By 2008 Doug Rauch, president of Trader Joe’s, was burned out. He had spent the last 31 years–virtually his entire career–overseeing the quirky California retailer’s rapid expansion to the East Coast, developing its buying philosophy as well as its private-label food program and traveling “ceaselessly.” He was just 56, he didn’t need to make any more money, but he wanted to slow down and “get off the wheel,” as he now puts it. So Rauch “retired” with a plan to keep busy serving on corporate and not-for-profit boards from his base in Newton, Mass. Within a year, he says, he realized that he had “too much operational stuff in my blood” to be satisfied with that.
Rauch had heard about a newly launched program at Harvard University called the Advanced Leadership Initiative, a yearlong program for executives and other successful professionals, mostly in their 50s and 60s, looking to tackle major social problems, or move into the not-for-profit world. For a fee of $55,000, the handpicked fellows (48 made the cut for 2016) spend a calendar year auditing classes across the entire university, brainstorming with professors and other students, making contacts and developing their own independent projects.
In 2009 Rauch applied to the program, knowing he wanted something hands-on and with social impact. He also figured that he had the best shot at making a difference if he stuck to what he knew. “I really do know the food system, and I know retail,” he says. Plus, he’d long been disturbed by both food waste and the problems poor people have affording healthy food.
The result was Daily Table, a 3,500-square-foot not-for-profit market in the lower-income Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Today it sells groceries and produce at rock-bottom prices and healthy prepared and ready-to-cook meals at prices designed to compete with the cheapest fast-food joints. (Prepared dinners like rotisserie chicken and fresh fish start at $1.99.)
Daily Table keeps prices low, in large part, by accepting tax-deductible donations of perishable food near its expiration date or close to being too ripe. Donors include local growers, wholesalers and manufacturers like Boston Organics, Newman’s Own and organic-yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm. Slightly brown bananas go for 29 cents a pound and eggs $1.49 a dozen–about half what they cost elsewhere.
It’s a clever idea–selling food that might otherwise end up in Dumpsters. But confusion over “sell by,” “use by” and “best before” dates accounts for a big chunk of the $165 billion of food wasted in the U.S. each year, according to a study by researchers from Harvard Law School and the Natural Resources Defense Council. And Rauch certainly has collected a blue-chip list of backers. The Dorchester store was opened last June with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and the PepsiCo Foundation, among others.
He’s also opening a teaching kitchen at the Dorchester site that will be used for free nutrition and culinary education. The whole Daily Table operation, he explains, “is really a health care initiative masquerading as a healthy food store.” Once that concept is proved in Boston, where he is planning to open a second store later this year, he’s looking to spread it to other cities where he sees a need, including Detroit, Baton Rouge and Los Angeles.
Call it the new retirement fantasy. Instead of exotic beaches, successful folks of a certain age dream of going back to school and then continuing to work–but at something with social impact. “I believe in my heart that most of us find real satisfaction in our lives when we are doing something meaningful,” says Rauch. “Golf and mah-jongg will not leave people with a deep sense of satisfaction.”
Ann MacDougall, 62, was chief operating officer of Acumen Fund (a not-for-profit that makes impact investments) and prior to that General Counsel at PricewaterhouseCoopers -US (PwC-US) before she entered the Harvard fellowship in 2013. She had the idea of reinventing herself as an intermediary focused on helping other successful boomers looking to transition to nonprofits. During her year at Harvard she decided to apply for the position of president at Encore.org, a 19-year-old organization that has been in the vanguard of promoting social impact work for those in midlife and beyond. MacDougall landed the Encore job.
Paul Irving, 63, was CEO of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the big Los Angeles law and consulting firm, where he’d spent 26 years before he left the firm to join the 2010 class of Harvard fellows. He’s now chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging and credits his year in Cambridge with helping him make that successful transition. “I couldn’t say the specific education was critical,” he says, “but it did get people thinking about me in a different way and me thinking about myself in a different way–instead of just being a lawyer.”
In many ways Harvard’s program functions much like a gap year–that year before college or grad school that some students take off to figure out what they want to do or who they are or simply to get a break from the grind. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the 72-year-old Harvard Business School professor who conceived and directs the institute, stresses that her program “is not a year off.” The goal of the fellowship, she says, is to “deploy a pool of highly experienced, accomplished people with many productive years ahead, beyond their primary income-earning careers, who are motivated to apply their skills to tackling big, complex, messy problems.”
Given the economics of Moss Kanter’s “back-to-school” brainchild at Harvard, which now receives about 500 applications per year, plus the potential demand for such programs, you can expect more “elder gap year” programs at other prestigious colleges. Last March, for example, officials from 21 schools, including Columbia, Cornell, Tulane, UCLA and the University of Washington, attended a summit at New York University to confer on policies and practices. (The meeting was organized by Encore.org.)
Stanford University has already started its own yearlong program. The Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, now in its second year, with 25 students paying $62,000 each, is run from Stanford’s Center on Longevity, not its business school, and doesn’t push c-suite retirees to develop a specific social action project the way Harvard does. Instead, in a more laid-back California fashion Stanford focuses on the fellows’ personal transition from high-powered career to a meaningful second act. It even invites their “life partners” to participate for an extra $28,000.
Dr. Philip A. Pizzo, the 71-year-old pediatric oncologist and former Stanford School of Medicine dean who founded the institute, embraces the gap year label. When high-powered types leave their primary jobs, he observes, “they begin taking on tasks just to keep busy. Becoming busy is easy, but being happy about a renewed purpose takes time and reflection.” The Stanford year, he adds, permits them to take stock and think about what they really want to do.
That approach suited Susan Carter, 59, who entered Stanford’s first class last year after 17 years as CEO of Wilton, Conn.’s Commonfund Capital, which manages $14 billion, mostly for nonprofits. “I have always had goals–goals for the company, annual goals, goals for the team. I actually like the idea that I’m going to take it one day at a time,” says Carter, also a veteran of GE and Morgan Stanley, who now sits on the advisory board of the startup Girls Who Invest.
At Stanford Carter took a class on memoir writing that helped her to “think hard about what I want out of my next chapter,” as well as courses on personal wellness, the mind/body connection, nutrition, art history and one dubbed “Rethinking the Ballerina.” “I was so absorbed in the campus scene that I thought I was 20 again,” she laughs. “The most challenging thing was deciding what not to do on campus.
This story appears in the February 29, 2016 issue of Forbes