Category: (Y)our Stories

Here is a story from our friend Theo, who now lives in Palo Alto, CA.  He’s now an official Small Infinity contributor, and you can be too.  Small Infinity stories are everywhere- help us collect them!


I want to pass along two stories I heard about a local nursery school.

The nursery school decided to go green, including recycling, composting, getting rid of paper cups and engaging the children to be good stewards of the Earth. Which is neat in and of itself, but the second order effects have also been pretty cool.

Two anecdotes:

Anecdote one begins with one of the schools three-year-old students visiting his grandma. While playing a game the three-year-old kept getting up and looking out the window. After about 20 minutes, he finally walked outside, pulled several cardboard boxes out of the trash where his grandmother had placed them, and solemnly told her that she should recycle. His grandmother told the teachers at the nursery school, “If my grandson can do this, I think I should too.”

Anecdote two begins with a real estate developer with children at the nursery school. Because of the stewardship learned at school, the children now have their family composting too. While I don’t know if the developer has moved into green development just yet, I’m guessing that they are thinking about it much more now.

I don’t know if these two stories will change the world in and of themselves, but they remind me that the work we do can have impacts outside of the ones we often see.

In many ways farmers are at the forefront of the movement toward sustainable change. They are the industry that has seen the most change in consumer behavior in the name of environmental stewardship. Note the amazing growth the farmer’s market segment of food retail in the last years. Maybe this is because food directly affects families’ health as well as the environment, local economies, and food security? Perhaps it is because the link between action and personal or environmental benefit is tangible and immediate? Rachel surely knows more than I do on these topics (specifically how many people have NOT made these connections and changed behaviors) so I’ll stop there.

We’ll have more posts about farmers, food, sustainable agriculture, etc as this is Rachel’s passion but I wanted to tell a quick story about farmers’ going beyond compliance with USDA organic guidelines and expectations of good behavior at a conference to “go green.”

Years ago, (2006?) I attended a session with some small farmers while at a giant conference the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture hosts annually. I was invited to this conference by the owners of Northstar Cafe, which you can find discussed in my first Small Infinity story., and found it to be highly relevant and inspiring. I saw both Sandra Steingraber and John Ikerd speak at this conference- more on those too soon as both of them remain on my list of influential thinkers.

Man do I digress…

The title of the session, something vague about connecting small farms to wind power, attracted enough participants to fill the room. The speaker, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly attracting the attention of the crowd. It turns out the crowd was filled with mostly farmers who wanted the speaker to enable action- steps, contacts, cost analysis, how-to stories- while the speaker was filled with lots of information on high-level policy of wind power on small farms. The tension of the mismatch was palpable.

By the end of the session, the audience was acting like a classroom of 4th grade girls during study hall. I saw people whispering and passing notes everywhere. From my spot in the midst of the farmers, I overheard people saying things like “here talk to these people” and noticed that the people “in the know” about HOW to get wind power on small farms were cranking out as many little notes as their pocket of crumpled receipts would permit.

Lesson: Small Infinities enable each and are open to opportunity beyond expectation.

Grandma * Mom * Rachel

My first daylily of the season bloomed on June 1 – this is incredibly early for daylilies, and a definite sign that something’s up with the weather this year.  But it made me happy.  The daylilies in my front yard came from my mom’s garden- she dug them up for me last summer, splitting them from her most healthy bunches, and I planted them at my new home.  Many years ago, her mother did the same for her.

My grandparents were prize-winning daylily growers, and had dozens of rare heirloom varieties.  If you’ve only seen the orange “commoners” that grow like weeds on roadsides, try to imagine them in every color of the rainbow (except blue), with blossoms huge or tiny, ruffly or pointy edges, each flower blooming for just one brief day- they’re really quite beautiful.  But my favorite thing about daylilies, and perennial flowers in general, is that they reproduce clones of themselves underground by rhizome.  One plant becomes a stand of identical plants, which a gardener can then split and replant somewhere else, and then those will replicate and grow and you can split them again – on and on and on… kind of like a good idea, shared from person to person.  They’re small infinity flowers.

Here is a story from our friend Brian C, who now lives in Denver, Colorado. He’s now an official “Small Infinity”, and you can be too. Small Infinity stories are everywhere- help us collect them!

