Room to Grow: A Look at the Changing Landscape of Green Startups
To get a sense for what it's like starting up environment-friendly and social ventures today, we reached out to three founders based out of NYC's Green Spaces incubator.
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Editor's note: From food to fashion, this weekly series asks startup founders at New York City incubators to weigh in on the pluses and minuses of certain popular industries.
With hybrid vehicles, solar panels and rooftop gardens becoming more than novelties, the green revolution is going strong, and Green Spaces is at its forefront.
The five-year old New York City-based incubator specializes in supporting sustainability and environmentally-focused startups. Director Marissa Feinberg moved the operation to Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood from Brooklyn in 2009 to occupy a more centralized Broadway address. The new digs, located in the building's top two floors, provide long, airy, loft-like office spaces. Green Spaces now has more than 70 members in NYC and about 1,000 nationwide, which also factors in the company's Denver office. Members cover a wide array of industries and passions -- from video game design to green roof gardening -- but all share the values of social and environmental entrepreneurship.
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We asked three different entrepreneurs from Green Spaces to give us the skinny on what it's like starting up a green business or social venture today. Here are their edited responses:
Eric Dalski, Founder, Highview Creations
Highview Creations is a four-year-old green roof and vertical-gardens design and construction company. Created by Eric Dalski, 31, and his brother, Highview Creations is now focused on a green roof project at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood.
Q:What drew you to this industry? A: After college, I wanted to get into the environmental industry, so I worked for a Bronx nonprofit for a few years doing urban restoration. After that, I decided to start up my own company with my brother and we leveraged each other's skills. He did construction, and I did the marketing and business stuff.
Q: What was your biggest startup challenge? A: Creating awareness. Green roofs are kind of a new industry and people don't really know about them. People often think we put planters on rooftops and that's it. But it's a lot more than that. It's a lot more intensive.
Q: What is your best advice for fellow entrepreneurs looking to get started in this industry? A: Be prepared to bounce all over the place, going from job site to job site and to get your hands dirty. There are days where I'm in the office and there are days where I'm lugging soil up stairs. Then just get involved in any and every possible way. You never know, your next client might be at the bar next to you.
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Molly Burke, Founder, Bicycles Against Poverty
Bicycles Against Poverty is a nonprofit that caters to remote Ugandan communities that don't have the benefit of nearby health centers and markets. The four-year-old organization provides residents with bikes for easy and clean transportation. After graduating from Bucknell University, 26-year-old Molly Burke partnered with college buddy and Ugandan native Muyambi Muyambi to launch the project. Today, the nonprofit has provided 660 bicycles to low-income Ugandan families.
Q: What drew you to this industry and why? A: We started because my partner Muyambi Muyambi grew up in a remote area of Uganda. His mom would get sick a lot, so he would have to take her to the hospital on the back of the bike. When we were in college together, he came up with this idea inspired by a grant he saw. We applied for the grant, and we got it. The project has since evolved into an official organization.
Q: What resources have helped you the most in starting up? A: Green Spaces has been a huge help in and of itself. It's really difficult to work by yourself. It's hard to come up with new ideas and just being able to talk to people here has been a great help.
Related: When Sustainability Stories Are Good Business
Q: What is your best advice for fellow entrepreneurs looking to get started in this industry? A: For social entrepreneurs, the best piece of advice is to listen. People come up with their own ideas and don't listen to people in the communities they hope to help.
Joel Henry, Founder, Fig Food Company
Fig Food Company's founder and CEO, 50-year-old Joel Henry, a former executive at the Campbell Soup Company, wants to improve the health of people and the planet through sustainably-grown organic edibles. Currently, Fig Food currently specializes in two dishes: microwavable bean packets and ready-to-eat soups, such as chickpea, tomato and thyme. The three-year-old company prides itself on being affordable and entirely meat free, which Henry says, "is not only healthy but also great for the environment."
Q: What drew you to this industry? A: I needed to do something that was fulfilling as well as, hopefully, profitable.
Q: What has been your biggest startup challenge? A: The single greatest challenge is working capital. There's no way around it. Food is a very working capital-intensive business.
Q: What is your best advice for fellow entrepreneurs looking to get started in this industry? A: Continually check your financial situation. Undercapitalization is a big driver of failed businesses. Also, check in with your partner or spouse, because it puts a burden on everyone when you start a business.