Jeff Haanen

Category

Economy

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BusinessEconomyWork

Am I an Imposter? The Weary Souls of Entreprenuers

 

Banks Benitez said it perfectly.

When I was interviewing Banks about his work as the VP of Global Expansion at the Unreasonable Institute, a start-up school for social entrepreneurs, one of his founders shared about what it feels like to be an entrepreneur: “It’s like I just joined the very front of the parade and people are cheering me on.”

He continued, “Today it seems like entrepreneurship is almost this embodiment of the American dream. You have this small idea and then you figure it out along the way and you grow and become really wealthy and successful – and you’ll also solve a global problem. Everybody wants you to become like Tesla, and the world is cheering you on…”

But on the inside, being an entrepreneur is fraught with emotional pain and difficulty. One of his founders said in a post-experience survey, “I don’t deserve to have this platform. People don’t really know who I am, and once they really find out who I am they’re going to be unimpressed.”

That’s it. Exactly.

I started Denver Institute for Faith & Work in 2012. As I look back, I think it was a combination of luck and lots of God’s grace. Board members joined, a handful of donors got behind the idea, and we started holding public events. It was odd at our first event to say, “We at Denver Institute…” What is Denver Institute? Just a fiction? We have only a couple thousand dollars in the bank, and yet I’m acting like this is somehow real?

As the organization grew, we began to hire a few staff, got a foundation to underwrite much of our work, and moved into our office. And it was a very odd feeling: in the period of 12 months I went from working in an old, decaying shopping mall at a small Christian school to getting connected to millionaires and city leaders. What just happened to me?

My public persona was growing – often despite myself – and yet tension followed me almost every single day. I would watch the bank account. “We have exactly 6 months until we’re out of money, and then we close the doors, I would think to myself.” Where am I going to get more money to keep this going? Donors, staff are depending on me…

I felt a strain on my relationship with my wife, and with my kids. My work had been consuming. Until one day, divinely, my six-year-old daughter even called me out for making my work an idol.  I felt an acute sense of shame.

And I got into this work because I’m driven by a conviction, that I could solve a key problem in the world. But now I’m leading a staff team, reading P&L statements, trying to manage sales with operations with finance, and I’m afraid to let me know know I don’t really know what I’m doing. I feel like a top that is spinning, and is soon to tip over.

​The contrast between my internal world and my external reputation was creating a chasm, often void of peace and hope… and of God.

Imposter. Once they found out who I really am…

A couple years in, I realized I wasn’t alone. One article in The Economist called it Founder’s blues. All of us founders are filled with energy and entrepreneurial fury. But underneath the fervor is a world of uncertainty. “In the morning you feel everything is on the right track and in the evening everything seems in the gutter,” said Shawn Zvinis, the co-founder of Tab, a London startup which eventually closed down.  The stress can sometimes even become grimmer. Tragically, some entrepreneurs buckle under the pressure and take their own lives. This happened to an entrepreneur in Denver just last year.

As I searched for answers, I was both glad to see the problem being acknowledged – but I found the answers coming from the secular world were painfully insufficient. Much of the counsel coming to entrepreneurs takes into account how to build a lean start-up or access venture capital, but little of the questions that were plaguing my soul. How long can I sustain this kind of life? What will I do if I fail? Where is God in this process (didn’t he call me to start this, anyway)? Who am I becoming? Good advice or tropes like “fail fast” weren’t enough.

Because these questions were gnawing away at my soul, this spring I decided to gather a group of friends and peers to talk about “Caring for the Soul of Entrepreneurs,” one of our breakout sessions at the June 15 event “For Whose Glory: Exploring Faithful Practice in Life, Leadership and Business.”

Of course, I invited Banks, my friend, a 5280 Fellow, and a key leader at the Unreasonable Institute. I also invited Reilly Flynn, Managing Partner at GAN Ventures and fellow follower of Christ. As a venture capitalist, Reilly works with entrepreneurs every day. And as he evaluates new deals, he also recognizes that entrepreneurs are people, with hopes and dreams and frailties and failures.

My Tuesday morning prayer partner, John Paasonen, CEO of tech start-up Maxwell, will also be there (assuming kid #2 doesn’t arrive on that day!). As a Duke MBA, former executive for American Express and PayPal, he came to the start-up world with a unique resume and amount of experience. Yet still, the tension of spending investment capital, hiring staff, and scrambling for new customers, even amidst having a killer product – well, he’s felt what we all do this space. Tension.

I also invited both Henry Kaestner, founder of Sovereign’s Capital, and his colleague, Russell Bjorkman, to join us. Sovereign’s is unique: not only do they work exclusively with Christian entrepreneurs, but their unique niche in this space is caring for the souls and emotional health of their entrepreneurs. Reilly has said that Henry is one of the most faithful thinkers/practitioners in the land on this topic.

Finally, my friend Drew Yancey, who is President of Yancey’s, a food service company, and doing a PhD in both theology and business right now, will be there facilitating the discussion. His research interest in the moral formation of entrepreneurs – yet his heart has also been deeply impacted by his own failures in the world of entrepreneurship.

The Front Range lacks a place for Christian entrepreneurs to come together both for business support and spiritual direction. As a nonprofit entrepreneur who has felt the tensions of both heart and hand, spirit and strategy, I hope this small gathering is the beginning of something bigger… for the sake of our city, and, quite selfishly, for my own life.

Photo credit: Exhaustion

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EconomyTechnologyWork

Your Smartphone is Neither a Cancer nor a Cure-All

A balanced, biblical take on the devices we can’t seem to live without.

I remember the day I got my first smartphone. Upgrading from a “dumb phone,” I was dazzled. Crisp and clear pictures. Email and calendar in one place. Ready access to Twitter, Facebook, and any search engine I wanted. In the words of the AT&T ad, I could now “move at the speed of instantly.”

But as the months went on, I realized my smartphone was not a neutral tool that would leave my life unaffected. My days started to change—sometimes drastically. It began with email. I started checking it almost obsessively. Wake up, turn over, check email. Get coffee, check email. My daughter would ask a question. “Hold on, honey, I’m just finishing this email.”

Then came social media. I could now post pictures directly to Facebook. Yet rarely did I consider whether my 300 “friends” needed to see my weekend family adventures. Twitter became my news source. Even though I clicked on dozens of articles, I noticed I never read them through. My thoughts started to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces. Oddly enough, even though I now held the key in my hand to unparalleled productivity, at the end of the work day I felt a new level of exhaustion.

Tony Reinke’s new book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, makes explicit what many of us feel bubbling under the surface: quietly, subtly, our phones are changing us.

