The Power of Storytelling at Patagonia

Written By:

Josie Brownell ’22
Contributing Writer
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Zoe Kurtz ’22
Contributing Writer
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Today, Patagonia, Inc. is a well-known and revered sustainability retail giant, but this reputation did not come easily. When Patagonia first entered the marketplace in 1973, “sustainability” was far from a commonplace term. However, over time, the company has demonstrated how business can be a force for good – for both planet and people – and not simply an extractive institution. 

As founder, Yvon Chouinard shaped Patagonia’s mission statement and core values through his own image. The company’s mission is simple:

Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.

Chouinard first started Patagonia as a climbing equipment company. He was a passionate climber who, along with Tom Frost, created tools to improve the sport. The pair began selling steel pitons, which were effective in keeping climbers safe but not in protecting the rocks – a massive conflict with their values as avid outdoorsmen. When they realized their products were harming the natural landscape, Chouinard and Frost innovated a new tool and compelled customers to alter their climbing practices.


The pair announced a pivot in their 1972 catalogue, saying: “No longer can we assume the earth’s resources are limitless; that there are ranges of unclimbed peaks extending endlessly across the horizon. Mountains are finite, and despite their massive appearances, they are fragile.” This announcement exemplifies how Patagonia employs storytelling to create a community of people engaged in the practice of saving our home planet. 

The SI-MBA cohort had the pleasure of welcoming Vincent Stanley, Patagonia’s Director of Philosophy, as a guest speaker for our Family Business Club. He has been with Patagonia since its inception and has served as chief storyteller for many years. Storytelling is an integral part of Patagonia’s culture and their primary tactic for furthering the “responsible business” movement. In his first few words to the cohort Stanley was quick to distinguish between sustainability and responsibility, deeming the latter a more suitable term given that everyone possesses the agency to be responsible.

Vincent Stanley
Patagonia’s Vincent Stanley

Patagonia has always engaged deeply with their employees, consumers, and the physical world; this engagement has taken the shape of storytelling in many ways. Initially this communication occurred on employee camping trips to inspire passion around protecting the natural environment, but they have graduated to written and visual mediums to highlight relevant environmental and social issues for both employees and consumers. Creating a platform for these stories is part of what makes Patagonia a leader in sustainability: their focus goes beyond sales and lies truly in their values of being “in business to save our home planet.” 

When asked how it feels to be such an industry leader, Stanley replied, “We’re humbled. We’re not sure environmentalism is yet a major concern for the majority of consumers, but it is for our friends and customers.” 

This sense of humility is evident in Patagonia’s storytelling as they weave together voices from Chilean fishermen, female carpenters, Japanese sake brewers, and many more. The company illustrates the impact of environmental and social issues on the people experiencing these issues firsthand. Patagonia’s stories create a community around their brand and shed light on how we can all make a difference. The stories Patagonia shares through their platform ground these issues and create community for all involved with the brand. Just last week, a group of SI-MBA students attended a screening of Patagonia’s latest film, Newtok, which showed the impact of sea-level rise in a small community in Alaska. 

Patagonia’s use of storytelling also brings a sense of inclusivity to their brand. Regardless of hobbies, interests, or identities, people want to support Patagonia and everything the company stands for. Stanley explained, “The films, books, store events are all ways to connect with the customer through shared values and action. We think that among our customers an alliance or network of people who share these values will be even more central to the business ten years from now than today.” 

It’s subtle and it’s intentional. Patagonia is purposefully creating collective action and consumer buy-in through storytelling. The Patagonia brand itself is a call to action. 

Looking to the future, regenerative practices are at the forefront of Patagonia’s strategy, mirroring the mindset of giving back more than we take. Using their established platform, the company is now able to share their successes and inspire a more responsible path forward for the business community. Patagonia has paved the way; it’s time for other businesses to follow suit.  

Local Business Spotlight: The Restock Shop

Written By:
Colleen Miller ‘22
Contributing Writer
Connect with Colleen on LinkedIn


We live in a time when plastics are ever-present and seemingly unavoidable in our lives. Plastics package our food, medication, and personal care items – and that’s just scratching the surface. Individuals who wish to avoid purchasing items packaged in plastic must go to great lengths to do so, either by purchasing specialty products or DIYing their own.

I was able to speak with Marina McCoy, owner of The Restock Shop – a low-waste store located in Burlington, Vermont. The store aims to solve the problems created by unsustainable packaging and make a low-waste lifestyle more accessible to everyday consumers.


