I’ve always known we were fortunate, having a family business; but I didn’t fundamentally understand this and what it meant for me growing up.
I remember walking down the production lines as a kid and young adolescent with my father, machines churning out so much plastic packaging that light ricocheted around the plant. I’d smile at the line workers, and they would smile back at me. My sister and I would play hide and seek amongst the stacked skids in the warehouse, sliding between gaps and collecting factory treasures. My Dad carved our initials into the factory floor. This was home.
But as I approached high school graduation, I didn’t want to be home; in fact, I wanted to be anywhere except “home.” I wanted to do something important and distinguished with my life. What this was—I had no idea—but I knew it wasn’t selling “custom thermoformed plastic packaging solutions.”
Like most Millennials with too many options afforded by our adoring Baby Boomer parents, I flip flopped between majors at University with as little consideration as a flip flopped between weekend wardrobes. I ended up graduating with a degree in Religious Studies from DePaul University, which while I do not regret this intellectual pursuit, reflects where I was at the time; and this was nowhere near the ground. I wasn’t religious and I didn’t want to do religious work.
When I graduated in 2009 I was shocked, SHOCKED to discover that there wasn’t a line of employers eagerly competing for my employment. Didn’t anyone care about my 4.0 GPA and Senior Thesis on A Secular Age and Burning Man? No, they didn’t. I began working as a barmaid.
And then something beautiful happened; and this something is called “sustainability.”
In 2007, Walmart released its Packaging Scorecard, which for the first time ever assessed retail packaging not just on cost and performance, but environmental performance. Suddenly my father was being asked questions he didn’t have the answers to like what sustainable packaging solutions does Dordan offer?
A clever researcher and writer, DePaul prepared me for analytical thinking and applied research. The stars aligned and I was brought on as a “consultant” to Dordan, tasked with understanding the environmental credentials of plastic packaging and how Dordan could become a more sustainable manufacturer.
I took to environmentalism like a fish to water. The relationship between sustainability and business was fascinating from an ethical perspective, which happened to be my concentration at DePaul. I spent the next 5 years as Dordan’s Sustainability Coordinator researching, writing, and working to develop a more environmentally robust vision of plastic packaging. These efforts were met with much acknowledgement, our clamshell recycling initiative awarded the cover story of three industry magazines. I was 27-years-old when clamshell containers like those Dordan manufactures became recyclable. My several-year initiative had come to a conclusion.
What was I going to do now? I asked myself. I knew we wanted to grow the company but I still didn’t want to sell. I thought sales was for old white men in ill fitting suits who like to talk about sports and whatever old white guys talk about. I needed something academic and interesting! Something Bigger.
The stars aligned again when my father received a catalogue from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business; they offer an “executive management program” that is perfect for those who don’t have the time for an MBA but want a best in class business education in a condensed format. I attended an information session where I was introduced to the concept of business strategy and I was hooked. Business became interesting to me for the first time.
At Booth I discovered that it didn't matter what our business did or what we sold; what mattered was how we understood ourselves as a company and how we leverage these attributes to grow in a sustainable way. Doing good business was about being creative and smart; working harder and faster than your competition. It was a marathon, not a sprint, and I was learning how to pace. And all the while, my Dad sat on the sidelines, allowing me to flourish professionally and earn my stripes in a field completely unrelated to our core business; he didn’t pressure, he didn’t push. I think he just hoped, that eventually, I would finally understand just how fortunate I was.
I have now fully committed to my family company. I have no doubt that this is the career for me. While the path wasn’t direct or intentional, I found myself at 28-years-old exactly where I wanted to be: at home with the people I love selling the products we love to make.
Slavin is a contributing writer to Packaging Digest Magazine. She sits on the Board of the Sustainable Manufacturers Network and the Editorial Board of Plastics in Packaging magazine.