Better Business: Can a 500-Year Vision Help Save the World?

I wasn't going to care about what other people thought, but do what mattered most to me. And that I wanted to find a way to make a difference.
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Five hundred years. Such a vast expanse of time. Is it really possible for us to think beyond this quarter - or even next weekend?

When I'm puzzling over life's big questions, I find myself drawn to poetry. Poems remind me of what's important and satisfy my need for brevity (soon 140 characters will seem too long!). To whit, US poet laureate Kay Ryan's lean, keenly-observed work (from The Best Of It, Grove Press, 2010):


The bird
walks down
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
reached. His
each step makes
a perfect stamp -
smallish, but as
sharp as an
emperor's chop.
Stride, stride,
goes the emperor
down his wide
mirrored promenade
the sea bows
to repolish.

This poem was running through my head when I sat down to interview Joel Solomon. Joel has been making his mark on Canada's west coast for decades, quietly, methodically, and not at all emperor-like. His work as President and CEO of Renewal Partners - a Vancouver-based organization that provides investments and grants for social change - is coming together in the most interesting way. This the first part of an edited version of two long conversations.

Julia Moulden: I want to talk about your work, of course, but let's begin with how someone from Chattanooga, Tennessee ended up on Canada's west coast.

Joel Solomon: I grew up in a liberal, Jewish, Democratic-party-involved family. For instance, my parents were early supporters of civil rights. My dad was a successful businessman building shopping malls, and, as a young man there was considerable pressure on me to follow in his footsteps. My out was to get involved in politics, which was acceptable to my parents. I worked on Al Gore Senior's campaign, then with Jimmy Carter, as national youth co-coordinator for Carter's run for the White House - an experience we've just seen replayed with Obama's young team. By the time Carter got to Washington, I'd decided that I was too young to choose a career path, and needed time to think about what I wanted to do. I walked away. Not long after, I was diagnosed with the genetic kidney disease that runs in my family. That was the big trigger point - I had no idea if I would die tomorrow or live a long life, but I knew I had to find my own path.

JM: So, what did you do?

JS: I went traveling and ended up on the west coast of Canada, in British Columbia. Got a job working with a guy who had an orca research lab. So, there I was, all alone in the wilderness.

JM: Pretty much the opposite of a political campaign. Where did your self-imposed exile lead you?

JS: This is the condensed version, of course, but I read a lot, dug deep and came to a couple of big conclusions for my young self. That I wasn't going to care about what other people thought, but do what mattered most to me. And that I wanted to find a way to make a difference. In my head, I was thinking, "OK, here's the legacy you have, your natural skills and your passions. How can you turn that into something useful?"

JM: Great, so you've had your wake-up call and your a-ha moment. Now what?

JS: I started to wonder if I couldn't re-embrace business (he laughs). Business had been, in many ways, this destructive force, even though many people in business didn't want it to be. Maybe there was a way to see it as a neutral force, and then to use it do something good.

JM: Pretty radical thinking for the 70s when we were all hippies.

JS: Yes, but you could see signs of this kind of thinking starting to pop up. At the same time, I got involved with the Threshold Foundation, a group of mostly inheritor philanthropists who were struggling with what it meant to have money and what they should do with it. Some of these folks spun off and started Social Venture Network, looking at how business might be for the good of the community as well as making money. The late 70s and early 80s were an amazing time, with all kinds of new organizations springing up, like what Ben Cohen [Ben and Jerry's] and Anita Roddick [The Body Shop] were doing.

JM: Did you think you might join one of these companies?

JS: Yes. And then I met Carol Newell. She was a new member of the Threshold Foundation. I was president of the organization by then, and when I saw her application and that she was from BC, immediately offered to interview her. And that was the beginning of a 17-year partnership.

JM: How did you decide to work together?

JS: It seemed so natural at the time. Looking back, it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. We met on this little island off the coast, pulled together a visioning session for others in the Vancouver area who were thinking similar thoughts and asking themselves the same questions about how they might use their lives in a positive way. And we just talked and talked and talked. It happened that we were meeting on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery, and so it occurred to us to think about what had gone wrong in the last five centuries and what we could possibly do that would have a positive impact on the next 500 years.

JM: Wow, 500 years.

JS: Yes, we realized it was pretty ambitious (he laughs). And that maybe we needed to be thinking in terms of 50 years, too, the average working life.

JM: And how did this perspective shape what you set out to do?

JS: A 50-year timeline frees you. We found that we could think outside of all kinds of boxes and believe the impossible. And it was a good fit for someone who was living with the thought that death was nearby. We decided on a 500-year vision and a 50-year strategy. We gathered a team, created a model, and began to work in a way that we hoped would have an impact on the region and create a ripple effect.

My conversation with Joel continues next week. Learn about what he's been doing, how you can plug in, and where it goes from here. In the meantime, please share your story with us. How did you get started on a path for good? How did you become a New Radical (New Radicals are people who've found ways to put the skills acquired in their careers to work on the world's greatest challenges - for more, please see archived articles)? Whose work inspires you? And are you thinking long-term?

Julia Moulden is talking about the New Radicals. Her new book - on boomers and meaningful work - will appear in 2011. Check out a feature article about Julia on (a terrific new website for women 50-plus).