Since the store opened in 2021, The Restock Shop’s mission has been to help reduce waste and educate the community about low-waste living. Shifting to a low-waste lifestyle can be intimidating. Marina’s advice? Ask the staff questions! All of Restock’s employees champion low-waste lifestyles and are happy to advise low-waste novices. The shop also hosts regular workshops that walk participants through creating their own low-waste products. Past workshops include: Zero Waste 101, DIY Candles, and DIY Lip and Foot Scrubs.

Customers at The Restock Shop will find a variety of refillable personal care and cleaning products that can be refilled at stations using either containers brought from home, or  “borrowed” from Restock’s jar library. When asked what some of her favorite products are in the shop, Marina excitedly mentioned the shop’s intimate products, tongue scraper, and earwax pick. According to Marina, an earwax pick is one of those things you didn’t know you needed.


The shop works hard to ensure that its suppliers share its mission and vision and Marina and her team strive to sell products from underrepresented communities. Their vendor qualifications include: 1% for the Planet members, Certified Zero Waste, BIPOC-Owned, Asian-Owned, Woman-Owned, and organizations that donate profits to LGBTQ+ charities. Marina recognized Queer Candle and Kind Laundry as two great supplier partners.


One of the first things that a customer will notice when walking into the shop is its bright and cheery color scheme. When asked about the inspiration for the shop’s design, Marina shared, “I love the 90s. The shop has a 90s theme because we are trying to reclaim the 90s which is when unsustainable packaging took over. I don’t like how whitewashed the zero-waste movement became and want to take that out with fun colors,”

Marina studied sustainability in college and says that she used to be judgmental of how much waste others produced until she realized how hypocritical that attitude can be. For example, when reflecting on her own lifestyle, Marina noted, “I’m not going to give up my CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] because it sometimes contains a plastic bag.” She now focuses on trying to reduce overall consumption rather than enforcing a strict zero-waste regime.

Marina brings her welcoming, non-judgmental attitude into the store every day. When asked about her aspirations for Restock’s future, Marina said she hopes the store can become a community center where vendors can connect with the local community. In the future she hopes to expand the shop to have a presence at local CSAs and farmers markets to make a low-waste lifestyle available to even more people.

The Restock Shop is located at 230 College Street, Burlington Vermont.

Global Village Foods: “The way we’d make it for you, if you came to dinner”

Written By:

Nancy Demuth ‘22
Creative Director
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Tahagod Mohamed ‘22
Contributing Writer
Connect with Tahagod on LinkedIn

Global Village Foods’ range of frozen meals. Credit: Global Village Foods

As busy SI-MBA students, frozen food has become a staple of our diets this year. Luckily for us, few frozen food options are tastier, or healthier, than those made by Global Village Foods – a Vermont-based family business whose delicious meals are readily available in Burlington.

Global Village Foods’ founders Damaris and Mel Hall – from Kenya and Memphis, respectively – are on a mission to make delicious, nutritious, allergen-free African food accessible to everyone. Currently a first-generation family business, the second generation is already getting involved, with the couple’s daughter, Wangene, making an impact as Director of Marketing.

To hear the story behind the delicious meals we’ve been enjoying throughout the year, we spoke with Damaris and Mel to hear more about their business’ unique story and philosophy.

What’s the story of Global Village Foods so far?

Damaris: When I moved to Vermont 30 years ago, I found it very difficult to adjust to the food. I missed African and Kenyan food, but ethnic foods were difficult to find back then. In my moments of desperation, I would ask my mother to ship 50-pound bags of millet to me from Kenya! Eventually, we were able to source US-grown millet and teff from a local co-op, and started cooking African food at home. Then we started catering at small events, because we wanted to introduce our delicious food to Americans, too.

Mel: We realized our food is best when we make it ourselves, the way we would make it for you, if you came for dinner – that’s the energy we bring to it. Fast forwarding to 2022, we’ve done everything imaginable in food service, including running a 68-seat full-service restaurant. That was too difficult to manage with our young family, so we switched to selling prepared meals to local co-ops. Our frozen meals and snacks have been stocked in Whole Foods since 2017 and we’re now in all 42 stores of the entire Northeast region, as well as about 180 other specialty food stores.

Damaris and Mel Hall holding their 2021 NEXTY Award. Credit: Global Village Foods

Why did you start focusing on allergen-free food?

Damaris: Along the journey, we had a son who developed food allergies. We found he did much better eating our food because it contained fewer allergens.

