of others who try to examine presumptions and explore new ways of working and living together. I learned a lot from Rick’s story and feel very encouraged to dare to set different goals professionally. Let’s continue sharing these stories that stand out so that we can grow and develop together as a world society and draw a new image of what business and work actually can look like.

 

[1] This is not his real name for privacy reasons

 

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