A conversation with Janice Warren, president of OneReport

A conversation with Janice Warren, president of OneReport

A socially conscious entrepreneur helps corporations do the good work they want and need to do

This series of interviews is supplied to The Commons (commonsnews.org).by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (brattleborodevelopment.com), the regional development corporation tasked with helping businesses start up in Windham County. These interviews are intended to explore the experience of starting a business in the Windham County region, looking at how individual business owners choose to be in southern Vermont, as well as their challenges, opportunities, lessons learned, and memorable celebrations.

The interviews are designed, in the words of the BDCC, “to inspire those sitting on the sidelines while reminding others they are not alone, that yes, you can open a successful business in Southern Vermont.”

Interviewer Jerry Goldberg, recently named executive director of the nonprofit In-Sight Photography Project in Brattleboro, worked as a communications executive for many years at CBS in both New York and Los Angeles. Later, in Brattleboro, he headed communications at World Learning and from 2005 to 2013 served as executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

Originally published in The Commons issue #395 (Wednesday, February 15, 2017). This story appeared on page 0.

BRATTLEBORO—FOR ALL THE STEPS I’ve climbed and the drives I’ve taken in pursuit of these stories of folks we ought to know more about, what keeps me moving forward full-throttle is the chance to get to know people like Janice Warren.

Warren’s company, OneReport, is “advancing corporate responsibility [by] bridging investors, stakeholders, and reporting organizations in one platform,” according to its website. She lives (at least in a technical sense — having met her, I’m pretty sure she puts in a lot of hours at the office) across the street from my High Street apartment. So the trip was easy.

I was amused that her business, OneReport, had space in the same building that houses the Brattleboro School of Dance. I was even more tickled that her office was just down the hall from those tutus and toeshoes and barres, recalling wistfully my own late-in-life flirtation with the ballet. (I gave up an adult class with Kathi Keller of the Brattleboro School of Dance maybe 10 to 15 years ago, only after accepting that “adult” is in the eye of the beholder — and the dancer!)

It was 8 a.m., so she and I had her well-appointed loft-like space to ourselves. And since I’d managed only a brief glance at the website — choosing to remain available to learn from her about stuff that might intimidate an old hoofer like myself — Janice Warren fascinated me from the first.

Come along and meet her now.

* * *

Jerry Goldberg: Please tell me a little bit about you, about where you’re from and how you got here.

Janice Warren: I grew up in a little village on Cape Cod, Centerville, in a pretty solidly New England Yankee family — emphasis on New England. We had some family roots in Maine, spent time at our camp in New Hampshire to ski at Gunstock Mountain, and then sometimes came to Vermont during spring vacation after Gunstock closed for the season.

My first exposure to Vermont came when I was 11. My family attended a wedding in Newfane set on top of a hill with a view that wouldn’t quit. Vermont took root then in my young memory as incredibly beautiful — even kind of romantic.

J.G.: So you went to high school on the Cape? Where did you go to college?

J.W.: Yes, Barnstable High, and then Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. That’s where I met my husband, Steve Shriner.

After graduation from Bowdoin, we both stayed in Maine. We both wanted to get our MBAs and were fortunate enough to be accepted at Northwestern University near Chicago.

When we finished, we considered going back to Maine, where Steve had been offered a job. We knew that wherever we’d end up, it would have to be a smaller community. The suburbs didn’t interest us, nor did the big-city life.

J.G.: That leaves lots of towns in lots of states — and even lots of towns in Vermont. How did Brattleboro happen for you guys?

J.W.: Somewhat accidentally. I was interviewing in Portland, Oregon with a paper company headquartered in Idaho.

They said, “We’ve got this interesting division in New England — in Brattleboro, Vermont. Would you consider it?”

I said, “Sure.” Never say “no” in an interview, right?

I came out to interview and was taken once again by the area that had so attracted me when I was a kid.

Anyhow, they offered me the job.

J.G.: Let me guess. Would that company be Boise Cascade?

J.W.: Yes, it was Boise when I was hired; then, Specialty Paperboard. In 1997, it became FiberMark.