Every spring for the last 3 years, I’ve been lucky enough to find time during my job as a finance professional to skip out and teach economics to 4th graders at my old elementary school. The teaching is facilitated through a national not for profit organization, called Junior Achievement. This year’s class was easily the hardest to connect with over the 3 years.

At the end of a recent lesson, I had the kids break up into groups and tasked them to come to a group decision regarding a hypothetical business problem. As time was winding down, I asked each group to elect a speaker to read their problem, share their decision, and talk a bit about their decision making process. I was delighted when the last group actually chose one of the quieter girls in class to be their speaker. Their problem had two choices and one choice was that they could do something illegal with a very low probability of getting caught, but the illegal activity would net them a substantially higher profit. Apparently, this group unanimously chose the less profitable yet completely legal approach. Perfect! This group of four 4th graders with different education levels and different cultural backgrounds were unified in their desire to behave honestly.

I then asked for a show of hands how many of the kids would knowingly break the law, with a low chance of being caught, but would be ensured a large monetary gain . . . I thought I was going to cry when not one hand was raised. In this one small microcosm of low-income, public school system educated, 11-12 year olds; they all shared a common desire to perform honestly over dishonesty and profit.

The psychological, political, educational, etc. implications of this one little exercise may not be profound, but it is moments like this that recharge hope. As I think about how to title this for the Small Infinity blog, my designation of A, B, C is admittedly a guess. “A” could be the quiet girl, “B” her team (or vice versa), and then, through social norms, “C” the class. The only thing I know for sure is that “D” was me.

Sometimes you overhear small infinity stories at the most unlikely times… and even that can change you.

I was driving out of a parking garage later in the evening last week and clearly it was busy enough to warrant two cashier booths but not slow enough to stop the cashiers from keeping their windows open and chatting across the lane that separated them. I was sad to break up the talking and laughing as I approached.

I am hopelessly curious and relish opportunities to laugh with strangers so I asked what they were discussing, in hopes they’d let me join. As Parking Lot Attendant A was taking my cash and preparing his words, he pulled a copy of the book “Fast Food Nation” out of his lap. I saw the title flash, recognized the importance of the moment, and quickly rolled down the passenger window of my car to create a tunnel through my car for him to continue teaching Parking Lot Attendant B and now me. Parking Lot Attendant A was soaking up the message of the book. As I pulled away he was talking about his first meal from Whole Foods that afternoon made him feel different and healthier already.

An image of the “food cups” from the movie Wall-e flashed through my mind. I wish I could find a clip of the scene where the captain first learns that food can be so much more than processed junk in a cup. It would be perfect to share here.

I often wonder how warped my view of the world is given that the places where I spend most of my time are filled with people who read, study, and passionately live to their definition of “sustainability.” OK so I also spend a lot of time in places where people do NOT live to any definition of sustainability but that is intentional on my part. (Professional Change Agency will do that to ya.) This encounter was a refreshingly hopeful reminder that although my life may happen in a bubble of like-minded people (Erb, SNRE, etc.), it is actually just one active node in a huge network of people from all walks of life headed in the same direction.

Emily has this funny habit of writing herself notes on her mirrors with whiteboard markers.  If you go to her apartment, you’ll see it- in her bedroom, her bathroom, anywhere else there is a mirror, there is usually a note.  Sometimes it’s small and silly, like “I like your shirt”.  Sometimes it’s her grocery list, or her to-do list, or something she thought of in the shower that she wants to remember later.  I think it’s a great idea (it wipes right off, and it looks much tidier than post-its), and several months ago I started keeping track of my half-marathon training runs on my bedroom mirror, too.

Then, in my first day of a Public Health class called “Aging in Health Behavior” in January, we were having a discussion of how difficult it is to start and maintain healthy behaviors, like flossing and stretching.  I told the class about Emily’s notes-on-the-mirror trick, as a prompting technique, and everyone thought it was kind of a strange idea.

But over the next few months, I learned that my classmates had tried it, and it was working.  Teja was finally taking her vitamins, because she wrote herself a note on the mirror.  Christee had finally made it a habit to floss.  And the professor had given her daughter a pack of whiteboard markers and permission to color the mirror, and the 8-year-old had apparently unleashed some hidden creativity and turned her bathroom into a work of art.  Small changes, but hey- flossing is important.

