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“Be Able to Motivate People and Lead By Example” The 5 Lessons I Learned Being a 20-Something Founder

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Szaky CEO of TerraCycle.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Szaky CEO of TerraCycle


Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?

I was born in Hungary while it was still a communist country, and following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, my family and I emigrated to Germany, then Holland and then Canada as refugees. I grew up in Canada and went to university in the United States. It was there I got the idea for TerraCycle — a business whose purpose is to eliminate the idea of waste.

I always loved entrepreneurship, as business is perhaps the most powerful force to change the world. I started my life as a Hungarian refugee and today am the CEO of a multi-million-dollar company operating in 21 countries and known as the world leader in recycling “the unrecyclable.”

Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There is no other company like us out there in the world — this is partly because we have a unique philosophy to a relatively innovative industry: waste.

TerraCycle started as an organic fertilizer company, but over the years we evolved to what we are today. Our mission is still, “to eliminate the idea of waste,” but today we do it in three unique ways. First, we make things that are non-recyclable nationally recyclable from cigarette butts to dirty diapers. Second, we integrate unique recycled materials into high end products, like ocean plastic into shampoo bottles, and third, we create platforms that move disposable products into durable products without sacrificing the economics and convenience that makes disposable products desirable.

We also have the challenge of making people care. We are trying to solve something — garbage — that goes out of sight, out of mind and is cheap to throw away or burn. We are asking a person to invest their time and money to be able to do something with it that’s significantly better but not nearly as simple. And that’s not necessarily easy.

Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?

TerraCycle is in an exciting time. The U.S. subsidiary of TerraCycle, recently announced that it has been qualified by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for a $25 million Regulation A capital raise. This means any category of investor can invest in our U.S. operating company and be able to participate in our future. Once the capital raise is complete we plan to use the proceeds to acquire related companies, increase staff and grow our business.

Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

If I had to point to one book that has had an impact on my life it would be The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. Hawken sets out to explain what every business must do to create an economy that is both restorative and will benefit the environment and society equally. A complex issue, and one that society has been grappling with since the book was first written in the early 90’s, Hawken lays out the key challenges facing businesses as they attempt to become sustainable and socially responsible and why it’s extremely important that companies work through these issues for the future of the planet.


Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1 – You can’t just “go for it” all the time.

You need to be realistic about what is feasible to accomplish, and what might cost too much to implement. That’s not to say that you give up on those larger, more ambitious projects and programs, you just need to learn to compromise with reality and figure out what you can do with the resources you have available.

2 – Don’t think too long about something.

It’s easy to be paralyzed by fear of the unknown and do nothing. Just jump in and give it a try. The biggest risk is failure, which, as I said above, can be a good thing. And, you’re only as small as your vision. If you have a grand vision and an undeniable passion for an idea, you may feel compelled to drop everything and go for it. If you’re always realistic and vigilant, and if you are ready to work harder than you ever have before, you can achieve anything.

3 – You must be willing to take risks and have the stomach for failure.

You also must be able to look at failure positively. It’s how you learn and often how you get to your successes. You must listen to your team members and empower those around you.

4 – Start small, but don’t stop continuously trying to find bigger problems to tackle.

First, we realized we could make cheap, very effective fertilizers with worm poop and post-consumer plastic bottles. Then, we realized we could expand on that and start collecting different kinds of waste not usually recycled to turn them into “upcycled” products and recycled materials. Now, TerraCycle has over 100 recycling programs that used to just end up in a landfill. Still, we’re trying to go bigger. A few years ago, TerraCycle’s research and development team developed a method for recycling cigarette butts — the first company to do so. When you start with a smaller problem and then master the solution to it, go on to something bigger.

5 – Be able to motivate people and lead by example.

Give employees latitude to be creative and not afraid to come up with ideas and think big. That’s how we’ve grown. The most rewarding aspect about being CEO is being able to realize what I set out to create — having a profitable business that only does good and with every action helps get us closer to a world without waste. I love coming to work. I love engaging with my staff and our partners to try to solve big problems. Many of our staff could be anywhere, working in a variety of professions and jobs, but they like working at a business with a purpose because it’s personally fulfilling.

– Published on June 27, 2018

Originally published at medium.com

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