Mel: Most of our offering is dairy, egg, nut, soy, sesame, seafood, and gluten-free. This has made us attractive to college environments, where you have to be really aware of students with food allergies. We’ve actually just started servicing the dining halls at UVM, and will be rolling out to a number of other schools in the Boston area.

Why Vermont, and what is it like being part of the Vermont business ecosystem?

Damaris: We didn’t choose Vermont – Vermont chose us! The food we cook is mostly vegetarian, with a very limited amount of meat, and Vermonters were really receptive to that. One of the first events we served our food at was the Vermont Reggae Festival – most of that crowd was actually vegetarian and they really enjoyed it. There’s also the element of introducing people to my culture. I’m really passionate about food, and I believe that people should eat good food that is going to do them good. My grandmother lived to be 92 and my grandfather 104, and I think that has a lot to do with eating food in its natural state, the way it was meant to be.

What’s your sustainability philosophy at Global Village Foods?

Mel: Damaris and I actually met in an Environmental Studies program when I was in Kenya, so sustainability has always been a point of interest for us. Living in Vermont, there’s a whole sensibility around giving back, not just to the environment, but also to the community. One of the great things about doing frozen food, too, is that it eliminates waste. We also reduce food waste as much as possible in our kitchen, as well as our paper and cardboard output.

Damaris: I think we just like to use the common sense method. We ask ourselves: “What are we feeding our customers, and is it sustainable?” We work with local farmers to source locally-grown produce. We also use a lot of millet, not just because we eat a lot of it in Kenya, but because it’s a crop with a very small environmental impact. As a business, we follow the principle of “people first”, because if you care about the people and the environment, the results will always be beautiful.

The full range of Global Village Foods’ delicious meals. Credit: Global Village Foods

Are there any sustainability projects you’re working on currently?

Mel: One of the environmental pain points I would love to resolve is our packaging – we currently pack our meals in a black plastic tray. We attempted to switch to a compostable film tray, which unfortunately could not sustain various conditions in the marketplace. For example, if you thawed the meal out, the tray could completely fall apart. I would love for someone to invent a really solid, truly recyclable, bio-compostable tray.

What’s it like being a Black-owned business in Vermont?

Mel: Being in Vermont has been liberating of preconceived notions, in the sense that people are more interested in your product’s quality than it being made by a Black-owned business. What has driven our growth is people finding our food culturally different, nutritionally balanced, and tasty! Now, the flip side is that in America, minority-owned businesses do not all enjoy the same level of growth and success because of systematic barriers. Financial markets here do not account for the imbalanced starting point that minority businesses come with compared to their white counterparts. Having said that, if anyone is going to make a progressive move to recalibrate, it will be Vermont!

Damaris: What I experienced is that when we are dealing with individuals, they are more understanding about diversity. However, when you are talking about institutions, the inclusive language does not translate to purposeful funding for minority businesses. The criterion for judging is still set at fairly high standards compared to the reality experienced by these minority businesses. The institutional brick wall does exist and while there are programs intended to help small businesses, the message gets lost in translation once it reaches banks.

Global Village Foods’ samosa bowl. Credit: Global Village Foods

What is next for Global Village Foods?

Damaris: Our hope and dream is to make Global Village mainstream so that people know what African families eat, which is the same food you eat at home, but spiced differently. We want to make African food a staple cuisine that is just as well-known as Chinese, Korean, and American cuisines. In terms of engaging the next generation, we want to see our children carry on the business if they are interested. Our children have been fortunate to see our business through all its stages and most importantly, they see the wonderful work culture we built for our employees. That is something we value and hope to continue seeing in the future.

Mel: Our goal is to distribute African food from Vermont to the rest of the country.  We want to develop a solid system that operates at the efficiency of a corporation, but with Vermont’s ethos of social responsibility. Of course, we intend to do that while still incorporating sustainability into our supply chain. As a family business, we also hope to expose our children to the strategic business planning and logistics needed to get us there. Our eldest daughter has already brought a lot of growth as Director of Marketing. 

What is your advice to our SI-MBA class, or any aspiring business owners?

Damaris: Understand that business is a language, so seek help and surround yourself with people who know more than you to accelerate your growth. Find something you are passionate about, because that is what will give you meaning when you are faced with hard times. And as you make the profits, do something with them that will be beneficial to humanity.

Mel: Know your why, and don’t restrict your why. There will be times when the “what” and “how” put a lump in your throat and a pit in your stomach. The passion you develop for your work will get you through those hard times.