J.G.: OK, you’re at FiberMark. What happened with your husband?

J.W.: Well, Steve turned down that job offer in Maine — a risky move, since we knew that the local job market was kind of limited. Fortunately, he managed to get an offer with the company he has now been with for over 30 years — Channing Bete, in South Deerfield, Mass. He’s a vice president on the operations side of the business.

Fun fact: We both started our jobs on the same day in 1986.

J.G.: What had you majored in at Northwestern?

J.W.: Marketing, strategy, and public/nonprofit management.

J.G.: So what did they have you doing at the paper company?

J.W.: Over the 20 years? You name it. I worked in marketing, product development, and sales. I worked in corporate communications and investor relations for the last part of my career with them — including during the challenging Chapter 11 period.

J.G.: Any Chapter 11 process would be challenging. But do I detect out-of-the-ordinary circumstances?

J.W.: Well, yes. It was a challenging role — external communications, financial reporting, and unhappy investors.

J.G.: Heady stuff! How had your background — even your graduate education — prepared you for this brave new world of redefined corporate responsibility?

J.W.: Funny how what goes around comes around.

Back in the ’70s when I was at Bowdoin majoring in government and legal studies, I was tapped for the Bowdoin President’s Advisory Committee on Investments in South Africa. I did some research on corporate responsibility and ethical investments — both still new concepts at the time.

The committee’s work coincided with the advent of the Sullivan Principles, one of the earliest set of principles related to corporate responsibility, in protest of South Africa’s apartheid system. The principles opened the debate about accomplishing social change. Should the college become an activist shareholder or divest? Should it work in a morally challenging society or leave?

The principles eventually gained wide adoption among U.S.-based corporations. It was a pivotal time for organizations — businesses, schools, and investors.

J.G.: One did begin to hear a lot about that at that point. The newspapers were full of stories. Everyone — including shareholders and endowment benefactors — had opinions.

J.W.: Yes, it was big. I’d done some related work for a community development corporation in Maine after graduating from Bowdoin and some energy/environmental work but had only begun to professionally revisit this arena at FiberMark. We received some queries about our environmental, social, and governance performance.

Here I was — 30 years later — returning to those roots, to something that had excited me as a student.

J.G.: So FiberMark was becoming history for you?

J.W.: Yes. That was the bad news. The good news was that I joined SRI World Group in 2006. The company had been started here in 1999 by local entrepreneur Jay Falk. The timing was perfect. The original business spawned or inspired several other businesses, including CSRwire and 3BL Media.

J.G.: Out of one, many. An industry is born.

J.W.: In 2012, we split the business into two parts. Jay took the investing side — SocialFunds.com — a personal-finance site that was involved with socially responsible (or, as it’s now called, sustainable and responsible) — investment. I purchased the portion that was called OneReport, creating a separate entity with colleagues.

The southeastern Vermont corridor has become a hotbed of activity around sustainability. I go to conferences all over the world and meet people who know of Vermont as a place that does sustainability work.

We have Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, and, of course, New Chapter. People know of those organizations and others, too, and the responsible investment work that’s happening here.

J.G.: And so, Janice Warren, corporate citizen, became something of an entrepreneur — joining the business community in a leadership role.

From talking with local entrepreneurs like you, I’ve learned how much is going on here with those of you who are doing a lot of things sort of under the radar that too few who live here know about.

J.W.: Right. We don’t have a single client in Vermont.

J.G.: Why is that?

J.W.: Most of the companies we work for are publicly traded, responding to investor demand for environmental, social, and governance information. There aren’t many of those headquartered in Vermont right now.

Because we can also help private companies and other organizations with our software and services, that may change some day.

J.G.: So you’ve been in Vermont for, what is it, 30 years? Has there ever been a time when you thought about your decision not to pick, say, Chicago or Boston or Wheaton, Ill. or Weston, Mass.?

J.W.: When you’ve been with the same company for 30-plus years (as my husband has been), it’s natural to muse occasionally about what else you might do.

