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Women Business Owners Taking on Sustainability

Sustainability Leaders 30 novembre 2021
Sustainability Leaders 30 novembre 2021


Disponible en anglais seulement

“You start to realize very quickly how the bulk of what ends up in landfills reaches its end of life, but it really hasn't reached its end of use. It's just a lack of resources and a willingness to think differently about it," says Christal Earle, Founder and CEO of Brave Soles.

In this episode of Sustainability Leaders, BMO's John Uhren spoke with two of the women awarded grants through the BMO Celebrating Women Grant Program in November. Melissa Tashjian, Founder and CEO of Compost Crusader, and Christal Earle discuss their innovative businesses and how they’re driving sustainable outcomes for their clients and customers.

In this episode:

  • How Melissa started her business in 2014 and has since diverted 10 million pounds of food

  • The challenges women face as business owners in male dominated industries

  • How tires are a massive problem in landfills

  • How Christal launched a thriving business with only $250


Sustainability Leaders podcast is live on all major channels including AppleGoogle and Spotify


 

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Disponible en anglais seulement

Christal Earle:

You start to realize very quickly how the bulk of what ends up in landfills reaches its end of life, but it really hasn't reached its end of use. It's just a lack of resources and willingness to think differently about it.

Michael Torrance :

Welcome to Sustainability Leaders. I'm Michael Torrance, chief sustainability officer with BMO Financial Group. On this show, we will talk with leading sustainability practitioners from the corporate, investor, academic, and NGO communities to explore how this rapidly evolving field of sustainability is impacting global investment, business practices, and our world.

Announcer:

The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of Bank of Montreal, it's affiliates, or subsidiaries.

John Uhren :

On November 19th, BMO awarded 26 grants to women owned businesses through our BMO Celebrating Women Grant Program. These grant recipients included package free grocers, mental wellness service providers that support black women, indigenous owned skin care companies and so many more. But underlying each of these businesses was a core commitment to sustainability. Applicants were evaluated for their contribution to social, environmental and economic sustainability outcomes. Business owners were asked to demonstrate how they create positive impacts or minimize negative impacts for their customers, communities, employees, and all other stakeholders.

John Uhren :

Now impacts can be generated through an organization's policies, through its practices, through its products. But in general, they principally center around advancing sustainability objectives, such as those of the UN's sustainable development goals. And with that, I wanted to take some time to profile two of our BMO Celebrating Women Grant recipients and give them an opportunity to talk about their businesses and how they're driving sustainable outcomes for their clients and customers. Today, we are joined by Melissa Tashjian from Compost Crusader, and Christal Earle from Brave Soles. Melissa and Christal, welcome to BMO Sustainability Leaders Podcast.

Christal Earle:

Thanks. It's good to be here.

Melissa Tashjian:

Howdy, howdy, howdy.

John Uhren :

Wonderful. We're so happy to get a chance to talk a little bit about your businesses and learn more frankly. And Melissa, maybe I'll start with you, with Compost Crusader. Tell us about your business and what do you do?

Melissa Tashjian:

Yeah. So we pick up food scraps and yard material from residents and businesses all around Southeastern Wisconsin. And we basically rescue this material from the landfill and turn it into a nutrient rich soil that is then used back in urban environments and people's personal gardens, in storm water retention projects and other green infrastructure projects all throughout the state.

John Uhren :

Interesting. And what sort of scale are we talking about? You talked about rescuing material. How many tons of food scraps for instance, have you diverted from landfill?

Melissa Tashjian:

Yeah, we've been around since 2014 and since then we've diverted over 10 million pounds of food scraps throughout that timeframe. We're a small organization. I like to think of us as a grassroots organization. We grow and we've been scaling as the demand has been warranted, as more residents sign up to the program, more businesses want to divert their food scraps. It gives us the opportunity to hire more people, buy more trucks, and divert more food.

John Uhren :

I love it. And I have to say, Melissa, I was one of the judges of the competition and I loved your video because you came right out and said, "I love composting," and you were standing beside what appeared to be a giant compost, maybe a massive landfill. But either way, there was work to be done. It was clear. And I love that. But just back to your customers for a second, you mentioned residents and other businesses are some of your key customers, but tell me a little bit more about who your customers are and who you're serving in Wisconsin.