To learn more about Global Village Foods, check out their website or find a distributor near you. (UVM students can also find Global Village Foods products at the dining hall!)

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

SI-MBA Workshops: Changing Careers with Nizar Hasan

Written By:
Vanessa Chumbley ’22
Managing Editor
Connect with Vanessa on LinkedIn

Throughout our year in SI-MBA, we get the opportunity to take part in a myriad of workshops. The content ranges from writing and presentation techniques, to exploring identities and vulnerabilities in the workplace, to gender and leadership. One of our workshop leaders during the fall semester was Nizar Hasan, Senior Director of Operations at Rheaply. Our three sessions with Nizar focused on making career changes as well as habits, mindset, and motivation.

Nizar is no stranger to career changes, having made the leap from engineering to business development, client management, sales, and most recently people and operations management. In order to make this leap, he decided to go back to school and pursue an MBA, a familiar story to our cohort. He also works as a self-employed career coach, using what he has learned from his many successful pivots to help others succeed. These pivots were the basis for his sessions with us, which were insightful and inspiring for a group of MBA students interested in making career changes.

Nizar Hasan

We come to business school to learn the “hard skills” of business – the terminology, finance, strategy, marketing, and so on. However, an essential aspect of the career path that has historically been omitted from business education is how to navigate and align our humanity with our work. Fortunately, I believe things are changing in this regard. Business is beginning to understand that human beings ultimately bring their whole selves to work – and that can be a good thing.

Much of what Nizar spoke with us about was this: in order to build the life we want, we have to start with who we are as human beings, recognize our strengths and values, and understand and reframe our assumptions when needed. Unfortunately, no one else can do this foundational work for us. It is difficult work and would be easier if someone could tell us what is best or what would bring the most fulfillment. However, this inner work needs to be done to find our paths and forge the careers we want.

As Nizar put it, “I think why I offered and came forward with the idea of doing these sessions is because these are things that no one ever talked to me about when I was studying and learning… I think we don’t focus enough on the individual and our emotions and how we process and how we deal with life. I think taking time to understand yourself and build a life that works well for you and who you are is foundational to you bringing your best self to work… These foundational things are important in order for us to do well what is taught to us in the MBA.”

Here are some key takeaways from our sessions with Nizar on how to go about making a successful career change:

Know Your Values and Strengths

“Our values determine the nature of our problems, and the nature of our problems determine the quality of our lives.” – Mark Manson

When embarking on any job search, it is important to understand your core values. Not only will knowing your values differentiate you as a candidate, but it will also help you and potential employers identify if you are a good fit for a role. If you’ve ever been in a job or worked for a company that was misaligned with your values, you know how draining and demoralizing it can be. Having that alignment is necessary for a fulfilling, successful career.

But how to go about finding your core values? There are many resources to choose from. In her book Dare To Lead, Brené Brown provides a long list of values and tasks readers with choosing just two core values. I can tell you from personal experience this is difficult, but possible! If you can’t quite get to two, Nizar recommends keeping it to five or fewer. Here is a shorter list from James Clear, which may help you narrow it down. As they both point out – if everything is a core value, then nothing is.

Similarly, knowing your strengths is vital to successful job search. There are many resources to help with this as well. Nizar recommends the VIA Character Strengths Survey. In our Module 1 Teamwork class, the cohort took the CliftonStrengths Assessment, which is another great resource.

As Nizar shared with us, it’s important to understand how your skills and strengths can be transferrable to find the path of least resistance to your next career. Finding the lowest barrier to entry has to do with having a solid understanding of your values, skills, and strengths and how they can be applied to your next career path. Doing the work to understand these things will allow you to articulate how you can add value to potential employers.

Embrace Networking

It’s almost cliché at this point, but it is so very true – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. However, networking can be uncomfortable for some. Many people feel like they’re “bothering” people or “asking for something” when they engage in networking, or that they’re just not good at it. This is where re-framing our assumptions comes in.

Thinking about networking in terms of “getting something from someone” is anxiety-inducing and inauthentic. Instead, what if our only goal was to listen and learn? If that’s the case, Nizar shared with us, “there is nothing to be good at” and nothing to ask of people.

Most people love to talk about themselves and are usually more than happy to share what they do and how they got there. Reaching out to someone in a role you find interesting and asking for an informational interview is a great way to network, even if it means sending what Nizar called a “cold message”. He shared with us screenshots of cold messages he has sent and the recipients’ responses. They were all happy to share their experiences and provide insight into their career and current role. Approaching networking from a place of humble inquiry – seeking to understand before being understood – ensures authenticity and will leave a positive impression.

