Grief on grief

Last year my long-term relationship evaporated overnight. While I can’t say there were no warning signs, they were certainly faint.

Silver linings from that have been similarly faint. But one upside has emerged in the wake of another painful loss — my mother, the other most important person in my life, died this fall. The warnings signs were louder this time, though the end was still very sudden.

Sadly, because of that earlier grief, I am more prepared for this one.

It doesn’t lessen this new pain, of course. How I wish it did! What it did do was show me how deep grief works so that I was not so surprised this time around. Surprised by how the early shock makes you think it might not be so bad. How the waves overtake you in small moments when the conscious mind lets go. How continuously exhausted you can be simply from feeling so much. How every time you think you’ve hit bottom you find out you were wrong and there’s farther to fall.

Having foreknowledge has helped me be steady on my feet so I can support my father, who is thoroughly surprised by all this. Less than two months in, it is only getting worse for him just as he thought it would be getting better. Yet for all my understanding I can’t fix any of this, for him or for me.

Expanding my mental map

Yesterday a friend was telling me how computer games only render the rooms we are in to save memory, and that our brains aren’t so different. When we encounter something different or enter a new space, we force our minds to redraw the world around us even if all we do is go for a walk.

These days my world is smaller than usual. On my way home from a hospital visit a few hours later — for circumstances that are a big factor in my shrinking sphere — I discovered an unexpected new route through the big green blank on the map.

This tight, winding road took me through charming neighborhoods dotted with quaint buildings from generations past. Past rows of old growth trees bending over the road, and moneyed estates mixed with ranches that serve as a reminder of what the land once was. And finally into the open lands near my home that I have never explored. I’ve been meaning to find out what was over that hill, but my curiosity has been overwhelmed by overwhelm.

This ride was absolutely joyous. I couldn’t stop smiling! It expanded my map, literally and figuratively, just when I needed it most. I could attribute this to sheer coincidence, getting a message I needed at the right time. But I know this was not happenstance, it was my mind at work finding connections and meaning out of new information. Still, serendipity was evident in the weather — a mix of fluff and darkness, a little blue and sun persisting, the rain and dusk coming on fast. That perfect mirror of my life could not have been conjured by me.

My political journey, part 3: Choosing civil rights over states’ rights

When I said in Part I that this wasn’t a story about opening my heart, that wasn’t entirely true. There is one place my heart lacked compassion: the criminal justice system. My last bastion of conservatism was the belief that our system of policing and laws was fair, so if you were caught up in the system you probably did something. (This callousness pains me to this day. It is one of my greatest shames.) Further, that being tough on crime was a good thing, though I did believe it should be backstopped by liberal higher courts.

By this time I’m living in Chicago, it’s almost Y2K, and the Innocence Project is about to shake everything up. I evolved with Governor Ryan in real time, going from skepticism to shock. The exonerations started rolling in. The evidence of bad convictions was incontrovertible. If these cases, with the most at stake, could be so egregiously flawed, what did that mean for the rest? Twenty years on, I’m still unpacking just how messed up our policing, laws, courts, and for-profit prisons are. How, at every single step, injustice is baked in and bias is enforced. Every year I learn a little more — a lot more this year — and it seems as though there is no bottom to this horrible well.

So I’d come to believe that the world’s many injustices require intervention, but I’d yet to fully see why a strong federal government has to be part of the solution.

And as expanding civil rights grew ever more important to me, I start noticing how often states hold back progress. From segregation to voting rights and abortion access, states’ rights have been wielded as a cudgel to block people from their constitutional rights and freedoms. Rather than state power being a mechanism for greater freedom, as the conservative position holds, when it comes to human rights the reverse is more often true. Left to the states, mixed marriages would likely still be outlawed in some states.

When I say “states”, that hides the truth behind an abstraction. To be clear, states are made up of citizens and, too often, it’s people holding back other people. Freedom for me but not for thee! Sometimes, the federal government is the only mechanism for meaningful change.

In the end, I had to make a choice between states’ rights and civil rights. Framed this way, the choice was obvious: I had to choose civil rights. This fully cemented me on the left.

