Monday, August 17, 2020

Answer the Note: Lessons from Ben & Jerry's and Warren Buffett

I was struck by a letter printed on Sunday in The New York Times Magazine from Andrea, 37-years-old and living in London.

Andrea grew up in Cancun and loved Ben & Jerry's ice cream so much that he "wrote to them (in my 7-year-old nonnative-English) to let them know I had the best idea: They could add chocolate syrup in a little plastic bag to their ice cream."

Much to Andrea's surprise, the company responded, saying his "idea sounded delicious, but not great for the environment.  They taught me a great lesson," Andrea added, "(and gave me coupons!).  Such a lovely company and lovely people, caring for all their customers, even if they lived in other parts of the world, or were 7-year-olds."

Thirty years later, Andrea credited Ben & Jerry's with encouraging him to think about corporate values and the environment.

His letter was a reminder of my interview with Sweeten CEO Jean Brownhill for Innovation on Tap.  

Early in her entrepreneurial career, Brownhill read Roger Lowenstein's book on Warren Buffett. "I was so inspired by Warren Buffett and the example he set that I wrote him a letter," she said.  It was a spur-of-the-moment act, like Andrea's letter to Ben & Jerry's--a product of excitement and inspiration.

"When I got a response from him," Jean recalled, she knew that "impossible things might be possible.  This incredibly important person wrote me back."

A simple return letter from Warren Buffet "ignited the belief in my entrepreneurial vision," she added. "I could shape my own life. It all clicked in."

Two unexpected letters.  Two stories of inspiration.  

"It is a unique feature of human capital," economist Robert Lucas writes, "that it yields returns that cannot be captured entirely by its owner."  Shakespeare was compensated for his plays but never received a fraction of the wealth he created in inspiration and enjoyment for centuries of playwrights and millions of readers.

Few of us are billionaires.  None of us are Shakespeare. But all of us can be kind, and kindness turns out to be one of human capital's most expressive and sturdy components.  Kindness has legs. 

What you do matters. Answer the note. Respond to the email.  Return the call.

Especially now when people are hurting and the future is so unclear. The simplest act of kindness can be transformational.  

And, if you are especially lucky, you will never even know the good you have done.

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David Marchese's interview is here.  The letter does not reveal if Andrea is he or she, so I made the call in the interest of brevity and clarity.  My apologies if I guessed wrong.

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