As human beings, we have a natural tendency to look towards the future. We try to put the past behind us, some better than others. We accept the present, whether we live in it or not. However, there’s one question we constantly ask ourselves as we move through our lives: What’s next? To be honest, next is many things. It’s the job you’re trying to get. It’s the person you’re about to meet. It’s what’s going to happen tomorrow. Next is an opportunity.
For college students, thinking about your future is like trying to see around corners. There’s no way to be sure of what’s coming. That’s why I find Meg Hirshberg’s story so interesting. The author of For Better or For Work and columnist for Inc. Magazine, Meg has enjoyed the exact kind of career that you don’t often hear about. She is living proof that success isn’t about following a path, it’s about making one. She was kind enough to speak with me about her journey from the farm to the food production business, and ultimately settling into her journalistic niche.
You graduated from Brown University with a degree in Comparative Literature. As a current college student, I’m still wondering how my final years and choice of major will unfold. What made you choose Comp Lit, and where were you planning on it taking you at the time?
Well, I took Comp Lit because I just loved reading and I had no vision of where it would go. You know I was just one of those English majors without great job prospects.
Today, a significant amount of students move back home after graduation. You, however, packed your bags and moved to California. What was your motivation behind that decision?
Well, you know, I had never been to California, I was curious, I didn’t have any real direction. I actually went out as a lark. I was just going to go for the summer and I stayed for four years. I fell in love with the area and found my way to this organic farming program in Santa Cruz and I actually became an apprentice at a farm. I was following my instincts more than anything that was rational. I actually read a book that had a pretty profound effect on me called “The Unsettling of America” by Wendell Berry, and that made me very interested in agriculture and how we relate to the planet via farming. I found myself at this farm and I was really turned on by the work I was doing. I have heard this expression that sometimes you back into your future and that’s just what I did, by following my instinct and doing what I thought was important work, and one thing led to another.
Have you always wanted to work on a farm? Or was it more of a “seize the opportunity” sort of thing?
No, I had no connections to farms or farming before I wound up on that farm. It was a pretty intensive year. I lived on the farm for a year and followed it through the four seasons and all the different crops. After that I managed a three acre garden for children at an elementary school where they learned science and nutrition through gardening. While I was doing that I went back to school to take science classes so I could apply to agriculture school at Cornell where I received my Master’s degree.
For all those junior and senior undergrads out there, how would you recommend approaching the idea of grad school?
First of all, I think it’s important to take some time off after college. By the time you graduate you have been in school for 17 years. There are a few people who are so self-directed that they know exactly what they want to do and they want to get to it, but I feel for most people it’s good to have some other experience. Reflect on where you are and where you want to go. Get grounded in the real world of work. It’s important to go into graduate school not reflexively, not because of what other people are doing or the bad economy and you might as well, but to really go in because you are focused and committed to a certain trajectory in your life. That you have that kind of passion and energy behind that phase of your schooling. I think that’s important.
After you graduated, your management abilities were put to the test in an organic vegetable operation in New Jersey. Tell me a little more about how your previous experience out west prepared you for this, and of any new obstacles that you had not come across before.
After agriculture school, I was hired to manage a farm that had been given to a non-profit and they wanted to turn it into a demonstration organic farm. By then I had four years working on farms under my belt. I wasn’t too familiar with machinery but I got comfortable with the tractor and other implements of the farm. The biggest challenge was being on the East coast, facing winter and real seasons, along with the different crops and varieties.
My personal tub of Stonyfield Organic Strawberry yogurt is in the final stages of consumption, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. How was your experience with Stonyfield Farms? Who do I thank for this delicious yogurt?
When I met Gary [Hirshberg, Cofounder and Chairman of Stonyfield Yogurt] I was living on the farm in New Jersey and a couple of years later I moved to to Stonyfield Farms, which is an actual farm in Wilton, New Hampshire. I started working in the yogurt business in sales and yogurt production, but I didn’t really stay with it for too long. The people you have to thank are my husband and our former partner Samuel Kaymen. They’re the ones that made it all happen.
I understand Stonyfield wasn’t an immediate success, at least compared to how it is today. Was it difficult for you and your husband Gary to keep persevering despite no guaranteed positive outcome?
Oh, of course, it was very difficult. Very, very difficult. And I do speak a lot about that in my book. I would say that, if there are any students who are interested in starting a business, they should read my book. I really recommend it not just for people who are in business, it’s valuable for them, but for those who think that maybe someday they want to start a business, the book would give people a heads up to some of the issues they will almost certainly face while trying to build a family and personal life at the same time.
After your go in the yogurt business you picked up the pen and paper again, writing a couple cookbooks and a column in Inc. Magazine. Tell me about how you got into writing and the circumstances for the opportunity to come about.
About a dozen years ago I took off some time as I was raising my children. I worked in the community but I didn’t have a job and I was writing grants and things like that for non-profits. I went back and took a course at BU for mid-career writers, which I really wasn’t among but I talked myself into the course. After that I started writing nonfiction features for magazines. I then wrote something about the early years of Stonyfield, a short piece that was printed in the Boston Globe Magazine. Based on that, Inc. mag saw it and wanted me to blow it out into a feature length. So I wrote a feature length about the beginnings of our business, from a spouse’s perspective, and they got snowed with mail.
There was just such a response to it that the editor-in-chief called me and said I think you should start writing a column about this, I think you’ve hit a nerve.
When you were writing did you consider it more work, pleasure, or both?
I love writing. I mean, it’s work, like it is for anybody. I really do enjoy it, it’s very creative. I get to interview a lot of entrepreneurs and learn a lot from them. So there’s highs and lows with the process, like there are with anything. And the way the book came about is through the Inc. columns, which received such a response from readers that I decided that there would be great utility for people in having a book. This book covers the impact of business on families and how to cope with those challenges that inevitably present themselves. I saw there was nothing out there and obviously a crying need for it, so that’s why I wrote the book.
For the countless number of college students out there, what is the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you in our position?
It almost depends on the day that you ask me in terms of what I think is important.
Try to take a long view. Understand that when you do things it doesn’t have to be forever.
I went back to school when I was 45, completely pivoted and changed careers. If you’re blessed with a decently long life, most of us are going to make those changes. So if you’re stuck in something or you’re not sure what to do, remember, you’re not stuck. You have to take the long view for your life and not panic, whether it’s in business or life, at the detours and bumps in the road. What seems like a utter crisis today, you probably won’t even remember in a year.