Note that my basic beliefs didn’t really have to change, I just had to focus on impact instead of intent. I still think a limited federal government makes sense, on paper! It’s a good theory. And yet, nearly all our leaps forward have been federal. Ending slavery. The New Deal. The Civil Rights Act. DOMA. ACA. Can’t argue with the results.

And what happened to my faith that business and the free market are the answer? Well, that’s easy: I started working in Corporate America. I learned that while business can be a force for good — there are of course good ones and I seek them out as a consultant and a consumer — corporations can also be corrupt, money-wasting, incompetent, anti-social, and anti-planet. Worse, bad behavior is encoded and encouraged in our corporate structure and economic models. As long as they benefit from cutting corners to game the numbers, many will.

This understanding all came before the dot com boom and bust, scandals like Enron and Worldcom, the financial crash of 2007. Before business school. Imagine what I think now.

My political journey, part 2: We’re off to see the Grand Wizard

When I was growing up, Tucson seemed small and conservative. Then college took me to Bible-belt Indiana and I discovered what small and conservative truly is. In hindsight, I’d have been hard pressed to pick a worse fit for me than Purdue, culturally and socially, but it was crucial for galvanizing me politically.

Arriving on this strange new planet was a shock, and my worldview didn’t survive first contact. The first thing that hit me were the gender dynamics. It turns out I had grown up in an unusually egalitarian environment. I held my own in sports with the guys. My grandmother had a PhD. My high school Calc II class had more girls than boys. Then I met so many young women who were held back, put down, and put in boxes because of their gender. This was my first galvanizing moment, realizing that being feminist wasn’t a bad thing. And that I was one.

Next I found out the Grand Wizard lived 20 miles down the road. The Grand Wizard! Truly, I was gobsmacked. I didn’t know the KKK even still existed. In History class, we were taught there was slavery (bad) followed by Jim Crow (also very bad). Then came a Civil Rights Act (good!) and they all lived happily ever after. In the way of sheltered white folks everywhere, I accepted the fairy tale at face value. Unsurprisingly, racism there was bad. Really bad. Once I started looking, it was unmissable.

It didn’t take long to dismantle much of what I had believed. And it boiled down to one thing: I learned that life wasn’t fair.

This is crucial to understanding conservative views, at least in that less incendiary time. If life is fundamentally fair, then there is no need for affirmative action. No need for regulation. No need for welfare. If life is fair, success and failure are earned. Poor people did something wrong, or didn’t do enough, and it’s on them to fix it. If someone is successful, they must have done something smart or good, and deserve to keep the spoils. This is part and parcel of the American Dream.

Obviously, the fact that I needed to learn all this shows what kind of well-off bubble I was raised in. But once I started to see systemic biases and inequality and how they shaped people’s lives — and, let’s be honest, I had barely scratched the surface — I could no longer hang with a party that insisted hard work was enough.

These were the Clinton years, giving me an easy bridge to a moderate, welfare-to-work, capitalistic Democratic Party. It took a few years to identify as a Democrat, but I was on my way. The Republican position felt too heartless.

But there are still more big revelations on the horizon for me, including the criminal justice system and the failings of the market. Continued in Part III

My political journey, part 1: Confessions of a Teen Age Republican

I relish telling the story of how I used to be a registered Republican. It’s good for shock value, considering that today I’m a flaming California liberal. Even better, I was a Teen Age Republican. I joined TARs in high school in Arizona, a state infamous for its peculiar politics. Forget drunken bonfires in the desert, this was how I my misspent my youth.

Reader, I rush to reassure you I was never socially conservative. My issues were strictly states’ rights and fiscal responsibility. This isn’t a story about how I had to open my heart. It’s a story of having to open my eyes.

More on that later.

To demonstrate how seriously I took all of this: On my 18th birthday, I drove an hour and a half to register to vote at the Barry M. Goldwater Republican headquarters in Phoenix. Time was of the essence, as the gubernatorial runoff election occurred a mere 6 days later and I could barely squeak under the registration deadline. My motivation had more to do with wanting to participate than excitement for the Republican candidate himself, Fife Symington III. (Fun fact: He won and later resigned over convictions for bank fraud, which is so Arizona.)