Melissa Tashjian:

Yeah. We basically service the willing. We'll work with anybody that is looking to divert food scraps or yard material from the landfill. And if you think about it, eating takes place in a lot of different places. It's where you live, it's where you work, it's where you go to school. And so we like to think of us as trying to create a culture, right? Because if you can practice a diversion habit, something as simple as putting your food scraps in a separate little bucket or container, you can practice that where you work. You can practice that when you go to a sporting arena to watch your favorite team play because the concept isn't foreign of diverting food scraps from the landfill or diverting certain type of things. We're doing it now with recycling, regular cans, bottles, plastics, things along those lines. That's just part of our culture at this moment to recognize them as serving a better and bigger purpose besides just that single use opportunity, being able to reuse it and repurpose it in a way that continues to give it life and meaning.

John Uhren :

I love that. And I have to say, Melissa, I was looking on your website, Compost Crusader, and I love, you had a testimonial about how, when you were younger, you used to drive from downtown Chicago out to your parents' place in the suburbs, just so you could recycle and compost and things like that, which I think it's obviously something that's ingrained in your beliefs and obviously becoming more ingrained for the residents in Wisconsin as well. So I love it and I love the passion, especially. But on that note, around sustainability or the environmental benefits of composting specifically, can you tell us a little bit about how you see sustainability within Compost Crusader and maybe importantly, how you measure the environmental impact you're having?

Melissa Tashjian:

Yeah. So definitely food scraps within the landfill produces a lot of methane energy. And unfortunately, especially in the US, a lot of the landfills are inadequate. They don't have the ability to capture that methane energy that's being produced. And so therefore it creates a lot of ozone pollution and problems pertaining to climate change. So being able to defer that type of material, that's one thing. We do measure how much material we're diverting on every and go route. And so we get it pretty calculated down to the pound, down to the quarter, down to the month. So I love those type of metrics because you can equate that to how much resources you're saving within that landfill, the methane being produced.

Melissa Tashjian:

The other metric I like to think of is people power. How many people are participating in this movement? Because people buy from people, right? You want to hear from your friend, what their experience is, which will give you faith in maybe trying a new habit. And so we're always looking to cultivate those type of stories and encourage our residents and our businesses to share their person experiences, to give hopefully their friends and colleagues hope in trying something different. And so we measure engage success that way.

Melissa Tashjian:

I also look at sustainability as not just about the environment, but being able to make sure we can afford our bills. We're a for-profit, not a nonprofit. And if I have to rely on loans, if my customers aren't able to help us sustain this program, then is it really, truly sustainable? And we have, I'll say it over and over again, our customers are the best. They are literally the best human beings in the State of Wisconsin. I love them so much. They're really compassionate, they're ambitious. They are determined and they want to see this work. We are here as a direct result of their demand of a better system than land filling. We just happen to be able to fulfill that need in a way that is cost effective and really convenient and customer friendly.

John Uhren :

So talking about some environmental positive impact, obviously of diverting from landfill, you might have seen recently at COP 26, over in Glasgow, Scotland, over 100 countries signed a global methane pledge, which is essentially seeking to reduce methane pollution by 30% over a 2020 baseline. Methane is front of mind right now from a climate change perspective. I know carbon emissions, maybe since 2015, have been the gas that people have really focused on and businesses have focused on. But I think methane is one where it's the impact we can have by reducing methane emissions and directly doing that by diverting food scraps, for instance, from landfill, that will go a long way to countries hitting the pledge. But just generally, as we think about global warming, it'll really move the needle.

John Uhren :

So Compost Crusader, you founded in 2014. Maybe talk a little bit about some of the challenges that you've faced as a business owner over the last seven years and maybe expand it out to challenges that you see other women facing or other small or medium size enterprises facing.

Melissa Tashjian:

Yeah. Definitely, I think because of my particular industry being in, quote unquote, the waste management realm, it is a lot of male dominated individuals in this industry. And so for them, trucking and things like that, it's not necessarily thought of as a female thing. And so when I walk in the room and they're like, "We're dealing with what? You're who? You're Compost Crusader? Oh my God, you're a woman. Yeah, you're going to get in the trucks and haul compost. Okay. Sure. Oh, you know how to drive a forklift? Okay, sure." And so it's kind of getting over some of those gender barriers that, again, maybe it's just because it's this particular industry that I feel on a quite regular basis.

Melissa Tashjian:

Also, while I might not be the youngest one out there, I'm also not the oldest. And so oftentimes sometimes I feel like my age, they're like, "Oh, you have no idea what you're doing." And sometimes that is accurate. I like to think fast on my feet. I learn a lot from other people's examples. And that it has been something that I think is oftentimes a characteristic that I associate with women, being willing to take a breath, take a moment, really look at the big picture and then break it down into some of those smaller compartments. And I found that to be extremely helpful for me.

