Monday, May 30, 2011

Life is a Series of Compromises

Or is it? The answer is: yes. Of course it is, and the sooner we realize this, the more likely we will all find peace and happiness. But compromise doesn’t always mean sacrifice.


Within minutes of walking into Marilynn and Jack’s home, Marilynn and I are sitting on my loaned bed, chatting. We almost forget that we had planned to go to dinner. Their apartment is chic and comfortable, yet simple and rightly Vietnamese. There are fresh flowers on the table, pictures of family and books abound, and a guitar rests gently against the wall near the entrance. I’m comforted by the familiarities, never mind the incredible friendliness and warmth with which Marilynn greeted me. I’m thrilled to have been invited into their home for the week. Marilynn tells me many stories: about how she and Jack met as kids, went on to live separate lives, and then found each other again and have been happily together for the last twelve years, about the place to find the best pearls in Saigon, about the International Ladies of Vietnam group to which she belongs, and about what it’s like to split her life between Saigon and Seattle.

“Life is a series of compromises,” she says to me. It strikes me. What does that mean to her? What does it mean to me? What does it mean to others?


Our time with EMWF is both full and fulfilling. Each morning I’m greeted with a latte from Jack before I make the short walk to the office. I start the week wearing flats and carrying my dress shoes, timidly scurrying through the sea of motorbikes, but by the end I feel at ease, heals and all. The weather is a strange juxtaposition to the energy in Saigon. We’re almost into the “hot” season, so the sun is relentless, and the air thick and moist. After just minutes outside I feel sluggish, languid, but business buzzes all around me. In fact, Vietnam seems to be teeming with entrepreneurs.

The Lunch Lady, made famous by Anthony Bourdain, serves ambrosial
homemade soups to the masses just a short walk from our office.

A burgeoning entrepreneur hawks bananas and cold drinks at a floating market on the Mekong.

We have the fortunate opportunity to meet with executives from various multinational companies to hear their perspectives, pitfalls and progress in the field of CSR. I’m down right enthralled by the initiatives that some companies have championed; programs to encourage a love of reading for orphans, sex education for victims of human trafficking, HIV/AIDS treatments, education and support networks, to name a few. One of our interviewees tells us that he doesn’t like the term CSR.

“It’s just something you’re supposed to do,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Some companies have intertwined their CSR initiatives into their business strategy—a great success, in my (humble) opinion. Others still keep it peripheral. One company fully impressed me when they said they didn’t yet have a developed CSR program, but that they were open and ready to learn. They even asked for a copy of our findings. Their honesty and interest was inspiring.

I can’t yet boil down what I’ve learned in these unbelievably rich few weeks, but what continues to impress me is Marilynn’s wisdom. “Life is a series of compromises.” Compromise: an agreement reached by reciprocal modification of demands. Not necessarily a sacrifice. So, in business, maybe we need to modify our demands to truly achieve success. Or maybe we need to redefine success. In any case, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that good business can mean both profitability and responsibility. It should mean both. One need not be sacrificed for the other.

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