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Zack Robinson: “Leadership is doing the right thing”

Spark-Y was created with the goal of giving youth, regardless of income, race or gender, space where they could express their authentic voices and give rise to their own enterprising thinking by learning about and working on real-world environmental problems in search of solutions. Not only has that idea taken root, but it has also […]

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Spark-Y was created with the goal of giving youth, regardless of income, race or gender, space where they could express their authentic voices and give rise to their own enterprising thinking by learning about and working on real-world environmental problems in search of solutions. Not only has that idea taken root, but it has also blossomed and become a much-needed tool to help transform education through experiential learning focused on sustainability and entrepreneurship, which would in turn create students to become the stronger business leaders and more engaged employees of tomorrow.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zack Robinson, an Executive Director.

He was recruited heavily by Fortune 1000 companies even before he graduated first-in-class, with Honors, from Indiana University, Kelly School of Business. But Zach Robinson took another path. Among the first youth served at Spark-Y, Robinson was one of the nonprofits’ original board members at 24. After serving on the board for a number of years, he went on to become Operations Director, piloting Spark-Y’s experiential mission into science classrooms, complete with sustainable learning models such as an aquaponics lab, now a flagship of Spark-Y programming.

The Executive Director since 2013, Robinson has more than doubled — every year — the number of young people served and the financial growth of Spark-Y since taking the post. He has built a rigorously sustainable organization designed to sustain youth in schools — and ultimately the planet. Through his leadership, Robinson has created an organization where millennials thrive and environmental enterprises arise that create revenue streams, raise environmental awareness, and inspire Best Green Business Practices.

Zach has grown personally and professionally each year by leading from the inside out, while also making a deep impression on his organization’s external participants and community partners. From other non-profits to schools to commercial concerns to Spark-Y board members and staff, Zach is effective because he creates the tools and opportunities for others to succeed. And in turn, Spark-Y is thriving!

Under his energetic leadership, Zach and Spark-Y were recent recipients of two high profile awards in 2020: The Environmental Initiative Award for its Green Campus and STEM-based curriculum at Edison High School in Minneapolis, and a Rising Young Professionals award from the oldest newspaper in Minnesota, Finance and Commerce.

Since he became Spark-Y’s Executive Director hundreds of interns and student participants have gone on to start their own businesses, obtain jobs, or become inspired by understanding the sustainable business practices that will impact their future. And our community. The media — and grant-making companies like RBC Wealth Management — have paid attention:

Zach is also Co-Founder of both Green Circuit Solar and Stophouse Music Group. He lives in Mendota Heights with wife, Emma Danskin Robinson, a writer, web strategist and co-conspirator, along with their toddler son, Wren.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In college, I graduated 1st in my class from the Kelly School of Business IUPUI. I was uninspired by the prospects of any profession generally. Though recruited softly as a top grad from a top business school, I was however motivated to combat what I saw as intense injustices for humanity and the earth that stemmed across a variety of issues.

After an Internship with the 117th General Assembly of Indiana, what I learned among other things, was that entrepreneurship (not politics) was a place where the intersection of helping to protect humanity and the earth could be possible. So I got involved with folks doing entrepreneurial startups based around sustainability, co-founded my own, and that led directly to being a founding board member and the Executive Director of Spark-Y within a 5-year period, which is an incredible story of its own. Let’s just say I know what it is like to follow your dreams while being in major debt and not being able to make rent.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

There are a couple of mind-boggling stories however, I will go with the RBC Blue Leadership Award. In 2016, on April 21st, I had a meeting that I was told would be a financial check-in with a sponsor of Spark-Y’s, RBC Wealth Management. However, on the day I was to have this rote meeting, starting early in the AM my phone started getting flooded with texts from friends past and present. Did I know — had Prince just died? I am a HUGE Prince fan (my older brother works at Paisley Park; I get it from him) and Prince is one of my heroes so I took it quite personally as did most Minnesotans.

I was devastated.