Melissa Tashjian:

I really feel the gender difference in this industry. But that also gives me a little bit of motivation. I like a little bit of a challenge. I don't have a problem letting somebody know, "No, actually this works better for me," or "How about we try it this way instead?" Or I'd be willing to try something, but as long as people know that if it does or doesn't work, we can pivot and try what I was thinking originally. So yeah, that's definitely been some of my biggest hurdles right now, is the gender and age difference and trying to create an industry in an area that doesn't exist, by example.

John Uhren :

Well kudos to you for busting those gender and even age stereotypes. You're thoughtful. I love that you're humble and deeply motivated and stand up for your business and it's principles and what you believe in. So you will stand up in the room and say, "No, I disagree. I'm doing it this way." And that is so important as an entrepreneur. So congratulations to you and I look forward to seeing continued success with Compost Crusader.

Melissa Tashjian:

Yeah. Thank you.

John Uhren :

Christal, I want to pivot over to you now and talk a little bit about Brave Soles. I have to say, when I came across your business through judging in the BMO for Women Grant Program, I was so impressed and so excited to have a chance to sit down. So maybe tell me a little bit about Brave Soles.

Christal Earle:

Aw, thank you. Sure. So it is actually kind of funny that you have both Melissa and I in this podcast because we both, if we were to have to meet physically, it would be like the landfill would actually be the meeting point because she's keeping things out of landfills and I was finding stuff in landfills. So it's kind of an interesting perspective. So Brave Soles, I launched Brave Soles in 2017 and I had been a humanitarian worker for many years in different parts of the world. And I liked the glamour gigs, because I worked in landfills in different parts of the world. And there's a lot you obviously see in landfills, all the usual things you would expect. But there's a couple things that become really very clear quickly in landfills is number one is the vulnerability of the people that are working in them. They're physically vulnerable. They're often incredibly financially, economically, often culturally vulnerable in many ways.

Christal Earle:

And the second thing is that you start to realize very quickly how the bulk of what ends up in landfills reaches its end of life, but quite often it hasn't reached its end of use. It's just a lack of resources and willingness to think differently about it. And so for many years I was working in the landfills in Dominican Republic in particular is where I started for a few reasons. I found myself living between there and Toronto because I was trying to bring my daughter back to Canada, my adopted daughter. We were caught in a 10 year immigration snag. And so we are working alongside of the people there. Recycling in most of the world happens literally at the privatized level. So people are literally pulling things out of the garbage dumps and they're selling those to private companies living on very, incredibly small amounts of money.

Christal Earle:

So we were working alongside of them, helping to create some different ways for them to increase their income. And all the time, one of the things that was in the landfills was the tires and tires are a massive problem. We produce billions of them a year. Tires make up, it's estimated higher than 20% of the microplastics in the ocean come from tires. They're a biohazard. We don't even actually technically know how long it's going to take them to completely biodegrade. It could take a lot longer than we think. And there is no cohesive plan anywhere. And tires are one of those things that they reach their end of life quickly, but they haven't reached their end of use. They could reach their end of life for something that could be one out of 150 of the size of that tire could ruin the use for that whole tire.

Christal Earle:

So they create environmental hazards, but also, they're a health hazard. Standing water, mosquitoes breed in the standing water in tires. And so people that I knew you were getting sick from things like dengue. And they were very vulnerable and some people were dying as a result. So when I got the idea for the tires, it was to use the tires on the soles of the shoes. So that's what Brave Soles is. So I should probably quantify that, that Brave Soles, here's our pitch line. We create and crafted shoes and we use upcycle tires for the soles of our shoes. And then we use different elements of upcycle materials for all of our accessories. And we work on a very small scale supply chain where we work with smaller suppliers for specific items. And we build our supply chain from different capacities from different places.

Christal Earle:

We do small runs of production. So when I launched Brave Soles, what was interesting was that I had for so much of my life been focused on the one side of humanitarian work and around people. And as I started to wake up to the reality of what it meant to have triple bottom line, which was coming alive in me already at the time when I launched Brave Soles, I started to think about people, planet, and profit and what those things were. I had been the founder of a charity before, an international youth humanitarian charity. And I believe in charity. But, like Melissa, I knew that enterprise was the way forward. I really firmly believed that the bulk of things that happened in the world happened through the power of small businesses, to be totally honest. I have spent a lot of time in different parts of the world in very interesting and often vulnerable contexts and small business is how people survive and how they make a living.

