The Unlikely Revolutionary
June 1, 2009
Across from Victory Square, a crowd is celebrating the reopening of the historic Flack Block, a monument to Vancouver’s gold-profiteering past that has been transformed into a home for people who believe in changing the world one socially responsible business at a time. Mayor Gregor Robertson, reading a proclamation honouring the restored building, and several of his councillors are here on the fourth floor. So are a woman with a company that manufactures cloth menstrual pads, a man whose firm delivers organic food to people’s homes, and staff from the collection of like-minded save-the-world enterprises that have decided to bunk at the Flack Block, like Rainforest Solutions Project, IdeaLever, and ForestEthics.
Amid the bustle at what’s now called the Tides Renewal Centre, the man at the centre of the room seems unremarkable. Tall and lanky, with a thin, lined face and rectangular metal glasses, Joel Solomon, 54, is the hypersensitive host preoccupied with making sure that everyone feels good. You wouldn’t guess that this guy in shapeless black jeans, black runners, and a nondescript suit jacket is the force behind this room, this gathering, this restoration. Or that he binds this group, giving them the sense of being part of a grand revolution that will remake Vancouver.
Solomon, whom friends describe as “beyond self-effacing,” downplays his part. “My favourite way to help is just to get people to think things through,” he says in his Tennessee accent in his office on a much quieter Saturday afternoon. “I think I have a role as a connector.” But “connector” is a puny word for the influence he has on this city, a place he’s committed to pouring money and energy into.
How to explain what he does? Solomon is the son of a wealthy Jewish family from the southern U.S. turned young American searcher and Cortes Island organic gardener who’s combining his two lives—capitalist heir and idealistic reformer—into one, as the business guru for B.C.’s new green left. He’s doing it through his partnership with Rubbermaid heiress Carol Newell, another American child of capitalism who escaped to utopian B.C. in her 20s. His inheritance was a modest $3 million, not enough to do what Newell’s $60-million-plus can. Paired up (in a business way only) since 1993, the two have created an Escher-like organization that includes a foundation (Tides Canada), a charity (Endswell), and two investment agencies: Renewal, which uses only Newell’s money; and Renewal2, which aims to attract new money to carry on what her money has started. Through those agencies, they have provided grants to 121 groups in the province, ranging from the environmental (Valhalla Wilderness Society) to the social-activist (Pivot Legal Society) to the holistic (Centre for Integrated Healing). On the investment side, they’ve put money into 70 enterprises in B.C.—most famously the Happy Planet juice company of Gregor Robertson, but also the organic grocery chain Capers, several publishing and communications companies, Salt Spring Coffee, Lunapads, PeaceKeeper Causemetics, and the Jorg&Olif bike company. And that’s not to mention the $60,000 that Renewal sank into helping elect Vision Vancouver and Robertson in last fall’s election—its first serious foray into local politics and one of the larger donations on record for any Vancouver civic party.
This is where most people stop in explaining Solomon, whose genotype is unfamiliar in this city. Typically, Vancouver has divided itself into two sets of players: the rich and powerful, who dominate business with a little philanthropy on the side; and the earnest and well-meaning, who dominate the social movements and low-income tax brackets. There has been some overlap, but there’s never been someone quite like Solomon, a modest version of the later generations of the Kennedy/Rothschild/Rockefeller class who turned their forefathers’ fortunes into the base for media- and business-savvy environmental activism.
Like them, Solomon uses his skills and connections as a member of the inherited-wealth club to mentor social activists on how to be more businesslike and to entice people of high net worth into investing in “for-benefit” businesses. The publicity material for Renewal2 emphasizes two messages to potential investors. Their investment will help save the planet (and, by implication, their souls). And it’s a good way to make money. Lots of it. “In 2007, Renewal Partners sold a portion of its holding at a price over 10x its average cost,” says the capsule description of its investment in Horizon Distributors, the largest distributor of organic foods in Western Canada. The cleaning-products brand Seventh Generation “now has annual sales of over $100 million.”
