Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

SOCAP Conversations: Meghan French Dunbar of Conscious Company on the First BIG Global Leaders Forum & The Rise of Sustainable Business

March 16th, 2017

Conscious Company Media’s mission is to make sustainable business the future of business.

The company’s remarkable growth has kept pace with the rapid rise of interest in sustainable business practices, social entrepreneurship, and conscious leadership. Conscious Company Magazine broke ground in 2015 as the first nationally distributed publication in the US to focus solely on sustainable business. Since then, the Certified B Corp has attracted widespread attention from readers and business leaders from across the spectrum.

In 2016 Conscious Company supported SOCAP as a media partner. The company has announced that, this June, they will join SOCAP as a convener. They are now organizing their first national event. From June 7 – 9, 2017, The Business Impact for Good (BIG): Conscious Company Global Leaders Forum will convene leaders from across the country at the San Francisco Impact Hub to discuss topics related to purpose at work, conscious leadership, and sustainable business. We recently sat down with Conscious Company Co-founder Meghan French Dunbar to talk about the importance of having a sense of purpose at work, the rise of “conscious leadership,” and the vision that inspired their upcoming event.
 

 

SOCAP: Conscious Company Magazine has been on stands for a little over two years now. Can you tell us about the developments you’ve seen since your first issue?

Meghan French Dunbar: When we were conceptualizing the publication in 2014, we were operating under the thesis that there was intense interest in this industry of conscious business and sustainable business and that it would soon start growing. My business partner (Maren Keeley) and I both did our MBAs with a focus on sustainability. We knew that there were graduate programs popping up all over the United States focusing on that.

With that first issue we put out, we got into every Whole Foods in the nation, which was a massive win for us. But we were curious about whether or not we would ever make it past Whole Foods. We weren’t sure we would be able to bridge the gap to more mainstream retailers. After that first issue sold really well, we got picked up by Barnes and Noble. It started selling well there. Since then, over the last two years, we’ve been picked up by Target and Kroger and HEB and Publix.

We are now seeing the trend that what we were hoping for, that more traditional business people are interested in learning about how sustainable business practices could really benefit their bottom line–what we are calling the conscious curious group. There has been a tremendous interest in the magazine itself as well as a yearning for more information beyond the magazine.

What inspired Conscious Company Media to become a convener, or the idea for your upcoming event, The Business Impact for Good (BIG) Forum?

The BIG Forum event in June will be our first national gathering. The impetus for becoming a convener was that, we noticed the magazine attracted leaders from almost all of the major industries in the sustainable business movement. They were all contributing. We had posts from Social Venture Network and Conscious Capitalism and B Lab and the American Sustainable Business Council and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. In reading the magazine, industry groups were cross pollinating ideas with each other.

So we saw that this was happening through the vehicle of the magazine and we really wanted to understand how to take that to the next level. That is where the idea for the event came from: We are hoping to bring together all of these industry group leaders along with key influencers and business leaders who have come into our network through the publication of the magazine to really talk about how to make a broader impact working together rather than everyone working on their own causes in different silos.

What can people expect to see at your event? How are conversations going to be stimulated within the group?

We are unpacking the traditional conference model. While there still will be a focus on major keynote speakers who have a lot of insights to share, we are really going to be focusing on workshops, on small group work, and breakout sessions. The point of the event is really to get these people in the same room to collaborate—to stimulate dialogue between attendees. We are focusing on collaboration efforts and workshops to facilitate discussion that helps people get perspective and cross pollinate ideas.

The framework of the event, we are hoping, will set the stage. The three triads of conscious leadership that we are focusing on are: the personal work that we all need to do, the workplace development work that we all need to do, and the cause based work that we need to focus on externally outside of our businesses. Self, workplace, and world, that is how we are framing the different tiers of the event.

You have already announced a few of the facilitators and speakers who will be presenting at the conference, can you share some of the content you are most excited to see?