During the first class of a core strategy course the professor briefly mentioned that the first step to a great strategy is providing value to society.  This framing of business purpose as providing value to society was not one often heard throughout the core coursework of my MBA program, but one that is found in nearly every book about sustainable enterprise.  So I wrote him an email asking if we would talk more about that idea throughout the rest of the course.  He kindly wrote back to say not specifically.

6 weeks later, right before the course was over- I wrote this email:
I have tried to honor the email that you sent me at the beginning of the term about how we will not be discussing societal connections and consequences of ideas covered in the core class, but it has not been easy.  I know that time is the limiting resource in our class and that discussion must be focused and diverse but I can’t help but ask that we revisit the topic once more.  Below is the background on why I think this is important and a suggestion for a possible solution.

The Dean of our B-School  just said this in a message to the student body today:
“The idea that business does not exist in a vacuum is central to what we do here. We embrace the fact that business unfolds in the wider world of human concerns and institutions. Our School’s commitment to the social dimensions of business is visible in both our curriculum and our culture as evident by the enduring strength of our Net Impact chapter, by the School’s approach to leadership development, and by our MBA program’s consistently high showing in rankings such as the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes (in which we are currently ranked #2 in the world and #1 in the U.S.)

It seems that the Dean of our school joins many in the argument against Grant’s thinking of the corporation as simply shareholder property and not a social entity as found on Pg 34 of the textbook for class.  I understand the purpose of the core course is to introduce simple strategy concepts covered in our competitor schools, but I worry that without a bridge to acknowledge the real world complexity added from social and environmental impacts many of the students in this class may not know to take the electives that would prepare them for decision making with these factors in mind.  I also worry that we are teaching to a definition of the corporation that may have been salient in the past but less accepted now, especially as transparency of management increases and social and environmental problems worsen. (I was clearly feeling bold on that last bit.)

I would like to write something to expand on the conversation of a couple of the cases we’ve discussed in class and post it in the online discussion section for our class.  The objective of anything that I write would be to highlight added dimensions of complexity that real world business leaders are facing and offer an introduction to additional classes offered at Ross that would unpack that complexity more.”

Not only did he let me prepare something to post in the online discussion: he let me present it to the class of 50+ part-time MBAs for 15 minutes as a lead in to lunch.  I scraped something together in a flash and did a presentation, from which I learned a great deal.  It was far from perfect (embarrassed by the emphasis I put on what business “ought to do” vs. what business “gets to do”) but I think I was able to get people thinking differently, if only for a bit.  During the break after my “presentation,” Many of my classmates expressed gratitude for the introduction and said they would not have otherwise known about the concepts and other classes.  I expressed gratitude to my professor for the opportunity to present.

Who knows what happened after that, but If there is one thing I’ve learned for certain:  saying something increases the odds of change exponentially if the other choice is remaining silent.

I have a friend named Annie who I’ve known about a year now.  She is about my mom’s age, with a physical disability that occasionally confines her to a wheelchair and qualifies her to live in the subsidized senior housing high-rise in Ypsilanti, across the street from the Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers’ Market (DYFM).

DYFM started in 2006, in response to the Washtenaw County Public Health Department’s designation of the south side of Ypsilanti as a “food desert”, with minimal access to sources of fresh food.  It was intended to provide a source of vegetables for the communities living in the area, allowing alternative payments like food stamps and Project FRESH vouchers, but for Annie it has been so much more.

Annie started volunteering in 2009 in the Ypsilanti Food Co-op booth at DYFM, where they run the Bridge Card machine to allow shoppers to exchange electronic food stamp benefits for wooden tokens to spend with the vendors.  This is when I met her; she was new to the area, and just thrilled to have a way to get involved and active, especially at this market right across the street from where she lived.  She worked at the market all season, stayed involved with the Ypsilanti Food Co-op throughout the winter, and in March, she launched “The Farmers Marketeers”.  She recruited a crew of several seniors, variously abled and aged, to create crafts, grow seedlings and vegetables on their apartment balconies, and (my favorite) stitch unique aprons and handbags out of repurposed thrift-store clothes.  They sell these wares at a cooperatively run booth at the market, which just started up again for the season on May 4, and they are adorable.

Someone (well, several someones) started that little market, and kept it going.  Annie started volunteering and followed her momentum from there.  Now the residents of that high-rise, who were before at high risk for isolation and poor health, have an opportunity to be physically and socially active, get out into the community, and earn a small amount of supplemental income.  And I got a cool apron.

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