These women entrepreneurs are proof that it’s possible to make an impact when it comes to the environment. Learn how they did it—and how you can, too.
Rising water levels, product recalls, disturbing medical studies—when your eco-antenna’s up, it’s hard not to be a little freaked out by all you learn. Though so much of it feels far out of our control (we’re looking at you, global carbon emissions), these entrepreneurs are proof that we can make an impact—even a small one—on the strength of our own ideas. Learn how these women did it, and how your own humble efforts can help the earth and take you from petrified to empowered.
Founder and CEO of GreenHouse Eco-Cleaning, a natural cleaning company
A former publicist, Saudia Davis of New York City entered the ecoworld after her grandmother, Myrtle, lost her battle with ovarian cancer in 2006. While Myrtle was sick, doctors gave her family a list of toxic ingredients to banish from the house—some of which were in the products Myrtle had inhaled for years working as a cleaning lady. “I believe her cancer was caused by that exposure,” Davis says. “That’s when I knew I had to do something meaningful.”
She decided an earth-friendly cleaning company—one that used 100-percent vegetable-based products to protect the health of clients and employees—would be the perfect tribute to her grandma. She put up flyers and started scrubbing toilets herself while juggling two jobs. “It was an insane amount of learning during that frst year—how to run a business, manage employees and deal with clients,” she recalls. But Davis was committed: “I lived off my savings and didn’t pay myself a salary; everything I made, I put back in the business,” she says. GreenHouse Eco-Cleaning now has 30 employees, a growing list of clients and its own line of cleaning products, Ecospirit.
CREATE CHANGE AT HOME
Concerned about toxic chemicals in your own tidying routine? Beth Greer, author of Super N
atural Home, says plant-based options are the safest bet. Avoid chlorine bleach, which can irritate lungs, and triclosan. No ingredient list? “If it smells strong and makes your eyes water, it has nasty chemicals,” Greer says.
Founder and CEO of Fenugreen and inventor of FreshPaper, a 5-inch-square, biodegradable sheet infused with organic spices that extends the life of produce
Kavita Shukla of Columbia, Md., had an eco-friendly breakthrough at age 12. Though she’d been warned not to drink the water while visiting her grandmother in India, she forgot and gulped down a cup. “I panicked, but my grandma created a spiced tea with the herb fenugreek that kept me from getting sick,” Shukla remembers. “I was amazed.” Once she returned home, Shukla—a budding scientist—applied similar spice blends to murky pond water and noticed samples didn’t grow bacteria. A few years later, she began experimenting with a sheet of paper infused with her spices. Just being near this sheet kept produce fresh two to four times longer than controls. “I was the weird kid in school with rotting fruits, but I got a patent for FreshPaper my senior year of high school,” Shukla recalls.
While in college, she saw that food waste was a worldwide problem. “Twenty-fve percent of food globally is lost to spoilage,” she says. At that point, she realized her old science project might be part of the solution. In 2011, Shukla took a handmade batch of 100 sheets to the farmers market. Local grocers placed orders, then Whole Foods, and now millions of sheets are distributed in 40 countries. FreshPaper has been such a hit that Fenugreen can make a donation to a food bank for every sale.
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Americans toss 34 million tons of (mostly edible) food a year, which represents a loss of money, potential sustenance and embedded energy. “Avoid overbuying, love leftovers and use your freezer,” says Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland.
Maxine Bédat & Soraya Darabi
Co-founders of Zady, an e-commerce site for sustainable fashion and gifts
During a catchup coffee date, high school friends Maxine Bédat and Soraya Darabi of New York City realized they needed to join forces professionally. “We’d been keeping tabs on each other’s careers and we still had so many shared interests,” Bédat recalls. She was intrigued by Darabi’s digital work, and Darabi wanted to know more about Bédat’s nonproft, The Bootstrap Project, which helps global artisans bring their goods to market. Afterward, the duo continued to talk about how things were made. “We started sending articles back and forth about fast fashion and the apparel supply chain,” Bédat says. A simple T-shirt, for example, might not only have been made with pesticide-laden cotton, dyed with contaminating chemicals and stitched by exploited garment-factory workers—it might then have been sold at a discount and chucked into a landfill after a few wears. “As we dug in and saw how awful the supply chain was, we thought this was either a massive problem or a massive opportunity,” Bédat says.
The two friends decided to create Zady, a digital marketplace for sustainable goods. The site features a collection of fashion items and gifts curated by Bédat and Darabi. “We started by going to brands and asking about their manufacturing processes,” Darabi says. “We met people who made the most beautiful, high-quality products. And those were what we wanted to sell.” Proceeds from every purchase go to The Bootstrap Project.
