Many predict that green business will be key to strengthening the economy of the United States. Looked to as a source for innovation, job creation, and environmental impact, green business is a top priority for governments and corporations alike. Green business also offers enormous potential for social entrepreneurs. In fact, many entrepreneurial organizations in the social sector are ahead of the curve.
To discover how social entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the green business movement, Community Wealth Partners checked in with a few to learn how they got started and where they are going. We hope to capture the lessons and insights they have for others who are interested in pursuing green business as a part of their programs.
Eric Lombardi gives a speech, “Zero Waste Millionaires,” to college and business school students. He talks about the potential business opportunities in recycling, which he sees as a growth industry in the United States and around the world. Lombardi’s organization, Eco-Cycle, is one of the largest nonprofit recyclers in the United States. Created more than 30 years ago, Eco-Cycle processes recyclables from the 15 drop-off centers it manages in Boulder and Broomfield counties, Colorado, as well as from residential curbside programs, businesses, government offices and schools.
Eco-Cycle also operates the Boulder County Recycling Center and, in 2001, opened the Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials. At the CHaRM, Eco-Cycle accepts materials such as computers, printers, TVs, cell phones and more. Eco-Cycle has 60 employees. Lombardi’s goal is to make a profit of 10 percent on the organization’s operations and plow it back into community programs. Eco-Cycle staff make 1,200 presentations each year in local schools to educate students about recycling. Other community activities include grassroots campaigns to promote recycling in Latino neighborhoods.
“Our mission is to grow recycling,” Lombardi said. “We approach what we do as a business because we know that the waste industry is a $50 billion industry and there are real opportunities here to thrive.”
Holyoke, located in western Massachusetts, is one of the poorest cities in the state. Its paper mills attracted a significant population of Puerto Rican immigrants to the city for work in the 1960s and 1970s. Now the mills have closed and unemployment is high. Yet, in the middle of it all, an organization called Nuestras Raices is capitalizing on the local Puerto Rican population’s agrarian roots to create new opportunities for jobs and community development.
Nuestras Raices (“Our Roots”) got its start in 1992, when residents of one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city began taking care of a vacant lot near their homes. Their goal was to create a small community garden where they could plant and harvest herbs, vegetables and fruits and, in the process, pass along to their children the cultural traditions and the knowledge of farming that they brought with them from their native Puerto Rico. Today, the La Finquita Community Garden in South Holyoke is one of eight community gardens and two youth gardens managed by Nuestras Raices across the city.
While earned income currently represents a small share of the organization’s revenues, Ross said this may change as Nuestras Raices enters the “green jobs” business. In early 2010, the organization launched Energia, a company that will conduct home energy audits, air-seal and weatherize houses, and perform insulation upgrades and energy efficiency retrofits to aging properties throughout the region. The company will train low-income community residents to do this work, creating a projected 30 jobs. With start-up funding from the federal government and a pipeline of projects already lined up, Ross said Energia should break even within its first year of operations.
Ross said the secret to the success of Nuestras Raices is the fact that it is a community-owned solution. “This is an organization that has emerged organically from the community as people worked to address the needs they saw around them,” Ross said. He added that Nuestras Raices is a classic “asset-based” approach to community development. “Our members have a unique set of skills and a cultural tradition that they bring to this work, and that’s given us the staying power to succeed.”
Founded in the late 1980s, YouthBuild USA is a national network of programs that help low-income young people ages 16 to 24 work toward their GED or high school diploma while learning job skills by building affordable housing for homeless and low-income people. There are now 273 YouthBuild programs in 45 states, Washington, DC, and the Virgin Islands; YouthBuild is recognized for its strengths in leadership development and community service. Since 1994, 92,000 YouthBuild students have built 19,000 units of affordable housing.
In recent years, YouthBuild USA has been integrating environmentally conscious practices into its work. Because of its pioneering efforts in green building, 50 local YouthBuild programs were recently awarded $4.6 million of Green Jobs Capacity Building Grants by the U.S. Department of Labor to help workers—many in underserved communities—find jobs in expanding green industries and related occupations.
“These grants provide an immediate return, and they are part of a larger green initiative that will help lead to increased job placements and promote economic growth,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.
In addition, YouthBuild USA is currently working with Community Wealth Partners to create a business model for a green handyman business. The goal is to create a business that has the potential to be scaled across the YouthBuild network, providing jobs across the United States. This business plan will include customer and competitor analysis as well as recommendations on optimal marketing and operating processes for the local business. In addition, Community Wealth Partners will provide YouthBuild USA staff with business planning coaching that will enable YouthBuild USA to train additional graduates in new business development in the future.