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HOW I DID IT

What to Do When You're Fired From the Company You Started
 

Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation, says he wasn’t just cut loose; he was set free.
Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder, seventh generation

Rose McNulty/Courtesy Subject

Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation


Kelly Kollar

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In 1988, Jeffrey Hollender co-founded Seventh Generation, a Burlington, Vermont-based manufacturer of eco-friendly household products. He stepped down as CEO of the $150 million company in 2009 but remained on the board of directors and became the company's so-called chief inspired protagonist. In October of last year, he was fired.

It was a Saturday. I was at home with my wife, and I got a phone call from Seventh Generation's board of directors. They put me on an indefinite leave of absence and removed me from the board. It wasn't drawn out. It was short and sweet. Well, it was short.

I was shocked. I wasn't even allowed to go back to the office to say goodbye. Seventh Generation was my identity, and getting fired was like having my identity stolen away from me.

As quickly as we could, my wife and I went to Italy for a week, first to Rome and then to the coast just west of Rome. My plan was to collect seashells for a year, but I'm not good at just hanging out. When I got home, I didn't spend a single day in bed. I probably read more, exercised more, and meditated more than I ever have.

I was getting hundreds of e-mails from people wanting to know what happened and if I was OK. Most people couldn't understand how I got thrown out of my own company. They didn't know that as we raised more equity, I became a minority owner. After that, there were always tensions between social mission and making money, and there's no question the decision to fire me meant the board was choosing the direction the new CEO was headed in over what I was recommending.

I said nothing publicly for four months. I needed time to think about what I wanted to say. I was shocked. I was bitter. I was angry, and I didn't want to speak out of anger.

At first, I could see no good in the situation, but mourning is an interesting process. Every day is a little different. Within a couple weeks, my oldest daughter, Meika, started talking about how this might open up new possibilities for me. I couldn't see it, but I might spend 15 minutes a day thinking about something positive. After a month, it might be an hour. By the time four months had passed, I was spending more time thinking about exciting opportunities than feeling bad for myself.

This situation forced me to ask myself important questions that I never had to ask in the comfort of a job I had for 23 years. I realized that as excited as I was about Seventh Generation, it didn't go to the heart of the issues I really cared about. I didn't co-found Seventh Generation because I was an environmentalist. I was interested in issues of justice and equity; I just couldn't figure out how to turn those interests into a business. Now, I think I've found a way to do that. I'm working on a new company that will invest in and support worker-owned businesses. It's something I'm as passionate about as I was about Seventh Generation 23 years ago. As painful as it's been, this whole mess has helped me figure out what I really want to do with the rest of my life.

I never wanted to be a toilet paper salesman, anyway.

From the July/August 2011 issue of Inc. magazine




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