What does it mean to live a purpose-driven life? What does it mean to be truly happy?
Good questions for the philosophers, so I’ll defer to one of the greats. Socrates theorized (and I’m paraphrasing here) that happiness is realizing one’s full potential in a context of virtue. Happiness isn’t the modern notion of potato chips and Monday Night Football. That’s pure pleasure, and fleeting. Being truly fulfilled, said the ancient Greeks, comes from earning an honest living while creating value in society so that others might benefit from one’s work and talent.
As a social entrepreneur, and as a father, I strive to create the context and collaboration for happiness that Socrates would have sanctioned. This summer, as luck would have it, I had the privilege of including the Little Feete (what I call my kids) on work trips to visit clients in Africa and the Americas. I will never forget traveling with Root Capital colleagues and my 16-year-old daughter, Charlotte, in the Ivory Coast, where we met cocoa-farming families whose cooperative helped their community heal after the country’s civil war. Three weeks ago in Central America, my younger son Thaddeus, 11, also tagged along with our team, cooking tortillas with farmers growing red beans destined for school lunch programs that are boosting nutrition for nearly 200,000 kids across Nicaragua.
Perhaps the most vivid sign of “happiness” over the summer was last month, as more than 130 members of Root Capital’s global team gathered together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for our first all-staff retreat in four years. What a time we had, full of technical training, strategic and operational priority setting, interactive multi-stakeholder workshops and poignant team-building moments. Our training sessions were brimming with happy people as we pushed each other toward greater performance accountability, learned new skills and shared our cultures through song and dance — all in service of our mission to grow rural prosperity and make agriculture work for farming families worldwide.
But 16 years into Socratic fulfillment at Root Capital, the truth is that it’s not always happy time. Well into our institutional adolescence, we sometimes feel what I refer to as the teenage blues. Not sure the Greeks had a term for that, but the Harvard Business School does: they call it the Bermuda Triangle of midsized organizations. We’re in that awkward phase between the early-stage start-up years, when an organization basically runs on inspiration and intuition alone and everybody does everything, and the later years of a large and stable organization, when all the kinks in the systems and processes are worked out and everything just hums. Sometimes, our processes, systems and structures are like gangly teenage arms and legs: they get in our way as much as they help us.
The good news is that we’re not alone in our teen awkwardness, and our commitment to happiness has us rolling up our sleeves to continue growing sustainably. We’re designing solutions to bolster the internal infrastructure needed to serve more clients and generate greater impact. A good example is our recently launched Risk Appetite Project, which will help us fine-tune the level of risk we’re willing to take for a given bundle of returns — economic as well as social and environmental. From there, we can better determine the appropriate and acceptable portfolio composition that balances business performance with outsized benefits for farm families.
Back in the early days of Root Capital — when our enterprise fit inside a rented room in a small clapboard house in Cambridge — I’d ride my bike into Harvard Square, hoping that our first checks for a grant or loan might be waiting in the post office box. Along the way I’d talk to myself, repeating over and over again that I wasn’t crazy and that this Root Capital thing could work (that was the extent of our HR and talent function back then!).
Today, nearly $1 billion in loans and 1.2 million farm families later, it feels like we’re still just getting started. And one thing’s for sure: none of it would have happened without you. Soon enough, many of us will be village elders, stepping back to let the next generation take the lead in full Socratic fulfillment (I hope).
For the time being, from blue skies to teenage blues to continuous improvement and impact, we’re grateful and happy to play our part.
Founder & CEO
This note originally appeared in our September 2015 newsletter. To sign up for our monthly newsletter, click here.