Thea Polancic: Building Community and Purpose

Agata Antonow

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

 —Attributed to Margaret Mead

On a quiet evening in January 2009, Thea Polancic was sticking large pieces of paper on the walls of her home. Her son was asleep upstairs, and finally her day as a busy business partner and consultant was winding down. She’d been in charge and taken names all day, yet her work was just beginning.

It’s always scary to start something new, but the start of that New Year came with grim headlines trailing in from late 2008: “U.S. Loses 533,000 Jobs in Biggest Drop Since 1974.” “$775 Billion for Stimulus Plan.”

Still, Thea looked around her house and continued to set up for her get-together. She had asked clients, friends, her parents, friends of friends—anyone who thought business could be a force for good. Now, as night settled into the bones of her city, she waited for the doorbell to ring. And, as she did, she looked at the questions written on big pieces of sticky notes on her walls:

Who else should be involved?

What do you see as possible?

How would you like to participate?

What questions do you have?

For leaders interested in business as a force for good, it’s quite common to ask questions:  How do you take the leap into the unknown? When everything around you is telling you “no,” how do you move forward? Thea had asked herself these very questions. She had left a business in 2002 to set up her own organization. She had made it through the tough conversations, the late nights, the long meetings.

By fall 2007, Thea seemed to have made it. The business had grown successful, and Thea loved it. She was making a difference. The work was meaningful, and every day she helped companies fulfill their vision.

And yet.

Thea had a deep awareness that, if she didn’t create a bigger game to play with, she’d get bored. She’d always brought her A-game, taken names. Sitting back and resting on her laurels was not in the playbook. She could almost picture it: boredom creeping in to create drama, procrastination.

“It’s time,” she realized. It was time to search for something new, something larger, something that gave even greater meaning to each hectic day.

Thea knew she needed to figure out what her bigger purpose was and needed to feel hungry for that purpose to throw herself passionately into it.

That light-bulb moment caused Thea to embark on a year-long process with 150 other people. On that journey, participants were asked to think about a major theme:

“What is my impossible promise? What do I stand for that’s bigger than me—or what my ego can tackle all by itself?”

More questions.

Thea was challenged to not only come up with a purpose but to really back it up with the commitment to take action and make a difference in the world. It took a year, but what emerged as her purpose was a promise that “by the year 2030, business will create a world of beauty, prosperity and happiness.” After much soul-searching, Thea had uncovered something that resonated, something that she felt down deep in her bones. She had found her hunger.

From the bright high of This is it, she immediately faced the realization that she would now have to live up to that promise. As she says, “I proceeded to get overwhelmed by the question ‘How am I going to get in touch with all these people?’”

For six weeks, Thea struggled with the answer. She wasn’t getting anywhere with that question, and, so far, her purpose was not leading her into any meaningful action. Then it occurred to her: “Oh, I could start in Chicago. There’s enough to do here that I don’t have to go for planetary transformation right off the bat.”


The wheels of her mind were set in motion with that one question. Then came another question: “Who else do I know who feels this way? I don’t really know where to start, but why don’t I get them all in the same room, and then I’ll ask all the questions I don’t know the answers to?”

By January 2009, Thea was arranging her meeting. It wasn’t an obvious sell. With the current economic downturn, not many business leaders were thinking, “What can I do for the world?” or “How can my business make a positive impact?” Many were wondering how to keep the lights on.

Still, the logistics were simple enough. Buy cheese and crackers and drinks. Check. Invite friends, clients, friends of friends who are like-minded. Check. Set up and wait. Check. Watch the clock turn to 6:3–.

The first guest arrived, then the laughter as more people came through the front door. The flurry of introductions, Thea’s husband taking coats and filling drinks. Her parents there to support her. The guests were a mix of people Thea knew and friends of friends. There was a prominent central banker, an economics professor, thought leaders, real estate industry leaders, business owners.

Standing at the threshold, letting in the last few guests, Thea felt the warmth of knowing all these people as she watched them sipping their drinks, standing, sitting, talking in a low murmur. In the space of her home, it felt very intimate and personal.

When the door closed, she walked with determined steps to the dining room and cleared her throat.

“If I could have your attention for a moment, please?”

Thea stood at one end of the table, looking out at the group of faces gathering around. Her eyes met those of her husband, her business partners, her closest friends. And she began.

