Education, education, education, folks need to know that using energy efficient light bulbs, installing thermostats on timers, unplugging those things when not in use in your home that can be, should be, sealing those parts of your home that heat escapes, hang your clothes on a dryer when you can, all help to conserve energy. As a group, we need to consume less, period. Bring your own reusable bags when shopping. Compost your food waste. Use public transportation if available and car pool otherwise. Don’t use paper goods at meals. You know you will be doing laundry anyway, what are a few more cloth napkins in the wash! Line dry them too, better than starch. Government needs to support these efforts. Not everyone can afford to properly insulate their homes or install solar panels or purchase high efficiency appliances. Offering rebates and tax incentives is a start. Governments also need to heed the warnings of our scientists and academics and tax those that pollute. The public school system is the perfect environment to bring to light all that can be and needs to be done to address climate change. The emphasis should not be on grade scores, rather, conservation measures and sustainability, and what each student is capable of contributing towards this end.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Donna Pion, a founding partner and the General Manager of Green State Biochar. She has over 24 years of diverse business experience as Business Manager, Registrar, and Controller for several Vermont and Indiana Industrial Companies and Institutional Facilities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in the Bronx and Queens where my father ran a slipcover and upholstery business. After school, and during the summer months, I worked alongside his bookkeeper, balancing checkbooks, paying bills, learning the prices per yard of all the fabrics, and making payroll. Back then, 50 years ago, the shop was full of immigrants from the islands, it was a happy place, with a lot of different foods at lunch. The workers all respected my dad, and he treated everyone fairly and equally. The path to stay in the business end of things just came naturally. I studied accounting at CUNY, Baruch and Queens College and found myself in accounting firms catering to the entertainment industry, mostly working on tours, for bands that included U2, Anthrax, Elton John, and others. At 30 I moved to an island off the coast of Maine, and from there ended up in the NEK, (the northeast kingdom of Vermont), working as the Comptroller of Sterling College, a private environmental institution for 14 years. Close to 6 years ago I took a position working with a merger and acquisitions company in the Midwest. This company’s focus is on metal fabrication shops and the trailer industry. I lasted 18 months and returned back home to Vermont and took the position of Business Manager at Vermont Natural Coatings, a manufacturer of environmentally safe indoor and outdoor coatings. I hold this position today. Green State Biochar is a startup and day jobs are a must.
The desire to bring awareness to the hazards that excessive use of fertilizers was made clear to me during the 18 months I lived and worked on the border of Michigan and Indiana, a.k.a., “monsanto land” for this company. Watching the blue cloud of fertilizer being spread across the fields from the ag planes, leaving its dust on the neighboring homes and cars, canoeing in the St. Joe River in brown mucky algae water, made me realize I needed to get back home and do something to halt this from happening to the rivers, lakes, and streams in Vermont. I had the business acumen to start a company but until this time, did not know I had the passion to do so. When back in Vermont, my husband Roger and his friend Luke wanted to start a business with meaning, something to be proud of, and after a good deal of research into the biochar industry, our startup, Green State Biochar, was born, to us, a mad scientist, an entrepreneur and great thinker, and a business manager.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
Green State Biochar is committed to the reduction of biomass waste and the production of high quality biochar which can be utilized in a myriad of applications including carbon sequestration, capturing fertilizer runoff from entering waterways, and the production of energy.
Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is taking to tackle climate change? Can you give an example for each?
If we are, as a global community, going to keep climate change at bay, we know that removing carbon from the atmosphere is a must. We are utilizing biomass waste which is burned in a no oxygen environment to produce biochar. The unit that biochar is produced in generates enough heat to run the machine and more to share. When biochar is put into the ground it holds carbon in place, reduces the need for excessive use of water, and prevents runoff of fertilizer. Biochar keeps soils fertile and as such, increases agricultural yields.
Green State Biochar is utilizing our filtering systems to capture fertilizer runoff from dairy farms. Once the system absorbs all that it can, the spent biochar, now enriched with fertilizer, can be reused. This reuse of fertilizer minimizes the cost of purchasing more, increases crop yields as it is now combined with biochar, and reduces water use, and runoff. Fresh biochar is put back into the filters and the process begins anew.
It is our belief that pyrolysis units will become a part of every municipality. Acting as stump dumps, and repositories for waste wood, municipalities will reduce their carbon footprint as they turn this waste into biochar and in the process create energy. We will not as a group reduce our carbon footprint by transporting wood waste and biochar across vast expanses. Doing this at the local level is necessary. With the destruction that weather is taking on our communities, if portable pyrolysis units were available, all waste could be processed on site and not hauled away.
Education is key to broadcasting all the benefits that biochar offers. Green State Biochar is proud to share what we know and have learned thus far from those well versed in this industry which includes academic scholars and scientists from around the globe.
What was the most difficult thing you faced when you first started your company/organization? Can you share how you overcame that? This might give insight to founders who face a similar situation.
Our first challenge was educating people about biochar, early on, most responses, “bio what?” In just over a years’ time by entering a state wide road pitch competition, having articles published in newspapers across the state, winning a patent competition, requesting and meeting with our government officials, being the recipient of an award to demonstrate our biochar filtration systems through the Phosphorus Innovation Challenge, we now hear, “I have heard about it, tell me more”.