Reinke catalogues the quiet catastrophe he believes our phones are causing. For instance:

We’re distracted. We check our smartphone 85,000 times a year, or once every 4.3 minutes.

We’re a hazard to others. Texting and driving makes us 23 times more likely to get in a car accident.

We crave approval. Each social media moment is another scene in our “incessant autobiography.”

We idolize celebrity. Our attention drifts from the eternal toward the latest headlines and gossip.

We become lonely. “Technology is drawing us apart, by design. We feel the sting of loneliness in the middle of online connectedness,” Reinke says.

We get lost in the digital noise. The average daily social media and email output is larger than the Library of Congress.

We lose track of time. The wonder of people, plants, nature, and art—even God himself—gets lost in the whirl of “urgent” notifications.

All in all, Reinke makes an admirable attempt at bringing theology to bear on our digital devices. Snarky remarks on Facebook proliferate, but Scripture calls us to steer clear of slander and honor others with our words (James 4:11–12; Eph. 4:29). We seek approval from social media, but true approval comes from God (Rom. 2:29). We struggle with “fear of missing out,” or “FOMO,” yet the scope of eternity dramatically reframes our perspective (Luke 16:19–31).

After reading the book, I felt like I had a digital cancer growing in my pocket. Each chapter builds on what smartphones are allegedly doing to us: creating isolation, distraction, addiction, idolatry, and a host of other ills. Less-than-inspiring subtitles abound: “FOMO in the Grave,” “Junk Food for the Soul,” “Technology and Isolation.”

Perspectives on technology generally gravitate toward one of two poles. Instrumentalism says technology is just a neutral tool, an “instrument.” The popular phrase “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people” expresses this view. Technological determinism, however, says that technology is an unstoppable force shaping society—and each of us. The machines are out of control and must be resisted, lest we end up like the human drones of The Matrix.

We miss the point if we become either pro- or anti-technology. Instead, liberation from our smartphones (and all our technology) is best summed up by the psalmist: “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts” (119:45). In contrast to the American view of freedom—essentially, lack of restraint on individual choice—the Bible sees true freedom as a matter of living within proper boundaries.

The redeeming gem of Reinke’s book is found in asking readers to define those boundaries. After reading a list of 12 questions under the heading “Should I Ditch My Smartphone?,” I asked myself, What do I really need my phone for?

As I began deleting apps and setting new boundaries, I found myself catching an appealing vision of a better—and slower—life. And my phone once again became just a tool, to be used like all good things given by God (James 1:17).

This book review first appeared at christianitytoday.com. Photo credit

BusinessEconomy

The Public Good of Faith Expressed Through Work

 

Three stories of Denver business leaders serving their neighbors by providing good jobs

It’s often assumed that faith is a private matter. Fine for your personal life, but less appropriate in the workplace or public life. Yet time and time again, I’ve seen that when faith becomes a public matter – and is expressed as working for the good of one’s neighbor – there are transformative results for the entire community.

Take for example Karla Nugent, chief business development officer at Weifield Group Electrical Contracting. Two years ago, my friend Bryan Chrisman at National Christian Foundation in Colorado connected us. “You gotta meet Karla,” he said. “She’s doing just what you’re talking about at Denver Institute for Faith & Work.” So we met for coffee, and after 45 minutes I was speechless.

Her company was blossoming and now had 350 employees. She had a deep, intrinsic belief in the dignity of the work of electricians that she employs, and had innovated an apprenticeship program that was employing men with barriers to employment – and turning them into certified journeymen in four years. The stories of life change were astounding.

Soon after I penned an article on her story for Christianity Today. After the article was published, through one of our board members, Chris Horst, the American Enterprise Institute heard about her story. They decided to feature her in a new documentary entitled “To Whom is Given: Business for the Common Good.”

We decided to take a clip of that documentary and tell her story (see clip above). Take a moment to watch her story.

When I watch Karla’s story, for me typical categories begin to break down. She is generous with her money, but she is also generous with her hiring practices. She runs a profitable, high performing business, but is also humble and community-focused. Her company provides the electrical work for skyscrapers across Denver, yet it also provides dignity to her employees and, for many, a way out of addiction or cyclical poverty. That is, her faith is a public good.

Take another example: Wes Gardner, CEO of Prime Trailer Leasing.

Work Matters from CityUnite on Vimeo.

Wes had a simple, yet profound, revelation: “I realized that business can be a platform for serving your neighbor.” He shares the story of the Good Samaritan. Two men passed by the one who had been robbed on the side of the road, but one saw him. The Good Samaritan too had something to do, but instead he stopped and helped.

“I began to see that the best thing we could do to help our neighbor was to create jobs,” Gardner says. “Not just jobs, but good jobs.” And so Wes began to hire people who were undergoing transition or challenges. For example, Benjamin Goff went from working at the state capitol to struggling with alcoholism. A good job in a healthy environment was a key to finding a new way forward.  Lauren Vasquez was a teen mom. She needed stable, good paying employment to support her daughter. Struggling to make it, she found the healthy environment she needed at Prime Trailer Leasing. The connection Gardner made with Hope House, a local nonprofit, changed her life.

One last example: James Ruder at L&R Pallet.

A Place of Refuge from CityUnite on Vimeo.

James inherited a pallet company from his father. He thought his business had plateaued after not being able to hire a workforce to make pallets. His turnover had reached 300% a year.

“God decided,” remembers Ruder, “to make my business a place of refuge.” Encouraged by his peers in a local group of Christian CEOs, Ruder decided to “give his business over to God” and allow God to work though him to serve the community.

Today, Ruder employees over 80 refugees from Burma – and his turnover has dropped to 5% a year, an unparalleled accomplishment in his industry. Ruder provides English classes to employees, connects his employees to community services, like how to navigate public transportation or finding an apartment, and treats many of them like family.

“When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m in the people business. Pallets are the widgets we make, but we changed our entire focus to our employees. And that has resulted in a completely different business model and profitability,” Ruder says.

Nugent, Gardner, and Ruder all are defying those who say compassion and profitability are a contradiction. Each business is profitable, and each does so by a unique investment in people.

The point here is simple: faith applied to work can have transformative impact on entire communities.

For me, this means three things:

  • We need to look harder at what “love your neighbor” truly means for our work and industries.
  • We need to ask whether the spiritual and moral formation of job creators might be one of the best, if not most overlooked ways, to alleviate poverty in our communities.
  • And we need to accept that faith is a genuine motivation for millions of working men and women across the country, and we do not need to be afraid to speak about faith-based motivations in public.