As we are pulling together the agenda, there are so many sessions that I am excited about–honestly, all of them. Sessions will cover everything from Mandy Cabot (the Co-founder and CEO of Dansko) talking about workplace culture, and mindfulness to experts in workplace development, such as Cory Smith (Co-founder and CEO of Wisdom Labs) and Marc Lesser (CEO of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute), to Robert Egger (the Founder and President of L.A. Kitchen) who focuses on cause-based work and figuring out how to have a larger impact on the world through the work that you do. And Chinwe Onyeagoro, President of Great Place to Work US, will lead a deep dive conversation into how to create a great place to work. It is exciting, across the board, including a few folks that I’m not allowed to name yet along with some large cap companies that are coming down the pipe.

What are you hoping to catalyze through this summit? What are some of the major takeaways you are hoping for?

We are really hoping to demonstrate that making change in the world starts at the individual level. By bringing all these leaders into the same place at the same time we hope to stimulate discussions around how important it is to embody conscious leadership, and how big of an impact that can create. Broadening out from there, helping anyone who hopes to create a big impact with their business, see how important it is to start by making the culture at your organization sustainable and driven by purpose so that employees can come to work every day feeling happy, healthy, and fulfilled. That you understand how impactful wellbeing in the workplace is–because they take that home and out into their communities.

And then the larger, the big impact piece of not only what you can do as a sustainable or conscious business, but how the product you create or the workplace culture you create, of how impactful it could be if we all started thinking about broader cause initiatives and how business can be used as a tool for advocacy. We are really hoping to highlight some of the best of the best examples, because we have seen so many business leaders come out as advocates, and really use this platform as business leaders to really effect change on a specific cause whether that be environmental protection or immigration rights or women’s rights or economic inclusion. We really hope that these great examples of advocacy will really inspire business leaders, that outside of what they are doing on a day to day basis, to really think about the causes that they truly want to have an impact on and start thinking about the next step on how to effect change as a business leader outside your company.

Business Impact for Good (BIG): The Conscious Company Global Leaders Forum will take place in at the newly renovated Impact Hub in downtown San Francisco, CA June 7 – 9, 2017. For more information visit https://consciouscompanymedia.com/forum/
 
Meghan French Dunbar is Co-founder of Conscious Company Media and Editor-in-chieftess of Conscious Company Magazine. Prior to launching CCM, Ms. French Dunbar was Managing Editor of two nationally distributed publications and spent nearly a decade in strategy development and project management in the nonprofit world.

Inspiration and Celebrations from SOCAP16

December 21st, 2016

Every year the Social Capital Markets Conference brings together a diverse community of leading entrepreneurs, investors, business leaders, and innovators. The community that came together at the Fort Mason center for SOCAP16 included over 2,500 changemakers from 60 countries around the world.

At this year’s conference we sent a team of volunteers out with a dry erase board, a camera and a question. They asked everyone they met at the Fort Mason Center: What is Inspiring You Right Now? Their celebrations were inspiring to us and we thought they might be to you too. Here are some of our favorite responses:

jamiebaynishi

The eclectic mix of innovators and social impact mavens from around the world!

-Jamie Bay Nishi, @JamieDevex

 

upayasv

So many smart and committed people making the world a better place!

-Upaya @UpayaSV

 

thejohndouglas

Passionate brilliant people working together.

-John Douglas @thejohndouglas

 

mathu_logan

INGOS getting into impact investing!

-Mathu Jeyaloganathan @Mathu_Logan

 

kheytifarmers

2500 people wanting to change the world. We are not alone!

-Kyeyti @KheytiFarmers

 

justicewisewhen

The Entrepreneurial Cities Session: Inspired by the great ideas for how to care about our cities by working with local government AND citizens. The presenters shared models and programs for how to do this successfully.

-Gillian Haley, Justicewise LLC.

 

investedimpact

 

The Baltimore Delegation

Invested Impact

Mission: Launch Centro de los Derechos del Migrante

Impact Hub Baltimore

Social Innovation

City Seeds

HUMANIM

#Bay2Bay

-Invested Impact @InvestedImpact

 

innovate_africa

African media and technology entrepreneurs.

-African Technology Foundation @Innovate_Africa

 

ilooklikeace

Women investing in women and girls.

-I Look Like a Civil Engineer @ilooklikeaCE

 

copowerinc

All the good people.

-CoPower @CoPowerInc

 

bcorporation

Meeting awesome B Corps!

-B Corporation @BCorporation

 

anniechor

Cross Collaboration.

