RINDGE - "It all begins with 'Why not?' and that's the opportunity right before you, right here," Gary Hirshberg, the co-founder and chairman of Stonyfield Farm, told Franklin Pierce University graduates at Saturday's commencement.
The university bestowed 570 degrees at the ceremony.
Hirshberg of Concord, his wife, Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, Penny Pitou, a trailblazer in women's skiing, and Lloyd H. Astmann, a 1969 Franklin Pierce graduate and longtime trustee were all conferred the degree of doctor of humane Letters.
Looking out at the graduates, Hirshberg said he was reminded of how he felt 30 years ago.
"I was broke, I was terrified, and I was in deep debt. And like you, I was aware of a lot of problems that are facing our world, the world you are now going into: climate change, toxins, disappearing family farms," he said.
In co-founding Londonderry-based Stonyfield Farm, Hirshberg had a question. "Is it possible to build a business that would be part of a solution to these problems?"
The two-word answer, "Why not?" was simple and powerful, he said.
"It's true that we started with seven cows. And it's also true that for the first few years we had a wonderful company, we just had no supply and no demand. But we persisted, and today we support thousands of family farms, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of chemical-free acres around the country and around the world. We avoid the production of millions of pounds of toxic chemicals per year. We've proven that reducing our carbon footprint can actually be highly profitable. ... We're incredibly proud of our recycling efforts and our efforts to reduce packaging. But right now we are working on the holy grail, which is when you finish the yogurt, you can eat the cup. And that's coming very soon," Hirshberg said.
He closed by encouraging the graduates to make a difference in the world every day and in everything that they do.
When you buy something, you are voting. ... Shopping is voting, acting is voting; every day you can choose to be part of the solution," he said. "Gandhi was right when he said, 'Anybody who thinks they are too small to make a difference has never been in bed with a mosquito.'?"
After working with her husband at Stonyfield and raising three children with him, Cadoux Hirshberg is now a writer and motivational speaker.
She told the crowd that this was her second visit to the campus. The other visit was also momentous, she said.
"This year, I am getting my honorary degree, and the last time, 30 years ago, I met my husband here. I had just gone skinny-dipping in your pond, so he didn't stand a chance," she said. "We were both here to attend an organic farming conference. We ended up growing a lot more than vegetables together. We grew a business, and a family and a life."
The going wasn't always easy, she said. "When I moved here from New Jersey to live with Gary at Stonyfield Farm, the company was a small, weak, failing seedling. Life on the farm was pretty tough."
It was nine long years before the company started thriving, she said.
She encouraged the graduates to find their passion in life and pursue it whole-heartedly.
"No matter what you do, living an extraordinary life requires leadership, imagination, problem solving, grit, resilience, optimism and a never-say-die attitude. That is what it takes to will anything into existence," she said. "Passion will help direct your energy and help you to endure the inevitable failures. We cultivated what we cared about. So I think whatever you choose to water in life will grow."
Paul J. Holloway, chairman of the Community College System of New Hampshire Board, was also honored Saturday with the Honorable Walter R. Peterson Citizen Leader Award.