By Melanie Mason
On April 9th, four start-up professionals joined GreenHomeNYC at our host venue Grohelive! Center to speak about their experience launching start-ups in the sustainability sector. The four panelists shared their journeys to where they are now, their perspectives on the current markets, and advice for finding a career in the industry.
“I decided I wanted to do something much more meaningful to myself and the environment”
– Sandeep Jain, CEO of GreenModel Energy
Sandeep Jain, CEO of GreenModel Energy, started his career as a software engineer at google and found it unfulfilling. Sharing this helped set the tone for an open exchange among the panelists and the attendees.
Sandeep was able to find fulfillment by starting his own renewable energy company in order to combat climate change. His company, GreenModel Energy, provides immediate financing for small to medium sized energy efficiency retrofits. GreenModel provides an app that allows for a higher implementation rate. Most electricity in New York and throughout the United States comes from natural gas, which is often mistaken for a clean form of energy, said Sandeep. Natural gas extraction leaks large amounts of the greenhouse gas called methane. Sandeep urged the audience to take a look at where their own energy is coming from and to be proactive in choosing clean energy by using resources such as those offered by his company.
Shane Eten, Co-Founder and CEO of Lotik, shared that he, like Sandeep, was motivated by the need to do something meaningful when he decided to start his own company dedicated to conserving water. He worked to show people that conserving water means conserving money, an idea that was not common knowledge. Many companies don’t consider waste and water a part of their business. Lotik provides a wireless sensor that tracks water usage patterns and identifies leaks. Shane calls it a Fitbit for a pipe. The device is clamped onto a pipe and then can communicate data to a cloud. Once leaks are identified, they can be fixed in order to conserve both water and money.
“It’s a bit of an adventure . . . it’s still scary as hell”
– Ken Levensen, CEO of 475 High Performance Building Supply
There are a few rules to follow for any conversation you have while job searching. Give the person you’re talking to your card at some point during the conversation. If you don’t have one yet there are several websites that will make them for you for free. And quick followup is key! Follow-up timing is on a sliding scale: if it was an informal interview, within 24 hours is fine, if it was a job interview, follow up immediately!
Ken Levensen, CEO of 475 High Performance Building Supply, started his career as an architect but wondered what he could do to combat climate change. While working with townhouses, he tried to choose renewable materials for the design. This wasn’t satisfying enough because he couldn’t tell what difference it made. He became interested in passive house, which is a standard for energy efficiency that reduces a home’s carbon footprint. This standard originated in Germany and Ken believed in bringing that standard to the US. Ken had a few adventurous clients who were gutting their townhouses and opted for energy efficient systems through Ken’s startup. Low carbon homes are tightly constructed and use toxin-free materials to conserve energy. Ken spoke about how transformative it is to see a home that is truly efficient and much more durable than ones made of non-renewable materials.
“It’s not just selling something, it’s selling yourself . . . when you have no track record”
-Joe Silver, Director of Programs at Urban Future Lab
Joe Silver, Director of Programs at Urban Future Lab, doesn’t work for a startup but represents about 50 companies in the industry. Urban Future Lab provides support to clean tech startups by connecting people, capital and purpose to combat climate change. He defined clean tech as any company that is directly or indirectly eliminating nonrenewable energy. Urban Future Lab is able to support early stage entrepreneurs through multiple initiatives that provide experts and funding. Joe spoke passionately about his role in witnessing the success of a company that works and makes an impact on the environment. Joe’s role allows him to play a part in combating climate change without the risks or instability that can come with working for a start up company.
“You definitely don’t do it for the money”
– Sandeep Jain, CEO of GreenModel Energy
All four professionals spoke candidly about the intricacies of starting a company and keeping it afloat. Sandeep, Shane, Ken and Joe all agree that one must be driven by the mission, not the profit. Sandeep mentioned that one of the most rewarding aspects of starting a company is getting to shape the value system and the culture.
All four agreed that getting a startup going does have its challenges. These include raising funding, getting health insurance, convincing clients that it is worth it, and making a profit. Shane spoke about the importance of finding partners and employees who are in it for the long haul. He said “… you need those people who, when sh-t hits the fan, they’ll be there.”
Joe broke down the challenges of a start-up into two tasks: (1) creating a product that has a return on investment (2) finding clients who will buy that product. Start-ups like Ken’s, 475 High Performance Building Supply, have created their own market, said Joe. This means there may be less competition but also no existing base of consumers. Everything starts somewhere and future policy changes will influence the markets. Shane stated that the largest industry in the world is energy. When the government catches up in terms of policies, money will have to flow from oil and fossil fuels to renewable energy. Other future sustainability policies may create new markets and certainly enhance the ones being paved today. When these markets do emerge, the start-ups built today will already be experienced and able to capitalize on the opportunities.
“It’s all about who you know”
– Joe Silver, Director of Programs at Urban Future Lab
Through a Q&A session, Sandeep, Shane, Ken and Joe offered some useful advice for those looking for a career in sustainability and specifically at a start-up organization. In the sustainability industry people want to share information and help one another succeed. There are numerous places to find job openings including Angelist, company newsletters, and networking. Joe encouraged attending events, asking people to grab coffee, and knowing what your goals are, in order to have meaningful conversations with companies.
All four panelists were very upfront in admitting that start-ups are often looking for candidates that are experienced, don’t need a lot of training, and feel confident that they can play an integral role in the small company. The ideal start-up candidate is able to take on many different roles and responsibilities, has a flexible schedule, is adventurous, and lastly, is driven by the mission of the company. Still, job seekers who are young and newly out of college or a graduate program can greatly benefit from internships and volunteer work, in order to enhance their experience and skill set.
The attendees left with some great advice on both starting a company and joining one. I certaintly felt inspired by the depth of knowledge and experience shared by the panelists.
Thank you to Grohe for hosting us and for doing your part to promote sustainable practices through your household water conservation technology.