-Annie Chor @AnnieChor

 

We express our gratitude to everyone at SOCAP16 who shared their inspirations with our volunteers. Thanks also to all of you who are working to create positive social and environmental impact. You inspire us year after year.

Join us to Get Inspired at SOCAP17

Tickets for SOCAP17 are now on sale. The 2017 Social Capital Markets Conference will take place October 10 – October 13, 2017 at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, CA.

Get Your SOCAP17 Ticket Here

Purchase your SOCAP17 tickets now to get the best rate possible. Double your impact by giving a SOCAP17 ticket to an inspirational changemaker who needs to be part of the conversation at the next conference.

5 CONSCIOUS COMPANY CEO Interviews You Have to Read

July 4th, 2016

In these 5 interviews from SOCAP partner Conscious Company, impact CEOs reveal their biggest challenges, successes, and opportunities.

What’s your story? That’s the question Conscious Company has been asking social impact entrepreneurs since we interviewed Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey in our first issue way back in January 2015. Eight issues and 18 months later, we’re thrilled to have published dozens of interviews with CEOs of impact companies large and small, new and established, US-based and global. Each week on in our newsletter and six times a year in our print edition we feature practical tips for investors and entrepreneurs, on-the-ground perspectives from founders, visual business models, and more. Our growing ranks of supporters consistently tell us how much they appreciate our blend of clean design and accessible yet in-depth content.

Read full article…

SOCAP Voices: A Conversation with Megan Mukuria on ZanaAfrica’s Latest Grand Challenges Grant and New Impact Study on Women and Girls in Kenya

April 11th, 2016

In Kenya, one million girls miss school every year because they lack access to sanitary pads and reproductive health education. This lack of access leads to unnecessary shame, preventable illnesses, and unplanned pregnancies that keep women and girls home from school and work, and consequently from achieving their full potential in life. ZanaAfrica Group is a Nairobi based hybrid social enterprise working to solve this challenge by manufacturing, selling, and donating sanitary pads and underwear, while offering easy access to critical health information.

Megan_Mukuria_ZanaAfrica

ZanaAfrica Group Founder and CEO Megan White Mukuria first presented her solution to the SOCAP audience last year as a SOCAP15 Scholarship Entrepreneur. In March of 2016, ZanaAfrica Group was awarded a $2.6M Grand Challenges Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This four-year grant, given under the Putting Women and Girls at the Center of Development (WGCD) initiative, will fund a groundbreaking new impact study. I recently spoke with Megan about the award and other exciting developments in her enterprise and her field of impact.

You had been living and working in Kenya for several years before you founded ZanaAfrica. What opened your eyes to this challenge?

Megan White Mukuria: Back in 2002, when I was working with street children, I put together a cost-per-child budget, and then I further segmented it out by gender. I found that sanitary pads were girls’ second biggest cost, after bread, which was just stunning. I came to understand this expense competes with food. Women and girls often have to choose between buying pads and having dinner. Families are already reducing from three meals to two or two meals to one. Poverty means that you are hungry. When I asked girls what they did when they didn’t have pads, they said time and again “I stay home from school.” I found this unacceptable.

“I found that sanitary pads were girls’ second biggest cost, after bread, which was just stunning. I came to understand this expense competes with food.”

I was like a mom to those 200 girls, and they would talk to me. I couldn’t allow these girls who are like my daughters to go through this. So it was really responsive compassion and love. I had already started a village bakery and several other businesses, and it just made sense to try to start selling sanitary pads. That turned out to be a much bigger undertaking, but one that had the potential to help eradicate poverty.

Meanwhile, I also witnessed how so many organizations had such limited ability to talk to girls about reproductive health because they were limited by their own religious values or lack of comfort around the topic. And so girls were getting unintentionally pregnant and were unable to negotiate sex on their own terms. I thought that was appalling. I wanted to see how I could solve this problem not just for my 200 girls, but for how many? Could I create a sustainable model to serve two million? 20 million? How many commas can we add in there? And when I realized that nobody was going to do anything to sustainably solve these dual challenges of pads and related health education, I decided to step up. So that’s what I’ve done and am still doing.

“… when I realized that nobody was going to do anything to sustainably solve these dual challenges of pads and related health education, I decided to step up.”

