November 21, 2008

The New Captains of Industry.

The New Captains of Industry

Author’s Note:  This ended up coming out more like a Feature Story rather than a Blog post or a straight interview, there was so much important context for the meeting that I didn’t feel comfortable losing some of those important details, so please forgive its length.  The interviews with Kris Wiesenfeld and Kevin Geminiuc, the Organizers of Colorado Green Tech, are below the cut.  Cheers!

I stood over by the cheese and beer tray chatting with two young gentlemen about this book I was reading: Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson.  Not many people know about this book outside of the Geek-chic elite, so I hope you, dear reader, will forgive my mention of this seemingly mundane detail.  These two gentlemen, Manish and John, also talked about business, and I had a chance to test out some of the questions I planned to ask of two other gentlemen at later point in the evening.  My questions were about Ethics–the Good Life–and how its relation to the Free Market.
Manish and John mentioned that they were looking to start a business, and that they would be selling a solution to help companies reduce their energy consumption.  Twenty years ago, we would never have heard of such a thing: where the profitable and the marketable met the ethical.   It was an idea where the right thing to do (helping companies reduce their energy consumption) would be the profitable thing to do.
Who knew that you could make money saving the world?

Kris Weisenfeld and Kevin Geminiuc are not the image that most people conjure when they think of two guys who are saving the Environment.  More likely, they think of guys like me in my lame Shakespeare t-shirt and manky Converse All-Stars stabbing at refuse and putting it in a bag.  I may or may not be wearing pants; it depends on my mood.
They, like most of the folks who come to the Green Tech Meetup every month are businessmen.  They have a professional discipline which shines through in the way they conduct the meetings each month.  They do not look like strangers to a good suit, and as far as I could tell they did not reek of Nag Champa.  Though I must admit, I did not think it was appropriate to start sniffing people.
The night began with networking, where I was able to get elbow to elbow with investors, venture capitalists, and business owners–the new Captains of Industry.
When we think of the Captains of Industry, a couple of names should pop into mind from high school history: Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockafeller.  These men were not only known for their shrewdness, and often times ruthless tactics, but also for their great philanthropy.
The great idea behind Green Technology is that it promises to unite shrewdness and philanthropy–to unite the ethical and the fiscal.  It promises not just that one can one get rich and be ethical on the side (that one can cut down a forrest with one hand and plant a tree with the other), but that one gets rich by doing the right thing. These are the new Captains of Industry: the people on the ground floor of the rising Green Tech Industry.

I spent most of the night watching presentations on the next generations of efficient automotive technology: ranging from redesigned engines to smart hydraulic systems which could increase fuel efficiency.  Questions were thrown at the four presenters that evening, and they did their best to answer.
I was thinking about asking one of my questions that I had prepared for Kris and Kevin, but I didn’t want to interrupt.
After the presentations, I had a chance to sit down with Kris and Kevin, the organizers of the Meetup, and two of the new Captains of this emerging Industry for their perspective on this meeting of the Ethical and the Fiscal.
My questions were fairly simple, I wanted to explore the relationship between Green Technology and Ethics.  I wanted to ask Kevin and Kris about the Good Life, and the Green Life, and how these things were related.  I asked them first about this connection between the Ethical and the Commercial.  What is the Green Revolution, and how is it changing the face of our Free Market?
“This is a great time of confluence of both [financial and ethical imperatives]” said Kris Wiesenfeld, one of the two organizers of the Colorado Green Technology Meetup, “Business will always be driven by monetary return: if I have money, I’m not going to put it in something where I am not going to get it back…but that you can do that and be doing good…it’s just a great time to be here.”
“There’s also been a movement,” said Kevin Geminiuc,” within the environmentalist groups to basically not stay too aloof to what’s happening in corporations, and they’ve embedded themselves directly into the Walmarts [etc.] and created Chief Sustainability Officer positions and creating a green position for every company.  So they have already achieved that, and other businesses are following along, where they can say ‘it’s OK to make money.’”
My next question was regarding Government involvement in the Free Market.  In terms of ethics, I wanted to know whether or not the Free Market was taking this Green and Ethical turn on its own, or did it need Government intervention to turn towards the Green Life?
“Yes, there is already a turn [within the Free Market] in that direction.” Kris replied, “The market to change our infrastructure is the largest in history of America, we’re going to have to change how we generate and manage power throughout the world it is just the largest task we have ahead of us.”
Kris was quick to point out the use of Government subsidies as incentive to use alternative fuels, “ Should there be a stimulus?  I have this conversation a lot and that people talk “well renewables need subsidies and therefore aren’t valid”.  Well, that’s only true because we subsidize oil…there are significant subsidies for oil, so if we remove those then wind becomes above viable now and solar, and alternative fuels become valid.  So if we maintain those subsidies then we may need to subsidize Green alternative renewable energy.”
Kevin nodded, but added, “I am more of a proponent of creative destruction, so I would love to see new companies displace old companies.  It just generates better ideas and a lot of times significant wealth and that is how American is going to compete [in the global market]…[these new companies] are going to find stimulus without too much government incentive.”
Capitalizing on Kevin’s momentum, Kris hopped back in, “So given that we are facing the largest market we have ever seen, the United States has not answered the question: are we going to sit back and wait, and buy this technology from overseas, essentially replacing this hemorrhage for oil with a dynamic new industry for alternative energy solutions, or are we going to create it here and turn around and sell it?”
“America has gotten to its position today because we create the things that the rest of the world wants.  Now, are we going to do that again, or are we going to sit back and wait and buy it later?”
With regards to the Market demand for these alternative Green solutions, Kevin added that, “despite any cultural leanings, what we are finding is people see energy independence as a crucial issue to the continued prosperity of the United States, whether it be in terms of national security or creating a thriving economy.   Across the board people are saying that they are willing to give up some of their money and buy these solutions to keep the United States on the cutting edge.”
Most of us understand that there is such a thing as Business Ethics, no matter how much recent events may speak to the contrary.  Most of us feel like there is a right way and a wrong way to do business.  For example: it is wrong to cheat your customers and your employees.  We feel that it is wrong when companies do that.  But what about environmental concerns?  Aren’t we starting to feel like when a company acts in a way that is environmentally responsible, then they are doing something right?  And if they act otherwise, actively polluting the environment, or not taking steps to ensure that their business reduces its environmental impact, don’t we feel like they are doing something wrong?