We are not the first start up to say, “do something you are passionate about, this motivation will drive you to keep going”. This passion has expanded from keeping our waterways clean to the reuse of waste wood, to the production of energy, to the myriad of benefits biochar has on soil management techniques.
I also find my passion from reading about all the research that academics around the globe have contributed to the biochar industry. There is no competition in this industry. It is more about working together to solve those issues that affect the global community.
Many people want to start a company to tackle environmental issues, but they face challenges when it comes to raising enough money to actually make it happen. Can you share how were you able to raise the funding necessary to start your organization? Do you have any advice?
We had to use money of our own to start. It took a year to build our pyrolysis unit, the cost being all the materials needed, labor was ours, the passion and motivation factor part of the equation. We looked for all the local and state grants available for which we may be a suitable fit and applied. These grants helped us get a website up, a logo designed, a business plan written and printed materials and business cards to leave with whomever we were meeting with.
We were able to attract a consulting engineer and a Ph.D who is an expert in pyrolysis/gasification, and biochar, to join our team for the Phosphorus Innovation Challenge.
You have to go out and look for those individuals and agencies that share your vision, trust in your abilities, and want to help you succeed.
Do you think entrepreneurs/businesses can do a better job than governments to solve the climate change and global warming issues? Please explain why or why not.
I think businesses and entrepreneurs are the “boots on the ground”, when it comes to working to solve climate change and global warming issues. That is their focus. Governments need to respond to this work, they need to provide research dollars, look at the ways corporations are taxed that contribute to these issues. Government must not fear being truthful when it is made clear about what needs to be done to halt global warming. They should not hide behind the veil of protecting corporate gains. Aren’t we all in this together?
What are some practical things that both people and governments can do help you address the climate change and global warming problem?
Education, education, education, folks need to know that using energy efficient light bulbs, installing thermostats on timers, unplugging those things when not in use in your home that can be, should be, sealing those parts of your home that heat escapes, hang your clothes on a dryer when you can, all help to conserve energy. As a group, we need to consume less, period. Bring your own reusable bags when shopping. Compost your food waste. Use public transportation if available and car pool otherwise. Don’t use paper goods at meals. You know you will be doing laundry anyway, what are a few more cloth napkins in the wash! Line dry them too, better than starch.
Government needs to support these efforts. Not everyone can afford to properly insulate their homes or install solar panels or purchase high efficiency appliances. Offering rebates and tax incentives is a start. Governments also need to heed the warnings of our scientists and academics and tax those that pollute. The public school system is the perfect environment to bring to light all that can be and needs to be done to address climate change. The emphasis should not be on grade scores, rather, conservation measures and sustainability, and what each student is capable of contributing towards this end.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful for my husband and business partner Rog. He is always by my side, whether it be biochar, elderly parents, or health related issues. We are all whole beings and having someone who accepts you as you are, all the parts and pieces, is a gift and has allowed me to be successful and confident in this venture.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
This is going to take a few years, at least. Did I really think if I shared my excitement and enthusiasm with investors about biochar that they would really hand over $250k and let me run with it in my first year? I did, it was only through trial and error that I came to understand that what we would be able to secure was just enough to move us into the field, not the playing field, kind of out there in left field. This was going to take some time.
You will not be able to simply share other successes in the industry; you need to create an environment of your own. We did really know this but realized quickly we would need to demonstrate our own successes. There were a few folks who readily wanted to discount our ability, and that of the industry itself. We had an individual come up to us at a power point presentation to share with us that he was not there to help us in any way but rather stop us! Amazing how that motivated us even more.
You will need to expand your team. We did believe that the mad scientist, the business manager, and the entrepreneur and thinker would be qualified enough to get this venture off the ground, making a profit and paying back investors. What we needed though was to expand the team and bring in those better qualified to quantify and scientifically explain to a broader audience what we were so good at describing on the back of an envelope.
The product will not sell itself. Such a great product, everyone will want it, even the DIY group. It can reduce odor in your compost pile, increase your crop yields, in some cases by 70%, and reduce the need for fertilizer and water. We are going to need a marketer in the coming years. It is a great product, especially when activated with phosphorus captured from runoff. We will all need to learn to make sales. Roger is the best at it but he will not be able to do it alone.
Don’t share too much information about your company and your business plan. Know the difference, when an investor looking for an investment or when they want to take your idea and run with it themselves. We learned this one right off, quick. Be careful about sharing proprietary information. Someone spent a good deal of time with us under the guise of an investor. We later found out, at a wedding of all places, that so and so was starting a biochar company of their own. He never did get it off the ground but we did feel violated by the ruse.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the world, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
With so many movements these days it is difficult to bring forth another. I am a supporter of many of them, particularly the local ones which I am able to be a part of. The human condition is not one to manipulate. If I could, I would inspire us all to act in such a way that would bring good to the world. I can only lead by example which is what I intend to keep doing and hope that I inspire people to do the same. I want to work with like-minded people who care deeply for the environment. I want to offer good paying jobs and cut out corporate profit. We are all in this together. Similar to what I observed watching my father run his business, I want to treat everyone with respect, kindness, and equality, and hope to be treated the same.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
Currently twitter. Here you will find mostly information from the biochar community, what they are doing, projects completed, new ones on the horizon, and industry leaders and environmentalists all addressing global warming and climate action.
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!