Arts Listings

Books: Author Commentary: Elephant, Reel Founder Tells How He Did It

By Stuart Skorman, Special to the Planet
Tuesday February 27, 2007

Berkeley has long been famous for starting revolutions—especially revolutions that come from the political left. The purpose of this editorial is to make the heretical proposal that Berkeley launch a revolution from the right—a revolution drawn from the heart of the free-enterprise system.  

I have to admit that I am a poster child of the capitalist system. I come from a family of business owners, and I have spent a lifetime making (and losing) millions of dollars as a start-up entrepreneur. The truth is I may not be good at anything else beyond starting innovative new businesses.  

But whatever your background, it’s hard to deny that socialism will never take root in the U.S.. This means that our only hope for making the world better for everyone is to revolutionize the capitalist system.  

The kind of businesses I really like to start are socially-conscious businesses, businesses that have a double bottom line. By that I mean a business that measures its success by both making a profit and also by helping the community to become a better place. Elephant is the best example of a double line business that I’ve ever started. 

At Elephant, for instance, we provided free wellness classes and also free advice from a variety of health practitioners. This extensive program both helped Berkeley become a healthier place and it also helped Elephant by attracting thousands of new customers.  

Socially responsible capitalism is not a new venture for me. I’ve been doing it for 30 years. With every business that I’ve started throughout my decades of entrepreneurship, my goals were not only to make money (for an enterprise that is not profitable does not survive) but also to revolutionize industries and enrich people’s lives. And it is the opportunity to enrich people’s lives that has given me the most satisfaction. 

At, the first Web-based video rental service, I had the good fortune to become an Internet pioneer (and also very wealthy). With Elephant Pharmacy, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help make Berkeley a healthier place—and to spark drugstores throughout the country to follow suit and become healthier places by emphasizing customer education, natural products, and community outreach. (That Elephant Pharmacy also had a positive impact on other business in our North Shattuck neighborhood was also very important to me.)  

But my biggest motivation and inspiration was customer education. I envisioned a revolutionary store that would not only have a unique product mix from around the world but also be the first big-box retail concept focused on education.  

As most of you know, the dream became a reality. Not just the dream of creating a revolutionary pharmacy, but the leading the world to better things … from Berkeley, California. The first eight customers who waited in line for Elephant on our grand opening day were all Walgreen’s managers — and they were just the beginning of a daily pilgrimage of pharmacy executives visiting Elephant from all over the world. We called them “the suits,” and they stuck out in Berkeley like Deadheads at an NRA convention. The nation’s largest drug store chain, CVS Pharmacy, kept very close tabs on us from their headquarters in far-away Rhode Island. How do we know? Because when we visited Chris Bodine, a very senior CVS executive, he not only knew that we had moved our flower department the previous week, he also knew every detail about the flower’s new location (and was willing to debate us on every detail of the move in the first place!). After our flower debate finally ended, Chris smiled and congratulated us for creating such an incredible new business model and said that CVS could never have done what we did.  

I am writing this guest editorial to encourage the Berkeley community to embrace, welcome, and nurture new businesses that have a double bottom line. I call this new type of capitalism “gentle capitalism.” My dream is for Berkeley to become known throughout the country as a center for gentle capitalism and for incubating new socially-conscious businesses. Berkeley has a national reputation—we capitalists might call it a brand—for leading revolutions. (When Elephant opened wellness boutiques in the Saks Group department stores, our tagline was: “A radically healthy idea from Berkeley, California,” and the people in the Midwest loved that tagline).  

Berkeley has many other assets to attract vibrant, socially conscious startups besides its powerful brand and legacy. We have excellent political leadership with Tom Bates and his dedicated team. The Haas Business School can provide great leadership in many ways and gives us an academic infrastructure that is second to none. Other assets that can attract start-ups are relatively cheap office rents, our great school system, and our biggest asset of all—our strong diverse community of spirited, multi-talented people.  

Berkeley, let’s put out the welcome mat for new innovative double-line businesses that will do a lot more than just help Berkeley’s tax base. These colorful, dynamic, young businesses will add to the vitality and creativity of our community in many ways. Just as we’ve done in the past in the areas of free speech, civil rights, and peace movements, we can set an example for the rest of the country. It’s time for another revolution. 

Since I am much more qualified to start new businesses than I am at managing a more mature business, I have moved on from my leadership role at Elephant. I would like to thank many hundreds of Elephant employees and customers for their incredible support. Now that my job at Elephant has ended, I’m already working on my next start-up—a revolutionary new online movie recommendation engine.  



Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur 

By Stuart Skorman 

Jossey-Bass Publishers