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Being mindful about clothing pays off. Sandra Marquardt, formerly of the Organic Trade Association, notes three fast-fashion problems: textile waste, toxic chemical discharge and poor working conditions. Look for apparel made with organic cotton as well as a Global Organic Textile Standard or Bluesign seal.
Co-founder and CEO of Quinn Popcorn, a line of natural snacks
Kristy Lewis of Boulder, Colo., was in her early 20s when she fell out of love with her favorite snack: microwave popcorn. “Once I understood what I was eating, I was shocked,” she remembers. “The bag was lined with chemicals and filled with synthetic ingredients. I couldn’t believe I was eating all this crap!” For six years, she searched for a more natural, yet still convenient alternative to no avail. Finally, in 2011, she and her husband, Coulter, decided to take matters into their own hands, founding Quinn Popcorn.
“I had zero food or product development experience and little idea of what an effort this would be,” Lewis admits. The couple’s frst goal was to rethink the bag itself: “We had to strip it of all its chemicals. It took months, but we found pure paper and a bag manufacturer who would work with us.” The flavorings were Lewis’s other big concern. Deborah Beauvais, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, points out that conventional microwave popcorn often contains hydrogenated or palm kernel oils. “These are the worst kind of fats,” Beauvais says. “Just one gram a day can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and even some cancers.” In order to use expeller-pressed oils and natural seasonings, Quinn Popcorn’s flavorings are added after the organic, non-GMO corn comes out of the microwave. “You pop the bag, then pour the oils and spices in and shake it all up,” Lewis says. “It’s real food.” The flavors, available nationwide in Whole Foods and other natural-foods stores, range from butter and sea salt to hickory smoked cheddar to olive oil and herbs.
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Everyone loves a snack, but check ingredient lists. Lewis admits that once she started paying close attention to what goes into processed foods, she changed her habits: “Now, if a packaged food product has a bunch of flavorings and additives, I put it back.”
Founder, Box Play for Kids, a line of stickers designed to turn empty containers into toys
When Janette Harwell’s daughter, Chloe, was 2 years old, she was obsessed with two things: stickers and the recycling bin. One Saturday, while watching Chloe dump empty boxes all over the floor and put stickers all over the table in their Phoenix home, Harwell had an epiphany. “I was following her, picking things up, and just looked at the egg carton,” Harwell remembers. “It looked like a piano to me. From there, I started to see how the milk carton could be a pig, or the toilet paper roll could be a rocket.”
Harwell, a graphic designer at the time, spent the rest of the weekend on her computer coming up with sticker designs that would transform those empty containers into the toys she envisioned. At first, Harwell thought a website and a fun product she could print and ship from her home would be enough, but she soon realized she’d need to create thousands of stickers at a time in order to make any money—especially since she was set on using FSC-certifed recycled paper and vegetable-based ink. So Harwell brought her line, which now includes about 40 designs, to a small trade show in San Francisco and found retail partners who made her project feasible and enabled her to produce it in the way she wanted. “Some manufacturers I met along the way told me I should look into having the stickers made in China instead of locally in Arizona,” Harwell remembers, “but I would rather keep everything here and sleep better at night.”
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Simplest solution: Just buy fewer new toys. Ask mom friends for hand-me-downs or sign up for a safe and clean toy subscription service such as Sparkbox Toys, which acts like the pre-2011 Netflix of toys: You get age-appropriate shipments of sanitized playthings that you can return once your kid tires of them. “Less is more,” says Alexandra Zissu, editorial director of the nonproft Healthy Child Healthy World. “And don’t forget, sticks and leaves can be great fun! Kids don’t need much to have a good time.”
BUILD YOUR OWN GREEN BIZ!
Inspired to turn your idea into an enterprise? Here are fve bits of wisdom from our eco-preneurs to keep in mind along the way.
- BUILD A GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT
“If you can overcome your fears and doubts to start spreading the word about your idea, it’s amazing how others will rally around to help. Everything shifts the day you take that first step.” —Kavita Shukla
- DO YOUR HOMEWORK
“Educating the consumer—and potential—about why your product is better than the conventional kind will be challenging, so it’s extremely important that you create a story around what makes your product different and try to get this message across in 30 seconds or less.” —Kristy Lewis
- KNOW YOUR SUPPLIERS
“Founders following a more traditional business model often want the most cost-effective options or material. But when you’re going green, integrity is key. Ask a lot of questions to find partners you can trust.” —Janette Harwell
- HAVE FAITH IN YOURSELF
“Accept what you don’t know and get comfortable with risk and uncertainty. If you try something and it doesn’t work, trust that what you’ve learned in the failure is valuable. You will eventually figure it out. There’s always a way from Point A to B.” —Saudia Davis
- REMEMBER: THE BEST BRANDS DON’T FORM OVERNIGHT
“It’s not about getting 10 billion customers by tomorrow. Scale swiftly, but stay smart every step of the way.” —Soraya Darabi