Nell Newman, the daughter of actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, takes a broad view of philanthropy and business.
“You do what you can in whatever capacity you can in your community,” Newman said Wednesday.
For Newman, giving back means supporting organic foods, protecting the environment, providing jobs and practicing philanthropy as president of Newman’s Own Organics: The Second Generation. She also gives back through her charitable foundation.
“For my dad, philanthropy was always his focus,” Newman said. “The idea of organics takes it one step further. I look at organics as a different form of philanthropy. It’s supporting the environment, supporting local food, supporting jobs.”
She launched Newman’s Own Organics with business partner Peter Meehan in 1993. It started as a division of Newman’s Own and became independent in 2001. Newman’s Own Organics pays a royalty to the Newman’s Own Foundation for the use of Paul Newman’s name and likeness. The foundation has given away $350 million since 1982.
Newman, who majored in human ecology at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, returned to Maine to speak Wednesday at the Maine Community Foundation’s annual Inspiring Philanthropy talk at the University of Southern Maine.
What’s human ecology?
“It’s looking at mankind’s effect on the planet from whatever profession or occupation you have. If you’re an architect, how do you design a building that uses sustainable products?” Newman said.
In her case, she incorporates that thinking into her job as president of Newman’s Own Organics, where she focuses on product development and public relations.
“This is my life’s work. I see the connections to community and the environment – promoting organics and to keep a robust ecosystem alive,” Newman said.
Newman didn’t immediately start out wanting to be part of her father’s food business, which he launched with a single salad dressing recipe in 1982.
After college, she started with a brief stint at the Environmental Defense Fund in New York, but the culture shock of being in the city after college in Bar Harbor sent her fleeing to a more rural life in Northern California. She became executive director of the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary, which was working to re-establish the bald eagle in central California. After two years, she left to become the development director for the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, a nonprofit working on the breeding and restoration of the peregrine falcon in California.
“I remember thinking how hard it was to be fundraiser. I was naive enough to think dad made it look really easy selling food. But I wanted to do something organic,” Newman said.
The problem was that her father didn’t understand what organic meant. To him, organic meant eating nut loaf with yeast gravy. Not good-tasting food, she said.
To convince him, she made Thanksgiving dinner entirely from organic ingredients. Some ingredients were hard to find, so she had an organic farm in California send via FedEx some organic salad greens and peas and potatoes to add to the meal. After everyone feasted, she asked her dad what he thought of his all-organic Thanksgiving.
“It really opened his eyes. I had to explain that organic was a growing technique,” Newman said.
When she broached the idea of starting an organic line for Newman’s Own, her father said he’d pay her and her business partner $15,000 each to do research for a year and come back with a proposal.
“Dad liked to support the underdogs, so this appealed to him,” Newman said.
Again, to appeal to her dad’s tastebuds, she came back with his favorite snack: a pretzel, but made with organic ingredients. He was sold on the idea. In its first year, the Newman’s Own Organics pretzel was America’s No. 1 snack food in the natural-foods category.
With the slogan “Great-tasting products that happen to be organic,” Newman’s Own Organics now has 160 products ranging from fig cookies to chocolate to dog food.
Newman jokes that she’s the one with the ideas, and her partner Meehan is the one with the business acumen. But Newman has a mix of both.
When her father launched his salad dressing, he didn’t initially explain on the label that all after-tax profits went to charity. It was her urging that convinced him that if people knew it was for a good cause, they might buy more.
“He was renowned for not wanting to be interviewed. He was doing the business for altruistic reasons, not for attention,” she said. “I told him ‘You could give away more money if you told people about it.’ He finally agreed, but it was still the smallest print on the label. That was just his way.”
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:[email protected]