For many, faith is a public, social and economic good. And the most vulnerable in our communities are often the direct beneficiaries of sacrificial love expressed through work.

EconomyEducationWork

How Do We Change? Formation in the 5280 Fellowship

How do we change?

I’m 34 years old, have four kids, and have been in the workforce for 9 years. And for me, there is no more pressing question in my life today than How do I change?

In the past three years, the stress of leading a growing organization, trying to be a good father, and accomplishing my professional goals has exposed, well, cracks in the foundation of my character.  My precious wife has been so patient with me as I stumble, fall, and get up again – only to find myself back where I started.

As I’ve spoken with peers about their lives, careers, and relationships – especially young professionals in Denver and Boulder – I’ve seen common traits among many of us:

  • We’re around people and “social networks” all the time, but we feel lonely, and not deeply known by others. It’s the great irony of a social media age. More noise, but less deep relationships.
  • In our careers we’ve gotten good at a technical skill for which we were trained in school, like drawing construction plans, scheduling conferences or planning lessons. But we wonder: what about the broader city we live in? Who else is out there like me? How can I go from a microscope (knowing lots about a little) to a telescope (seeing a bigger picture)? Might my career or work be a part of something bigger than just my success?
  • In the drive to get things done and accomplish more in a shorter amount of time, I feel like my relationships, my knowledge of myself, and my relationship with God isn’t what I want it to be. I long to live a deep spiritual life, but most days I find this baffling. I need help. Lots of it.
  • Only 33% of Americans are engaged with their work. Most show up, do a job, get a paycheck – and would rather be somewhere else. And even for those third that are “highly engaged,” there’s an uncomfortableness, especially in Colorado, with those who make their careers everything, and forget about family, friends, neighbors, recreation, or the needs of others. Is there a way to be engaged, but not make work an idol?

In the last three years, I’ve felt each of these feeling acutely. Changing any of these seems daunting for me. Yet what’s interesting to me is that in the first year of the Fellows program at Denver Institute, I’ve seen what looks to me like genuine change in the lives of 27 men and women.

  • Grant Stone, a banker, shares about a broadening perspective on the financial industry, and what it means for his future career decisions
  • Candice Whiteley, a vice principal, shares about the value of a community deeply committed to God, a deeper knowledge of ourselves, and our world
  • Banks Benitez, an entrepreneur, shares about a renewed perspective of God that even sees Him at work at a car wash employing autistic men and women
  • Rachel Moran, a law professor, shares about no longer feeling alone as she endeavors to live out her Christian life at a secular university
  • My friend Hunter Beaumont, lead pastor at Fellowship Denver church, has said, “This program is having a transformative impact on the culture of my church.”
  • Paul Frank, who works at a healthcare supply chain management company, said to me recently, “When I started the Fellowship, I hated by job. I had been in a tech company for over a decade – was something wrong with me? But one night, after doing a “vocational power assessment,” somebody in my cohort said: ‘Look, you have incredible vocational power as one of the most senior employees in your company. Maybe God put you there for a reason.’ I now see my work as an incredible opportunity to mentor and serve.”

Why is this? Where is this change coming from?

When I designed the program, to be honest, I kind of had a chip on my shoulder about my previous educational experiences. I loved reading and ideas, but I couldn’t stand reading 500 pages of a boring book, writing a paper about an esoteric topic, or listening to professors lecture for hours without ever asking what I thought. I also developed an affinity for older books (and shorter ones!) that had stood the test of time. Better to build my life on the great ideas and traditions of the past than the latest fad that had become popular in the academy.

In my years after graduate school, I also came to value the primacy of learning from people: people who are further along in their careers, people who have had different training than I have, people who are influencing key conversations across different sectors in our city. Jesus wrote nothing, but he instead gave us his church, a group or people. I could now see why. People were just as important “texts” as were books. And through the Holy Spirit, God actually lives in people.  Moreover, as I grew in my career, I saw myself imitating leaders I knew, and putting into practice what they were feeling and doing, far before I understood the concepts behind their actions.

I also began the incredibly hard process of self-knowledge. Only in the past several years have I really started to plunge deeply into how I react in stressful situations, how I come off in front of others, why I feel energized or exhausted, and the impact my own emotions have on everyone around me.

The Fellows program has been designed for those of us in our careers who long for a deeper change that technical training can’t provide. We built in elements into the program that take into consideration the breadth of what human being is. We are relational, social, physical, emotional, intellectual, habitual creatures who are environmentally-shaped, embedded in culture, and designed for work, for others, and for God.

So what does that mean? In the 5280 Fellowship, in means:

  • The relational and emotional context formed by the cohort of Fellows is the core of the program. God is relationship – and we grow only by first opting into a community and commits itself to a set of habits, like spiritual reading, work, discussion, prayer, vulnerability, and learning from others.
  • The community is designed around values of theological thinking, redemptive relationships, creating good work, deep spiritual health and sacrificial service. The unspoken values the community holds at the outset of the program shape the environment even before we’ve begun the formal program.
  • We strive to cultivate a deeper knowledge of God on two levels: (1) his revelation through Scripture and his church through reading great authors on topics like biblical worldview & mission, calling, theology work, Christ and culture. (2) We cultivate a direct knowledge of God, the living Person, through practicing the classical spiritual disciplines.
  • We set the context for a deeper knowledge of ourselves through a coaching process that includes an EQi assessment, 360 interviews, sharing our stories with the cohort, and evaluating our vocational gifting and power.
  • We set the table for a deeper knowledge of our culture by understanding issues through eyes of leaders actually shaping and forming those issues through their work.
  • We intentionally build diverse cohorts and expose our Fellows to a broad network of leaders in the city because we believe learning directly from other’s experiences is deeply transformative on a cognitive, relational, spiritual, professional and civic level. Experiences like the 5280 Fellowship are often catalyst experiences that open new opportunities, new perspectives, and new relationships across churches and sectors.
  • The program also requires a professional project and a personal development project. Leadership development programs that are all about papers and lectures – but don’t have the teeth of real world projects that will influence real people – are not effective. Conversely, applying your theology to real work contexts and serving real needs, from psychiatry to urban planning to corporate management, is both professionally impactful and is good for the workplaces, communities, industries and cultures we live in.

Tough thing about the program: it’s a big commitment over nine months. And it’s only for those who are serious about change. But here’s the truth: technology is fast, but character formation is slow. And we can’t do it alone. We need each other.

As I was interviewing two of our senior leaders last month during a Saturday teaching session, I closed the session, and looked up to our Fellows and said, “I just want to say one thing. Seven months ago you were strangers – but I now call you my friends. I genuinely love being a part of this community. Thank you. I needed it.”