Can you describe the WGCD Grand Challenge initiative and the ways that ZanaAfrica’s work fits that program?

Melinda Gates launched the Putting Women and Girls at the Center of Development initiative at the Grand Challenges conference in 2014. Melinda Gates has really been looking at how putting women and girls’ voices and needs at the center of development initiatives can lead to stronger long term outcomes.

 The Gates Foundation has taken increasing interest in menstrual health. This is our third Grand Challenges award. We’re one of the longer-term grantees in the Grand Challenges community on the African continent, having been a part of the program since 2011. At the Grand Challenges Africa launch, the Gates Foundation spoke of our work as an example of a project that started out with one type of innovation, the material science innovation of sanitary pads, and through that journey transitioned to a new type of innovation, namely leveraging sanitary pad brands to deliver reproductive health education through engaging, girl-centered comics and a magazine that is anchored in the UNESCO sexuality education curriculum.They also highlighted it as an example of an innovation that was at the fringe and has moved towards the center of their work.

The Gates Foundation and WGCD grantees are together thinking deeply about how to measure “empowerment.” We 19 grantees are really at the epicenter of a movement that is thinking through questions of what empowerment means and how to measure it, including the role of qualitative metrics to capture empowerment indicators. At a recent Monitoring and Evaluation workshop for the initiative, there were a lot of discussions about the importance of qualitative data when it comes to measuring the success of more nuanced gender-based work. That is huge because important projects are too often shelved because funders say, “it’s not measurable.”

Please describe the impact study the grant will fund.

The study is going to be a six-armed randomized controlled trial conducted by Population Council, an international research organization, that will elucidate the role of sanitary pad provision and different health education delivery methods on girls’ educational attainment and well-being. It is a rather large trial–we will be tracking approximately 7,000 seventh grade girls in 120 schools over two years–so as to provide statistically rigorous longer-term results. One of the key areas we will be assessing is whether and how reproductive health education delivered through our magazine and text message-based (SMS) service compares to reproductive health education delivered by a facilitator (someone standing up in a classroom and talking). The latter is the “go-to” approach for health education in Kenya and most countries, but can at times pose challenges when it comes to maintaining not only the quality of content, but also cost-efficiency at scale. ZanaAfrica’s combined magazine and SMS tool offers girls a referable resource that is rooted in their real questions, as well as UNESCO’s technical guidance on sexuality education.

ZanaAfrica’s combined magazine and SMS tool offers girls a referable resource that is rooted in their real questions, as well as UNESCO’s technical guidance on sexuality education.”

In the menstrual health space, much attention has been paid to the returns of menstrual health management and reproductive health education on girls’ school attendance. From our work on the ground over the past eight years, we’ve learned that oftentimes, even when girls attend school during their periods, they may become withdrawn in class due to shame or discomfort. Over our two-year evaluation we will be examining other aspects of educational attainment in addition to attendance, such as matriculation into eighth grade, scores on national exams, and advancement to secondary school. We will also evaluate other factors such as self-efficacy and self-confidence. Assessing these broader areas of potential impact will be of vital importance to global education and health research.   

“Over our two-year evaluation we will be examining other aspects of educational attainment in addition to attendance, such as matriculation into eighth grade, scores on national exams, and advancement to secondary school. We will also evaluate other factors such as self-efficacy and self-confidence. Assessing these broader areas of potential impact will be of vital importance to global education and health research.”

What do you hope will be the ultimate outcome of this impact data?

I hope that it will help organizations, whether large UN entities, small development organizations, or governments, pay attention to this link between menstrual health management and reproductive health education and be able to normalize that intervention across their girl-focused programs. We believe that girls deserve to manage their bodies with dignity because menstrual health management is a basic human right. We also recognize that data is fundamental to large-scale systems change.

“We believe that girls deserve to manage their bodies with dignity because menstrual health management is a basic human right.”

The onset of puberty and the provision of pads is an amazing opportunity to speak to girls about a range of issue that will affect them and to help them be in the driver’s seat of their own destinies. Hopefully governments and organizations that work with girls around the world will begin providing feminine hygiene products such as pads alongside comprehensive sexuality education rooted in girls’ real questions and experiences. That is not currently happening in many parts of the world, including in the US. And to be honest, I think reproductive health education is the next frontier in women’s rights. We deserve to know what is going on with our bodies and the choices and rights we have.

