How Haiti's earthquake galvanized one US CEO

After several days seeing post-earthquake Haiti firsthand, Timberland's Swartz stumbles on the power of a CEO as witness.

Todd Plitt/PictureGroup for Timberland/File
Months before Haiti's earthquake, Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz (right) and Haitian singer/activist Wyclef Jean collaborated on a collection of Timberland Earthkeepers boots designed to support Mr. Jean's Yéle Haiti Foundation. After the earthquake, the two paired up again for a tour of the devastation. "When folks say it’s an impossible situation, that’s just not true," Mr. Swartz says.

It was an unusually quiet plane ride home. Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz and Share Our Strength Founder Bill Shore had reached the end of a life-changing journey, after having spent several days in Haiti bearing witness to the unthinkable and helping to address earthquake survivor needs.

“We finally let off our last two passengers, celebrity artist Wyclef Jean and a young orthopedic surgeon from Grand Rapids, a father of four who had been in Haiti since day three performing emergency amputations with borrowed farm equipment,” Swartz recounts. “That gave me thirty-five minutes of one-on-one time with Bill, who I never get to be alone with. But I don’t think we said a word to each other the rest of the trip.”

Swartz and Shore were likely in shock. The full-blown mental processing of what they had just endured in and around Haiti would begin later, as they assimilated back into their previous routines. As part of his re-acclamation process, Swartz wrote a series of downloads to Timberland stakeholders – including a Fast Company blog post, which summarizes his takeaways, and a personal letter to employees entitled: “Bearing Witness to Haiti,” which provides a remarkable play-by-play account of his physical and emotional experience.

“I felt I needed to get this off my chest,” says Swartz. “So I wrote about the heroism of the many doctors we saw, the heartbreak of the destruction, the inspiration I felt with Bill and Wyclef, and the indignation I felt at the world’s well-intended but inept efforts to cope with this disaster.”

Also, Swartz says, he wanted to leave people with a solid indication of why a boot-making CEO would personally venture “to hell and back,” as he puts it, despite the risks involved in doing so. Just prior to his trip, reports of street violence in Haiti had escalated as millions of citizens struggled to survive a series of powerful aftershocks without adequate food, water, shelter, government or emergency support. Given the magnitude of the situation, how could a few individuals – let alone a corporate CEO – possibly make a significant difference? And besides, what would Swartz and the Timberland organization stand to gain from such a venture?

“Before I left for this hastily-planned trip, people – many of them rightfully disgruntled family members – demanded to know what I hoped to accomplish,” Swartz says. “I always replied, honestly, that I didn’t know and wouldn’t know until it happened.”

But Swartz discovered answers in Haiti – several of which hold significance for business leaders interested in blending commerce with conscience. “[What I learned was that] CEO as disaster volunteer is not a good model. But, CEO as witness — that is a different story,” he says. “What my eyes have seen, my heart has felt. And so this voyage is just beginning.”

World-Changing Leadership

World-changing business leadership requires three things: enhanced perspective – the ability to see clearly issues and patterns of significance that others don’t; personal resolve – the sheer determination to make a positive difference in the world; and formative relationships – the collaborative connections that amplify individual and organizational effectiveness. While in Haiti, Swartz solidified all three.

The experience appears to have permanently bonded Swartz, Shore and Wyclef. Swartz and Shore, who remain dear friends, serve on each other’s boards and recently confirmed their commitment to the Timberland-Share Our Strength cause partnership. Swartz also agreed to serve on Wyclef’s Yéle Haiti Foundation board in an effort to deepen their existing relationship.

The Timberland-Yéle Haiti alliance has resulted in notable innovations since it was formed back in 2009, including a successful line of eco-conscious boots. For every pair of Timberland Earthkeepers™ Yéle Haiti boots sold, Timberland donates $2 to Yéle Haiti to support restoration and environmental education projects in Haiti.

After the earthquake struck, the relationship took a necessary turn. Wyclef was in Haiti helping to deliver aid, collect dead bodies from the streets and, via CNN and other international news sources, broadcast the urgent need for more efficient disaster relief. At the same time, Yéle Haiti was accused of financial impropriety. That was when Swartz realized he needed to stand by Wyclef in a literal sense. In addition to publicly voicing his support, Swartz joined forces with him on the ground.