Change seems impossible to me most days. But as we near Easter week and I take a look at the empty cross and the light-filled tomb – and the growing community of faith in the metro area – I’m filled with hope.

If you’re interested in learning more about the 5280 Fellowship, fill out the form at the bottom of the 5280 Fellowship page or reach out to me personally. We accept applications for the Class of 2017-18 through April 30, 2017.

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Architecture and DesignBusinessCraftsmanship & Manual LaborEconomyWork

Affordable Housing: What You Need to Know About the Most Critical Issue Facing Colorado Today

 

Imagine with me for a moment.

Imagine you and your new spouse have been outbid on four straight houses in two months. Instead of buying your first home in Denver, you finally decide to work remotely, move back to the Midwest to be closer to family, and leave Colorado.

Now imagine you’re a business owner at lunch with a real estate developer who is fighting off three simultaneous lawsuits from trial lawyers representing a homeowner’s association. He tells you, “I’ll never build condos again. Never.”

Finally, imagine you work construction and rent an apartment near Five Points. In the past eight years, your rent has increased from $900 per month to $1600. Exasperated by rising costs – and stagnant wages – you move to Frederick, 40 minutes from friends, family, and your job site. Dejected you grab a beer with a friend after work. Your friend tells you that back in 2006, his grandma gave him $5,000 for down payment on a $175,000 condo. Today, that condo is worth $265,000 – and your monthly rent is now more expensive than his mortgage.

Colorado is facing an economic and social tsunami centered on a single issue: affordable housing.  

There’s a unique mix of factors at play.

  • Colorado is experiencing a population boom. It’s the second fastest growing state in the union, and population growth has far outstripped available housing for Colorado’s new residents.
  • Cities are becoming more popular places to live. With more people desiring to move into cities, fix ‘n’ flips, remodels, and urban redevelopment has transformed the housing markets in the metro area.
  • Housing costs, particularly in cities, have skyrocketed . Home prices are now a staggering 49.1 percent above the high reached in 2006. To make things worse…
  • Colorado has a labor shortage in the trades and middle skilled jobs. Which means there aren’t nearly enough people to build more houses. Sadly…
  • The rise in housing costs has hit low-income communities the hardest. For example, from 2000-2014, in historically black and Latino Montebello, monthly rent rose 18% to a median cost of $1690. Mayor Hancock says an estimated 38 percent of Denver’s renters can’t afford the rising costs.

The upshot: The state needs far more entry-level housing built to keep up with demand, such as condos. Ten years ago the percentage of new residential construction builds that were condos was 25 percent. In 2015, it had plummeted to 3.4 percent. This means that getting a starter home (either condo or townhouse) has become nearly impossible.

So why not build more condos, even if you have to search harder for labor? The answer: there is one major reason why developers have not built more condos in the last decade: They’re getting sued like crazy. Here’s how it works:

  1. A condo owner has a cracked foundation or leaky window that could be fixed for anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
  2. A second owner has similar complaint, and the condo’s homeowner’s association turns to a law firm that specializes in “construction defects lawsuits” and the case turns into a class action lawsuit. What started as a complaint over relatively minor problems (that likely could be addressed by paying the right subcontractor to fix the problem) turns into a multi-million-dollar lawsuit, costing the developer enormously (yet handsomely profiting a small group of law firms).
  3. Because of this litigious habit, developers flee from condos, often unable to even get insurance on the development because of exorbitantly expensive lawsuits over construction defects. (One firm boasts 100+ “recoveries” in excess of $1 million.)

The result of all these factors: an affordable housing crisis.

Not all of these issues can be addressed at once. But now is the time to address one of these issues on a statewide level: our state’s “construction defects” law.

Local solutions have been proposed. Cities have passed a patchwork of policy Band-Aids, such as the City of Denver’s new tax which will provide an estimated $15 million per year for new affordable housing developments. But this amount is only a drop in the bucket for a city that needs an estimated 60,000 more affordable units right now. Many have also passed laws addressing construction defects lawsuits their own municipalities.

But what needs to be addressed is how to allow the market to build condos profitably once again throughout the state of Colorado. Apart from a statewide solution, condo builders are “gun shy” on applying for new builds, thinking that an unfavorable statewide bill would trump local efforts.

Today a hodgepodge of bills are being proposed in the state legislature after years of unsuccessful attempts to address the issue. One requires homeowner’s associations to undergo mediation that makes suing developers more difficult; another addresses the cost of insurance; yet another gives builders the ability to repair construction flaws before legal action can proceed.

Most Coloradoans won’t (and shouldn’t) get into the details of the bills. This is the job of our elected officials. But the Colorado public needs to remember three things:

  1. This issue is absolutely critical to the economic future of Colorado. Our economic growth is fundamentally dependent on attracting and keeping talented labor. If talented tech entrepreneurs or skilled craftsman can’t find affordable housing, they’ll leave the state and our growing economy will start to contract.
  1. At the heart, this is an issue of human flourishing. Wealth building for most low-income families begins with an affordable mortgage. To have a home means to have an asset – often times the only major asset they have – that can grow in value. To be stuck in the vortex of rising apartment costs yet stagnating wages fuels the cycle of poverty. Getting a starter home at a reasonable price is key to the well-being of our low and middle-income communities in Colorado.
  1. Now is the time make a change. In the next 3-4 weeks, bills will either get passed to address construction defects, or they’ll get shot down in committee, often influenced by organizations like the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, who have profited enormously from the status quo. Today, both Democrats and Republicans are aligning to say we can retain homeowner’s rights (including their ability to protect their most valuable asset and, in some cases, seek damages in court) yet hinder this rampant practice that is hurting our most vulnerable citizens – and eventually, all of us.

Does shoddy construction exist? Absolutely. We need to praise an ethic of craftsmanship among condo developers, and build quality condos that can last for 100 years (and won’t fall apart in 30 years). But we also need to recognize now is the time to solve one piece of the affordable housing puzzle.

What can you do?

The best thing you can do is contact your Colorado state Senator or Representative. They rarely hear from their constituents, so either an email or a phone call will likely be returned.

And instead of getting angry with them (they get a lot of that), tell them how much you care about this issue. Tell them you believe in giving developers the chance to repair their mistakes without costly trials; tell them to find ways for peaceful resolution of disputes between home owners, HOAs and developers; tell them you want to find ways to allow builders to once again build what our state needs the most: high-quality condos.

Tell them how excited you are for them to show political courage and bipartisan cooperation to solve this issue, and that you believe Colorado will benefit for generations to come when they pass the proper bills that address each side of this issue.