For instance, in Kenya, right now about 45% of girls’ first sexual encounters are unwanted—they are coerced, forced, or transactional. That is stunning and awful and we can and must change this. Answering girls’ basic questions about health, rights, and sexuality, while providing them with pads and tampons can help reduce this dynamic. While the focus of this WGCD trial is not to get statistically significant data to prove this kind of intervention reduces incidences of such trauma, I believe we are going to contribute to a growing evidence base that eventually will answer such questions.

 What call to action would you offer the SOCAP Community?

To any organization that works with girls, I would ask you to consider how you are coming to understand girls’ needs around menstrual and reproductive health. To think about how your organization could leverage that understanding. One of the most powerful ways to engage with girls is to give honest answers to their real questions. The first step is offering a listening ear to whatever they feel the need to say or ask.

I would also add that the field of menstrual health management, tampons and pads, is a $13B global industry with an $85M market in East Africa alone. I think, coming from both a human rights perspective and from a business perspective, we should be asking how can we be innovating products that meet the needs of women and girls who are locked out of the market in a responsible way without being completely extractive.

ZanaAfrica Group is looking at a “buy one–give one” type model locally, where a percentage of the revenue would go back towards giving out free products for girls whose families can’t afford them through our nonprofit arm ZanaAfrica Foundation. This would be the first of its kind that directs sales from within a low-income country to serve needs of girls in that country, which inherently gives greater dignity to consumers, and creates a movement that enhances brand equity. Such a model would require more patient capital. If we are taking out, say, 5% of every product sold to give back to girls that could take slightly longer to repay.

Right now ZanaAfrica Foundation supports 10,000 girls a year throughout Kenya by delivering reproductive health education, sanitary pads, and reusable cotton underwear through a network of 21 community based organizations, while also collecting data on each of those girls every term. While the Foundation receives some institutional support, we also rely on a strong network of grassroots donors to help fund our programs. A donation of $10 can help provide a girl with the tools she needs to stay in school for an entire academic year. I encourage the SOCAP community to support our Foundation’s work or just learn more about how this issue is affecting so many girls in Kenya (and around the world).

For those interested in supporting the work that ZanaAfrica is doing on the manufacturing and product development side, we are going to be opening a new round of investments soon. Menstrual health management–real, comprehensive MHM–is a field that can sometimes fall through the cracks when it comes to investment, because this work cannot be classified only as education, or health, or sanitation, or even gender. I urge impact investors to think about broadening the ways at which they are looking at health and education. Educate Global Fund is a fabulous fund out of London that is expanding the definition of educational investment beyond brick and mortars or teachers to include all the educational inputs that school children need, including menstrual products, sanitation, and more. I think taking a more integrative and ecosystem approach is where this space is heading and where it should be heading.

“Menstrual health management–real, comprehensive MHM–is a field that can sometimes fall through the cracks when it comes to investment, because this work cannot be classified only as education, or health, or sanitation, or even gender. I urge impact investors to think about broadening the ways at which they are looking at health and education.”

We are also currently in the process of looking for a CFO for the business, and welcome inquiries about that.

Can you tell us about other developments that have taken place for your enterprise since SOCAP15?

On the company side, it’s been an epic couple of months for us. We’ve introduced our second-generation product design and rebranded our Nia pad products with a new look, as well as sourced a new producer. Also our sales closed last year at $90K and we are serving about 20,000 customers in the market. We’ve experienced 10X growth in sales from 2014, as we have launched into commercial markets to meet the BOP where they want to shop.

On our Foundation side, we’ve really formalized our Accelerator Program. We have five amazing Community Based Organizations that are getting a much deeper dive in terms of basic leadership skills, fundraising, and organizational capacity building. Because we recognize that change comes from within communities, we want to equip existing organizations that are already on the ground to be agents of change from within their own communities.

Also, on the policy side, our team in the US at ZanaAfrica Foundation has been collaborating with advocates in New York who are working to eliminate the “tampon tax” and provide free pads for girls in public schools. As you may know, across the US and the UK, bills are being put forward with advocates and politicians clamoring to end what’s called the “tampon tax,” which is an antiquated tax code on feminine hygiene products that unfairly penalizes women and girls. In some states in the US, prescription drugs like Viagra are not taxed, but tampons are. There is simply no way to justify that.

