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A New Home for Green Companies

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Earlier this month, we opened Maryland's first green business incubator. It is housed in the offices of Bethesda Green, the local sustainability non-profit which I co-chair with County Council member George Leventhal. I would have said it was a ribbon cutting, but instead of wasting synthetic material, we gathered local leaders around a pair of hedge clippers and cut a green vine of an invasive species that had been draped across the entryway. (Click to see the photo.) Here is an excerpt of my comments from the opening:

We hear a lot of talk about our nation's environmental challenges, but where will the solutions come from? We hear a lot about the need to create green jobs during these challenging economic times, but where will those opportunities come from? There's a Chinese proverb that appears underneath our bottle caps that says, "If we don't change the direction we are headed, we will end up where we are going."

Well, it doesn't take Rachel Carson to realize that the companies who built their success in the old extractive, one-way economy are not going to be the innovators in the decades ahead. And the entrepreneurs at Bethesda Green's incubator are stepping up to the challenge -- whether it's developing a technology to assess the environmental impact of consumer products, Savenia LLC, or a rain barrel company, Aquabarrel, that helps us capture a precious natural resource, these incubator companies will help identify the solutions that improve our community, our nation, and even the world. And if anyone doubts that these start-up companies can play an important role in our economy, just ask the 100 employees of Honest Tea, many of whom live and work in Montgomery County.

I know that for me personally, this new center helps address several challenges I encountered back in 1998 when I started Honest Tea. Of course, there were the usual challenges of not having enough money, not knowing anything about the beverage business, let alone trying to sell barely sweetened tea at a time when everyone else was drinking liquid candy. When you start a business out of your house, it can be difficult to make people believe it is a real business -- like the time I interviewed a Maryland MBA student for an internship in the guest bedroom of my house. On top of that, my third son Isaac, who is 12 now, had just been born, so it didn't seem too professional to have a 10 month old as my coworker.

I also had trouble getting vendors to work with us. I tried to convince our bottle supplier that Honest Tea was a real business, but the only address I could supply was a post office box, and that doesn't build confidence, because when you're trying to collect a payment, the folks who work at the post office aren't going to be much help. So that's where an incubator can help -- a real office, without babies, bedrooms, and with a real mailing address, not to mention wireless, copying machines, and a conference room. But even more important, the chance to network and interact with a community of entrepreneurs and experts who can share insights and inspiration

What's especially nice about this moment for me is that it helps bring closure to a conversation I had with a fancy-pants investor who flew in from Boston to tell me how to run Honest Tea back in 1998. In addition to giving me lots of bad ideas about how we should be creating an energy drink, he said you're a natural foods company, you shouldn't be based in Bethesda, you should set up a P.O. Box in Vermont or New Hampshire.

Well, aside from the fact that wouldn't be honest, I said to myself, "Why can't Bethesda be a place known for its commitment to sustainability?" We have more Ph.D.s than any community in the country. We have natural assets like the Metro and Capital Crescent Trail. We have some of the nation's most prominent leaders in the world of environmentally responsible business, including Calvert Group and Earthshare. And now we have our own green business incubator -- the first in Maryland. So I've already alerted my friends at the post office that they may soon be hearing from entrepreneurs around the country who will want to set up a P.O. Box in Bethesda.

Last updated: Oct 26, 2009

SETH GOLDMAN is the President and TeaEO of Honest Tea, the company he co-founded in 1998 with Professor Barry Nalebuff of the Yale School of Management. He's preparing the September release of a graphic novel titled Mission in a Bottle.
@HonestTea




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