Majora Carter rose to national prominence in 2006 with a poignant TED talk on environmental justice. She called it Greening the Ghetto. Listen to the talk and you'll hear her voice falter briefly as she describes growing up in the South Bronx and how her brother survived the Vietnam War only to be gunned down near his home, located across the street from a crack house. Carter, a 2005 MacArthur fellow, says she saw how economic, social, and environmental inequalities interconnected. Better urban planning and development became her lever.
The nonprofit Carter founded in 2001, Sustainable South Bronx, turned $10,000 in seed grant money into a $3 million waterfront park that rehabilitated the environment and reunited residents with their waterway for the first time in more than 60 years. The New York Times called Carter "the green power broker." In 2008, she left Sustainable South Bronx to start a new consulting firm called the Majora Carter Group. She spoke to Inc.com about that transition, finding sustainable investment models, growing urban agribusiness, and the green jobs myth.
Going from nonprofit world to the for-profit world—how did you make that transition, and what did you learn from the process?
That transition was a long time coming. I'm not sure if I was ever really meant to be part of the nonprofit world. On some level, the idea of charity is a brilliant, beautiful thing. But it's really important for us to understand that charity isn't necessarily what we really need in order to create sustainable solutions that are going to continue to support people and move them out of poverty.
I had to learn very quickly how to think about investable models. It wasn't about creating another philanthropic endeavor, but it was all about developing an opportunity so that an original investment will grow and intensify, and not just acquire more giving next year. When nonprofit folks would say, "We want to work ourselves out of a job," I don't think they believe that at all, whereas I had reverse "Founder's Syndrome." I was always figuring out when should I leave.
You were synonymous with Sustainable South Bronx. Was it a challenge to leave?
I knew the work was going to stand. I built structures in, so it didn't occur to me that it would fall apart. And you know what? It didn't. Being able to let go was a sign that it was mature enough to live. If you give people the tools to change their own lives, they will change, too. I don't want to assume that I need to constantly be there to be the change they need.
If we could do what we did in the South Bronx under the political conditions we had from 2001 to 2008, then it's a great thing for us—for me personally—to see if I can do this outside of the South Bronx. There are South Bronxes all over the place. I knew that if I didn't try, I would not be able to face myself.
What are you working on now?
I still consider us to be in the start-up phase of our work right now. One of the things we're most excited about is the future of food in this country, and how we could figure out ways to develop a more robust food system that actually pays back dividends locally. What we're working on now is developing a national brand of locally grown produce that reinforces regional food systems by creating opportunity for local urban micro-agribusiness to augment year-round supply in any metropolitan area.
Seasonal growers in many regions can't meet the demand for the food needed there in terms of the hospitals, schools, senior centers, daycare centers, even the retail establishments and the restaurants. We're looking at ways to supplement and support that through the development of indoor growing facilities using high-tech hydroponic and aquaponic gear. One group we know is doing it in shipping containers using LED lights. It's not community gardening that we're looking at. That's great and does provide a wonderful community benefit, but it's not about creating the kind of jobs or the quantity of food that's needed.
Is being in the business world a challenge for you?
I feel a sense of freedom because nobody expects me to be anything except the head of my own business. When you run a nonprofit, you're supposed to be everybody's mother, and savior, and all sorts of crazy stuff like that, and you're also not supposed to make a good living. That's not healthy for anybody.
I keep trying to find my way and build a company that is going to provide a great service for me and later on for my investors. It's hard. I've come to understand that it's not that difficult to be unethical in this business, and it's something I don't want to do. But I also want to be a successful business person. I'm at the beginning of my learning curve.
What's next for your consulting group?
We're developing the market research to show that this is an investable model. We're working first on New York City to see what kinds of foods can be grown cost-effectively. We're making sure that the numbers work out. Once we have that, then we will work on developing investor relationships, and the business plans needed to make it happen. We've got interest from Newark, New Jersey, and the city of Jackson, Mississippi. There's also a group in Detroit that wants to bring us into the development they're working on.
Who inspires you?
The people who keep me going are the ones who really bring truth to the work that I do. They validate it. A woman named Brenda Palms Barber in Chicago figured out a way to help ex-cons get training in the workforce so they don't go back in again. She started a skincare line made from honey. Ex-cons tend to the bees, harvest the honey, market it, and produce the product that is sold in Whole Foods. It gives them the job skills they need to build a resume and move on to another type of job.
Have you had a moment where you're talking to people and you think, "How did I get here?"
Yeah! Every other day! But it's good because as crazy as it is, I know that I'm on the right track. I knew I was on the right track even when I ran a nonprofit. Until later on in the game, nobody really thought it would fly. I had a rejection letter from a huge foundation that said, "We're having a hard trouble understanding why you think these sustainable 'adventures' [sic] would help you with poverty alleviation." I remember just balling it up and throwing it against a wall.
But then I thought, you need to keep this and one of these days you're going to look at the foundation and remember. They're going to come to you for help. And they did.
There are people who say that green-collar jobs are a myth. How do you respond to that?
I would agree with them. Once "green jobs" got moved out of the hands of folks who were responsible for starting it, they were suddenly no longer based in political or economic reality. It was shocking. When a lot of people look at my work, for some reason they forget that we didn't just train people for jobs we imagined, we looked around for where the existing jobs already were, and trained them accordingly.
Going into the Bronx, we knew that there would be jobs coming down the pike in horticultural infrastructure. If we didn't train our people, the city was going to bring in people from outside of our community. We spent a lot of time doing horticultural infrastructure, smart infrastructure. It's not sexy like solar panels and wind turbines, but for many of the people who need work—many of the people in urban areas who have criminal records—those are the ones who aren't going to be let into those jobs anyway. So we need to come up with kinds of things that have a lower barrier to entry.
Somebody said to me not that long ago, "How are green jobs going to help crack addicts?" I said, "Crack addicts have other problems that need to be addressed before they can work." These jobs are not a silver bullet. Please don't go around saying that this will solve all of our problems. It's still such a new part of everything that we're doing right now, which means it's really fragile. Let's set up the conditions for them to flourish before we put the weight of the world on their backs.