 “… Kenya was actually the first nation to eliminate a tax on tampons in 2004, ended an import duty on pads in 2011, and through our organization’s advocacy efforts, Kenya became the first nation in the world to provide pads for girls in schools. Now we can help to leverage that expertise to help advocate for girls in New York and other states.”

This has been very exciting–to see the Menstrual Health movement really take off in the United States. What many do not know is that Kenya was actually the first nation to eliminate a tax on tampons in 2004, ended an import duty on pads in 2011, and through our organization’s advocacy efforts, Kenya became the first nation in the world to provide pads for girls in schools. Now we can help to leverage that expertise to help advocate for girls in New York and other states. That is a great example of innovation happening in Africa that we believe America and other countries desperately need. We are committed to helping make that happen, not just in the US, but for girls globally.

What is inspiring you in your work right now? What gives you hope?

I have a strong faith and I think that really helps. I’m also inspired every day by our team. We have such incredible people! On the company side, our brand tagline is Live Your Purpose and I think every one of my team members really is living her or his purpose. They are so smart in their areas of expertise and so passionate about listening to girls and women. With the right people, it is inspiring to see the ideas that I’ve had come to life even better than I originally imagined them. And then the girls themselves inspire me daily. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing girls believe in their inherent value and dignity, and thrive.

Watch Megan Mukuria speak about ZanaAfrica Group’s work on Stage at SOCAP15.

SOCAP Conversations: Bren Smith of GreenWave on Ocean Health and the Future of Food

February 3rd, 2016

23edible (1)Bren Smith is a lifelong fisherman with a passion for improving the health of our oceans and an entrepreneurial vision for creating positive global change. He describes his journey from commercial fisherman to restorative ocean farmer as one of “ecological redemption.” Smith’s Thimble Island Oyster Farm was the world’s first sustainable 3D ocean farm. His method of farming uses the full water column to grow nutritious food while repairing damaged marine ecosystems, mitigating climate change, and building a new blue-green economy. Now, as Executive Director of nonprofit organization GreenWave, Smith is training a new generation of ocean farmers and constructing the necessary infrastructure to replicate and scale this model globally.

In 2013, Smith was selected for a SOCAP Entrepreneur Scholarship and contributed to the SOCAP Oceans content track. Since then he has been named an Ashoka Fellow, an Echoing Green Climate Fellow, and his work has won accolades from the Clinton Global Initiative. The Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) named GreenWave as winner of the 2015 Fuller Challenge, socially responsible design’s highest honor and a $100,000 prize. Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Director of BFI, described GreenWave’s solution as “a scalable, integrated model that coastal fishing communities around the world can adopt with modest infrastructure costs and begin to build towards a long-term resilient future.” We spoke with Bren Smith about the health of our oceans, the coming age of kelp, the evolution of aquaculture, and the current and future impact of GreenWave.

SOCAP: When the SOCAP community first met you in 2013, you were creating impact on your own farm. Now, through GreenWave you are training others to become 3D ocean farmers. Was there a lightbulb moment when you realized that GreenWave was the evolution necessary to help your idea scale globally?

Bren Smith: Yes. It took 15 years of experimenting out on the water with lots of failures (laughs). Once the model came together, I did a Kickstarter campaign to enable me to scale up. We raised $40,000 to triple the size of the farm, but the money became secondary. The idea exploded. Interest came from all different sectors: architecture, venture capital in Silicon Valley, folks interested in carbon trading, government officials, everybody.

“I realized that the answer wasn’t becoming the king of kelp. It was helping thousands of new ocean farmers grow food, capture carbon, and create jobs in local communities. That felt like my life’s work.”

Investors were coming to me with offers of significant sums of money, telling me to create a brand and become ‘the Kelp King.’ I had to do some soul searching. I asked myself, “What accomplishment would let me die happy?” I realized that the answer wasn’t becoming the king of kelp. It was helping thousands of new ocean farmers grow food, capture carbon, and create jobs in local communities. That felt like my life’s work.

GreenWave spun off at that moment, with the mission to train farmers, replicate and scale the model, create the infrastructure, and develop the market for this new industry.

