Impact Investments: Alumni Make the Case for Sustainability
Being in business today goes hand-in-hand with sustainability—whether that’s the clothes you wear, the coffee you drink, the energy you use, or the community you build. Here, four alumni weigh in on what it means to bring bigger—and broader—value to their work.
Surabhi Agrawal’s (MBA’16) first sustainability-minded company was a start-up she created at Georgetown called Farm Fresh Trucks. “It was essentially a farmer’s market on wheels to help support low-income neighborhoods in D.C. that were food deserts,” she says. The idea of social enterprise consumed her for an entire semester. Sustainability was part of it, sure, but more important, says Agrawal, was the idea of being a community-driven enterprise, in which the organization was responding to the needs of the consumers. Today, as the group product manager for sustainable packaging at Starbucks, this idea of being a community-driven organization plays an important role in her work.
“Starbucks is very community-oriented as our mission states: provide for our neighborhood, one cup of coffee at a time,” she says. “That element of sustainability plays a role because the communities care about it.”
Agrawal started her Starbucks journey in core supply chain sourcing where she continued to make an impact—ensuring the coffee giant was picking the right suppliers and treating them well in order to make an impact on the larger business’ mission. Later, she moved to the coffee division and worked to create a traceability feature for the app so customers could scan a code and trace their coffee from their cup to the farmer who supplied the beans. Eventually she brought all that knowledge to the consumer side of the business. How could she and her team make sure everything that the customer touched—from the cups to the lids to the stirrers—was brought to them in the most sustainable manner possible?
Agrawal points to the big environmental menace often in the news: straws. Starbucks plastic straws were an issue, she admits, and the company wanted to address the problem. The solution brought forth by the team was a new lid with an updated “sip case,” so a straw isn’t needed. When the customers spoke and requested their straws Agrawal and her team sourced an option: a 100% home-compostable, industrial-compostable BPI straw. “Now customers have a choice: If you don’t need a straw, you can choose a different lid, or if you do need a straw, we have the best available compostable straw that you can have.” Starbucks next big step: a reusable cup. “This is a cultural shift for America, thinking through this concept of not just throwing away everything I take. This is a convenience-first world in which we live, but as a company we want to ask, how can we provide you the best convenience there is and think about being environmentally sustainable at the same time?”
Not only is it good business for consumers who want to shop at companies that are taking sustainability seriously, it’s good for employee fulfillment.
“Why do I work at Starbucks? Because I feel like it’s a purpose-driven company, and I can make an impact at scale,” she says. “I want to feel like I’m contributing to a value-based company. As humans, we spend a majority of our time working, so I want to make sure my work is creating value.”
When Sargon Daniel (B’04) was 10 years old, he drafted a contract for his parents for his fledgling lawn mowing business. He charged a fee for every square foot of lawn he mowed. “I drafted it so I was paid on square footage milestones,” says Daniel. His dad still has the contract—it was an early indicator that Daniel had an entrepreneurial spirit.
Like all good entrepreneurs he went into his future with a plan: become a lawyer, work in the energy field, but ultimately start his own business. Though he found practicing New York big-law could feel stifling, he knew it was important to start there. “Over time I needed to temper my desire to start something with what I thought was the very real need to actually develop expertise,” he says.
Today Daniel is the founder and CEO of Nexus Power Group, a Texas-based power company that got its start in solar development—buying and securing the land, hooking the solar plant up to the grid, developing the contracts to sell the power, and then handing the package off to a buyer. Nexus Power Group now develops, finances, and invests in solar, storage, and electric energy assets, like batteries, and has moved from developing a few acres to creating sites that are upwards of 2,000 acres. But Daniel has no plans to move beyond Texas at the moment—there’s plenty of work to be done within the state’s independent grid that makes headlines when temperatures rise and the grid hiccups
“When it comes to sustainability and renewable energy, the sky’s the limit in the space, and there are a lot of really big companies doing it all over the world,” says Daniel. “But our view is we want to be really good at what we do in our niche. We’re going to play in a limited number of counties, and we’re going to know our backyard and leverage our relationships right here in Texas. We plan to stay hyper-focused.”
That idea of staying local is part of Daniel’s long-term thinking. Renewables are still relatively new. “We’re moving to a more electrified world and our infrastructure needs to keep up,” says Daniel. “In Texas, our natural gas plants are, on average, 30 years old. Our coal plants are 50 years old. Our transmission system was first thought up 100 years ago. It’s a time of regeneration, and it’s a time of updating in the power markets.” And Nexus Power Group plans to be right there, helping Texas cross that big green bridge.
Building Sustainable Communities:
As a businessman, Mo Dewji (B’98) knows the importance of environmental sustainability in any company. As CEO of Mohammed Enterprises Tanzania Limited (MeTL), one of the largest conglomerates in East Africa, he ensures that the company his grandparents started in a small storefront in Tanzania is working toward implementing a carbon credit program and puts money behind products like sisal, a hemplike material that requires little water for production.