But we’d made a commitment to raise our three daughters here. We both enjoyed our work over the years. We were determined to make it work — and it always has.

That was one of the reasons for buying this business: gaining some control over my employment destiny.

J.G.: How has the choice of southeastern Vermont affected the raising of your daughters?

J.W.: We found one of the benefits of living here was being able to have a true family life. We could leave work, go home and have dinner, go back to work if we needed to or open up the laptop at home. Or we could run out to a soccer game — that sort of thing. Being a part of a small community is really a gift.

J.G.: How’s it been for them?

J.W.: They thank us. They say that when they went away to college, they came to appreciate the perspectives they’d developed and the kind of people they met here: people who value more than what the dollar can buy; people who care about their neighbors, about those less fortunate, about more than owning the coolest car or latest outfit.

J.G.: Did they go to the local public schools?

J.W.: Two went all the way through the Brattleboro public school system and one attended private school partway — Hilltop Montessori and Northfield Mount Hermon.

J.G.: And college?

J.W.: Two graduated from Bowdoin and one from Brown University.

J.G.: What are they doing now?

J.W.: One’s in Boston (economic/financial consulting firm), one’s in Burundi, Africa (agricultural social enterprise), and our oldest just moved from Washington, DC to Hanover, N.H., to attend the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

We’re thrilled to have one back in the area, and she’s hoping to stay — maybe even in Vermont.

I get really excited when I meet twenty- and thirtysomethings who have found ways to make a good living and life in Vermont. We’d love it if someday our girls find reasons to come back. They appreciate the outdoors — hiking, biking, skiing, etc. — as much as we do.

J.G.: You said you don’t have any clients here, yet you’re part of the business community nevertheless. Aside from employing folks — which is certainly a contribution — where are you relative to the economic development and the economic well-being of the area?

We’re challenged on so many levels. We have kids who are coming out of school who aren’t sure about what’s going on in the world, and certainly local career opportunities are limited.

J.W.: Exactly. I think making sure that there’s a strong educational foundation will help employers and the strength of our community. If young people have a strong educational background, it’ll accrue to a community’s overall richness. And, by the way, that means attracting business, too.

I’ve been involved with education over the years. I served on a siting/building committee for the middle school/high school/career center project. I was on the board of the Neighborhood Schoolhouse for a couple of years.

One of the reasons we were so impressed with Brattleboro from the first was all that happens here in the arts. Music is really integral to who this place is — a way that a small town can feel like a bigger place. Our kids went through the Brattleboro Music Center — I was on that board for six years — and each played two instruments. The high school has a strong music program, too.

The town of Brattleboro has a strong recreation and parks department with great programs for kids. We’re also so lucky to have the Windham Regional Career Center and how it preps young participants in the ways of the working world.

I’ve been thrilled most of the time when we advertise a job by the young people who show up.

J.G.: I was going to ask you about that.

J.W.: I’ve hired students I knew from when they were in preschool and elementary school — students who went away and then came back. We have one who’s currently in college and has worked for us during school breaks and in the summer.

There are young people in some of the schools in the area who are interested in sustainability. Linking up with them has been wonderful. We had an intern from Antioch University who was in the master’s for sustainability track there, and stayed to become a key part of our business. We’ve also had internship programs through Marlboro College.

I really love it when we can find a young person who can add value both to us and to her- or himself.

For some reason, it’s been harder to find people on the sales and business development front. Our last two hires live in Chittenden County, making the beautiful but long drive down to Brattleboro, staying in an Airbnb in town for part of the week.

It’s true that we don’t get the thousands of applicants that an organization located in a city would, but we’ve managed to put together a quality workforce.

J.G.: How many employees are there at OneReport, and what do they do?

J.W.: Most days, seven of us work in the office: software engineers and programmers, database specialists, business developers, and people in operations and marketing.

J.G.: It’s a new world to an old corporate guy like me.

J.W.: Absolutely. Corporate responsibility isn’t what it was 30 years ago. We help these enterprises respond to ratings organizations on environmental, social, and governance issues.