I learned political awareness at home. My family was the kind that frequently talked politics and history at the dinner table. While we weren’t activists, being a good citizen and doing one’s civic duty was a cornerstone of our family ethos. Mom is a centrist Democrat, radically pro-choice and in favor of strong social and health care services, but I wouldn’t describe her as liberal. Dad was a pro-gun and pro-choice Republican who leaned Libertarian and read too much Ayn Rand. They regaled us with stories of the 60s and 70s — my favorite was my mom’s sorority house mother getting in trouble for wearing a black arm band when Goldwater lost.

So there we were, a group of suburban white teens waxing philosophic about virtues of capitalism and the perils of government. We were heavily influenced by Reaganomics. We believed a free market would solve problems with greater integrity and efficiency than government ever could. We believed in a safety net, but a very thin one, just enough to keep people from falling in that moment and no more. We believed the world was a meritocracy and hard work was all you needed to get ahead. We believed unions had served their place and were now just getting in the way.

This continued until I left for college in Indiana. There, everything would change.

To be continued! Part II.

No, we can’t agree to disagree

There was a time when I had friends with very different political beliefs. Of course! It would be narrow-minded and dogmatic to exclude people simply because we vote differently. Right?

And this worked because, in theory, we all wanted people to find good employment, have opportunities, be treated fairly. Our hearts were in the right place, we simply had different ideas about what policies and systems would achieve those goals. Remember “compassionate conservatism”? In my earliest voting years I identified as a Republican so I understood both sides as well as the middle.

Times have changed. And I’ve opened my eyes. I don’t see compassion. I see intentional, inhumane cruelty at worst, willful ignorance at best. I hear people say they value fairness yet don’t actually believe anything is unfair so there’s nothing to fix. (Don’t get me started on the idea that it’s white Christians who are being treated unfairly.) I see an iceberg of systemic racism — not to mention sexism, ableism, transphobia, xenophobia — I had only allowed myself to see the tip of previously. I see people doubling down on racism and inciting hate and violence. I see selfishness, venality, and flat-out lying on a scale I could never have imagined. I hear language being so misused that nothing means anything, up is down.

No amount of political cynicism has prepared me for this moment. Even though I’ve been telling a version of this story for close to 20 years! It just keeps getting worse and that keeps surprising me. Clearly, I am not a very good cynic.

So, no, if you identify with this Republican Party — and particularly with this President — then we are not compatible as humans. It’s not a difference in politics, it’s a fundamental difference in character and ethics. Our moral compasses point in different directions, and that’s not something to be celebrated or even set aside.

A new year, a new venture

It’s been a while! For the past few years most of my time has been spent as the Director of Strategy at Great Mondays, and I’m still part of their team.

But it’s time to get back to my “heart” clients, the do-gooders and world changers I love. So In 2020 I’ll be splitting my time between GM and my own consulting practice. It’s still a work in progress, but please follow me over to

Dollar Shave Club and Unilever win big — what about the customers?

Everyone is talking about the $1 Billion dollar buyout of Dollar Shave Club by Unilever in terms of disruption and startup success. I can’t help but wonder what’s in it for customers.

DSC sells monthly subscriptions to inexpensive men’s razors, a rebel brand positioned against the trend of aggressively overpriced and over-featured razor blades. (Think $1 per blade vs. $3-5. Razors are such a racket!) The company has never turned a profit, so from their perspective a buyout worth 5x their revenue is a dream. While they hadn’t yet made it into the black, what they have done exceptionally well is attract an engaged, young demographic poised to buy their product monthly for decades to come. Access to this customer base — and the cheeky advertising that built it — is what Unilever is paying for. It’s a big number to DSC, a tiny one to Unilever. A win-win.

The analysts see disruption as the takeaway. That another upstart has undercut an established industry is indeed scary news to many businesses. Naturally, the press has put out a string of breathless warnings about new models and subscriptions coming for their market share. No one is safe! They’re right. They are also speculating how this affects competitors, particularly Gillette, owned by P&G, and if a pricing war on the horizon. All very interesting from an industry point of view.