And if you can’t remember all of that, just tell them this: “I believe in a vision of a good city where men and women of all backgrounds can live in homes they own, provide for their families, and participate in the flourishing of their communities.”

Photo credit.  Want to print this out? Here’s the PDF

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BusinessEconomyWork

Investments for the Kingdom

Eventide Funds has confounded the investment world with its success—and it’s biblically based principles.

Not long ago, when reporters wrote about Robin John, the cofounder of Eventide Asset Management, a subtle snicker rumbled under the surface. One called him “The Believer”; others pointed out the odd language on his Boston-based mutual fund company’s website: business as an “engine of blessing” and “biblically responsible investing.”

Theology as the foundation for picking stocks? Is this guy for real?

Today the murmurs seem to have faded, and for good reason. Since its launch in 2008, Eventide’s flagship mutual fund (a pool of money professionally invested in stocks, bonds, and other securities), the Gilead Fund, has given shareholders a 13.70 percent annualized return as of September 30, 2016, compared to 9.03 percent for the Standard & Poor’s 500. To put that into perspective, an investor who put $10,000 into the fund at its launch would be worth $26,050 today. The Gilead Fund has been covered as a top performer by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, among other publications. Over the past three years, media attention has helped Eventide explode from $50 million in assets under management to nearly $2 billion.

But there’s more to Robin John than a focus on profit. Challenging Milton Friedman’s declaration that the only social responsibility of business is to increase profits, John says, “Profit is only the byproduct of a job well done.”

John, an evangelical living in Dallas, is a leader in the growing field of biblically responsible investing, which applies Christian theology and social concern to investment analysis. Eventide, founded in 2008, has garnered attention because of both its results and its uniquely faith-filled investment philosophy, driven ultimately by Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself.

His journey to investing, however, was fraught with vocational doubt, uncertainty, and a heart-wrenching journey to India, the land of his birth.

Longing for a Calling

John grew up in a village in southern India, influenced by the faith of his grandparents. “I remember looking out my window as a child and seeing a cemetery,” John told me. “The church needed land to bury the dead, and so my grandfather, poor as he was, donated it.” John learned the Bible originally in his native tongue of Malayalam and saw a sacrificial faith lived out at an early age.

When John was seven, his family moved to Medford, Massachusetts, following his uncle, an international pastor at Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston. “We moved into a community where I was one of the only non-Italian and non-Irish students in class,” John says. Due to an error on his Social Security card, his last name became an abbreviated version of his middle name, Cheriakalath, while he was in school. It was nearly impossible for his Anglo peers to pronounce, just one factor that made growing up an Indian immigrant in American schools tough. So he studied hard and graduated in the top 1 percent of his high school class.

A few years later, John graduated with a degree in economics from Tufts University and took a job at a large bank. “I would pray for a calling to go into ministry,” John recalls. “But I didn’t hear from God. So, because I didn’t feel like I had a calling, I said, ‘I guess I’ll just make money and support those who do.’ ”

One of his first assignments took him from Boston back to Pune, India, near Bombay, to train new employees.

One day, staying in the guest house of an Indian firm, he asked the housekeepers where they slept. He discovered that in a four-bedroom house, they slept in a closet behind the kitchen on the concrete floor, with no mat or rags for a pillow. Outraged, he notified his company of the housekeepers’ living conditions. But the two men begged him not to pursue the matter or they would lose their jobs—and return to the slums.

When John returned to the United States, the air of his home office was heavy with tension. Outsourcing to India meant job cuts for American workers. Now coworkers in Boston came to John with their own plea: “If my job is going to India, you’ve got to let me know. I’ve got a family.”

“I started realizing that work is not just work,” John says. “People’s lives are being impacted.”

In the years that followed, he vocationally wandered from a bank to an accounting firm to part-time classes at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he still longed for “a call to ministry.”

While in Boston, John got in touch with a friend from high school, Finny Kuruvilla. At the time, Kuruvilla was simultaneously pursuing an MD from Harvard Medical School, a PhD in chemistry and chemical biology from Harvard University, and a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT. (“And just for fun, Finny taught biblical Greek and Hebrew at his church.”)

John asked Kuruvilla to pray with him, hoping for a sense of God’s call. They prayed once a week for six months. “If God wants me to go into full-time ministry, that’s what I’ll do,” John said, uncertain about working in ministry or business. Together they started a house church and were joined by a Nigerian widow, Congolese immigrants, and a few Harvard students eager to serve their community.

Soon after, Tim Weinhold, an entrepreneur and Harvard alumnus, visited the house church. Getting acquainted after the service, Kuruvilla mentioned that he and some friends were thinking of starting a Christian mutual fund.

“I know what a mutual fund is,” said a skeptical Weinhold, who would eventually become director of faith and business for Eventide. “And I know what a Christian is. Explain to me what a Christian mutual fund is.”

After prayer and discussion, John and Kuruvilla cofounded Eventide Asset Management with the vision of “Investing that makes the world rejoice.”

As the Great Recession began, the sun was setting on John’s longing for a call to ministry. In response to John’s question of whether to go into business or ministry, God slowly revealed his clear answer: “Both.”

From Plunder to Blessing

“I’m confused,” I confess on stage, as I interview John before an eager crowd at The Commons at Champa, a shared workspace in Denver. “What’s the difference between socially responsible investing, values-based investing, and biblically responsible investing?”

In the audience is a young couple, eagerly listening for advice on how to begin their meager retirement savings; a pastor turned investment adviser, fearing he’s failed now that he’s no longer a minister; and a bleary-eyed investment banker, tie-loosened and over-tired, wondering if he’s made a vocational mistake.

eventide-team-ctConventional fund managers look for financial strengths in making investment decisions, John says. The problem is that profitability is a lagging indicator. It tells investors more about the past than the future. Moreover, it doesn’t show how a business made that money, whether through quality products or oppressive business practices.

Conversely, moral or ethical fund managers screen out the “vice stocks”—pornography, tobacco, weapons, or abortion—and then look for financial strengths. “This is the typical approach of what we might label biblically responsible investing 1.0. It’s a good start,” John says, “but it doesn’t go far enough, because business can harm not just through bad products but through bad practices.” For example, payday loan companies can trap the poor in a cycle of debt, and auto title loans can charge effective rates as high as 500 percent.

The biblical word for these business practices is plunder, says John, who cites biblical passages that emphasize God’s concern for the poor: “ ‘Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord. ‘I will protect them from those who malign them’ ” (Ps. 12:5).

