Saturday, October 19, 2013

Majora Carter’s Eco-Entrepreneurship

Majora Carter is on a quest to save the world one community at a time. That’s because she believes that no one should have to leave his or her neighborhood to live in a better one. Granted, this is an audacious goal, but Majora’s unique approach to urban renewal has already led to successful revitalization initiatives in her native South Bronx, N.Y., and she’s well underway bringing positive change to many more communities. Her rise to the position of a renowned urban revitalization strategist is no surprise when you witness firsthand her relentless energy and entrepreneurial spirit. I had the pleasure of meeting her earlier this year for an exciting conversation.

Majora’s life journey is an inspiring story. She grew up in Hunts Point, a South Bronx neighborhood that for decades was plagued by poverty, violence and ecological degradation. Naturally, she was eager to escape. Education was her way out, but when she signed up for graduate studies at New York University, she returned to live with her parents and became involved in and reacquainted with her neighborhood. Her success fighting against a plan to build a waste transfer station in Hunts Point and then spearheading the South Bronx’s first open-waterfront park in more than 60 years was a turning point. Majora realized that creating green projects and jobs empowers communities to see themselves in a different light, and that beautiful things happen in neighborhoods where people feel invested in their own economic and environmental well being.

From then on she’s been on a roll, developing initiatives that leverage the direct link between environmental restoration, economic revitalization and social progress. She founded the nonprofit Sustainable South Bronx, was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and today leads the Majora Carter Group, an economic consulting firm she formed in 2008 to bring her approach to underserved communities across the country. One of the cool things for me about visiting Majora in her offices in the South Bronx was signing her book of MacArthur Fellows: she’s been collecting signatures from all Fellow she meets!


Her broader national goal notwithstanding, Majora remains deeply passionate about and involved in revitalization of the South Bronx. For example, a recent project of hers is Startup Box: South Bronx, or [SB]2—a nonprofit startup incubator and tech education center that aims to connect the creativity of the South Bronx with the power of the tech industry by bringing together students, startups and community members. [SB]2 offers programs in technology, engineering, design and entrepreneurship to local youth, and supports local, early-stage companies.

[SB]2 is but part of Majora’s multi-pronged strategy for urban renewal. During our meeting, she spoke about her wish to see manufacturing moving to developing urban areas and about her plans to bring to the South Bronx new types of jobs. Brainstorming what these jobs might look like was one of the highlights of our conversation.

Of course, we talked about data entry and QA testing, but also less obvious and exciting alternatives that have great potential both to revitalize the South Bronx and address the problem of the loss of American manufacturing jobs. One such idea I brought up is reshoring—that is, bringing well-paid factory jobs back home from overseas, and particularly to the South Bronx as a hub of local sourcing and production. Another option is to embrace the Maker culture, connecting the South Bronx with entrepreneurs who are using local, micro-manufacturing techniques (e.g., open source design or DIY manufacturing) to create customized products in small batches and the global reach of the Internet to sell them. Majora told me about her ideas of responding to the growing demand for semi-custom products and of small lot manufacturing for the fashion industry.

As a pragmatic idealist, Majora acknowledges that asking companies to do good can only go so far. In fact, this same recognition was what inspired me to start Benetech as a different kind of tech company—a nonprofit—nearly 25 years ago. In Majora’s case, she offers a clear way forward that both meets the industry’s goals and strengthens communities. She calls it the “triple bottom line” of sustainable development, meaning that sustainable development has the potential to create positive returns for all concerned: companies, government and communities. I look forward to seeing her continue to innovate with new enterprises that simultaneously develop viable businesses and generate environmental and social good.