Has Green affected how we see ‘good’ or ‘bad’ business?
“[The new Green ethics] are coming in naturally because of the change in public perception of what needs to be done,” said Kris, “They are coming in regardless of whether or not what they are doing is true.  Companies are doing right now what we call ‘greenwashing’–where a company tries to spin things in a ‘Green’ way, even though what they are doing isn’t actually Green.  Because, companies always act in their own self-interest.
There is something called fiduciary responsibility, and the entire responsibility of the board is this responsibility.  There is a thing called the Triple Bottom Line, which has come out, which is not only the financial but the social and the environmental bottom line.  And right now the Market is more and more expecting all three of these to be hit.”
Kevin added, “ In Toronto, people are having to recycle and do more because most of the cities will not take refuse.  People are being forced to live in denser areas.  We are going to be forced into this whether we like it or not: it costs us to much to pollute.  The Moral imperative has become the Survival imperative now, and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing.  We are learning through these difficult circumstances to live better.”
With two questions down, and one to go, I was still taken back to hear both Kris and Kevin switch back seamlessly between the practical financial concerns of running a business and generating capital, and the ethical issues of preserving and protecting the environment.  It’s only after speaking with someone in this emerging Industry that that I was able to understand that for them these concerns are not only not mutually exclusive, but also dependent upon one another for success.
My next question was about education, and how we are going to capitalize on any theoretical momentum generated by any stimulus to the Green Tech Industry.  How are we going to make sure that our kids grow up not only with a sound education in the sciences, but also with an understanding that science can and should be used (among other things) to come up with viable, sustainable, solutions to environmental issues?  Should our education not only teach the sciences, but also to teach ethics regarding the environment?
“I get nervous when people start talking about putting morals in the classroom,” Kris said with a smile, “but if we are talking about creating a genuine ethical concern for the environment, I think that we are seeing some of that right now, and that we need more of it.  Not only because it generates genuine interest in solving these problems, which can keep us on top of the industry, but also because these sorts of ethical values are important to teach anyway”

Kevin piped in, “There is going to come a time when our ethical concerns are going to become our children’s practical realities.  Whether or not we should recycle, or should turn lights off when we leave a room, there is going to come a time when these will no longer be options for our kids or our grandkids.  We’re starting to see it now.  So it’s not only a matter of teaching our kids ethics, it’s a matter of preparing our kids for how to live in the world that they are going to inherit from us.”
I was very satisfied with the answers I was getting, but there was an additional concern that Kris wanted to voice, and he brought up an interesting question of the definition of Green Tech.
“Not all Green Tech is based in ethics,” Kris said,”not all of these technologies have the double benefit of doing good and making money.  For example, I think Ethanol is unethical.  As we are doing Green Technology, we need to not only be focused on making money but we have to be concerned with the sustainability of the technology itself.  We need to not only look at the bottom line, but also the ethics of it.  We are creating this market, and we need to choose better what markets we create.”
Can a technology be called Green Technology if it does not have the ‘double benefit’?  If a technology does do well, make money, but it creates more problems than it solves (think of the case of Ethanol) can it really be given the label of Green Technology?
This almost seems a rhetorical question at this point.  But it is complicated by the fact that we cannot know for certain whether a technology will in the future create more harm or more good.  However, it would seem that through a deep concern with the ethics of what we create, or choose to buy, or choose to invest in, we have a better chance of avoiding these kinds of follies.
It would seem to me, then, that not only is Green Tech spurred on by ethics, but also to ensure its success, Green Technology must necessarily be constantly concerning itself with Ethics.  It must, necessarily, have a clear vision of the Good Life, beyond merely the reasonable return of investment in order to be successful in the new Market.
The two guys I met in the beginning of the meeting, Manish and John, certainly have competition, and their success within the Green Tech industry is going to depend very much on their commitment to following ethics, and their inclusion of the Green Life into the Good Life.  I wish them luck, and I wish everyone luck that believes that they can carve out their own place in our future and save the world.

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