Last week I found myself in Brooklyn's Borough Hall sitting behind the courtroom podium, watching passionate young entrepreneurs present their world-changing ideas in competition for first place and grand prize in New York's Green Business Competition.
Hosted and organized by Green Spaces, sponsored by Con Edison, GBC was established to support the most innovative small businesses in the state by offering them a cash prize plus services like office space, furniture, PR, and strategic consultation -- things all small businesses need. Fellow judge Graham Hill, eco-online entrepreneur and founder of TreeHugger.com, awarded prize trophies made from recycled glass.
The initial 70 applicants were pre-screened by faculty, staff, and students of the NYU Stern School of Business until only five companies remained. These five were diverse in size, stage, scope mission and product, but all met the underlying criteria of being New York-based companies with a focus on green products and services that benefited local and global community.
For me, the most powerful part of attending this competition was getting to hear the story behind each business. Take the example of Green Soul Shoes, founded when entrepreneur Alastair Onglingswan visited the Philippines and watched a child cut himself on rusty wire while walking barefoot through a landfill's mountains of used tires. Onglingswan vowed to use the tires to provide footwear for one million of the world's 300 million shoeless children -- one pair donated for every pair sold. It's a noble cause is quite moving. But purpose alone does not guarantee success in today's unpredictable economic climate, where fewer dollars means fewer opportunities for even the noblest of start-ups.
The applicants were judged not only by their potential for social and economic impact, but also according to presentation skills, industry analysis, market size, finances, goals, management team and overall business model.
Third place went to DBA -- a sustainable high design firm looking to redefine the aesthetics of green design. Their first product being a sleek, sexy 99% biodegradable pen. The second place prize went to E.C.O. Incorporated for living up to their name by reinventing the pizza box (their patented design is made from 100% recycled materials and comes pre-perforated to split into four plates and a tray for leftovers).
The grand prize winner and obvious belle of the ball was Gotham Greens, an urban agriculture operation. Futurists have long depicted urban utopias with lush landscapes bursting from the balconies and rooftop vegetable gardens - but Gotham Greens is finally cultivating the soil necessary to bring this vision to fruition (both figuratively and literally). With a 400K grant from the New York State Energy Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) under Program Opportunity Notice 1236 ("Energy Productivity in Innovative Local Food Production Systems") -- and now their prize package from this competition - they will be producing 30 tons of fresh organic fruits and vegetables a year. Their hydroponic farm, currently under construction will grace 12,000 feet of skyline in Jamaica, Queens. About 70% of produce will go directly to Whole Foods Market's New York stores, who have already signed onto the privilege of becoming their 1st customer. Whole Foods Market will promote them as part of their local food commitment.
According to Gotham Greens, New York City imports more than $1 billion in vegetables each year, with a majority for NYC's rapidly growing population. The population increase will bring economic growth but also put pressure on the city's infrastructure, creating challenges in food security and transport, as well as nutrition. NYC is the 4th largest energy user in the US -- with less than 15% of its primary energy requirements met from in-state resources. If Gotham Greens can keep it up, they will be pioneers in a new model for local, sustainable urban food production.
Just between all of you and me (wink), I'd keep an eye on one company who went home without a prize. I was particularly inspired by Jonathan Santiago's new company ReFab, a recycled furniture enterprise based in South Bronx. Inspired by the mission of Sustainable South Bronx (their founder, celebrated green-jobs advocate Majora Carter, sits on ReFab's advisory board), Santiago's vision is to help revitalize post-industrial communities by creating "green-collar" design and manufacturing jobs while transforming urban waste into valuable consumer products.
Through ReFab, entrepreneurship is leveraged to solve two of the greatest human challenges, poverty and pollution. It's hard to overstate the importance of companies like ReFab, which -- like Green Soul Shoes and Gotham Greens - are turning "trash" into useful goods and giving people work in the process. National budgeters predict a 10.5% unemployment rate in a frighteningly near future. Over six hundred thousand people lost their jobs last week, and finding a new livelihood is only getting harder. In January, Van Jones, special advisor on green jobs to the White House, told The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert:
"Your goal has to be to get the greenest solutions to the poorest people. That's the only goal that's morally compelling enough to generate enough energy to pull this transition off. The challenge is making this an everybody movement, so your main icons are Joe Six-Pack - Joe the Plumber - becoming Joe the Solar Guy, or that kid on the street corner putting down his handgun, picking up a caulk gun."
Thanks to the opportunities offered by contests like New York's Green Business Competition, and bright and bold entrepreneurs like the contestants, this future is more likely every day.