Andrew Butcher & Chris Koch: GTECH Strategies
Sunflower king and queen
Chris Koch is not your typical entrepreneur. In fact, she didn’t know what an entrepreneur was or that she was one when she started GTECH with her co-founder, Andrew Butcher. GTECH, a non-profit which stands for Growth Through Energy and Community Health, was founded in 2007 while the two were in graduate school in public policy at Heinz College,Carnegie Mellon University. Aged 37 now, Chris was the first in her extended family to attend college, let alone graduate school. It was easy enough to drop out of college, and Chris spent six years before returning to finish her undergraduate degree in history. She is still surprised that she is an entrepreneur. There is nothnig in her background to indicate that this would be where she would end up.
Chris and Andrew founded GTECH from a successful class project on vacancy. They had discovered that Pittsburgh had over 24,000 vacant blighted lots, or 15%of the city’s land mass, which was equivalent to seven NYC Central Parks. When offered the largest vacant lot, the 178 acre site of a former steel mill, the CMU student team had the idea to reclaim the land using sunflowers because a sunflowers can extract toxins out of the soil into its stalk, has seeds which can be used as biofuel. Sunflowers are a platform for the clean energy that GTECH now purports. So, Chris and Andrew and several classmates farmed six acres of brownfield by hand on a lunar scape so devoid of vegetation that it was used for robotics tests – and they achieved success. GTECH was born.
Andrew’s background. Andrew always thought that he would be an entrepreneur, even if he didn’t label it as such. He talks about GTECH and his own life being all about creating value. What is unique about GTECH and about Chris and Andrew is where they have elected to add value. In a recent talk at the Imagine Solutions Conference in Flordia, Februrary, 2010, Andrew talked about the “significant degree of scrappiness” necessary for social entrepreneurs, who must meet triple bottom lines: eonomic, social, and environmental. In trying to create value in the least likely of places, Andrew inspires, “those that listen and inquire, that apply creativity and generosity, and take action are those who change the world.”
Prior to GTECH, Andrew started several other businesses. His father was an entrepreneur with a lot of business ventures under his belt, including one social enterprise. While his mother was entrepreneurial but in a much more socially oriented manner. Andrew is the youngest of seven kids total, and has five older sisters. During his four-year stint between college and graduate school, Andrew worked for Amnesty International and was a Coro Fellow in Saint Louis in addition to doing his own thing with several solo business ventures in the fields of alternative energy and resource conservation. He was attracted to the public policy masters program at CMU because he knew that he wanted to start something big, but he didn’t have an idea. The four years at GTECH is the longest that Andrew has ever been in one job.
Chris’ background. On the other hand, Chris never thought about starting her own thing. “Nobody tells you that it’s possible,” she laments. But, Red Whittaker, a CMU robotics professor and well-known visionary entrepreneur, was a big influence on Chris because he allowed her to understand that “if you have a clear vision you can make it happen.” Chris cites her naiveté as an asset – she didn’t know that she was thinking outside of the box but, since she didn’t know about any barriers, she just did it. Her family thought (and still think) that she is crazy. But for Chris, what she is doing makes sense in the context of her academic history background, “I am solving old problems, not new ones. I don’t invent anything new. Just a new way to fix them [the problems].”
In the beginning. Chris and Andrew didn’t look too hard before they leapt into forming GTECH. At the beginning, they agreed that “if we can do this, it will be awesome!” Andrew knew he had found his idea when one day during the semester-long project he woke up: “so excited because I realized that I was doing what I wanted to be doing!” The two partners get along in very complementary fashion. They both laugh and say that they are both “stubborn and always right,” but they share a typical entrepreneurial work-until-3-am-every-night work ethic where “we do some really crazy and audacious things.” They are both also competent, reliable and good spirited.
For Chris, GTECH emerged as something that she just had to do. She was excited and saw the opportunity. She had very strong instincts to go for GTECH and she is not worried about failure. As a result, she doesn’t feel any risk with GTECH – “failure is ok.” They have built a strong culture at GTECH. While they are effective front-of-the-room leaders, they desire to lead from the back of the room, so that others can take ownership and initiative. As a company, GTECH’s team is focused on opportunity rather than scarcity. They are proud of their can-do culture.
Andrew likens his professional development to standing in line. “But no one sets the line,” he exclaims. “You’re standing in it and you think that it leads somewhere.” Andrew and Chris cut in line – they are not line standers; maybe they even cut the line altogether to create GTECH.
Both Chris and Andrew now appreciate the “e” word and the concept of starting and building something from scratch. They believe that creativity fused with gumption is a key and that it sometimes takes “getting hit over the head with a 2×4 to see the opportunity.”
The bold idea. Reclaiming vacant land through the growth of alternative energy crops in order to remediate soil, produce biofuel feedstock, and serve as a platform for green job training – that was and is the bold idea behind GTECH today. Unmanaged vacant land is a substantial drain on urban communities and public resources, resulting in a range of negative economic, environmental, and social impacts. Additionally, there is an increasing demand for locally produced alternative energy, coupled with a growing population of people with limited access to the opportunities emerging from the “green economy.” There are thousands of acres of vacant and blighted lands in the Pittsburgh region and elsewhere. GTECH’s vision is not limited to Pittsburgh and they have started initiatives in other regions.
In 2008, GTECH received the prestigious Echoing Green Fellowship, an international award supporting the work of entrepreneurs and their vision for social change. According to GTECH’s website, the award “catalyzed the growth of GTECH into a change-making organization and a community leader on both a regional and national level, enabling the organization to expand their reach, increase their team, and focus on growing the green job marketplace.” Andrew’s approach to creating value is to see the world’s big problems as big assets – vacant land, for example. “If you allow people to create value and own the solution, then the problem becomes a commodity.”
GTECH employs an integrated approach that utilizes vacant land and brownfields as mechanisms to extend the green economy into distressed communities by growing alternative energy crops, including sunflowers. The overarching goal is to emphasize the considerable economic development opportunities of sustainable land-use practices. Specifically, they aim to reclaim land in and around Pittsburgh, create new revenue streams, and bolster a growing movement for green jobs by providing a platform for education, exposure, and access to a new market of opportunities for underserved populations. This strategy will improve environmental conditions, bolster economic development, and engage the local community.
GTECH Today. GTECH has made good on its promise of repurposing vacant land with sunflowers through its Sunflower Gardens program in which a community is engaged in all aspects of the reclamation. In addition, GTECH initiated Project SPARC (Seeding Prosperty and Revitalizing Corridors), a collaborative vacant land management program with several of PIttsburgh’s most active environmental and community groups. More recently, GTECH launched its ReFuel Pgh program to provide cooking oil recycling that can be used as biodiesel.
Grow, GTECH, grow.