Buckminster Fuller created human centered, elegant solutions for complex problems and your model really fits that. Can you speak a bit about what you’ve learned from Fuller’s work and the impact of winning the BFI challenge?

brenchillin4I’m inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s work in all its brilliant forms, but particularly the idea of designing with Mother Nature’s technologies as the core principle. Designing with elegance and simplicity–that is the engine of replication and scale. The geodesic dome is, in its DNA, designed to be replicated. That is a tradition that we are overjoyed to be associated with.

I am completely honored to try to take Fuller’s vision of ecological design out into our unexplored seas. The crises facing our oceans and our food system make this a particularly crucial time to do it. We were able to immediately put the BFI Challenge award money into our farmer training program to get ten new farms in the pipeline, to build a hatchery, and we are in the process of building the country’s first seafood hub. Once the farmers’ crops hit the docks, we’ll be able to process it.

The BFI Challenge jump-started all the ideas we had, all the energy we had. It was just the infusion we needed to make it real. We got two million hits on our website last month–that has happened multiple times now. We have people that want to start farms in every coastal state and 62 countries. It is total madness. Our job now is to figure out the model that will allow this to replicate again and again. That is going to be the challenge going forward.

Is there a call to action you would like to issue to the SOCAP community?

Because the oceans are unexplored from a sustainable farming perspective, this is our chance to do food right, to do agriculture right, to learn from – and not replicate – the failures. There is also incredible opportunity in the new market that’s being created.  To make it a successful industry, we need a hybrid of non-profit and for-profit support: non-profit support for training farmers and giving them the tools and instruction they need to scale up their farms up very, very quickly; and for-profit support with the product development, to take what we are growing in the ocean and capture the value in the supply chain — kelp noodles, soups, biofuel.

Thimble Island, Oysters, Bren SmithThe farmers have to learn to grow, and growing food is hard. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of time. That is their job. The job for the market development and investment community is to play that intermediary so the farmers can focus on growing. The two can’t happen without each other.

At SOCAP13, I heard from a lot of investors that the investment community recognizes that we need solutions in our oceans, but it is too early and too risky for people to invest. This is why we need a non-profit sector to lay the groundwork, so the for-profit sector can come in and really develop the marketplace.

If people are looking for direct opportunities to support GreenWave, we are looking for people to sponsor farmers all over the country right now. In our Farm Startup and Apprenticeship program, farmers get two years of training, free seed, free gear from Patagonia, and we guarantee to buy 80% of their crops for five years above market rate so they can really stabilize. There is opportunity to directly support farmers in this program, so if someone wants to sponsor a farmer, they should contact GreenWave and we’ll find a farmer that’s a good fit for them.

In a recent New Yorker article about the coming age of seaweed, you spoke about partnerships you are building within the restaurant industry to develop a new cuisine based on sea vegetables. Will you describe some of the ways in which you are working to boost demand in the marketplace for the foods your ocean farmers are growing?

We are trying to do something very difficult, which is to rearrange the seafood plate and put bivalves and ocean plants in the center and wild fish at the edges. Traditionally, aquaculture has tried to replicate a wild fishery palate by farming salmon and tuna, but it’s not sustainable. We need to learn to eat what the oceans can provide at this point, and shift tastes in that direction. We grow it, and it is up to the chefs to use their brilliance and creativity to make it delicious.

“Traditionally, aquaculture has tried to replicate a wild fishery palate by farming salmon and tuna, but it’s not sustainable. We need to learn to eat what the oceans can provide at this point, and shift tastes in that direction. We grow it, and it is up to the chefs to use their brilliance and creativity to make it delicious.”

Thimble Island, Oysters, Bren SmithWe are going to be eating seagreens in the future. As climate change worsens, and with the growing water crisis, the price of food is going to increase. Because this crop requires zero inputs—no freshwater, no fertilizer, no feed – seagreens will become the most affordable and most sustainable food on the planet. But will it be like drinking cod liver oil or will it be delicious food? That is up to our chefs. One of the chefs in the New Yorker piece, Brooks Headley, comes out of the pastry world and brings a completely new eye to ocean cuisine. His barbecue kelp noodles with parsnips and breadcrumbs sell out all the time because it’s more like a vegetable than a seafood dish.