Solomon is working in what’s called, in the U.S., “the fourth sector”—organizations that aren’t business, government, or nonprofits but that, like government and nonprofits, aim to make the world a better place. To Solomon, that sector is powerful and growing, not a hash-pipe dream of the Utne Reader set. “We are in the midst of a sea change. It is revolutionary,” he says in one of his euphoria-inducing emails. “And the very best type of revolution is what has begun, and hopefully can continue. That is the type that happens almost invisibly, and is seen simply by conventional business adapting while feeling it’s on its own terms. Old industries fading continually. New ones emerging. Culture shift through many factors. Pioneers and front edge ‘social entrepreneurs’ chip away.”
That intense vision, combined with Solomon’s connections, skills, and ability to distribute money, has made him a key figure locally. “If you did a power diagram of all the green or social ventures in Vancouver, he’d be at the centre,” says David Eby, the former spokesman for the Pivot Legal Society. “And he’s like the horse whisperer for donors. He’s able to help articulate a plan to an investor.” “Joel’s a relentless networker and sales guy,” says Andrea Reimer, the city councillor who got to know Solomon as one of the funders of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, which she has directed since 2002. “What he gives you is the network, where he moves ideas around.” The yearly one-week Social Venture Institute (SVI) he hosts at Hollyhock on Cortes, where he’s the board chair, is a sort of Davos for those in the network. Janice Abbott, whose Atira housing nonprofit has received grants and access to that SVI network from Solomon, describes him as “a kind of kingmaker.” Like many, she suspects he doesn’t just help directly by providing seed money or grants, but also quietly influences other donors on where to put their dollars.
That omnipresence has generated grumbles from those who feel like they’re on the outside of the tightly woven Tides-Renewal-Hollyhock web, a faint echo of the more strident attacks that conspiracy-minded right-wingers have launched in the U.S. on Solomon’s class of fourth-sector wealthy investor-philanthropists. There, websites like Activistcash.com label the American Tides Foundation, of which Solomon is a director, the “800-pound gorilla of radical activist funding,” and accusing it of disguising what it does with elaborate accounting camouflage.
In this city, Solomon is regarded warily by both the right and the left. In the enviro-left world, Solomon and his clan are sometimes referred to snippily as the Nashville Predators, for the way they’ve come to dominate that sector with their money and values. Apprehension also grows out of Solomon’s multitentacled, behind-the-scenes, I’m-here-but-not-really-here influence. That peaked during last fall’s election campaign, when he came to play a central role. He and people tightly connected to him—Robertson, who camped at his Downtown Eastside apartment during the years he lived on Cortes but ran a business here; Mike Magee, whose Convergence Strategies and Communications does significant business with Tides; and Bob Penner of Strategic Communications—another company Renewal invested in a decade ago—were at the core of the Vision Vancouver campaign. “I think people felt like there was an exclusive club, but the membership criteria are unknown and there’s no way in,” says Helesia Luke, who ran as a Vision candidate for school board and lost. On the right, meanwhile, Non-Partisan Association organizer Bob Ransford calls Solomon a godfather of the “new-age revolutionaries” who are awash in donated money that allows them to do what they think is right and ignore whether their efforts are actually effective.
Such criticism puzzles Solomon, who views what he does as almost a religious mission. “My life purpose is to be contributory,” he says. “And it starts with a belief system that you should take care of where you are. This is the place I’ve chosen as my home, and I want it to be the best it can be.” On the other hand, he understands that when you’re an outsider, people are wary and skeptical. He and his family have been outsiders at various levels. His father, after all, was part of Tennessee’s small cluster of Jewish entrepreneurs (along with the Sulzbergers and Ochses of the New York Times) who made their fortunes developing businesses outside the elite circle. Joel Solomon, Sr., who was in his way like the prospecting Thomas Flack of the Flack Block, discovered his own form of gold when he realized a new thing called malls could be built cheaply on the edges of thousands of small towns in America—and that people would flock to them.