Christal Earle:

And it was to me, the natural outflow of what I could do. So when I launched Brave Soles, I launched with $250, to be honest. I used a business canvas model on my wall, in my apartment and I would use post-it notes and I'd step back and I'd be like, okay, I have this idea. And I'd step back and I'd kind of move things around. And I came to the conclusion that I think I could do this for $250, which was truly all that I could afford at the time. I was truly like a micro-enterprise as a single mom in trying to live between the two countries and provide for my child and start this thing. And so when I launched, we launched what became a necessity and how our business model started kind of became like our superpower too, in a lot of ways.

Christal Earle:

I think a lot of people, a lot of entrepreneurs, you start something because you have a theory that you're out to prove. You've got the theory in your mind. And then sometimes, I know in my case, sometimes the person that's the most surprised that it worked is you. Because you're like, "Oh, people believe me and they're buying things." And so when we first started Brave Soles, it was literally, you would put your orders in on the site and we were doing daily orders. Our first supplier lived in this tiny village in Dominican and we'd have to get on a boat on a rope and go across a river to his house and it was in a workshop above his house. And that's how it truly all started.

Christal Earle:

In many ways, because we started so small, it was also really easy to control and have a steady hand on how things developed and on what was going to be important for us. So everything from the usual things around sustainability, around everything from electricity and water use and all those things to the model that we wanted and what we wanted the future to look like. So that actually gave me the opportunity. Necessity is the mother of invention, I think in a lot of ways. A lot of businesses with a mission of sustainability that's really, we come out of that place where we recognize there's something that can be done. And probably there's a part of those of us who start businesses in this realm where it's just like the idea won't leave us alone. So we're like, I don't know, I have a theory. This may work, it may not work. But I will not be able to sleep if I don't give it a try. And so that's really how Brave Soles started.

John Uhren :

So interesting. You touched on a few different ideas, both environmental, but also from a humanitarian and social perspective. But how do you measure sustainability at Brave Soles, and what does that look like from an impact perspective?

Christal Earle:

Sure. So like what Melissa was talking about around how much your items actually weigh, we do that in terms of tires. And so I knew from the beginning that it was one thing to say we were doing what we termed to be a good thing, but I wanted to be able to have something substantial. So right from the beginning, we partnered with a company called Green Story and they did an independent analysis and each one of our items gets weighed in terms of how much tires are used in it and everything. That was the first thing. So we could actually count and measure how many tires are diverted out of landfills and waterways and ditches, purely from that.

Christal Earle:

We also measure sustainability. I feel quite strongly that sustainability, even as a terminology, is starting to you evolve with us. It's such an exciting time to be a business owner right now and it's such an exciting time to be alive on the earth because there's just all these things that we're learning about ourselves. And one of the things around sustainability that I feel very strongly about and in the area that I'm in, which is fashion in particular, we wanted to also measure our sustainability around how we're using products, what's going into it. So we define ourselves as a circular fashion company because we're working to keep things as circular as possible, meaning a closed loop system. We're not yet 100% circular for obvious reasons, but I once heard someone from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation say that they use the term circularish. And I like that, because I feel like it's like you can celebrate what you're doing right and you can keep the vision in front of you of where you want to go in it.

Christal Earle:

So we do that in terms of how we source things. We have some compliance things that we ask our suppliers and everything to work with us on. But also around there, take it one step further is that I feel like sustainability is about accessibility because sustainability shouldn't be something that is for the elite, like what you were saying, Melissa, in terms of having to go back out to the suburbs to be able to recycle back in the day. I also feel like sustainability in fashion and in my industry has for a long time been been sequestered away as someone who fit a demographic and certain profile that could afford to shop sustainably. And in Brave Soles, really I had made myself the ideal customer in what I was doing and I feel like the ability for fashion to be able to be accessible and for people to be able to make good choices that are going to journey with them through life makes something sustainable.

Christal Earle:

And so a lot of ways of how I've looked at things and one of the benefits and the blessings of starting from very humble beginnings and literally out in the villages and the outback of different places, the systems are very simple. Half the day our workshops were operating without electricity or power. So just different things like that, that are really simple things. And in many ways I feel like sustainability for us is thinking almost if we were to dial this back 120 years, what would that look like? How would we be doing these things? What would be the processes in place? If something needed to be fixed, you would be able to know where you could go to get it fixed. You would know the people that make your clothes, you would know the story behind it because you were acquainted with it. And so those are some of the things that we're starting to incorporate into how we're measuring and helping to give people the ability to access the story of what they buy with us in Brave Soles.

