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Do You COTAP? Alternative Energy for MBAs in Dismal Times

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After the great collapse 2008, my business school friends often pondered what would be the next boom. For those of us looking for careers, that question remains largely unanswered. Without obvious game-changing trends, we are forced to think in a pragmatic manner.

For those of us Gen-Xers born in the 1970s, graduating B-school in 2009 meant not only had we deferred graduate school until our mid-30s, but we had deferred it until the worst possible moment in recent economic history. Nothing like approaching 40 years of age to help me come to terms with "the best" that has probably already come and gone. Nothing like a modest American's sense of history to recognize that global balance of power -- as well as the world share of calamities and foolishness -- is shifting heavily out of our favor.

I yearn for the mid-1990s -- the prosperous days before endless wars, fear-mongering, the Telecom-dot-com-accounting-fraud bust, airport security lines, Hurricane Katrina, the AAA-CDO-no-doc-loan financial crisis, and the Gulf oil spill. Back in the mid-1990s, American leadership was dominant and more respected while major crises in the world were happening offshore -- the Asia Financial Crisis, the Russian default, and the wars in Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia.

Instead of reinventing ourselves during the 2000s, America manufactured financial pink slime branded with AAA-ratings to sell to the rest of the world and rigged our economy with houses on stilts barely above water during the best of times. As his Deepwater Horizon rig slimed the Gulf, BP CEO Tony Hayward lamented, "I'd like my life back." I'd like my 1990s back. Most assume we have little control over the forces in the world: rural poverty, deforestation, political gridlock on addressing climate change.

Despite graduating B-school in dismal 2009, my UNC classmate and a fellow Gen-Xer, Tim Whitley, remained optimistic. He skipped corporate recruiting because of his passion for trying to help us gain a little more control over the forces in the world. Troubled by stalled international efforts to tackle global warming, Whitley founded a 501c3 nonprofit called COTAP to tap the individual market for carbon offsets. Three years into COTAP, Whitley became a father. Baby Graham Whitley is COTAP's global brand ambassador.

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COTAP connects projects to individuals who want to offset their carbon footprint, but have a strong preference that their donations support poor farming communities in developing countries that already experience the brunt of climate change. Not all carbon offset organizations are nonprofits, although many consider themselves "social businesses" with a public mission. COTAP donations fund wages of farmers who plant trees in sub-Saharan Africa and Central America through projects certified by outside bodies. Hence, the name of Whitley's fledgling 501c3 nonprofit is Carbon Offsets To Alleviate Poverty, or "COTAP" for short.

COTAP is trying to address three gaps. First, paying farmer's wages to plant trees helps them directly capture some of the benefit or preserving a resource that provides indirect benefits to us since we in the rich world gain from having trees that are the lungs of our planet. Second, no major North American carbon offset organization has a poverty mission. Third, COTAP provides a brand and distribution channel to projects that may otherwise have limited access to individuals in North America. COTAP's organization as a 501c3 nonprofit allows donors to receive a tax benefit.

Whitley hopes his storefront will one day will aggregate thousands of small, bite-sized carbon offsets into high-impact reforestation projects in impoverished countries, thereby creating a virtuous cycle where citizens offset their own carbon footprint; poor rural farmers improve their environment and economic situation through paid tree-planting; and we all benefit from less global warming. COTAP makes its easy to assess your footprint with a simple yet robust carbon calculator.

Whitley has set a 2015 goal of attracting 250,000 donors, each offsetting 18 tons per year at a price of $10 per ton. Having proven his ability to execute, he hopes to attract seed foundation funds to scale up. When I COTAP-ed, I felt like I was in back 1999. Do you COTAP?