Several months ago I received a request from Helen Mou, a Brown University Junior, to sit down for an interview for a writing class she was taking. The assignment was to write a literary portrait of a person of interest. I greatly enjoyed the process of being interviewed by Helen, and I think she did a great job of capturing my personality in the portrait. I want to thank Helen for choosing me and for putting so much care and attention into this work. Read on for the full-text of what Helen wrote.
Literary Portrait of Andy Posner
Standing in the narrow, creaking stairwell of the Urban Environmental Lab at Brown University, Andy Posner talks animatedly with two fellow Environmental Studies master’s students. His engaged, clean-shaven face tilts instinctively toward the center of the group and his bright yellow messenger bag quivers in rhythm with the enthusiastic movement of his hands. Tomorrow, Andy tells them, he’s going to see Muhammad Yunus speak at a conference in Boston. His classmates smile knowingly. Yunus – a Bangladeshi economics professor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his group-lending microfinance model – is exactly the type of public figure that one would expect to lend inspiration for Andy’s growing environmental services company: the Capital Good Group, Inc. An important part of this socially minded company, the Capital Good Fund, after all, is modeled after Yunus’s Grameen Bank and will bring financial services to low-income residents of Providence, RI. He’s excited, they can tell, even as he apologetically backs away from the conversation, barely in time for a meeting with an undergraduate waiting in a the conference room across the hall.
Andy has two states of mind. “I’m like this, literally,” he says, “I would say 85% of the time. Pumped up, inspired, talking about making things happen. And the other 15% – profoundly depressed. And there’s no middle ground.” However, the division between these two states of mind has not always been so glaringly uneven – in the past, Andy promises, he was just 40% inspired and 60% depressed. “Until I was in tenth grade,” he remembers, “I was on this conveyer belt.” As the only son of two well-educated, Jewish parents, for a long time Andy felt that his monotonous private school education would inevitably lead to medical school. However, after taking a 10th grade romantic philosophy and poetry class in which he read Allen Watts’ The Way of Zen and works by Joseph Campbell, Andy made the decision to leave his private high school – for public school, as a compromise instead of completely dropping out – in order to focus on becoming a professional tennis player. “I was really talented,” he recalls, “and that was the only place I could think of to put that desire for greatness.”
After high school, Andy “begrudgingly” became an undergraduate at California State University Northridge. In 2003, Andy’s growing interest in social issues led him to attend a protest against the war in Iraq. Shouts of “No war for oil!” rang in his head, over and over again. After the protest, Andy started the car that he had borrowed from his parents and suddenly realized, “Wait a minute! If I don’t want to have a war for oil, why don’t I stop driving?” So he did. With the money earned by selling his tennis rackets, Andy bought a bike that would take him on pavement and pathways through LA neighborhoods, rather than on highways that cut through and ascended above them. Biking in the open air allowed Andy to experience – smell, taste, hear – real communities in a wholly different, fascinating manner from driving. Save a few rental cars, he has not driven since.
It was a bicycle accident, just months later, that led to what Andy calls his “moment of commitment.” As the bombs began to fall in Iraq, Andy sought to calm his nerves about a speech he was to give on non-violence in his public speaking class by going on a bike ride. While going down a hill at 40 mph, he hit a pothole that catapulted him fifteen feet and gave him a level 2 concussion, a broken collarbone, and amnesia for five hours. For the next few days, while recovering in bed, Andy’s thoughts were far from the speech that he’d been unable to give. Acutely aware that the bombing had started, he remembers, “I just had this sense that as long as there were people in the world suffering, I couldn’t just go about my life as if that didn’t exist.”
With his bike helmet always at the ready, Andy has long since stepped off the medical school-bound conveyor belt that his parents had set out for him at an early age. Since then, Andy has spent two years in Spain living out his “Ghandi phase,” fasting occasionally and wearing one of his two all-white organic cotton outfits and handmade leather shoes, and another two-and-a-half months biking 3,800 miles across the United States while camping out in peoples yards. “I have always thought – or known – that I would start something and do something of great import,” Andy reflects, “but I never knew what that would be.”