In the session on networking, Nizar left us with these helpful reminders:

  • People are kind, and they want to help. Sometimes they’re just busy.
  • No one got to where they are without some help.
  • Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness.
  • Everyone likes to talk about themselves.
Image source:

“From a health coaching perspective, you might have a trainer, or a gym coach, or somebody to help you stay fit. And I think sometimes you need the same for your brain.” This was Nizar’s inspiration for seeking a career coach, and ultimately led to his own work as a career coach. “We all go through the same challenges, they just might be presented in different ways. But at the end we’re all connected by these challenges.”

Making a career change is a long and difficult process, and while much of the work must be done individually, so much of our success in navigating a career transition has to do with our connections with others. It’s important to remember we’re not alone in struggling with career changes, and the more we can speak openly with our friends and colleagues and share our learnings and experiences, the more connected we will be.  

Innovators in Residence: Duane Peterson Co-Founder of SunCommon

Written By:

Patrick Donohue ‘22
Contributing Writer
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Dan Lazarus ‘22
Community Catalyst
Connect with Dan on LinkedIn

Recently, the SI-MBA ‘22 cohort had the pleasure to spend an afternoon with Duane Peterson, Co-Founder of SunCommon, a  Vermont-based installer of residential solar power systems.

Duane led us through a lively discussion about passion, community, the solar industry, and more.

“Those with the biggest buildings have the power,” said Duane at the beginning of the conversation. Throughout human history, control of the largest structures systematically and often subconsciously expresses power over others. The pyramids, then the cathedrals and now energy, industry, finance, and more. Duane opened his talk with a thought-provoking idea and a lens to analyze power. The fight for a more just world (healthier, more sustainable, more equitable) is inextricably linked to power. While low-income communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, they are continuously overlooked during the decision making process. In the context of SunCommon, Duane built a low-cost solution for residential solar energy production, and simultaneously removed barriers for people historically locked out of the solar revolution.

Duane spoke to us with a heavy dose of honesty. Adorned in a patterned button-down and his quintessential purple framed spectacles, he spoke with eloquence and full transparency. Throughout the three-hour discussion, the audience leaned forward with eagerness, firing questions at Duane. There was an air of excitement in the room, verging on intensity.

Duane is laser focused on people and believes wholeheartedly that, “how we treat each other matters a lot.” His candid responses to our cohort’s questions, “off-the-cuff” style of presentation, and acknowledgment of his own privileges speak to the people-centric values that underpin everything he does at SunCommon. 

“How we treat each other matters a lot.”

Wrapping up his speech came a question from the back of the room. “What advice do you have for us as business students?”

“What a fitting finale,” Duane quipped. “Find the people you want to do business with, identify what matters, and hold out for that.”

In the leadup to his in-person speaker series with SI-MBA, we were fortunate to have the chance to speak with Duane one-on-one and learn more about his personal journey. 

Duane has enjoyed an exploratative career, including years spent as a police officer, ambulance medic, political campaigner, environmental advocate, and “Chief of Stuff” at Ben & Jerry’s. Speaking with Duane, it was evident that his passions lie in organizing towards justice and developing clear, common-sense initiatives to tackle the systemic problems he sees in his community.    

Below is a synthesized snapshot of the provocative interview: 

Tell us a little about yourself and your involvement in sustainability?

I think of myself as a millennial. As millennials, we’re open to adventure, we’re seeking knowledge, we want to explore new things, we’re not going to do the same jobs for 40 years at a corporation. The people I hire, I know they aren’t going to work here forever. I hope they’ll find fulfillment with their jobs and pour themselves into it, but then I hope they go on and see what’s next for them. I think that’s beautiful.

To me, sustainability is an objectionable word. I think of it like I think of the word tolerance. It comes across like it’s the bare minimum. Well, how about a positive impact? It’s still not perfect, but rather than sustainability, I like to think of values-led business, that is, imbuing business with good and providing a beneficial outcome.    

How did your work at Ben & Jerry’s and their B-Corp certification inform your work in developing SunCommon?

The simplest way to think about it is this: at Ben & Jerry’s, we sought to have every business decision reflect our values. What are you actually doing every day? How are you treating your people, communities, and environment? Who do we hire? Where do we set up our factories? That’s the power of the business. That sort of thinking gave us an appreciation for and ownership of impact. Let’s use the power of business to do good things at every level. When we started SunCommon, that was the vibe from the very beginning. 