I almost canceled the meeting, but I decided to go. Well, as it turns out the meeting was actually to award Spark-Y with the Blue Water Leadership award, and give our organization a check for 100,000.00 dollars! A proposal I conceptually outlined and co-wrote, amongst a highly competitive national landscape (think major universities as the typical recipient) was selected as the winner! The odds of us winning were under 5% at least. Perhaps you can imagine the range of cosmic and mystic emotion felt the day your hero dies, then to experience what was then my most personal and largest financial win. It was made even better since the funding was used to fuel the empowerment of the youth of Minneapolis. It felt like a nod from my hero and on his way out.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I trusted a college intern to do light aquaponic maintenance at our first physical location. Well, one night when filling up the water tank, they left. With the water on. It flooded the entire classroom and leaked into the basement!!! Luckily, we had a great relationship with the school and they were very forgiving. Needless to say, it is now funny, but a great lesson about the importance of checks and balances and organizational structure.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Spark-Y has created a vibrant non-profit organization that is making a difference in our community with Spark-Y Youth Action Labs, which empowers youth through innovative, hands-on STEM education programs in our schools, businesses and community rooted in sustainability and entrepreneurship. Under Zach’s leadership, it has more than doubled — every year — the number of young people served and its financial growth.

A 5-year old partnership between the non-profit Spark-Y Youth Action Labs and Edison High School in Minneapolis has had a significant environmental ripple effect at the school, in the broader community, and in other elementary, middle and high schools in the Minneapolis public school system and elsewhere. In 2015, Spark-Y created the Edible Agriculture School Yard Professionals (EASY PRO) program and curriculum at Edison. Designed around a three-phase education model, it allows students a hands-on learning experience about sustainability and entrepreneurship using STEM. It has become a successful model for similar Spark-Y collaborations with 16 other schools throughout the entire metro area.

In the classroom, students design, build and integrate aquaponics and vermicomposting systems that are aligned with the school’s science curriculum. Working with a third partner to connect with the broader community, the Minneapolis Culinary Institute, they created a school garden-to-cafeteria program and generated a new revenue stream with the sale of organic greens to area restaurants and wholesalers.

These collaborations have created the greenest high school campus in the state.

Building on the success of EASY PRO, Spark-Y again partnered with the school to create the Edison Entrepreneurship Academy, a 3-credit class that combines Business, Environmental Science, and English. Spark-Y then got the public school district to approve it as a biology credit course, LEEF Biology — a more rigorous science course, where students work in small teams and use the scientific method to measure variables and conduct experiments with 21 mini-aquaponic systems.

Two years ago, LEEF Biology inspired LEEF Pathway (Leaders in Environmental and Entrepreneurial Futures) — another route that Edison students can choose to follow throughout their high school career which will allow them to gain knowledge that is necessary on their journey towards graduating, in a way that is also innovative and experiential.

Originally just two classes, LEEF Pathway today now reaches across many departments at Edison. In addition to environmental science and biology, Spark-Y now collaborates with the science department in physics and chemistry; it has helped develop an environmental art class; and it has begun a special education collaboration in addition to several other opportunities at the school.

BROADER IMPACTS

As Executive Director, he has created measurable positive impacts in our community by connecting 2,000 public school students through 35 programs and partnerships with community businesses and government (e.g. its interns managed the beehives and the green roof at City Hall). Spark-Y was a 2019 finalist for both a Tekne Community impact award and a winner of a “Minne Inno on Fire” award for innovation, recognizing young entrepreneurs blazing new paths. Other highlights include:

  1. For credit, and in certain cases, compensation, the Spark-Y team partners with classrooms, helping youth execute sustainable projects.
  2. Created the first garden-to-cafeteria program with Minneapolis Public Schools where students learn to grow food outdoors and aquaponically, then market and sell to the cafeteria. Students annually grow nearly 1,000 lbs. of produce, much of which reaches school salad bars.
  3. Student-built projects include the largest aquaponics system in a high school in the state and the first-ever timber frame greenhouse at Roosevelt High School.
  4. Students are employed and coached at Spark-Y and in other businesses, earning credit and income to empower their future.
  5. Forged a credit recovery program at Roosevelt H.S., and partnered with Summit Academy.
  6. In a for-profit partnership, he took over the urban agriculture space formerly run by Urban Organic. Spark-Y students and interns will eventually work there!

MORE BACKGROUND

Spark-Y was created with the goal of giving youth, regardless of income, race or gender, space where they could express their authentic voices and give rise to their own enterprising thinking by learning about and working on real-world environmental problems in search of solutions. Not only has that idea taken root, but it has also blossomed and become a much-needed tool to help transform education through experiential learning focused on sustainability and entrepreneurship, which would in turn create students to become the stronger business leaders and more engaged employees of tomorrow.

At a time when two major 2019 world reports showing that carbon emissions threaten to exacerbate climate change, challenges to sustainable food-growing alternatives become imperative — like the urban farming that Spark-Y teaches with its many partners. Food deserts and food justice are real issues here and around the country that Spark-Y addresses contextually with its program development.