Swallowing the last bits of nervousness, she thanked everyone for showing up and explained what they were there for—to talk about business as a force for good. Thea shared her story, how she had gotten to this moment.

Then she took a deep breath and shared the purpose that had taken a year to form. Her voice didn’t shake—not outwardly—but there was a swooping in her stomach. It was emotional to share something so vulnerable. What will they think?

When she felt sure enough to home in on a few faces, Thea saw they were smiling and nodding. She spoke again. “We’re making this up and we’d love your thoughts. Thank you for coming and being a part of it.”

She gestured to the questions she had placed on the walls and invited everyone to answer. She didn’t know who else should be involved, what could be possible, how these people might want to participate, and what questions they had, but she thought some of these minds would have ideas, and she hoped they would use the flip chart pages to mark something down. She released a breath she didn’t realize she was holding when the first person—a business owner she knew as a client—picked up a pen and started to write.

“I’m in,” someone at her elbow said, and she turned.

“Thank you!”

“This is amazing,” someone else said, walking up with a glass of wine.

Pulled into conversations, explaining her purpose and her journey, Thea fell into the evening. When she paused and looked around, she loved what she saw—no one was left out and people gestured, absorbed in their conversations about using business as a positive driver in the world.

This feels like a celebration, Thea thought, setting out more glasses.

The shadows of the evening grew, and, outside, Chicago slowed down slightly into the evening as people started to drift away. Thea met them at the door, accepted their thanks.

“Thank you.”

“Thank you,” she said, smiling, and helped in the search for a coat. “We’ll let you know when we’re getting together next time.”

She shut the door on the first get-together of what would become the Chicago Chapter of Conscious Capitalism. It wasn’t called that yet, of course. Thea hadn’t yet found Conscious Capitalism, the organization, and Conscious Capitalism wasn’t yet setting up chapters. But it was the first tight bud of the idea.

Before that first meeting, Thea had had to find something in herself to lead, but now she wasn’t alone anymore. She didn’t have to have all the answers. She was no longer worried about finding global leaders and contacting them. Instead, she took down the papers from her walls and transcribed the answers her guests had left. As she read over every thoughtful answer, it became clear to her that two questions in particular—“Who else should be involved?” and “How would you like to participate?”—created the start of a community. These were the questions that would create the people and the roles that would make up the start of the Chicago Conscious Capitalism Chapter.

It wasn’t always easy. It took Thea three months to organize the second meeting, at a restaurant in Greektown. She spent hours calling business leaders in Chicago and beyond who might also be looking to make a difference through business. In many cases, she had a hard time explaining the concept of Conscious Capitalism so people understood.

“What? Do those two things even go together?”

“What do you mean? Philanthropy?”

“Let us put you in touch with our sustainability engineers.”

At one point, Thea was driving down Lakeshore Drive to meet clients downtown. Where is our income going to come from? The thought formed in her head, a deep worry that threatened to bring back those familiar feelings of overwhelm. In spring of 2009, there didn’t seem to be much money for consultants, but bills still had to be paid. How am I going to hold this together?

Never one to back down, Thea didn’t wallow in that feeling. She kept driving. To live her purpose, Thea had to step out of survival mode, which meant practical things like giving up caffeine. It meant waking up, making a list of what she was grateful for and a list of what she had to do that day. It meant delegating. It meant repeating, “In this moment, I am fine,” as often as necessary.

Most of all, it meant a deeper shift: I can just go and be my purpose today. I don’t have to get someone to sign a contract to be my purpose. I can be my purpose with the person at Starbucks. It was a relief to realize that her purpose was bigger than her survival, and she could choose to live that way. Doing so gave her permission to be whatever she wanted. When she was chasing new business, she had to look appropriate and speak a certain way, but when she was just being her purpose, those limits fell away. Living her purpose “gave me permission to be bigger than my identity,” she explains.

With the help of her new volunteers and their energy, the first gathering of the Chicago conscious business movement launched that spring. The group had expanded, and the conversation was growing. As she watched from the back of the room, Thea relaxed into the fact that making a difference in the world ultimately comes down to community:

“All you have to do is start a conversation. Everything starts as a conversation. And then you invite people to take action. And then you keep having conversations and keep inviting people to take action. And it grows and grows.”