“Let’s use the power of business to do good things at every level.”

How important is the B-Corp certification to your company, and how much bearing does it have on your day-to-day operational decision-making?

We were very surprised at how rigorous the assessment was. There were a bunch of issues that we hadn’t considered. The coolest thing about it was the app. When you entered a finding, there would be a pop-up that would ask, ‘Would you like to improve your impact?’ Well sure! And the feed would put you into contact with another B-Corp that had already tackled that issue. This certification helps us get away from winging it and drives us into the rigor. And we’re really excited about that.

I was also a little surprised that the certification had meaning to others. Through the certification, we attract a lot of brilliant young people that care and are looking for fulfillment. 

How does community involvement, as well as your involvement with VBSR (Vermont Business for Social Responsibility) and VPIRG (Vermont Public Interest Research Group), fit into your mission/ passion as a leader?

I think a lot of older white guys in this movement appreciate the attention. That can be an insular, looking for aggrandizement thing, like ‘this is about me,’ or it can be about establishing standing to include other people. I think I probably have a bit of both. I operate in these networks; I learn a lot from these people and am inspired by their ideas. I hope that I can also support them, what they’re doing, and provide credibility, resources, and advancement with my presence. It’s an interesting transaction and positivity that I pull from this involvement, and I’m grateful for it.

Given your rapid growth and recent merger with iSun, what measures has your management team put forward to maintain company culture and vision?

The issue is that iSun wants us to share what we know and our values-led approach to business, and as we bolt more into the platform, the question is: how do we export what’s good about SunCommon? Right now, that’s a bit unknown. We’re not a consulting firm [designed] to share things we’ve already figured out. And yet, in some ways, that’s what iSun paid for. So, how do we keep our day jobs and keep growing the business of SunCommon, while also spreading our joy and wonder? We haven’t figured that out yet, but we’re gonna need to! 

How has your relationship with James (co-founder and co-president at SunCommon) evolved over the years, and how does your partnership foster long-term development of SunCommon and other community initiatives?

We met in 2008 when I was the board president at VPIRG, and he was the whip-smart director of the clean energy program. We designed the campaign to retire Vermont Yankee, the nuclear power station. So we ran this campaign and pulled it off! We’re extraordinarily different people, but we discovered that our strengths and weaknesses really line up well. So James and I cooked up a project at VPIRG to prove that the adoption of clean energy was feasible, and when that worked, we decided to start a business. 

What advice can you provide for young professionals seeking to find a foothold in the field of renewables, climate change, or values-led enterprise? 

My advice to young people is to just go do things! There’s so much to do in this world. Gain experience by just diving in and doing interesting things. And if this is the field that you want to get into, define what these terms mean, what are the jobs in it, what are the descriptions and qualifications that employers are looking for. Then go crush it.  

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

If you are interested in the work Duane has been a part of, the change he advocates for, or the people that inspire him, check out the book Double Dip by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield or the paper entitled Repowering Vermont by James Moore. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Introducing the Graduate Family Business Interest Group at the Grossman School of Business: Spotlight on Professor Dita Sharma, Ph.d

Written By:

Zoe Kurtz ‘22
Contributing Writer
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Riley Nelson ‘22
Contributing Writer
Connect with Riley on LinkedIn

It is our pleasure to introduce the Graduate Family Business Interest Group at the Grossman School of Business (GSB). We are a group of Master of Accounting and Sustainable Innovation MBA students interested in learning and sharing how family businesses are leading innovative changes to embed sustainable development goals into their core operations.

Throughout the year, we will spotlight innovative families and incorporate student perspectives to explore and illustrate the impact of family businesses in society and the economy. To kick things off, we interviewed Professor Dita Sharma, the Schlesinger-Grossman Chair of Family Business at GSB to paint a picture of the importance of family business. Dr. Sharma has spent her whole life around family businesses, from her own family’s as a child to countless others as an advisor. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary, and her research heavily focuses on succession, governance, and innovation. Her skills and expertise add value to family businesses all over the world, and she is now focused on family enterprise run by UVMs alumni in Vermont and beyond. Founder of GSB’s Family Business Awards and the Schlesinger Global Family Enterprise Case Competition, she maintains focus on integrating classroom learning with the lived experiences of business families.

Professor Dita Sharma, Ph.D

What defines a family business? How do they differ from normal businesses?

Family business (FB) is an enterprise whose vision and strategic direction is controlled by members of a family through ownership, management and/or governance. The controlling family often aspires for transgenerational continuity and a positive legacy in the community. 