It’s fascinating to see companies — some larger than countries — working to make a difference. Major companies are so different from the top-down, finance-driven organizations we used to know. These companies have had to change in part because of their employees.

The evolution that’s happened and keeps happening is miraculous. CEOs of large companies are talking about what they’re doing in a way they would not have 10 or 20 years ago. To be exposed to that — and be a part of it and helping it, even in small ways — is really exciting.

It’s a slow process, yet we’re starting to see activities that are not just voluntary — for instance, by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Even stock exchanges are expecting companies in some parts of the world to talk about facts of life like climate change and its impact on them, because it matters from an investment standpoint and from a societal standpoint, and because it’s recognized as both a risk and a possible opportunity for companies.

J.G.: So what exactly is OneReport’s part in all this? What service do you provide?

J.W.: Are you familiar with the Common Application for college admissions?

J.G.: No.

J.W.: OK. A student who is applying for college might have to answer the same questions over and over, depending on how many applications they’re sending out. So some smart entrepreneurs developed the Common Application, a service that allows applicants to answer that same question once and get that answer out to where they want it to go. Basic information — anything that’s commonly asked by all or most schools — can be disseminated with the push of a button.

That’s how OneReport works. We take all these third-party frameworks or metrics and put them into our stewpot of environmental, social, and governance topics and measures. Companies want to be accepted in stock-market indexes and be rated favorably. Raters want to assess performance.

Our software helps track both the information asked and provided. Clients can choose from a menu of organizations. Companies can figure out what matters to different stakeholders by noticing: “Well, this is asked for by eight organizations that really matter to me, so it’s really important.”

So we should track and report on that information. We help them collect the data, communicate it, and focus on the issues that matter for investors, other stakeholders, and a company’s ability to survive and thrive.

J.G.: What are some of these issues of concern?

J.W.: One is the ratio of CEO compensation to that of the median employee. Another: diversity indicators, such as the percentage of a company’s board that is women or how ethnically diverse the board — or even the workforce — is.

There are social and human rights and environmental issues. Do you have a policy on x? Does it include this? Does it include that? What’s your supply chain or your practices around vendor selection?

These questions help companies to start thinking about their risks and opportunities — and help investors sort out their value.

J.G.: How do you know that you’re being successful? Give me an example of something that happened where you really said, “Yes!”

J.W.: Part of that would have to be the relationships we have with some of these larger clients, companies like IBM and Microsoft.

It’s very satisfying for a small company like us to maintain a relationship with such giants and contribute a service to people who are doing amazing things inside those companies. We’re helping them do the good work they want and need to do.

J.G.: “We did that for them.” I get it.

J.W.: Yes, it’s those small victories. Having come from the investor relations world, I really appreciate when investors’ time horizon gets longer and when there’s an appreciation for how much the value of an organization comes from its intangible assets.

A lot of those have to do with the people of the enterprise and with environmental and social aspects of what they’re doing. It’s not just traditional financial metrics that define the success of an organization. Being part of that shift in what success looks like is enormously gratifying.

J.G.: What jazzes you about what you’re doing? What keeps you really excited?

J.W.: Our work at OneReport is to help major companies and organizations develop — and live according to — sustainable values. Doing that work in Vermont has really helped to reinforce that mission.

Community matters here. Responsibility matters here. It fits the profile.

When I’m out in the world and people ask where I’m from, I almost never hear, “Oh … you live in Vermont.” It’s “OH! YOU LIVE IN VERMONT!” They know about Vermont.

I was recently on the phone with someone from a U.K. company that had a beautiful landscape photo posted on its website. I asked, “Where in Britain is this?” Their answer: “Oh, that’s Vermont.”

J.G.: Your enterprise lives in the right place — on the right soil, if you will. It belongs here, and that’s why it will thrive here, why it’s sustainable. What you do is part of our natural landscape — of who and where we are. Hey, there’s something of the Yankee spirit in all this.

J.W.: Thanks! Nicely put. You should publish that.

J.G.: That’s great. I will.