Martha Shaw Interviews Heather White, Director of New Standards.

Courageous Conversations: Social Venture Network Interview Series on Transforming the Way the World Does Business. by Martha Shaw

Heather White is a social entrepreneur advocating for responsible supply chain practices. She is the director of New Standards, which contributes to the improvement of global working conditions through research and direct engagement strategies. In 1995, she founded Verite, a non-profit organization helping companies and other stakeholders to understand labor issues, overcome obstacles, and build sustainable solutions into their supply chains.

Interview by Martha Shaw, founder of Earth Advertising which promotes the growth of environmentally responsible businesses through brand strategy and media campaigns.

SVN: What kind of conversation will you be participating in during Courageous Conversations, SVN’s Spring Conference?

Heather White: Raphael Bemporad of BBMG will be playing talk show host in a Courageous Conversation with me. I think for everyone it requires commitment and honesty today to speak from the heart, which may be counter to the prevailing mainstream messaging promoted by corporate interests. We’ll be speaking about a few urgent topics currently outside mainstream views about China’s economic success.

SVN: How does courage play a role in what you do?

Heather White: I am producing a video as part of a larger book project, about teenagers and young workers poisoned and injured on assembly lines overseas because of toxic chemicals and unsafe conditions. The courage is on their end, not mine.

The interviews for the book took place in hospitals where these teenagers and young people around 20 years old lay paralyzed from exposure to chemical agents used in manufacturing – from cleaning computer screens for instance. I’m grateful that they are willing to talk with me, a total stranger asking them why they are in the hospital and where they work. Sometimes they have lost a hand in the machinery and are too embarrassed or ashamed to tell their own families. Some said they were contemplating suicide because they no longer see a future for themselves. To envision a new life for themselves takes courage.

Also, the NGOs who are trying to help them are courageous, working underground and going to hospitals to serve the victims despite the tight security trying to keep them out.

SVN: How did you come to stand up for the rights of factory workers?

Heather White: I had been consulting to corporations who were expanding their operations globally as an operating strategy. Contradictions were emerging for me. While they were posting record profits, workers were suffering from malnutrition among other things. Having worked for many years as an outsourcing agent, I was able to persuade factories to let me in at a time when many of the companies had publicists making the problems go away. I felt I had to do something.

SVN: What has been your greatest challenge?

Heather White: When I first started Verite, I was sometimes exhausted from the challenges of the work, and still had a lot of daily family obligations. I had three children under the age of eleven. It was difficult at times being a wife and mother while trying to launch a global organization. Sometimes, there were too many pulls between my work and the attention I needed to give the family.

SVN: How did you encounter SVN?

Heather White: I was introduced to SVN through SVN member David Berge, and invited to a conference. At SVN, I connected with so many like-minded folks, it gave me emotional support for my work. This was at a time when I was working with people who didn’t share my values. SVN became the business environment where I felt most comfortable. I knew I had to attend every one of the conferences that I possibly could.

Written by Martha Shaw