In non-family businesses no single family has enough ownership to control the company’s vision or direction. While a large majority of the world’s businesses are family controlled, enterprises in which the operational roles are held by non-family members are sometimes perceived as non-family businesses.

Tell us about your personal experience in family business.

I grew up in a business family in an industrial town in India. Everyone I knew – my classmates, friends, relatives, neighbors – were entrepreneurs running small and medium enterprises in different industries. My family was highly regarded in our community for its integrity as we worked hard to provide for our family and those of our employees. New ventures were launched regularly to meet the product and service needs of the community; and existing ventures were transformed into new directions. So, for me, entrepreneurship and family business are a good way to make a living, support a community, and leave a legacy. As an educator, I enjoy developing innovative programs to support the learning of students and bring them closer to business families.

So, for me, entrepreneurship and family business are a good way to make a living, support a community, and leave a legacy.

What are challenges that family businesses face today and how are they better able to adapt to those challenges than other types of businesses?

Family business leaders must learn to run two separate and overlapping human systems of family and business successfully. Troubles in one can easily seep to the other and managing this challenging polarity day after day, year after year, decade after decade, takes significant effort and patience. The porous boundaries also turn into strengths during tough times as the family pulls its resources to support the business, or vice versa. 

In your experience, have family businesses embraced sustainability faster than other companies? If yes, what about family businesses make this possible?

Long-lived family firms have operated on the basis of stakeholder capitalism for centuries, so the concept of sustainability is not new to them, though the terminology as used today might be. However, multi-pronged efforts are underway by family business associations like the Family Business Network and Family Firm Institute, consulting companies like KPMG and PwC, and university programs like Grossman School’s Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Family Enterprise to help expedite the comfort level with related terminology and insights. As each nation sets its ambitious sustainability targets, there is increased interest in engaging family business leaders help to accomplish them. And, business leaders are responding with interest.

How has COVID affected family businesses in the past year?

An external crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic exposes the underlying strengths and weaknesses of an organization. Family businesses like State Garden, Rhino Foods, and our other UVM FB Award winners, that continue to reinvest and reinvent themselves, remain frugal in their expenditures and earnest in supporting their employees and communities, and take time to build strong family relationships and networks, have found many opportunities to transform themselves and accelerate their sustainable development journey amidst this pandemic. Others, marred by fundamental family or business issues have faced swift bankruptcies and closures, or are slowly limping towards that end.

How does UVM support family businesses, and what are specific goals for the university within the family business arena going forward?

With its focus on sustainability, entrepreneurship, and family business, University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business is already positioned strategically in global conversations related to sustainability. Several faculty members focus their research on family business interface. Generated knowledge is shared not only in our undergraduate and graduate classrooms but also through experiential programs like the Family Enterprise Case Competition, FB-Sustainability Forums, and FB Awards. We believe in providing students opportunities to build their own professional networks and find ways to bring students in close interaction with business leaders working to embed sustainable development principles into their core operations. We aspire to continue on this pathway. 

Do you have advice for students looking to work with/for family businesses?

Four possibilities: launch a family business – buy an existing family business – join a family business – build a consulting practice. In all cases, start small dream big. 

First pathway to career launch could be to start a new venture by pooling talent and resources with family members. Over time, such ventures grow and provide opportunities to contribute to the community while building a positive legacy.

Second possibility is to join an existing business with an aim to buy into it over time. This could be a business within your networks or in an industry or location of interest. As the boomer generation retires over the next twenty years, several enterprises will change hands and those with experience will find an opportunity to become owner-entrepreneurs.

Third, students eager to join large family businesses will benefit from studying the shareholder reports and company history to understand the values and aspirations of the controlling family. Where possible, conducting informational interviews with family members and/or long-term employees will shed light on their views on sustainability. Working in a company with values aligned to your own helps to accelerate careers. 

A fourth possibility is to join a consulting company focused on functional areas in which you have an expertise – accounting, finance, business analytics, marketing etc., and focus on family (or private) businesses and serving their sustainable development needs.

Alignment of values and interests is key in any career success. Taking time to clarify your own values and how you are projecting them – your brand can be useful. In three words or less, what does your name stand for today?

Alignment of values and interests is key in any career success. Taking time to clarify your own values and how you are projecting them – your brand can be useful

Lastly, what is your favorite place in Burlington?

I enjoy walking and hiking typically at Shelburne Farms or Mount Philo. Sunrise over Camel’s Hump and sunsets across the lake often serve as great reminders of the blessing of living in Vermont. 

