Rachel Emmer is passionate about family, community and ecology, and that’s a good thing for all three.
To properly understand Emmer’s devotion to those three worlds, understand first that she’s very much a child of her generation. The second of six kids, she arrived in Evergreen in 1971 and came of age during an era of cultural awakening.
“Growing up in the ‘70s, I always had a strong social awareness, and a sense of social justice,” explains Emmer, a vibrant personality who smiles when she speaks and makes no effort to temper her natural enthusiasm for those things closest to her heart. “Those issues, those passions, have always been wrapped up in my life.”
Even in that turbulent age, issues and passions were not the stuff of careers, and no sooner did Emmer graduate Evergreen High School with the Class of 1977 than she enrolled at Colorado State University and began charting a perfectly conventional life’s course. As she soon learned, however, conventional simply wasn’t in her DNA.
“After two years I realized there was a gypsy in me, calling me to play.”
She bought a Eurail Pass and rambled around the Old World for a spell, then rambled back to the Rockies and kept right on going until she ran out of altitude.
“I ended up becoming a ski bum,” Emmer smiles. “It was a very interesting chapter in my life.” It was during her years in the Vail area that her only child, Vince, was born. Emmer had become a single mom in a time that afforded few resources to the unwed mother, but no shortage of censure.
“The short-term prospects were pretty traumatic, but, looking back, those challenges were such opportunities for growth,” she says. “I’ve always been a single mom, and my life has been so enriched by it.”
By 1985 Emmer had schussed enough and began contemplating a more secure situation for her son. She earned a business degree at the University of Colorado, Denver, not because she particularly liked business, but because it was, believe it or not, an unconventional attainment.
“It seems like an archaic term now, but in the era of ‘women’s lib’ business was a non-traditional career for a woman. That appealed to me. And since I didn’t know yet where my other interests lay, it seemed like a good, versatile blanket that could be applied in a lot of different fields.”
Emmer applied it first to the field of stock brokering, taking a position at E.F. Hutton & Co.’s office in Cherry Creek that featured generous compensation and plenty of room for advancement. It was a sweet job that she did well, but that got very much in the way of her passions.
“It wasn’t the quality of life I wanted,” she says, simply. “Working 12- and 15-hour days, I only saw my son when he was sleeping. And I became disillusioned with ethos I was seeing. After several years I had a revelation – I was doing very well, and I was miserable.”
Emmer’s gypsy kicked in.
“It was a lightning-bolt moment. There was no logic to it, and no questioning it.”
She and her sister, Rita, went in together on the Fort Street Restaurant & Hotel in Belize City, Belize. Two years later she bought out Rita’s interest and ran the place as her own personal trial by fire. Resolutely adhering to fair-trade principles, she found the work difficult, exhausting, frequently confounding, and an absolute joy.
“As a white woman and a foreigner, it could be hard, but it was really good experience,” she says. “I learned a lot about doing business under difficult conditions.”
Emmer sold the place after five years and immediately charted a new course that dove-tailed nicely with her youthful ideals. She went to work for a film company that specialized in making wildlife documentaries about the curious critters of Belize.
“I was hired as operations manager and ended up producing,” she recalls. “I lived in a tree house and took rainwater showers. Living in the forest, watching and experiencing the interconnectedness of nature, I had a strong epiphany about the interconnectedness of all life, and the fragility of it, and the importance of protecting it.”
While spending much of each year in the rainforest was great adventure for young Vince, his future didn’t lie in Belize. Fifteen years ago his mom returned to Colorado where she could be present for him year-round.
The second thing one should understand about Rachel Emmer is that the issues and passions of the ‘70s were, if anything, strengthened by a lifetime of bold choices and diverse experience. In 2007 she earned an MBA in sustainability from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute and came home to Evergreen to put her passion into practice.
These days Emmer lives just off of Evergreen’s Main Street and maybe half a mile from her childhood home. As principal consultant of Detritus Group, she advises and educates businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations on sustainability issues. As an adjunct faculty member at Red Rocks Community College, she shares her knowledge, experience and passion with the next generation of American business.
“I teach classes in small business management, entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility, and I infuse sustainability into all of my courses. Today’s workforce is looking for a company that shares their values and principles.”
Emmer helped found the Downtown Evergreen Economic District, and still serves on its board. This year, the West Chamber named her one of Jefferson County’s 15 most outstanding women.
As interim executive director of Evergreen’s Alliance for Sustainability (EAS+Y), Emmer helps guide her beloved community along more eco-friendly paths, and as chair of Jeffco’s nine-member Sustainability Commission she does the same thing on a county-wide scale.
“It’s my mission to make Jeffco a world-class model of sustainability,” she says. “It’s going to take organizations like EAS+Y to make people of aware of recycling and the need to create closed-loop systems.”
And passionate, capable people like Emmer to point the way.
“Jeffco is the perfect place to start,” she smiles. “We have a fabulous back yard that people want to preserve.”