“Wyclef is a man of many faces,” writes Swartz in his letter to employees. “We know him as a musician and a celebrity, for sure, but if I jump ahead and tell you about [who I saw in] Wyclef by the end of this voyage, I would speak of an immensely gentle, noble, powerful man — one part dreamer, one part prophet, one part revolutionary. And one part real friend.”

In fact, Clef (as Swartz now calls him) proved himself full of surprises during their Haiti voyage. Upon landing in Port-au-Prince, he casually announced that he had arranged for a meeting between their burgeoning convoy – which now included Swartz, Clef, Shore, action movie star Vin Diesel and an armed security detail – and the President of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez.

“There I am decked out in my disaster duds: Timberland hiking boots, cargo pants, travel shirt, baseball cap, and Smartwool base layer. Not exactly presidential visit attire,” recounts Swartz. “Clef whips out a suit he brought, just in case.”

The meeting proceeds and Swartz is struck by the surreal nature of it all. “There’s Vin and the gun show flexing in one chair, the President looking presidential, Clef suited up, and me in my ‘let’s go hiking’ look.”

Despite his dorky get-up, Swartz, whose Dominican Republic-based boot factory employs approximately 1,800 local citizens and has operated in the country for 25 years, jumped at the opportunity to put his personal resolve into play. He helped do what previous negotiators had failed to: temporarily open the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti so that vital supplies could flow through.

“What I said was: “Señor Presidente, history is watching. How do you want to be judged? Haitians are dying because aid is not reaching the people, and we can help solve that problem—with your help. From our warehouses in the Dominican Republic, Timberland can consolidate and ship by our trucking network. Yéle Haiti is prepared to receive and distribute the aid. Are you prepared to let the trucks go through without the usual bureaucracy?”

President Fernandez agreed. With that, Swartz turned his attentions to the Timberland team, both in the Dominican Republic and back in New England. Failure to move food and supplies across the boarder was no longer an option, Swartz realized, and so he instructed his staff accordingly: “Don’t tell me that you can’t find a way to get stuff across the border,” he told them. “If stuff gets stuck at the border because you guys can’t figure out an innovative way to get the job done, please understand the consequences. If you have to beg, borrow or steal – just make it happen.”

And they did. Later that day, Swartz’s convoy arrived in Cite Soleil – the City of the Sun – one of the worst slums in Port-au-Prince. In his letter to employees, Swartz portrays a vivid account of his experience handing out 8,000 hot meals to a crowd of starving people. Here is an extended passage:

Clef says: “Not a lot of blanche (white people) in Cite Soleil. Should be interesting.” Just what I’m looking for – interesting. Because as the convoy weaves through the city, I am reduced to holding the video camera in my lap and filming my knee. I can’t believe the physical destruction. Nor the swarm of humans walking. People walking in the streets — this is one of the overwhelming images of this voyage. Where are they going? What are they seeking? Walking, everywhere. Streets choked with dust and detritus and despair, and folks out walking. Whole blocks just leveled…

We are in the Cite to feed the hungry. We’ve already seen a UN convoy heading from the airport to distribute food and water — white armored personnel carriers, soldiers in body armor and combat gear, turret gunners manning loaded weapons, sirens blaring, trucks roaring through the clogged streets — just to hand out fifty pound bags of rice. Clef reminds me that good intentions don’t feed people. Fifty pound bags of of rice are not all that helpful when there is no pot, no cooking fire, and no clean water anywhere with which to cook the rice.

The Yéle model is a little different — we brought food from the Dominican Republic, food that Yéle purchased, and somehow, in this destroyed city, Clef’s team cooked 8,000 hot meals of Haitian cuisines (goat stew). Someone “found” 8,000 styrofoam takeout trays from one of the destroyed restaurants somewhere in town. And found a truck. Here’s the truck, here’s the meals, here’s Clef with a bullhorn shouting in Creole, and here is a mighty river of the hungry, lining up to be fed. With sweat pouring off of everyone, we began to hand out the meals.

