They protested the Vietnam War in the '60s. They celebrated Earth Day in the '70s. Then the baby boomers graduated from college and set off into the business world, bringing their anti-establishment attitudes along.
"I was a child of the '60s, so I viewed business as the source of all things bad when it came to the environment," says Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm. Hirshberg had spent some time working for a small environmental nonprofit, but by 1983, he grew frustrated with its limited impact. To reach more people with his message, he realized, he had to be in business. So with a $35,000 loan, part of which was from a group of Catholic nuns, he and partner Samuel Kaymen bought a small farm with a few cows in New Hampshire and started making organic yogurt.
Nearly 25 years later, Stonyfield is a $260 million company Hirshberg still controls, though it's now majority-owned by yogurt giant the Danone Group. "I came in with a social and environmental mission, not a money-making mission, and that is what made it a success," says Hirshberg, 52.
With their question-authority attitude, boomers such as Hirshberg ripped up the business playbook and wrote their own rules, says Deborah Nelson, executive director of Social Venture Network, a progressive-business nonprofit in San Francisco. "When they were told the role of business is just to generate profits, they rejected that and said business can be a lot more than that," she says. "It can be a positive force for change, and we're going to show you how."
Boomer entrepreneurs connected with consumers of their generation. Smash successes such as The Body Shop, Ben & Jerry's and Tom's of Maine proved there was a mass audience for companies with mission statements that included caring about the environment and paying suppliers and workers well. The boomer influence is now being seen in the X and Y generations, who grew up with boomer parents, Nelson adds. These younger entrepreneurs also seek to balance profit with social good.
For decades after World War II, most middle-class American workers snuggled in the bosoms of big companies that provided dependable jobs and pension security.
That all started to change in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan ordered the firing of 12,000 striking air-traffic controllers. Until then, says Blaine McCormick, associate dean at Baylor University's business school in Waco, Texas, mass layoffs were taboo.
But after Reagan's action, companies were emboldened to shed workers. After decades of a business climate McCormick describes as "sunny and 72," global competition was increasing and companies were facing challenges to operate more efficiently. Dozens of major corporations laid off employees at 10,000 a shot through the '80s.
"There was an orchestrated economic and political assault on the idea of the job," says Boston College sociology professor Charles Derber. "It was a deliberate and successful campaign to redistribute risks from companies to workers."
Laid-off workers often had severance packages that provided startup capital for new businesses. Millions more workers, though still employed, realized they couldn't depend on their employer for a lifetime. The age of the individual had begun. Workers began laying plans for their entry into the world of entrepreneurship.
That's exactly what Janis Dalessandro did, working on her sauce company on the side while she toiled for nine years at hair-care giant Paul Mitchell. A second-generation entrepreneur, Dalessandro, 43, never considered spending her entire career at a major corporation. "As I got older, I understood the beauty of creating your own path," she says.
Dalessandro went full time with her Tarzana, California, company, d'Oni Enterprises in 2003. She expects sales to jump from $200,000 last year to nearly $600,000 this year as she taps new markets for her unique, fat-free sauces. Dalessandro slogged through hundreds of in-store demos before her products were picked for an appearance on the Food Network. Says Dalessandro, "My mother pushed me to be stronger, bigger, better, more tenacious."Carol Tice is a Best in Business award winner from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.