We talked to Harriet Anderson Langford of The Ray on how to drive the future and here is what she said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Harriet Anderson Langford: Thank you for asking. What is most important to me during this time is that my family and others stay healthy and safe. Our family has been incredibly fortunate to have the capability to live and work from our home, but I also want to make sure we are a part of the solution – not the problem. We have been very cautious and are strictly following the guidelines outlined by the CDC and health officials.
At The Ray (we consider our board and staff extended family), our team has been on the same page. They have been flexible and are a huge part of the reason our organization has continued to thrive this past year. We are all doing our best to support our neighbors and the greater good.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded The Ray?
Harriet Anderson Langford: In the 1980s, my father, Ray C. Anderson, invested everything he had, including my sister and I’s college savings, into building his own business in our hometown of LaGrange, Georgia. Daddy’s hard work quickly grew Interface to a global leader that piloted modular carpet tiles in the U.S. However, at the height of the company’s success, he was posed with the question, “What is your company doing for the environment?” And his honest answer was…nothing.
This challenge changed the course of dad’s life. He made it his mission to prove to other business leaders that doing good is good for business. He became the world’s first “green” CEO and pledged to take Interface net-zero and fully circular by 2020. Unfortunately, daddy did not live to see the company accomplish this goal due to his premature passing in 2011, but his work didn’t stop at the end of his life.
To our surprise, he left my older sister and me a substantial trust in the form of a foundation to continue his legacy – with no direction. To start, I worked with former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia State House to secure a highway designation on I-85 in southwest Georgia from the Alabama/Georgia line through our hometown in LaGrange.
It didn’t take long for me to realize the incompatibility of putting the “greenest” CEO’s name on a highway. On the ride home from the Capitol, I looked at my husband and said, “Oh hell, Phil, I’ve just put the name of the greenest industrialist of the century on a dirty highway.”
Phil replied, “Harriet, what are you talking about? Dirty highway?”
“Well, think about it… Highways are covered with litter and rolled-up tires on the sides of the road. Drivers are dying in crashes every day. There’s the air and carbon pollution from cars. And every time it rains, the water that runs off carries oil, gasoline, metals, and plastics into our rivers and streams. There’s nothing ‘green’ about them.”
So Phil took out his smartphone and googled “sustainable highway.” Do you know what came back? Nothing. The Ray was born.
How does The Ray innovate?
Harriet Anderson Langford: Innovation is the core of who we are at The Ray. Our mindset is to find the solution to the problem. People like to use words like “green highway” or “sustainable transportation,” but they don’t… We’re building it. At The Ray, we put those words into action by bringing into existence the first real-world testbed – a true living laboratory on a working interstate – for transportation innovation.
With the mission to modernize America’s highway system as zero carbon, zero waste, and, most importantly, zero death, our team works with researchers, technologists, and entrepreneurs to find solutions that reduce carbon, eliminate waste and SAVE LIVES. We bring innovation to life by evaluating and testing on The Ray’s highway proving ground. The Ray partners with industry leaders, policymakers, and State DOTs by implementing plans to scale projects nationwide with the goal to revolutionize the way we view transportation.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Harriet Anderson Langford: As a nonprofit, we are grateful to have had the continued support of donors and the security of our foundation. Because of this, The Ray has been able to operate without the financial burdens that have affected so many businesses during COVID-19.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Harriet Anderson Langford: The Ray was blessed as an organization to have the capability to adapt during the conditions of social distancing and avoid the tough position of making staff and leadership choices. Because of our growth through projects and partnerships, we were given the opportunity to actually grow our family and bring on team members we connect with virtually.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Harriet Anderson Langford: Since The Ray is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we do not have customers. However, much of our project work comes from our relationships with partners, State DOTs, policymakers, and other industry leaders. Like many other organizations, we had to adjust the way we communicated as a team and with others to continue building on those relationships. We are no longer giving in-person tours of The Ray Highway, and we have put our staff’s safety first by allowing minimal employees at our physical office.
Fortunately, with the advancement of technology, such as Zoom and Google Teams, we have not missed a beat. Cutting down travel, in-person meetings, and other pre-pandemic norms has given our team the opportunity to excel and create virtual connections around the world with organizations that share our same goals and values.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Harriet Anderson Langford: No.
Your final thoughts?
Harriet Anderson Langford: The Ray continues to rely on my father’s influence by relying on the idea of doing well by doing good. Ray prioritized people and the planet over profit in his business and his life. I’m proud of the work we’re doing at The Ray and the impact we continue to make. We are blessed to have the security of a foundation that allows us to push the boundaries, be the first, and create incredible technologies that transform transportation and SAVE LIVES.
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