It started “OK,” meaning I’m handing meals to human beings, little kids in Creole or French saying “thanks.” I am trying to say something in French for encouragement, we are working hard in the sunny version of hell, but despite everyone’s best efforts, all of a sudden, it starts to get tense. The Yéle volunteers are shouting at the folks in line in Creole: “don’t push, don’t push,” but you could see in the eyes of the mothers and the fathers and the children, everyone watching the pile of cooked meals in the back of the truck get smaller and smaller and a sense of despair and maybe even panic: “Will I get a meal for my child before they run out?” And so all of a sudden, the business of Sunday lunch heads in the wrong direction — the river of hungry humans becomes a raging river, pressing forward, starting to crush each other and us. And so the security guys – with good intentions – shove themselves in front of us, and everyone started taking out their weapons. I heard safeties being taken off and I knew we were not far from a really bad situation.

At this point I was kinda crushed behind a wall of security people, up against the open back of the truck. In front of me, not three humans deep away, there was a little girl. And someone must have stepped on her or something – she started to cry. In the raging ocean of human suffering—her tears and her fear was too much for me. So I reached between two security guys and put my hand on her and shouted in French: “It’s OK, I’m gonna get you.” I couldn’t lift her up; I was wedged too tightly. But now I was back in CEO mode and so I said to the security guy in front of me: “get me that little girl.” And he did. Lifted her up and passed her back to me and I held her tight, in my arms, and she was sobbing and so was I. I held onto her, maybe eight years old, talking to her in French, and after about 30 seconds she stopped crying. Because the crushing that was hurting her—that’s gone now. I’m holding her and we’re behind a security guy and so she’s not going to get crushed. So she stopped crying.

Kills me. My view of the world says, she should have still been crying. But her view of the world is: “No. I may not have a home, I may be hungry, I may be living in hell – but that’s normal. That isn’t worth crying over. If someone is hurting me on top of all that, then I’ll cry.” I handed her a meal and off she went – as if to say: “I’m going back to the normal despair of my day and I can handle that, don’t need your help, thanks a million and have a good day.”

We went back to handing out the food. The crush didn’t go away, but the fear of a bad scene did. Everyone got their heads around the fact that we had 8,000 meals — not 8,001. So if you get one, great, if you don’t…I don’t know what. Clef exhorting the crowd; people shouting, crying, waiting…I’m still kinda pinned against the truck when, from under the truck, a little brown hand reaches out and grabs my cargo calf. Scared the hell out of me. I look down, and there is a little hand clutching my leg. Can’t see the child — he or she has crawled through the densest crush of people I’ve ever seen, wriggled under the truck, and grabbed me — signaling: “I beat the line, now give me a meal.” I slipped one down to the hand; the hand grabbed it and vanished. My heart still has not come back — a child, figuring out how to get a meal…

This is just one of a series of intense experiences that left Swartz traumatized, and yet focused on what needed to be done. “How am I feeling today? I don’t know. I don’t feel so good,” he says. “I still haven’t yet got my mind around the question: How can we let this happen?”

Swartz admits to being far less patient today than he was before his trip, particularly toward those who perceive insurmountable challenges. “If a small-scale boot maker from New Hampshire, a prophet dreamer called Wyclef and a social justice guru like Bill Shore can take a field trip to Haiti and as a consequence, 8,000 people get served and a [border opens], you can’t tell me it can’t be done,” he says. “This isn’t in my, Clef’s or Billy’s job description – and yet I’ve got the pictures, and I can show you the faces of the people we helped. So when folks say it’s an impossible situation, that’s just not true. We have the intellectual capital. We have the resources. The question is: do we have the will to make the hard choices?”

The will is alive and present at Timberland. As an outdoor company with a direct connection to the environment and local population, Timberland promises to pursue both reforestation projects that repopulate Haiti’s more desolate areas with newly planted trees, as well as broader initiatives that help struggling citizens to help themselves. “We have a strength to share,” Swartz says, “and we are going to share it.”

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