By Rebecca Darr Litchfield, 1992 Scholar | By day, I’m a senior fellow at The Aspen Institute Business & Society Program, working for systems change in capital markets and business education. By night, I’m the co-founder and co-owner of Atayne, LLC, an apparel company that makes high-performing outdoor and athletic gear from trash.
Yes, you read that right. Trash.
As different as these two careers might sound, both of them feed into a notion I firmly believe in: that business can do good for the world and do well for its owners.
I grew up thinking that the only way to serve the world was to become a healthcare professional (indirectly influenced, no doubt, by my stepmom, an emergency room nurse and single mother to three kids). So I set out on that path as an undergrad at Rice University. I took premed courses, volunteered at a local AIDS hospice, and worked in a cardiologist’s office.
One day I realized (before studying for the MCAT, thank goodness!) that medicine was not for me. So instead, I set out to work at Deloitte after graduation, becoming a management consultant to government and healthcare providers.
Then, a couple of years later, when I took a leave of absence to pursuit a Deloitte-funded MBA from the University of Michigan, my eyes were opened to the power of (nearly any) business to provide substantive social and environmental benefits.
This transformation in my thinking was fueled, in particular, by seven weeks I spent in southern India working with a team of three other students for the Aravind Eye Hospital (AEH). Thanks to a highly efficient business model inspired by McDonalds (yes, the Golden Arches) and a great base of community support, AEH had excess cash in the bank, ambitions to expand, and a patient population comprised 60 percent of “free” (non-paying) patients.
I returned to Deloitte after my MBA for two more years of management consulting, eager to transform the company into a more environmentally and socially responsible firm. The partners, however, just wanted me to bill client hours. It was professionally and personally frustrating.
Persistence and networking finally led me to a role on the first corporate responsibility team for our global organization, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, where I was privileged to serve as a consultant to member firms around the world.
Fast forward to December 2007 and my current position at The Aspen Institute, where I spend my days working with investors, senior business executives, and academics. One of my favorite initiatives is our First Movers Fellows program, now in its second year, which supports high-potential employees at large companies as they become social intra-preneurs. (Lesson: You don’t have to strike out on your own or leave your current employer to be an innovator and have a huge, positive impact on the society and the environment.)
Meanwhile, my evenings and weekends are focused on the tactical business matters of Atayne, where I’m a Jill of All Trades. I edit newsletters, give feedback on fit samples, brainstorm new sales channels, and lead volunteers on trash runs (picking up trash and recyclables along trails, race courses, and other public spaces, and creating a “trashy” new vocabulary in the process).
My experience as a socially responsible small business owner provides a complementary perspective to my work at the Institute, which is focused on big, public companies and top MBA programs.
Not every step in my adult life has been plotted in advance. Rather, I’ve been driven by forces like the need to give back to the world in my professional life and to be open to opportunities.
The latter is aptly described by Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”