But instead of merely avoiding companies that plunder or extract value from a community, John says, “we look for companies with an extraordinary ability to innovate and create value for all stakeholders—customers, employees, suppliers, host communities, the natural environment, and society.” Each of these six stakeholders, Eventide believes, is a primary neighbor that businesses are called to serve. John dubs this positive vision “biblically responsible investing 2.0.”

The Eventide philosophy, or Eventide Business 360, is rooted in the biblical understanding that God’s intent for business, investing, and all vocations is to serve and, in turn, bless humankind. Weinhold, Eventide’s director of faith and business, points to verses like Deuteronomy 8:18—“But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today”—to show that business is uniquely able to create wealth and provide for material needs.

Business does this, according to Weinhold, by creating products that solve the material challenges of human existence and by making a profit, thereby enlarging human wealth to make those products affordable and accessible.

When deciding what businesses to invest in, Eventide considers factors often outside of typical investment analysis such as employee satisfaction, a genuine innovation in the field of investing. They use websites with company reviews shared by employees, as well as other sources, to evaluate both how well a business is “loving” its employees and also its long-term prospects for profitability.

In the days before the Great Recession, John says, “we saw the subprime mortgage industry was exploiting its customers. We didn’t invest there.” Avoiding dishonest practices, John says, is one discipline that can help the firm sidestep the kinds of activities that may be profitable—at least for a time—but do long-term harm.

Like the vast majority of mutual fund investors, most of Eventide’s 133,000 clients are average people saving for retirement. The minimum investment in the Gilead Fund is only $1,000 (or, with an automatic investment plan, $100). “We wanted anybody to be able to invest with us,” says John.

Eventide has performed well for their shareholders, but investing is risky business and can suffer downturns. Even in down markets, though, John reminds his team of their true purpose. Gilead, the name he and Kuruvilla gave their first fund, means “mountain of witness” or “hill of testimony.”

John remembers praying for a calling in 2008, descending into his unfinished basement to “ask God to use me for his glory.” In 2015, Eventide gave away more than $3.5 million to charity, directed almost $2 billion toward businesses they believe improve people’s lives, and influenced business leaders and financial advisors across the United States in how they think about the purpose of their work.

John found his calling in an unlikely place. An investor and entrepreneur, John has embraced a higher view of business, often quoted by Weinhold: “Business is God’s intended partner in his great work as Provider for all of humankind.”

This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of Christianity Today.

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BusinessEconomyWork

We All Proselytize

 

“Kelly, what does proselytize mean?”

“Evangelize, but with negative connotations.”

I had to ask my wife last Sunday night because the word came up in a discussion with a local Christian entrepreneur.

I’ll paraphrase what he said: “In my company, we believe in the power of entrepreneurship to create flourishing communities. And I’m very open about my Christian faith with my employees when it comes up. But I would never engage in proselytization.”

When he said it, I mostly agreed. The word just sounds like rude, arm-twisting – or possibly even an illegal activity. Encroaching on other people’s faith makes many of us feel uncomfortable at worst, and often offended. It’s usually a good way to seriously tick off your co-workers.

But what does “proselytize” even mean? I looked it up in the dictionary and here’s what I got: “pros·e·lyt·ize ˈpräs(ə)ləˌtīz/verb: convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another.”

Well, that’s interesting. This word simply means trying to change somebody’s beliefs or opinions from one view to another.

When I read this, I had to ask myself: aren’t all of us constantly trying to convert someone from one set of beliefs to another? I mean, if we’re honest, isn’t this what is constantly happening in advertising, media, and even conversations with friends?

For example, Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary Before the Flood is clearly trying to influence people to care deeply about climate change. And he’s not apologizing for that. He believes deeply in the catastrophic consequences of inaction for our planet. And he wants the apathetic or the climate change skeptic to be converted from one belief to another.

Or take actress and activist Emma Watson. She recently went to a train station in England and gave away over 100 copies of Maya Angelou’s “Mom & Me & Mom.” As a “book fairy” for the day, she also included a short note in the book, encouraging readers to pass it on. Her motivation was to get as many people as possible to be reading about inequality. Her campaigns for the UN have advocated for feminism, the protecting of young girls against child marriage, and fighting a rape culture. A noble woman, to be sure. And she’s not apologizing either that she’s attempting to convert you to her views.

Even thinking more broadly than Hollywood stars, isn’t the act of proselytization simply a natural, human act? When you receive an email from Costco, aren’t they trying to convince us to buy their products? Weren’t hundreds of millions of dollars spent on political advertising trying to “convert us” to vote for a particular candidate? Doesn’t my daughter try to change my beliefs when she asks for a cookie before bed?

I’m shooting beyond my pay grade here, but it seems to me that a primary use of all human language is to influence people to adopt your beliefs. Some philosophers have even postulated that in all human relationships we attempt to exert power or influence on others. To Daniel Pink’s point, to sell is human.

But can we at least admit that we’re all trying to convert others to our beliefs? Even those who say it’s wrong to convert others to your beliefs, ironically, are trying to convert you to that belief!

But back to the specific topic at hand: sharing about your Christian beliefs in the workplace. A few things to note for my fellow Christians:

  • We should never try to coerce others. People in positions of leadership need to be careful about sharing their faith with employees simply because it can be construed as “to be accepted around here, you need to be a Christian.” That’s no good. Belief should never be a pre-condition to acceptance. The truth is, God doesn’t coerce us, but is patient with us and allows for us to respond freely to him. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” If God gives us free will and time to respond, should we not do the same for others?
  • Let’s not be angry when faith comes up. I’ve seen many Christians get ticked off at the topic of faith in the workplace. They cite their first amendment rights to freedom of religion — while about to bust a vein in their necks. Again, no need for this to become a political fight. If it does, it shows that the real issue at stake is a political issue – not theological.
  • Gentleness and respect should adorn our faith conversations with co-workers. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” says Peter. I’m afraid to say that this has not always been the case for people of Christian faith in the public arena (I’m practicing the art of understatement). Instead humility, openness, and respect – along with a robust adherence to the truth we profess – ought to shape our interactions with those of other faiths.

To be honest, I’ve never liked the word proselytization. I won’t be using it anytime soon. But it is worth admitting that all people proselytize. Including Christians.

“Evangelize,” is a much better word. The word comes from the Greek euaggellion, meaning simply “good news.” The word is equally noxious in our secular culture, but it shouldn’t be. Why not? Let me tell a brief story:

For the past two weeks, as I have been driving to work, I’ve listened to the Christmas song, “Mary Did You Know?” After the tears welled up in my eyes for a week straight, I decided to commit the lyrics to memory so I could sing it to my daughters before they go to bed.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered, will soon deliver you.

Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the Lamb.

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s Perfect Lamb?
That sleeping child you’re holding is the Great I Am.

This is the message I have believed. And this is the one I unashamedly share – with kids, family, co-workers, neighbors, and anybody else who will listen. And when I share my own most-precious good news with the world, I join the rest of the world world that engages in sharing their stories of good news as well…

Last night, I finished singing it to Sierra, my oldest daughter, before we fell asleep. As we both looked at the Christmas tree night light, she said to me with a little grin as I finished the song, “I like that song, daddy.”

“I do too, my love.”

As we prayed together, I thanked God for that person who first “proselytized” me.

This post first appeared at denverinstitute.org

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BusinessEconomyWork

Nourishing the World: Spending an Evening with Dan Dye, CEO of Ardent Mills

 

As we walked into the kitchen, our senses came alive: the smell of freshly baked bread, the shine of stainless steel appliances, the smile of Chef Daniel Marciani, and the sight of risotto, chocolate quinoa desserts and caramelized spread. We felt like we had just walked into Babette’s Feast.

The food was the unexpected capstone of an evening the 5280 Fellows spent with Dan Dye, CEO of Ardent Mills, the largest flour producer in the country.  Ardent Mills, a new company that was spun off from ConAgra, CHS, and Cargill just over two and a half years ago, has 42 production facilities in the US, over 2,000 employees, and – get this – serves an estimated 100 million per day with their products. Chances are, if you ate any kind of bread product today, you are being nourished by Ardent Mills.

As we gathered around the conference room to hear Dan’s story, he candidly shared about life as the leader of a $4-billion-year company: the advent of his career at Cargill, the transition to leadership over a team of commodities traders in Winnipeg, and the values he uses as guideposts for everything he does.

Values, he said, are at the core of his leadership. Trust. Serving. Simplicity. Safety. For Dye, they’re more than words: they form the heart of the company he leads – and while not explicitly or exclusively Christian, each of them are endowed with deep spiritual value. “Though I don’t always say to people, ‘These are biblical values,’ to me each value is Biblically rooted, and the Bible informs me on how to lead a company, and how I can help best serve both customers and employees,” said Dye.

Dye spoke about discerning his calling and new job opportunities alongside his wife, Alea; how to build a strong leadership team; the challenges of work-life choices as he took different roles throughout his career. He shared about being a strong emotional presence in times of crisis, especially during a time early in his career when, tragically, two employees died during an accident. “It was the hardest time of my career – and one of the hardest times of my life. The value of safety isn’t just a word on the wall – I believe in it with every fiber of my being.”

Developing a strong, values-based culture is central to Dye’s leadership. He believes values allow them to better serve their customers, but they also create a work-environment that blesses his employees. The five principles of leadership at Ardent Mills are:

  • Live Our Values: Trust, Serving, Simplicity, Serving
  • Others Focused vs. Self-Focused
  • Clear the Noise
  • Relentlessly Curious
  • We Will Win – The Right Way

The final value used to be just “We Will Win,” believing that profit is inherently good as it creates the opportunity to serve more customers and hire more employees. But he added “The Right Way” after observing the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015, in which the German automaker intentionally mislead environmental authorities to pass emissions standards. To Dye, doing business “the right way” means profit must be made ethically, upholding the highest standards of integrity.

Banks Benitez, 5280 Fellow and Vice President of Global Expansion at the Unreasonable Institute, shared a brief note with me after the Community & Culture gathering:

“I just wanted to drop you a brief note thanking you for tonight. It broadened my perspective, humanized a big industry that I know nothing about, connected us to a leader who is putting Christ in that center circle, and sparked many ideas for me in my own career and role. One thing that Dan mentioned, which I really liked, was about getting rid of the noise and bringing clarity to people. I know that’s something I struggle with in my role with our team…It was such an amazing night and I kept thinking, “this is way beyond what I expected from the fellowship.”

Dye also shared about the centrality of his faith to his work. “I remember when I was a kid, my dad would take me aside before a basketball game, and give me some clear advice: keep your cool, do your best, honor God. I’ve always kept that advice close to my heart.” Through both his father and early career mentors at Cargill, who encouraged him to keep Christ at the center of his life, role models profoundly impacted Dye’s career trajectory.

The Ardent Mills vision of “Nourishing What’s Next” has special meaning for Dye. Bread is a central metaphor in the Scriptures: Jesus is the bread of life; the kingdom of God is like yeast that works its way through dough; Jesus commands his followers to remember his death through drinking of wine and eating bread.

As Dan Dye leads a company that is nourishing the world – quite literally – he also strives to nourish the spirits of the customers, employees and communities Ardent Mills serves each day.

This article first appeared on the Theology of Business Blog at denverinstitute.org

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EconomyWork

Business Travel Have You Exhausted? Bring a Kid

 

Traveling for business is tough. For most men I speak to, the time away from family and on the road is usually an emotional, spiritual and often physical black hole.

My friend Danny recently came back from a business trip. Bleary-eyed, he shared that the meetings were poorly planned, his flight was delayed – and it took him at least two days to recover from a feeling of exhaustion after getting back to his wife and four kids.  And his family was a mess as a result of his week-long trip.

Another friend, Andrew, sent a group of men an email,

“I’ve been asked to head up a church group specifically for guys whose jobs have them on the road frequently. Those of you who travel regularly know that it can be challenging to get connected with other men while traveling. We also want to help strengthen men in the face of temptations that often present themselves while away from home. Do any of you have recommendations for a small group study that speaks to these challenges?”

Looks like the challenges of life on the road are pretty widespread.

Traveling loses its luster pretty quickly when you’re only between conference rooms, airports, and generic hotel rooms. Though being on a business trip has an air of importance and unhinged freedom that can often puff us up, often we quickly crash back to earth when faced with temptation, long hours, short nights, and missed kid’s soccer games. The biggest challenge most business leaders face is loneliness – and traveling solo doesn’t help.

There has to be a better way.

When meeting with my friend Dave, he shared with me that better way: take a kid with you on the trip. Whenever he travels for speaking engagements, he tells them that a part of his travel fee is that he always travels with a guest: rarely does he say it’s one of his four children.

So, on a recent business trip to visit a foundation, I took my oldest, Sierra, 8, with me on the trip. And it was a total move of genius.  Eating chocolate pancakes, spying night-time pool cleaning machines, putting on cheese heads at a Wisconsin airport – we had a blast.