Professor Dita Sharma was kind enough to provide a highlight of family businesses and their unique intricacies in this interview, but there is a lot more to learn. Family businesses are all around us. They comprise 90% of firms in North America and, according to The Economist, comprise over 90% of firms world-wide. GSB is working towards becoming a focal point of knowledge and connection for family business, and there are lots of ways for interested students to become involved. Professor Sharma’s research and her courses dive into the specifics of creating and governing innovative family businesses. Additionally, the undergraduate and graduate family business clubs provide deeper peer-to-peer conversation and learning/networking opportunities for students interested in family business. If you are interested in joining either of these clubs, please reach out to Riley Nelson ( if you are a graduate student and Dani Schmidt ( if you’re an undergraduate.

Innovators in Residence: King Arthur Baking Company

Written By:

Billy Corbett ’22
Contributing Writer
Connect with Billy on LinkedIn

Lindsay Jarrett ’22
Contributing Writer
Connect with Lindsay on LinkedIn

As we start our third month of SI-MBA, it is clear that what distinguishes the program is the community it brings together – from current students and alumni to innovators, entrepreneurs and business leaders around the world. In order to learn from those who use business to positively impact our world, SI-MBA’s Innovators in Residence series brings in leaders to discuss key business challenges for a changing world. In these talks, students hear first hand what sustainable business looks like outside the classroom. Last week, the Class of 2022 was fortunate to hear from a variety of leaders at King Arthur Baking Company for our first session.

King Arthur is based just down I-89 in Norwich, VT, only an hour and a half from the UVM campus. Started in 1790, King Arthur became a 100% employee-owned business in 2004. Steeped in a rich 230-year history, its true strength is its forward looking posture and inclusive vision for the future. We were joined by Suzanne McDowell (VP of CSR and Sustainability), John Henry Siedlecki (VP of Innovation), Katie Jones (Associate Brand Manager of Innovation), and Molly Lawrence (Corporate Social Responsibility Manager). For the entire afternoon, SI-MBA students learned from and asked questions of these leaders.

The cohort asked a range of questions about their employee benefits, their recent rebrand, their supply chain relationships, and more. At the end of the session, the King Arthur team posed a question back to us: “What should we be doing to enhance our sustainability efforts?” Some of the ideas that the class floated included a study on compensation equity, encouraging consumers to bake more sustainably, and more.

We were lucky enough to ask our four guests a few questions before their presentation. Below are a few of the highlights (Note: questions and answers from our conversation are paraphrased):

Lindsay & Billy (L&B): King Arthur has a complex set of stakeholders. How do you balance stakeholder needs?

King Arthur Baking Company (KABC): We see working with our stakeholders as a privilege. Our consumers, bakers and employees are at the center of what we do. We strive to leave a seat at the table for our consumers. The environment is also key; without a seed and fertile soil, we don’t have a business. “We don’t want to just sustain, we also want to regenerate.” Ultimately, we are committed to our values of quality, community, passion and stewardship, and strive to demonstrate this through our relationships with stakeholders. We are committed to the education of our stakeholders, whether that be customers, employees or the community at large.

We don’t want to just sustain, we also want to regenerate.”

L&B: What does governance look like for King Arthur under an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) structure?

KABC: King Arthur holds regular “town meetings” where employees are informed about the company’s strategy and finances. During these meetings, employees are encouraged to engage with leadership. This encourages transparency and employee buy-in. Our posture toward our employees makes King Arthur a place where people are proud of where they work.

L&B: Recently, King Arthur changed its name. Why? How did that process unfold?

KABC: The re-brand had been in the works for a while. We wanted a name and imagery that reflected where the company is today. We changed “King Arthur Flour” to “King Arthur Baking Company” and changed the image of the knight to an image of a wheat crown. Our product line goes beyond wheat products now, and one of our most popular products is the Gluten-Free Flour. King Arthur Baking Company gives us the freedom to continue to innovate and explore. The rollout was as good as could be expected. With flour flying off the shelves during Covid, the product with the old brand was replaced quickly. Stakeholders were generally very supportive.

While we only had a short time with our new friends from King Arthur, we learned so much from them about using business to reflect our values. We are grateful to have these four innovators as a part of the SI-MBA community.

P.S.: Check out this King Arthur Baking Company Recipe for your Thanksgiving Holiday!

Pumpkin Cake Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting
Photo Credit: King Arthur Baking Company