Where are the customers in this conversation? I haven’t seen any mention by analysts of how this might be good (or even bad) for customers. How do they feel about their indie brand selling to a mega CPG company? How will this impact their dirt cheap razor prices? Will they stay loyal, or defect to one of DSC’s competitors, like Harry’s? Will Unilever maintain what they value about this brand?

Unilever is a good company, known for a sincere commitment to being an ethical, sustainable business. I have no reason to believe they are scooping up a competitor to wreck it. But they won’t maintain an unprofitable division for long. Reportedly, they hope to increase profitability by reducing marketing costs and scaling up. Who knows? Maybe they’ll pull it off. But if I were a customer, I’d be expecting a price hike. If not now, soon.

Regardless, I hope Unilever is truly listening to these new customers and keeping them front and center in their conversations.

ETA: This is a great article about how this disruption happened, and role the invisible juggernaut AWS plays.

Collaborators wanted! Inquire within.

I’m always on the lookout for great people to work with! Wondering what’s a fit? Naturally, I have a visualization for that:

efrye_vennThe green zone is my ideal – a strategic role in a team-based, consulting environment, working for mission-driven clients. If you can help me make this happen, you’ll be my hero!

Mission-driven is my shorthand for a range of possibilities including both for- and not-for-profit organizations that have a strong sense of purpose beyond making money and contribute positively to their communities. I consider many entrepreneurs and small businesses to be part of this group even without an overt social mission.

Only a tiny handful of people work completely at the intersection of brand, mission, and team, so while I cultivate that space there are two other intersecting zones I look for.

The yellow zone comprises the heart of my work as a brand and communication consultant. The engagements I enjoy most are developing organizational identity, positioning, and narratives from the ground up. In plain terms, that means I help them get clear about what they are and can go, gain new insights into their audiences and markets, and bring it all together in messages that are simple and powerful.  I always appreciate referrals to leaders in mission-driven organizations who are ready to raise their visibility and impact.

While this offers rewarding work for clients I love, direct consulting is often solo. To balance that I also look for opportunities on the other side, in the blue zone. It’s doing the same kind of work, but as a freelancer with existing brand agency teams for more mainstream clients. Working with teams is collaborative and accelerates learning, and these experiences give me renewed inspiration and tools to bring back to my mission-driven clients. If you know of agencies or consulting firms that need freelance help on their projects, introductions would be most welcome.

Those are three ways you can help me grow. Please let me know what I can do to help you!

Be the best maple tree you can be


My inner control freak loves bonsai! It’s nature, in a tiny, perfectly-designed form.

Over a long weekend in Oregon, I lucked into an exhibit of American bonsai by Ryan Neil at the Portland Japanese Garden. It was charming and beautifully staged in origami-like frames.

What I learned is that American bonsai differs from the Japanese tradition. Japanese bonsai treasures the ideal, training each maple tree to be the ideal maple tree, whereas American-style bonsai brings out the unique characteristics of each individual maple. In the words of Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” That’s what Neil is doing. Incredibly, he does this with wood that’s as much as 600 years old, teasing out fresh life from what seems mostly dead. (Remind me of this if you hear me say I’m too old for anything.)

Why am I talking about bonsai? Because it is a great analogy to how we’ve evolved our thinking on brand and organizational development. The old school way was the “best practices” model — there is a right, replicable way to do things, and we succeed by emulating the ideal.  And, certainly, it is enormously useful to study the success of others.

What this overlooks is that organizations — and people — are not machines made up of levers that can be reliably manipulated just so. They are complex organisms filled with complex organisms, and despite common patterns no two are alike. Human systems simply can’t be templatized the way business books promise.

When we insist an organization must look or act a certain way, we lose sight of the individual characteristics that give it strength and power. And we miss seeing what might be actually better, outside of tradition and beyond our imagination. To be sustainable, brand and culture must be built on what is authentically different, not what is the same.

That’s not to say we can grow wild and still succeed. Bonsai has much to teach us about careful cultivation. But with careful training and pruning, we can become something amazingly unique from the inside out.