But what’s most important to Dewji? Sustainable development for his community. Creating a product or brand with the planet in mind is a wonderful thing, but what good is that product if consumers can’t afford it?
MeTL, with interests in trading, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, real estate, transportation, distribution, and more, is the East African equivalent to groups like Unilever or Proctor & Gamble. But unlike those American companies, MeTL’s consumers have much less to spend on products like cocoa, detergents, oils, cotton, beverages, and textiles. “The challenge was that per capita income in Tanzania was $400 when I took over the business. I’m talking about $400 a year,” says Dewji. “So disposable income is $30, $35 a month.” Those numbers had Dewji asking some important questions: How could MeTL offer quality products at lower price points? And how could he create systems and supply chains that would bolster the finances of the people in Tanzania?
It started with manufacturing. Dewji saw no need to export manufacturing to places like China, India, and Europe when East Africa had the people and the space to provide for themselves. Take cotton, for example. “We buy the cotton. We gin cotton. We spin cotton. We dye it and knit it into garments,” says Dewji. “At the end of the day, it’s very labor intensive, but you now have a factory that employs 4,000 people; you are using local cotton; and you’re getting foreign exchange for the country.” And the local manufacturing is good for the environment: local production counteracts the negative effects of shipping emissions.
MeTL also invests in longterm crops like tea, macadamia, avocados, and sisal, which allows the 60% to 70% of East Africans relying on agriculture for a living to also use their land for their own food staple crops and sales. “These are businesses that I feel bring the maximum impact,” says Dewji. “They’re not the best businesses in terms of ROIs, but they’re positive in terms of impact.”
It’s a long-term strategy. “Ideally, what we’re trying to do is grow Tanzanians’ purchasing power or disposable income.” That purchasing power is good for individuals and it’s good for MeTL, which provides just about every product a Tanzanian touches through their day—from the tea they drink to the bike they ride to the clothes they wear and the detergent they use to wash them. In addition to employing business practices rooted in sustainable development, he also works to provide clean water, education, and healthcare to the East African people through the Mo Dewji Foundation and has vowed to give away at least half of his wealth to philanthropic causes through the Gates-Buffet Giving Pledge.
MeTL has come a long way since that small store that supplied grocery items to locals—and Dewji’s long-term play ensures that the family business, now worth $1 billion with a presence in 12 African countries, will be around for future generations of East Africans.
Making Waves In An Industry Built on Waste:
In 2013, Bangladesh faced a huge crisis as one of its apparel factories burned down, killing more than 1,000 people. Just two years later, it was a topic of discussion for Lisa Thompson (EML’15) and her classmates studying corporate responsibility at Georgetown. “Georgetown was introducing me to case studies of disasters, and the intentional and unintentional consequences of losing track of your supply chain,” says Thompson. “I was also learning about people doing really good and intentional work with their supply chain.”
The stories made an impact on Thompson. She knew fashion had a long history of being one of the worst industries in the world when it comes to waste and unfair treatment of workers. In fact, the fashion industry alone is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and has often relied on poor working conditions and even slave labor to turn a profit. Even so, Thompson decided to jump right in. “How can I make a positive impact in this notoriously horrid industry?”
In 2016, Thompson and Amanda Laird Cherry launched Ivy Citizens, an active-wear clothing company rooted in sustainability and human rights practices. Every piece of fabric, every zipper, every thread for every stitch is sourced to contract with companies that use products with low water consumption like Tencal, sustainable bamboo, and recycled materials. They also look closely at all fabric and cut and sew supplies to determine proximity for travel to reduce water and air travel. Most products, for example, are U.S. and Canada-based companies so Ivy Citizens can operate in countries that use renewable energy. In addition, their factories are chosen based on fair wage practices and proper treatment of workers. For Thompson, this isn’t a martyr’s mission. “I think anchoring a business with intentional practices around human rights, impact on the community at large, and on the environment—it’s just good business.
There are certainly cheaper ways to run a business—all that green thinking can be pricey. “It’s a tremendous investment,” says Thompson. “And yes, there are easier ways to do this, there are more cost-effective ways to do this, but that doesn’t mean those ways are better.” Thompson’s thinking is for the longterm. While these human rights and sustainability issues are important to her, she also knows they matter to her consumers and partners, which include colleges and universities across the country. Consumers, says Thompson, are the ones ultimately running the show—more and more customers opt to put their money behind companies that care about more than the bottom line. As a result, values-based companies are thriving. “I do appreciate that this is where business is heading,” she says. I think it’s really a good sign for humanity.”
This story was originally featured in the Georgetown Business Fall 2022 Magazine.