The Solomons held racially integrated parties at their Chattanooga rancher back when Rosa Parks was still riding at the back of the bus. And they supported Jimmy Carter, watching him go from a governor nobody knew to president. Solomon Jr. added to his outsider status by becoming the archetypal American hippie searching for a new life. That was, in part, spurred by the discovery in his early 20s that he had inherited the potentially fatal kidney disease that runs in his family. “That death sentence triggered a lot of who I became,” says Solomon. He left Washington, where he’d gotten a job after being a youth coordinator for Carter’s campaign, a practical complement to his political-studies degree. He worked on a ranch, in a bakery, and at a sporting goods store in Jackson Hole before moving to an organic-gardening community in Sonoma County. Eventually, by the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s new era in 1980, he found himself on Cortes Island, as far from Washington, geographically and psychologically, as he could get. Cortes has remained his spiritual base, even though he went back and forth between Tennessee and B.C. for several years after his father died in 1984. That’s also where he met both his first wife, Louise, who now works at the Tides Renewal Centre, and his current wife, Dana, who works at Hollyhock.
He moved from Cortes and from Nashville to come back to where he believes the centre now is, buying two top-floor apartments in a Downtown Eastside waterfront building and combining them (current value: $1 million) so that everyone in his network could have a place to meet, sleep, party, fundraise, and plan the future. Vancouver is the city that Solomon believes is best positioned to move to a new plane. It’s connected to a nearby pristine wilderness like no other. It’s got a mix of cultures that makes it more open to new ideas. It was one of the last places on the continent to be settled by Europeans, making it less entrenched. And it’s not a head-office town and never will be, which he believes is a good thing. “Because Vancouver is not a centre of power, it’s very entrepreneurial,” he says. And he sees his friend the mayor as the way to drive forward that new vision, which has meant moving even more toward the centre of activity. His father was politically involved from the time he met his mother on Estes Kefauver’s campaign; Solomon Sr. went on to a cabinet position in the Carter administration. The younger Solomon stayed away from formal politics for much of his time in B.C., but Robertson’s decision to jump into the system changed that. “A lot of people are in politics because that’s their thing. That’s not Joel’s main reason,” says Bob Penner. “Politics is a tool to achieve his goal. He sees Gregor as advancing an environmental agenda.” Solomon is prepared to do what it takes to make sure that agenda has the best chance for success. “I’m committed to do all I can to help him,” he wrote in another email. “As you know, the Vancouver Mayor has a tiny staff and budget for that office. I am hoping to free up more of my time to contribute to his success.”
Despite being a man whose life consists of weaving people into webs of relationships, Solomon found himself stuck two years ago when he had to ask for the biggest favour yet. It took him a long time to press the Send key on his computer, asking for someone to donate a kidney. The disease was finally taking its toll. His doctors had told him his kidneys were down to 15-percent efficiency. He was more tired than he used to be. But he hesitated to put out the request to his vast network. “It was a heavy thing to send,” he says. “Would it make people feel guilty?” Of the many who responded to his email, three people were good matches. A woman from Cortes, Shivon Robinsong, ended up being the best match.
The transplant went fine. Solomon is back to his regular routine, interspersed with quarterly checkups. Recently he was in San Francisco, where a former girlfriend, a onetime director of the city’s sustainability office, had pulled together a party of 45 who might be interested in putting money into Renewal2. The next week, he was hosting a party in his Vancouver apartment to help his yoga instructor—a woman he met at Hollyhock—raise money for her dance group, the Tomorrow Collective.
Standing on the balcony of his penthouse, Solomon barely glances at the lovely view: the city’s massive port machinery, its downtown beginning to glow in the evening sky, the unlit mountains hunkering to the northeast. Instead, he’s laser-focused on connecting with this new set of people, one in-depth conversation after another—an architect who does green buildings, an artist, a musician. There are always more discoveries to make, more people who can give or should be given to, more people who can help with the great leap forward.