John Uhren :

That's fantastic. Your earlier comments around end of life, but not necessarily end of use and this idea of the circular economy or circular economyish, if you will. And it's so important in fashion and clothing. I'm actually on the board of Dress For Success Toronto. And this is something we think about a lot. It's not only are we providing clothing to our clients, but what we're doing is ensuring that those clothing, now back to Melissa's example, don't end up in landfill, that they are being reused, I think is really important. And great job in Brave Soles for acknowledging that, seeing that, and then creating the opportunity.

John Uhren :

The last question I have for you Christal, is around similar for the question I asked Melissa. And keeping in mind Melissa's in the US and your situated here in Canada. So I'm just wondering, are there differences or how do you see being smaller, medium size enterprise as owner, so a small but growing company, but particularly a woman owned business? Do you see a lot of challenges? Do you think there's others that are facing hurdles that you've faced? And any advice you can give in this space?

Christal Earle:

Yep, I do. I do feel as a Canadian business owner, that Canada has been a little bit slower on the uptick of recognizing and seeking out women identifying owned businesses and in particular in more untraditional or nontraditional sectors as well. A couple things for me that have been a challenge was when you launch a business. As a woman or as a small business owner what I found it in particularly difficult in my situation was that space where you're just starting out and you're not big enough yet to qualify for certain things and you're caught in that in between area. And you're starting to experience some growth, but it's not enough to play in the bigger arenas yet, and you're not in the survival at the very basic level, but you're still not in the area where you're ready to really expand quickly.

Christal Earle:

So a couple for me that have been helpful is that I have never had a problem asking for help or seeking out people. I've never been shy about asking. And if I didn't know something I've never been scared to not look it up. I didn't come to business with a business background. I came from the world of nonprofits, which there are similar principles, but not in the area of the nonprofit world that I was working in. I feel like I've given myself the most expensive MBA ever in these last four and a half years of being in business for myself. So that was part of it.

Christal Earle:

I think the other thing is there is still a sense of, when you look around in terms of representation, it's still you don't see things being equally represented yet. So I think we have a long ways to grow. There are certain areas where I've realized that I'm not going to hold back anymore, I'm not going to be scared to sit at that table. As women, we can tend to acquiesce to other people in the room because we spend a lot our life and our time, the thing that makes us so amazing can also be the thing that can get in the way of us drawing boundaries better, which is another conversation for another time. So I have, in the last little while, I've learned to really start to be able to speak up for myself and actually identify and not apologize for what I feel I need to see happen in my business or why I have this mission and what I want to accomplish and to be scared to ask for it.

John Uhren :

The underlying theme here for me with both Brave Soles and Compost Crusader, Christal and Melissa, is that you're both so mission driven, so focused on your core identity as businesses and staying true to that core, but still having growth plans and trying to build into that and double down. So that in Compost Crusader's case, you can be helping more people and bring more food scraps to compost and diverting from landfill. And in Brave Sole's case, getting shoes onto people's feet and doing it in a meaningful way, both for the individuals in the Dominican Republic and across your supply chains. But I love that you are so focused on the core sustainable aspects of both of your businesses. And with that, I am certain that we'll continue to see growth and positive impact and success from both of your two businesses into the future. So thank you very much for joining the Sustainability Leaders Podcast, and I'm excited to continue the dialogue going forward.

Christal Earle:

Thanks, John.

Melissa Tashjian:

Thank you.

Michael Torrance:

Thanks for listening to Sustainability Leaders. This podcast is presented by BMO Financial Group. To access all the resources we discussed in today's episode, and to see our other podcast, visit us at bmo.com/SustainabilityLeaders. You can listen and subscribe free to our show on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast provider. And we'll greatly appreciate a rating and review and any feedback that you might have. Our show and resources are produced with support from BMO's marketing team and Puddle Creative. Until next time, I'm Michael Torrance Have a great week.

Announcer:

The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of Bank of Montreal, its affiliates or subsidiaries. This is not intended to serve as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding any company, industry, strategy, or security. This presentation may contain forward looking statements. Investors are cautioned not to place undue reliance on such statements as actual results could vary. This is for general information purposes only and does not constitute investment, legal, or tax advice and is not intended as an endorsement of any specific investment product or service. Individual investors should consult with an investment, tax, and or legal professional about their personal situation. Past performance is not indicative of future results.

John Uhren Chef, finance durable, Produits et stratégie

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