Devising new recycling programs inside businesses like the one forged with Lube Tech and Spark-Y summer interns demonstrate the ever-present need to become a less wasteful society in a country that consumes far more resources than the rest of the world (See Lube Tech case study on the Spark-Y website). The beehives and green roof that Spark-Y interns maintain on the roof of Minneapolis’ City Hall are emblematic of the green objectives the organization embraces in reaction to the alarming drops in bee populations and the localized increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

Innovative new teaching programs — rooted in a holistic environmental model — like those that Spark-Y is pioneering — are necessary to reinvent classroom education while reinvigorating student interest in learning. Our community — and incrementally, the world — are better for it.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

A young man from Edison High School was particularly impacted this past year. After enrolling in our co-taught high school classes, and then participating in our Internship for 2 years, he won an MN Environmentalist Youth Award. This is an important recognition of a trajectory that changed, and the future ignited. I also know that most importantly from his access to unique experiences, with 1000’s of other youth that behavior changes are sparked with our program: That is the magic of being on a build and or in a program when a young person has that “aha” moment. That is the Spark that fuels Spark-Y.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Volunteer time and skillsets with youth, give them compassion and a voice (community)
  2. Re-prioritize and invest in school as the primary community hub, adopting new science and educational models (vs. the prevailing industrial revolution model of school) injecting new capital and attracting incredible talent to be on the execution team (society and politicians)

3) Individuals can make decisions (which take on the whole comprise the actions of community/society/politicians) that come first from justice, liberty and compassion for all other humans being rather than just personal interest, or from fear or scarcity.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right thing. A true leader takes ownership of absolutely everything going on above and below them. It is about responsibility and courage, and a moral compass, but perhaps it cannot be called true leadership without success and results that stem from an action.

To me, results are inherent in the word leadership or it is not leadership. Sometimes with this perspective, the difficulty is that you cannot be everything to everyone at once. But that is the challenge and the call of leadership, to be influential and effective and efficient toward an outcome. Owning and taking responsibility for mistakes that you may not have directly caused, can be difficult too. However, in recognizing that mistakes are not a failure, they are tools for learning — you can find forgiveness of yourself and others when you want to blame. That forgiveness and learning process really fuel growth — a leader can go to new heights with these. The last and perhaps most important thing I will say is that once you learn to truly lead yourself, then you can lead others. I love the infinite scope and the analytical possibilities around the question of leadership so I will just stop there.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) Be yourself

2) Do what you love 1st and the professional or community support will follow

3) It is only your job to love yourself, and some people will criticize you no matter what you do — so pay no attention to haters

4) Hardships forge your character; embrace them to the level of discomfort to grow stronger

5) Work and play go REALLY well together, and with the balance they both help others be more successful (i.e., it’s more a mindset than a literal reality).

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Don’t talk about it — be about it. Take action. Individual responsibility for your destiny is the first step. It is really just that simple.

For example, individuals usually make the choice to litter. It is hard to explain, but it is like if each individual could realize when they litter, they suddenly realize that littering is wrong and they start to see it. Or, when hit — turn the other cheek. This would help with non-violence. Or as Gandhi said — “be the change you wish to see in the world”. Or the Jungian concept of projection of the psyche’s shadow outward being the source of all evil. Or even this same idea (ownership/responsibility for your destiny), can be brought to the level of Frodo in Tolkien. Amongst the incessant arguing, the smallest most unlikely creature makes the choice to risk everything to destroy evil — “I will do it, I will take the ring to Mordor.”

Or at Spark-Y, we say “one seed can change the world. “

Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are so many, but I’ll stick with the “Lord of the Rings” theme. When Frodo says to Gandalf, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had ever happened”. He hears Gandalf saying, “So do all those who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us”

Circumstance do not control us. Our destiny is in our hands. And even in the bleakest of moments, there is always hope. Never forget it.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are many. If I had to pick just one, I would say George Lucas.

Besides Prince, Michael Jordan, Bruce Lee or Will Smith — I never really had a real-world current times hero that I wanted to be like. I always wanted to be as cool and as good as Luke, Han or Lando. So to meet with George and pick his brain about the real Sequel Trilogy, and to thank him for the mythology that is a frequent source of inspiration for my drive to protect the earth and humanity through youth education would be incredible.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am not personally active on social media, but they can just follow Sparkyorg on Instagram! Beyond that, I would urge your readers to spend less time on social media, and more time living, playing, raising children and connecting with real human beings in their social distance circle. Herd immunity during Covid-19 is inevitable, so get ready to eventually be out with people and live life — it could be sooner than we think!

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