Speakeasy with Jan Norman: Recognition for Socially Responsible Business

Michael Nocella

Jan Norman

Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 1:28 pm | Updated: 5:23 pm, Fri Jul 18, 2014.

By Michael Nocella reporter@ithacatimes.com | 0 comments

Since the 1970s local entrepreneur Jan Rhodes Norman has given Ithaca many unique business ideas. From the children’s clothing boutique The Cat’s Pajamas to Japanese cotton futon store Sweet Dreams and children’s toy store Alphabet Soup—among others—her businesses have all left their own imprint on the Ithaca commerce, with a few of them still up and running under new ownership.

Currently the owner of Silk Oak and Ithacamade, a hub for quirky, creative gifts made here in Ithaca, Norman was recently recognized by the Alternatives Federal Credit Union with the Jeff Furman Award for Social Responsibility in Business “exemplifying a commitment to socially-minded business practices, including being a certified living wage employer.” The award also recognized her deep-rooted involvement in the community, including Building Bridges, Local First Ithaca, EcoVillage, Finger Lakes Reuse, GreenStar and various boards and committees.

Ithaca Times recently sat down with Norman to discuss her businesses, and the award, which she received in early July.

Ithaca Times: What was your reaction when you found out you received the Jeff Furman Award?

Jan Norman: I was incredibly honored but also frustrated because, it turned it I was not going to be in town to accept it in person. I’m always in town, but I was going to be in Oakland for the BALLE conference, (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies). My favorite part of the conference is the day before, when they do pre-conference tours. It’s great hearing theoretical ideas, hearing from people who are doing amazing things around the world, but to actually tour the projects and to see things that are happening on the ground, is profound and exciting. It makes it easier when you come back to your hometown and you go to the mayor, or other officials, and say this is something we’d like to do here. If you can say ‘I’ve seen it work in person,’ it gives you a lot more to work with. I had already booked my flight with that day in mind, and it turned out the event [to receive to Jeff Furman Award] happened four hours after I got on the plane. But I’m supremely honored.

IT: Why is being socially responsibility in your practices, such a vital part of how you operate as a business owner?

JN: I’ve recently been giving that a lot of thought, as I’ve needed to write and talk about the beginning of my business. One thing that’s interesting is that if you look at Jeff Furman—who I’ve known for decades—he became involved with Ben & Jerry’s in its earliest stages of the business. They were some of the most well known pioneers of what’s now known as social responsibility, triple-bottom line, people, planet and profit,  not just putting shareholders’ concerns first but actually thinking about your workers and the effect you have on the environment. That’s been something I’ve thought about since the very beginning of going into businesses. There wasn’t a name for it then, but it’s always been a concern for me.

IT: The award notes your certification as a living wage employer. Has valuing your employees always been a priority for you as a business owner?

JN: Absolutely. I’ve always just felt that, what’s good for me needs to be good for the people who work for me and the community. It’s always struck me as counterintuitive that anybody would make a decision that wouldn’t make everybody prosper. It’s interesting to see it articulated now as ‘socially responsible’ principles. My first business was the Cat’s Pajamas, which is a children’s clothing store that’s still operating in the DeWitt Mall. I started it because I had two young kids and I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I wanted things that were quality made and safe for my children. I realized when I started hiring people to work for me, that I wanted them to have fun at their job, feel pride in their job, and I never wanted to be the kind of employer that asked their employees to do things that I wouldn’t do myself. Now, we have living wage certifications. Ben & Jerry’s was one of the earliest businesses to establish the concept that the highest paid worker or owner shouldn’t be paid more than a certain number of times more than the lowest paid worker. I guess I’ve tried to ensure that the principles that the I believe in, in my own life, are the principles that are reflected in my business life as well.

IT: What about the Ithaca community in particular lets you run your businesses in the fashion you do and be successful while doing it?

JN: I think that Ithaca embraces community and is quick to support businesses and people that clearly are engaged in the community.  From my very first business I always found a lot of enthusiasm from customers. People are open to new and untried things. In the late 70s I opened a store called Sweet Dreams, which sold Japanese cotton futon mattresses. It was the first store in Central New York to bring futons to the community. And, even then, Ithaca was eager to try something new. Our community is quick to let businesses know if they agree with the products and business’s principles. My attitude toward business has always been: I start a business that sells something that I’m looking for, that I can’t find, that I feel passionate about. And I think Ithaca is the kind of place that truly resonates with that.

IT: A well-documented increase in panhandlers in Ithaca has been a hot button topic lately. Being a business owner who puts a lot of thought and value into treating their employees the right way, what is your view of that development?

JN: I haven’t specifically thought of panhandling but, I’ve given a lot of thought to ‘where we are socially right now’. A lot of the community work that I do, whether it’s through Local First Ithaca, Ecovillage, Finger Lakes Reuse or GreenStar, culminates in the philosophy of the Building Bridges initiative. We live in a time where there is a disconnect among different members of communities. There’s a corporatization of the world that has sort of disenfranchised many people and made them feel like the world is not as hopeful as it use to be. When I see [panhandlers], I see that as an outward manifestation of what’s not working in society. I’m more than hopeful that the will to shift that whole conversation and provide more opportunities for everybody is here in our community. I’m excited that there are a lot of smart, really committed people who are pulling us all together to work on those issues.”

IT: You’ve certainly had your fair share of businesses throughout the years. Is Ithacamade the final chapter?

JN: Oh no, no. Ithacamade can’t be it. There’s always something that I’m thinking of. Sometimes I get great ideas, don’t act on them, and someone else does and I feel like , ‘Ah! I didn’t do it!’ There’s always inspiration out there and I’ve found that many times, the inspiration comes from totally unexpected places.