I started Recoolit a few months before my bubbi died. My mom’s mom, she was 96 when she died and was lucid until the very end. I told her about my plans a few times. She was never concerned about the details of the business and she had infinite faith that I would be successful. What she came back to instead, again and again, were my responsibilities as an employer.
She insisted, in the strongest possible terms, that I pay my employees at least twice per month, and every week if possible. She was clear on this: working people need money, and when I hire people I take on an obligation to make sure their needs are met.
In the late 40’s she met my grandfather at a Communist party lecture in Detroit. He had moved there from Brooklyn to try and unionize the auto workers in the massive factories; she had moved from Toronto for opportunity. He was a radical – she was quieter but just as passionate. After they got married she spent decades unable to visit home, for fear that she would be denied re-entry to the US because of her blacklisted husband. When the other white families fled their Detroit neighborhood, they stayed on for years and years out of a sense of justice, far beyond what their peers considered to be prudent or safe. She sacrificed for her ideals, my bubbi.
I don’t always live up to her exhortations and example, but I do my best. Running a business comes with so many competing responsibilities, and taking good care of your team rarely feels like the most important or urgent issue. But over the lifecycle of a company there are so many opportunities to screw people over out of malice or simple disregard: pay rates, insurance options, stock plans, etc. Or, you can look out for your team and treat them well, acknowledging that they’re trusting you with their career and their finances, and trying to repay that trust. I’ve seen some good examples of how to do this well1 and I’ve tried to bring the same mindset to Recoolit.
Beyond those more concrete decisions, the best leaders are always trying to bring out the best in their team as contributors and help them grow as individuals – not just selfishly for the good of the company but for their own sake. And of course this all assumes the table stakes around following the law, not humiliating or yelling at your team, and generally treating them as human beings.
I can do better. I was too slow to get health insurance for our team, I still haven’t figured out how to give our Indonesian employees any ownership stake in the US company, and worst of all there was one month we made payroll a few days late. I later found out that a team lead had advanced money to one of his reports to cover some personal expenses. I was simultaneously angry and embarrassed that I hadn’t done it myself, and proud of the values I saw on the team that I built. But every time I make a mistake like that, or have the opportunity to do something better, I think of my bubbi and remember those last few conversations we had. She’ll be forever a part of my ethical keel, of my spirit.
When my bubbi was young, she was an outstanding student, and memorized reams and reams of poetry. She returned to these poems late in life, reciting them with closed eyes and with bliss and transcendence on her face. Tennyson was a particular favorite, and one of the last times I saw her she asked me to read Crossing the Bar aloud:
Sunset and evening star,And one clear call for me!And may there be no moaning of the bar,When I put out to sea,But such a tide as moving seems asleep,Too full for sound and foam,When that which drew from out the boundless deepTurns again home.Twilight and evening bell,And after that the dark!And may there be no sadness of farewell,When I embark;For tho' from out our bourne of Time and PlaceThe flood may bear me far,I hope to see my Pilot face to faceWhen I have crost the bar.
She was not observant and her theology did not include a heaven. She believed instead in tradition, and ritual, and justice, and the spirituality that comes from great art and from family love. She’s gone now. But a few days ago my sister had a baby girl, who will be named after our bubbi, her mom’s mom’s mom. Names have a peculiar kind of power, and my heart is full when I realize that the world will once again contain her vital spark.
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