In the spring of 2007, after graduating from CSUN, Andy spent a month in Cairo working with a non-profit, Solar Cities, that was founded by his good friend and colleague to teach the Zabbaleen – Egyptian Arabic for “garbage people” – to build their own solar water heaters and biogas generators out of materials that they find in landfills. While retaining his role as a board member at Solar Cities, Andy is in his second and final year as a master’s student at Brown. Today, he is armed with a business suit, a pair of organic cotton jeans, a collection of bicycles equipped for any imaginable transportation situation, and an iPhone in a thick rubber case fit for a demolition site. Andy is well known in the Brown and Providence communities as the co-founder and vivacious face of the Capital Good Group, Inc. This environmental services company comprises a family of consulting, microfinance, and other business endeavors, and is the culmination of Andy’s ideas and goals of changing the world by changing the way in which wealth is generated.
Working with Brown University students and faculty, who marvel at his constant state of intensity and power to inspire others, Andy has created a buzz on campus about the Capital Good Fund, particularly the microfinance initiative, which will kick off in February 2009 and has already raised $11,000 for short term loans of $500-$3,000. Anyone who applies for a loan is required to undergo a credit check as well as a character assessment, business plan evaluation, and must answer questions about how the loan will benefit his or her family. The Capital Good Fund looks for “a certain desperation, a certain ‘I’m doing this for my family and I’m gonna do whatever it takes to repay this so I can get another loan that benefits my family’” says Andy. These loans can finance very simple and practical endeavors, such as the cost of obtaining licenses for a home daycare business that will allow it to become an official legal entity. It seems to resonate with people that Capital Good is doing something innovative.
“He thrives on ideas and inspiration,” says Rachel Katz, an undergraduate who met Andy through a social entrepreneurship class and is working with him on a home weatherization financing model that is part of the Capital Good Group. “I always seek something that’s epic,” Andy agrees, admitting he doesn’t know much about banking despite wanting to start an investment fund. “I’m initially more interested in the audacity of it and the feeling associated with it, and then it becomes goal-oriented, and then it becomes practical…it’s that certain epic, mythological quality to it, that I’m participating in some cosmic drama in which it’s light versus darkness, that I’m an actor in this – that my actions are somehow reordering the nature of things.”
Andy intends to leverage the strength of Muhammed Yunus’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Grameen Bank microcredit model, which was initially derided by large banks, to bring social and environmental benefits to the Providence community. Andy loves this story. “The whole thing is a fuck-you to the banking industry,” he says, “Everything [Yunus] does is the antithesis to what banks do. And I love stuff like that, because practically, it works, and it makes sense, but also there’s a narrative there – that fuck-you attitude to people who are doing things away and don’t want to change.” Where Yunus argues that access to credit should be a fundamental human right, Andy answers that “access to information should be a fundamental human right.” iPhones, for example, are often seen as just a neat business gadget. Andy uses his to listen to audiobooks by Thoreau, Van Jones, and Dostoevsky while biking. More importantly, however, he views iPhones as a tool to save the world, because “with information I can do all sorts of things. One of my frustrations is that people don’t view every piece of new technology as a potential tool for saving the world.”
Because he spends a lot of time daydreaming, Andy considers himself to be a highly inefficient person. However, “when I do work,” he says, “I can write ten pages in one hour, and read very fast, and assimilate a lot of information very fast.” With a resume that consists of two months as a luggage salesman and just two weeks as a bicycle messenger on a Paramount Pictures studio lot, Andy knows that his ultimate success will be – must be – built on the strength of his passion, his charisma, and his ideas. It will also be built on his commitment to developing a business model that does not gallantly forgo economic profit to further social and environmental causes. Andy and his team are not “pie in the sky, granola-eating liberals. Well, we are liberals,” he admits, “but not granola-eating.”