“There are 10,000 edible plants in the sea, and we only know how to grow a couple right now. There is incredible opportunity for resources to come into this space and discover the equivalent of arugula, corn, or tomatoes for the first time in the ocean.”

But this isn’t just about kelp. Kelp is our on-ramp, not only into an entirely new way of thinking about our oceans, but also a source of new food opportunities. There are 10,000 edible plants in the sea, and we only know how to grow a couple right now. There is incredible opportunity for resources to come into this space and discover the equivalent of arugula, corn, or tomatoes for the first time in the ocean.

Think about the excitement, from a chef’s perspective, of discovering literally thousands of new ingredients.

Dana (Goodyear) wrote this brilliant line in that New Yorker piece: “kelp is the culinary equivalent of an electric car.” It captures so well the multidimensional aspect of the future of seaweed. We can take every bit of those plants and find somewhere on the value chain to put them with zero waste. Food is at the top of the chain, followed by animal feed, pet food, and skincare products. Fertilizer and biofuel come at the bottom. Dana captured the potential and power of kelp in that statement.

How are you measuring GreenWave’s economic, food security, and environmental impacts?

One metric is volume of food per acre. We can grow 30 tons of seaweed and a quarter of a million shellfish per acre, with zero inputs, with the right design. In terms of food security, our goal is to increase production per acre, but in a sustainable way.

3d ocean farming Credit Stephanie StroudWe also consider the number of different kind of species we can grow. It’s about volume but also about diversity and variation. This isn’t about monoculture. We track restoration by doing species counts on the farm to see how many new species and the volume of new species per acre that are returning. Over 150 species are attracted to these farms, these thriving ecosystems. You go 100 yards away and find muddy patches of nothing.

In addition to species restoration, we use carbon and nitrogen sequestration as a measure of our environmental impact. We are calculating how much carbon we are sequestering and how much nitrogen we are soaking up.

Job creation is another important metric. One of our farms creates about five full time jobs and about fifteen part time jobs. That doesn’t even count all the economic activity that spins out of related startups.

We have a triple bottom line approach, and we truly believe our model can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits. We’re trying to ensure that people are making a great living while addressing food security and climate change, some of the major crises of our time.

Where does GreenWave hope to be 10 years from now? What are your projections?

Our vision is to have 25 to 50 farms in a region, clustered around a seafood hub, with stable regional buyers—hospitals, universities, large companies, and restaurants – purchasing all the farmers’ goods. I think of them as GreenWave “reefs,” and we want them replicated every 150 miles up our coastlines. This year we will have the first GreenWave reef completely set up and finished here in Southern New England. We’ve already started to move into two new regions: the Pacific Northwest and California. In ten years, I hope that we have ten GreenWave reefs around the country. We’ll be expanding internationally, too. We’re exploring projects in Trinidad and Tobago and have been invited to be part of new projects in Europe.

Expansion isn’t limited to just GreenWave reefs. Because we’re creating an open-sourced manual, individuals can use that to create farms on their own. This will be a valuable metric of our success – the number of farmers that are able to get started using just the resources in the manual. That is how we are going to scale quickly and we are already seeing it happen.

What advice do you have for any entrepreneurs who want to make a positive impact? Do you have any wisdom to share that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

“Your greatest strength early on is in failing, pivoting, trying again, and again, and again. Very often, if you take investment too early that locks you into a strategy.”

For me, it was to not take money too early. Your greatest strength early on is in failing, pivoting, trying again, and again, and again. Very often, if you take investment too early that locks you into a strategy.

We all get really excited because when you start getting investment it means you are gaining momentum and are headed down the road to success. If you are in an industry that is in its infancy and there are a lot of unknowns, incubate yourself in experimentation. Hold off on the money for a while. We said no to significant investment for about 5 years and had the freedom to fail until we got it right.

What is inspiring you in your work right now?

The huge challenges we face as a planet – climate change, food insecurity, unemployment – and to see people excited about starting their own farms and businesses to fight these challenges in their own way. We have interest from all kinds of folks – unemployed fisherman, students, inner-city families – and it is so inspirational.

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Photo credit for all Bren Smith images: Ron Gautreau

Credit for 3D ocean farming illustration: Stephanie Stroud