The green ideas our local entrepreneurs are bringing

Adam Roberts, executive director of Bethesda Green, discusses the ways that companies like his are building environmentally sound and sustainable communities, a...

Though it may surprise some, entrepreneurship and innovation isn’t always about profit. For a large group of ecologically- and socially-conscious entrepreneurs, innovation and business can be a fantastic method for improving their local communities and the world at large. To help understand what some entrepreneurs in our region are doing to move us into a new green era, we spoke to Adam Roberts, executive director at Bethesda Green.

ABERMAN: Bethesda Green is one of our region’s shining stars, but it’s not as well known as it should be. Tell us about Bethesda Green.

ROBERTS: Well, Bethesda Green is a really exciting and vibrant organization that’s based in the area, of course. And we’re really focused, I think, on community, is the best way to put it. And there’s two aspects to that. One aspect is building an environmentally sound community for the people of, not only Bethesda, but the entire District of Columbia region, showing that you can have strong green space, good drinking water, that the environment can be protected. At the same time, you’re also focusing on business and development and entrepreneurship.

And so, we’re really focused on ways to enhance people, their living environment, the planet, the environment itself, and the profits of businesses in the areas in which we all live. And I think now, more than ever, what I found is, when you have government leaders at all levels of government, local, national, with vested business interests, and the vested business interests themselves, trying to put environmental protection and economic development in tension with one another. What Bethesda Green does so well, and so importantly, is show that they actually work in concert with one another. And when they do everyone wins.

ABERMAN: You know, you describe it as in conflict. I think in some ways, I would describe a lot of these things as externalities. You know, because they can’t be measured by dollars and cents. It’s very easy for people who want to be unencumbered to ignore them. Do you get the sense that the current trends, and the current political environment, as it were, is creating more of an awareness that there really is no such thing as an externality, that there’s only the overall well-being of a community?

ROBERTS: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And what I’ve noticed in the month and a half that I’ve been with Bethesda Green, but more importantly looking at the 10 years of work that the organization has done, is that we bring all of these important things together in such a way that, as I said before, everyone benefits.

So, you don’t have to worry about that tension any longer, because you’ve got these visionary eco-entrepreneurs, who have these great ideas for solving complex problems, or bringing really cool products to market, and we’re helping them do that by incubating their startup businesses. And by having them based in Bethesda, you really create this green hub just outside the nation’s capitol, that can be replicated in counties and towns all across the country. And showing that that can happen at the local level will have real national positive impact.

ABERMAN: Give me an example of some of the stories, some of the entrepreneurial people, that you’re working with, and the kind of problems they’re trying to solve right now.

ROBERTS: Yes. So, we’ve got this amazing young cohort of business owners who are starting up their businesses now, and they’re looking at everything from food waste, what restaurants do with their food at the end of the night, how we can get it to people who might want it at a cheaper price than just throwing it away and having it sit in a landfill somewhere. We’re working with people who are looking at industrial hemp, and how to replace plastic containers with hemp. That’s going to be good for farmers and good for the environment, not to mention of course, good for the business themselves. People who are looking at ways to recycle old clothing and turn it into insulation or carpeting.

So, there are all these amazing businesses, and there are businesses that are sort of going through the program that Bethesda Green offers, and continuing to work year after year to amplify the impact of what they do. So for example, we’ve got right now somebody who’s looking to do a solar powered room heater, but we’ve also got someone who’s worked in the program before, who’s created a solar refrigeration unit, so that people in the far reaches of rural Africa can keep food refrigerated with the power of the sun. So, there are these really innovative products that, as I say, are not only good for the environment, but are going to benefit people in the local community and the economy as well.

ABERMAN: So, this isn’t an advocacy activity, although it sounds like advocacy is part of it. This is helping people grow real, sustainable businesses to solve these these challenges. Do you think that people understand in this region that’s what Bethesda Green is about?

ROBERTS: Well, I’m grateful to you giving me the opportunity let them know.

ABERMAN: How can we help get out the word? Because putting entrepreneurship to work solving significant social problems is, without question, one of the most important things that young people and older people can be doing the 21st century.

ROBERTS: Exactly, right, the 21st century, I think, is what it’s all about. It’s about looking at how we move our economies and our communities forward into the future, not thinking so much about the errors of the past. And you know, we’ve talked a lot in this conversation about the economic aspects of what we’re doing, and the business interests that we’re working with. But there’s also a community aspect to what we do. Making sure that Bethesda has recycling cans on all of the street corners, so it’s not just trash receptacles.

Bethesda Green is working with Walt Whitman High School to start a composting program, not only because that’s environmentally sound and good for the planet, but also to teach the kids there. And student led program. Make sure that they understand the importance of recycling, composting. So, we’re really looking at this from two different angles. It’s the business incubation, and the business model, but it’s also about the community education and community advocacy work.

ABERMAN: Does it frustrate you sometimes that these issues have become so darn politicized, when ultimately, this is just a quality of life concern?

ROBERTS: Yeah, it is frustrating, and there’s no question about that. I think that’s one of the exciting things about the work that Bethesda Green does, is that they bring it all down to the community level. How can we have an enriched, environmentally sound, economically profitable community, and then use that as a model to show everyone how those things can work together? And when we do that, it’s good for the community, but it also means that we’re setting this example for other societies to follow, other towns to follow, and I think that’s where we’re going to start to see the replicable results.

ABERMAN: It’s a much more constructive way for our region to lead than maybe some other ones that people remember us for. Adam, clearly you’ve got a lot of passion for this. I may already have an inkling, but you just took on the position as managing director at Bethesda Green, with years of experience in this field. Why did you take this particular job?

ROBERTS: So, I think it was really important in this time, as I was saying before, to work closer to home in some respects, and to suggest that we can really set a model here that can be followed nationally. That’s exciting for me. And we already have the sort of impetus, the framework there, because Bethesda Green’s been so successful. But also, you know, dealing with environmental issues, I think, is so important. So, just to give you a quick example. The county executive has held a series of budget meetings looking at the 2020 budget, and he opens it up for questions, and really gracious in terms of taking questions for an hour and a half. I mean, just standing there taking all these questions.

And the last one I went to, it was very interesting to me that the number one priority, based on the number of questions asked, was about green space, and it was about environmental issues, and how we can make sure that Montgomery County is as green as it can be. And it was everything from the large scale issues to somebody who’s having his streetscape ripped up, to build a new sidewalk, and is concerned about the loss of trees in the process. So, I think these issues are so local, but have profound national impact. And that’s one of the things that excited me about joining the Bethesda Green team.

ABERMAN: And another thing that strikes me is, knowing the background of this, with Seth Goldman, one of our region’s entrepreneurs, and Honest Tea, it must be really terrific to be working in an entrepreneurial situation that was founded by one of the region’s most prominent entrepreneurs.

ROBERTS: Yeah, absolutely. He’s an amazing guy with an amazing history, and the fact that he’s still involved in this effort, given all the hats he has to wear with the work he’s doing from his business side, is really impressive. But I’ll tell you, we mentioned the word entrepreneur a lot, and I think people automatically associate entrepreneurship with business.

But entrepreneurship is so important for all aspects of society. It’s about artistic growth and community protection, and environmental preservation. All of these things that have a unique, interesting, innovative quality to the solutions we’re providing, is wrapped up in this concept of entrepreneurship. So, everything that we can do to create new and lasting solutions to age old problems, I think, is particularly exciting, and therefore very important.

ABERMAN: Well, I wholeheartedly agree. Folks, check out Bethesda Green. Adam Roberts, thanks for joining us.

ROBERTS: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

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