Cleveland's Green-Thinking Entrepreneurs

With the nonprofit Entrepreneurs for Sustainability as a catalyst, several startups are finding creative ways to put green principles to work

The entrepreneurs of Cleveland are hoping that next time you think of their city, you'll think "green" (rather than thinking of, say, the Cuyahoga River on fire). At the forefront of Cleveland's green thinking is a nonprofit called Entrepreneurs for Sustainability (E4S), which educates and trains business owners on practices that will help them make their companies more sustainable. The group was founded in 2000 by Holly Harlan, a former industrial engineer for John Deere, and three entrepreneurs: Pete Acorti, Brian Schneiderman, and Grant Marquit.

Harlan, now the president of E4S, got the idea for the group after a stint at the Rocky Mountain institute, where she studied capitalism and its environmental impact. The first meeting of E4S drew 25 business owners, but today the group boasts over 7,000 individual members, and its monthly meetings, where business owners gather to hear a guest speaker discuss a sustainable business practice, often draw about 150 people. Ultimately, the goal of E4S is not only to help companies become more environmentally conscious but also to help them save money.

Companies of all sizes are welcome, but the focus remains on entrepreneurs. "We started out with just entrepreneurs, but we attracted everyone. All are leaders interested in putting sustainability to work," says Harlan. In a July 2008 survey, 70% of E4S members said their company had a waste reduction goal; 60% had energy efficiency goals; and 30% intended to reduce their carbon levels.

Using the Waste Stream

Several creative, environmentally conscious startups have sprung from E4S. Mike Dungan, an E4S board member, and Mike Thomas, who had been a waste-stream consultant, were particularly influenced by an August 2007 meeting at which consultant Janine Benyus spoke about the benefits of biomimicry, or the practice of studying patterns in nature and applying them to everyday problems. Dungan and Thomas were particularly taken with the habits of honeybees, who find resources (in their case, nectar) in faraway places and transmit that knowledge back to others that can help harvest it. In 2009, Thomas and Dungan founded BeeDance to try to model that information sharing and local collaboration in a for-profit company. Their first project, called Zero Landfill, collects carpet samples from architectural firms and gives them to elementary schools and animal shelters, where they can be reused.

A Piece of Cleveland (APOC), founded in 2008 by Chris Kious, Aaron Gogolin and P.J. Doran, also credits E4S for its formation. The company dismantles abandoned houses slated for demolition. APOC, which generally brings in about $10,000 per contract and employs between 8 and 20 people part-time, uses reclaimed materials from the houses to make furniture. "We're looking to dip our hands into the waste stream and put [materials] back into the community," says Kious, who previously worked in community development and says E4S has helped him to meet other business owners. Last year APOC constructed countertops and tables from reclaimed wood for a local Starbucks.

E4S will showcase eight local startups this month. The startups will present their goals and talk to local business owners about how to best reach them. The city itself is also getting on the green train. This August, Mayor Frank G. Jackson will host a three-day summit to outline how Cleveland will meet its goal of becoming sustainable by 2019, a step in the direction of becoming what the mayor is promoting as a "green city on a blue lake."

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