Here’s why I think traveling with a kid ought to be a regular practice for dads on business trips – and why I think businesses should fund their little traveling companions, too:

  1. Traveling with kids leads to an emotionally and physically healthy trip. Sierra was delighted by the airplane, giddy as we ate spaghetti and meat balls together, and talked about our trip to Chicago for weeks prior – and months afterward. Her delight and wonder rubbed off on me. “Dad, I just can’t help being so excited about the airplane!” We smiled, laughed, and chatted our way from rental car to hotel to meetings because of the joy of my daughter. Moreover, because I had to put my daughter to bed as soon as we arrived to the hotel at 10pm, I went to sleep then as well. And woke up right at 6am. The pull towards destructive behaviors to make myself feel better after a long commute….completely disappeared. I got enough rest, prayed with my daughter, and felt energized for the business meetings I had the next day.
  1. Traveling with kids keeps families healthy. How many families have been crippled by absent dads on the road – or husbands who strayed from their wives while thousands of miles away? Having a kid on the trip draws us immediately back into the commitments and loves of our families, and instead of putting strain on the family, draws families together. For Sierra and I, it was precious one-on-one time that is rare for a family for four kids. One she still treasures – and I treasure, too.
  1. Traveling with kids cultivates spiritual health in employees, thus making them more productive. Is buying the additional plane ticket on the company dollar really worth it? Maybe a better question is: what’s the cost of spiritually unhealthy employees? I’ve spoken to dozens of men who feel an unusual pull toward pornography when away from home – and in the cycle of addiction, no productive work is done. When dads get home, often we find we need to do triage after leaving our wives with 100% of the family responsibilities for a few days. And thus we need to work less because of the additional emotional stress of being gone. (Or our time at the office the next day is tinged with a an additional level familial stress.) An extra plane ticket is indeed an expense – but if we have health incentives programs at our companies to exercise and eat right, why not make an investment in healthy relationships?

I’ve shared my affection for traveling with kids (and my spouse, when we can find a brave babysitter for four kids!) with friends and business leaders, and here are the questions I get:

What do you do with your kids during business meetings? Good question. And I have a pretty simple answer: give them homework to do.  Sierra traveled with a binder of homework – long division, reading, writing, and world geography (which we had a chance to directly experience while on the road). During lay overs and during meetings, I simply gave her work to do. To be practical, I’m not sure if doing business travel with kids before about age 6 can really work that well. But after that, if they can do audio books or iPad math, they can productively use the time to further their education – and not get behind on class work.

Won’t my kids get bored? That’s possible. Conferences of mortgage lenders or pharmaceutical sales aren’t exactly Disney Land. However, when I travel with kids, we make nearly everything an adventure. Exploring hotel hallways, ordering fun meals, exploring new lands on the Illinois toll way. Plus, just before we flew out of Milwaukee, I took Sierra to visit lake Michigan (see picture below). That half hour on the shores of one of America’s Great Lakes has been the topic of her school writing exercises for a full month after our trip.

How do I get this business expense approved? Make the case that healthy men need healthy families, and that being isolated from our families for days or weeks on end isn’t healthy. It may be a first-time conversation with your supervisor, but make the case that employees are not just human ‘doings’ that accomplish tasks, but human beings who need deep spiritual, emotional and physical health to do creative, productive work.

At the hotel in Chicago, the front desk clerk looked at Sierra and I, and she said, “How cute! I wish my dad would have taken me on business trips as a kid. Our home was always so crazy – seemed like he never had time for me.”

Time for new trend in global business travel.

 

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EconomyWorkWorld

Care About Refugees? This Greek Yogurt CEO is Hiring Hundreds of Them

 

Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO of Greek yogurt brand Chobani, is showing the world – including Christians – how to treat refugees. Since 2007, he has hired hundreds of refugees from all over the world, and currently employs over 300 refugees across his company.

In a cultural moment when more refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean than ever before, Ulukaya has, in the words of a recent Global Citizen article, an astonishing amount of moral clarity:

“He understands that refugees are fleeing tremendous hardship and just want to be given a chance to begin or resume a normal, healthy life. His workers have escaped death. They’ve seen family members get killed or have been forever separated from their families. They’ve endured years of uncertainty and fear. Now, they just want to be normal.”

A Kurd from Turkey, Ulukaya knows what’s it like to be oppressed. Despite significant backlash against hiring refugees in the US, he continues to advocate for refugees and give them job opportunities as a way to rebuild their lives.

Ulukaya’s story has a certain allure: born to a family that operated a small sheep, goat and dairy farm in Ilic (Erzincan Province) in Turkey, he came to the US in 1994 to study English and take a few business courses. He started a feta-cheese factory, and then took a big risk in buying a defunct yogurt factory in upstate New York in 2005. His goal was to produce a yogurt without preservatives, artificial flavors or gelatins – more akin to the quality and natural yogurt he grew up with Turkey as opposed to the sugary and watery yogurts he found in America.

Over the next 5 years, Chobani – from the Turkish word for “shepherd” – would take off. In less than five years, his company would be valued at over $1 billion and is now the leading yogurt brand in the US.

Ulukaya clearly values philanthropy. He’s signed Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge, committing to give away over half of his fortune during his lifetime or in his will. But on September 29, 2015, at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, he also urged business people to do more than “just write checks” to help alleviate the suffering of refugees.

For example, he believes in paying his employees higher wages, noting that not only is treating employees better for the company, but also states that, “for the sake of our communities and our people, we need to give other companies the ability to create a better life for more people.” He even gave his 2,000 employees an ownership stake in the company. When Chobani is sold or goes public, they’ll receive shares up to 10% of the company’s values. The move could make the employees on his manufacturing floor millionaires.

In an interview with Ernst and Young Global Chairman & CEO Mark Weinberger, he unabashedly said, “Business is still the strongest, most effective way to change the world.”

Here in Denver, James Rudder, CEO of L&R Pallet, has hired hundreds of refugees from Myanmar. Other Christians have followed suit with campaigns for charitable giving to help refugees throughout the world.  But after a conversation yesterday with an investor and business leader in Denver, whom I deeply admire, I can safely say that we Christians have a long way to go to in seeing business – not just charitable giving – as an opportunity to serve the needs of our world. We could learn a lot from Ulukaya and his moral example.

A challenge to all of us in the US: Could we hire more refugees in our companies in the US? Could we intentionally start companies abroad to help the 65.3 million refugees in the world today? More broadly, how could our hiring practices reflect God’s heart of compassion for the poor, the foreigner, the widow and orphan?

One thing’s for sure: after learning about Ulukaya and Chobani, next time I go to the grocery store my wife and I will be stocking up on Greek yogurt.

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