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An 'integral life' at work

Lifestyle/Technology | Family business strives for biblical bottom line-by investing in people

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

Ten years ago David Kiersznowski and his wife Demi founded DEMDACO, a Kansas-based wholesale gift company that now supplies products to 17,000 stores in the United States. The company grew rapidly at the same time Kiersznowski was asking himself what he had not learned while getting an MBA at Northwestern: what his business should look like if he were viewing all of life through a biblical lens.

His concern for living out what he calls "an integral life" led to changes. He began to think about the physical space where employees spend so much time and decided that the new headquarters should be "a place that's beautiful, creative, pleasing, and full of light."

He envisioned a space where work is not divorced from family, so the new headquarters has a room dedicated to nursing moms, where they can express and store milk. It also has a room filled with arts-and-crafts supplies, videos, and toys intended to encourage parents to have their kids visit them for lunch.

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Kiersznowski also reexamined DEMDACO's employee health insurance and saw that it "was generous to those who wanted to start a family through natural birth, but what about adoption?" The company instituted an adoption aid program as a way of meeting the needs of widows and orphans.

Are these steps beneficial to the company's bottom line? Kiersznowski says it depends on what your bottom line is: "Our understanding of the purpose is not a financial profit but"-and here he cites U2's Bono-"to tear a little corner off the darkness." But he doesn't see the two lines in conflict: "We've been ridiculously fortunate. Most of that is providence. We've managed it well, we've stewarded it."

What to do after business success comes? Kiersznowski last month came to New York for a conference sponsored by the Wedgewood Circle, an "angel investing" group that seeks to connect "investment capital to investment opportunities" in the arts and culture. Mark Rodgers, founder of Wedgewood, has the organization promoting investments in plays, paintings, music, films, books, and other "cultural artifacts" that are "true, good, and beautiful for the common good."

The Manhattan Wedgewood gathering brought together investors, artists, and experts in publishing, fashion, and fine art-the focus of this event-to talk about trends, pitch investment opportunities, and schmooze. The entertainment one evening was a selection of songs performed by the cast of a musical headed for Broadway and still looking for funding.

Kiersznowski is one of Wedgewood's angel investors, but instead of investing in content-a particular play or movie-he invests in people. During the Renaissance he would have been known as a "patron," but he calls himself an "encourager." He finds artists "through recommendations from someone we trust. . . . We're not that afraid of making mistakes. . . . Our job is to support. We'd rather take a chance than to wait five years before deciding to take a chance."

An example of his encouraging: Kiersznowski funds and sits on the board of the International Arts Movement founded by Mako Fujimura (WORLD's 2005 Daniel of the Year) because "he is an amazing painter [who is] helping artists understand the world that is and how to convert it into the world that ought to be."

He also encourages a singing duo that performed for the Wedgewood investors: Sam & Ruby recently had a song featured in the film The Secret Life of Bees. Kiersznowski says they exemplify what he is trying to do through their "hauntingly beautiful" music filled with "touches of brokenness, yet graceful." He contributed money as a way of saying, "We believe in you and hope you keep creating beautiful music," and he had them come to Kansas City with their seven-piece band to perform at a national sales meeting.

Kiersznowski's advice to other would-be investors in culture: "Find good people . . . support them."

Risk in perspective

A recent survey of 1,000 American moms of online teens conducted by Harris Interactive for McAfee showed that mothers are as concerned about threatening emails and online sexual solicitation as they are about the threat posed by drunk driving or drug use. The same study queried teens and found that a third have cleared their browser history to hide from their parents their online activity. More than half of the teens had given out personal information to strangers, and more than a third of online girls had given out a photo to a stranger.

Although 72 percent of moms have verbal agreements establishing rules for internet use by their teens, 48 percent admitted they don't know for sure what their kids are doing. And the survey of kids reveals that moms are right to doubt: "McAfee discovered that the reality is that many teenagers are spinning a web of evasive operations to avoid their parents' supervision, while potentially exposing themselves and others to cyber dangers."

McAfee is in the business of selling security software and may have an interest in hyping the risk of online danger. Larry Magid writes on Yahoo kids that the risk from online predators is actually quite low. His argument is at kids.yahoo.com/parents/blog/1003/103--Is+the+Internet+as+
Dangerous+as+
Drunk+Driving.

Scrub again

New Scientist began a recent article like this: "Ladies, your hands are a zoo." That's because a study showed that even though they wash their hands more frequently, women have more kinds of bacteria on their hands than men do. The study showed that five kinds of bacteria were present on all people, but even on a single person the bacteria on a dominant hand was different from that on a non-dominant hand. The researchers from the University of Colorado were surprised by the differences between men and women and speculate that factors like "sweat, sebum production, hormones, and even the use of cosmetics" could contribute to the difference. It could also be that male skin is more acid and that could affect bacteria growth.

Web gems

A website that majors in trends, psfk.com., points to two handy websites:

At umbrellatoday.com, type in a ZIP code and find out immediately whether you'll need an umbrella today. You can also sign up for an automatic text message that will alert you on days when the umbrella will be more than a fashion accessory.

At copypastecharacter.com, find symbols, arrows, smiley faces, and ☂s that you can cut and paste into word-processing documents.

. . . Those Lilly Hands, / Which Hold My Life . . .

Ruth Lilly, the only living heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, has long been a lover of poetry: She endowed a chair of poetry at Indiana University and funded poetry prizes and poetry fellowships. In 2002, when she was 87 years old, Ruth Lilly gave $100 million to Poetry Magazine, which had a rich literary heritage but not so much money. The Poetry Foundation said the bequest would enable it "to promote, in perpetuity, a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture." One result: a good website for locating particular poems or poets. poetryfoundation.org/archive/tool.poem.html.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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