Community organization integrates economic development and environmental protection

What’s good for human economy can be good for the planet’s ecology — if you make it that way, says Adam Roberts, Executive Director of Bethesda Green, an organization that has been empowering eco-friendly businesses since its founding by a successful entrepreneur in 2008 in Bethesda, Maryland.

In the Bethesda Green program, such businesses connect with resources to help them succeed: mentors, direct financial awards, and access to investors, including an annual “public pitch” where companies may gain backers.

Bethesda Green involves individual supporters in the community as well, and its work can be replicated in communities everywhere, says Roberts.

Often, climate change and environmental destruction we see around us, on the news is overwhelming and distressing. Bethesda Green provides opportunities for everyone to make a difference: expand recycling, shop locally at eco-friendly businesses, plant rain gardens, urge elected officials to protect the environment. If we all commit, we will make a difference.”

Following is a Q&A in which Roberts discusses with Sustainable Earth Eating CEO Jane DeMarines his group’s work, his own background, and his hopes for replicating the Bethesda Green business model for communities everywhere.

  1. Adam, you have an extensive background in animal rights — how does that intersect or complement Bethesda Green’s mission?
  2. A. In important and measurable ways! The first is in taking an ecosystem approach toward the work we do. When I was focused professionally on animal protection and wildlife conservation it was important to look at the well-being of individual animals but also at each species’ role in their ecosystem; removing one could affect others. Bethesda Green’s work to create a sustainable urban ecosystem in Bethesda is rooted in individual actions that impact the entire community: enhancing recycling, composting, stormwater management, etc. Every individual action impacts the community.

There’s also an important link between human growth and development and the impacts on wild animals and natural places. Globally, as human populations expand there is often a direct, negative impact on wildlife habitat, putting wildlife at risk, but also creating direct conflict between animals and people as humans encroach further and further into wildlife areas. In Bethesda, or Montgomery County more broadly, as development expands to accommodate new residents and commercial establishments, we must be mindful of protecting green space for the good of the community. For instance, as building developments expand and access to green space diminishes there will be increasing climate consequences, increasing stormwater pollution, increasing waste creation. Bethesda Green is focused on implementing important strategies to mitigate those harmful environmental impacts. 

  1. I know Bethesda Green acts as an incubator in providing avenues for crowd funding to new start-ups in Bethesda. What percentage of start-ups access this excellent tool? Do any non-profits apply? 
  2. The companies in Bethesda Green’s Innovation Lab, particularly the accelerator cohort, are working hard to generate the investment necessary to scale their sustainability-driven businesses, currently seeking upwards of $8 million for product development, sales, marketing, and staffing. Each of the companies in our portfolio are focused on building businesses that can generate positive economic and environmental impact simultaneously. 

While some start-ups will indeed use crowdfunding to generate funds, we focus on community connection, providing our eco-entrepreneurs with direct financial awards and access to investors through direct investment from a variety of financial backers. As a community-driven organization, we host a public pitch event every year (this year on May 5) to allow our company founders to present their businesses to potential supporters. 

  1. Bethesda Green is still a relatively young organization itself; can you talk about the impetus for its founding by Seth Goldman?
  2. A. When Bethesda Green was founded in 2008 by successful entrepreneur Seth Goldman and Montgomery County Councilman George Leventhal it was an effort to stimulate innovation for the good of the Bethesda Community — innovation in the way businesses develop, the role of local business in community development and environmental protection, and a hands-on, local approach to environmental protection. 

One of the first major projects, for instance, was raising funds from companies throughout the neighborhood to place street-level recycling bins throughout the community. While trash cans abounded, there was less availability of easy recycling options, which led to less recyclable waste being collected and processed. This project continues today as new, technologically advanced bins are spread throughout Bethesda’s streets. These new bins have sensors that enable remote monitoring so bin contents will only be emptied by our partners at Bethesda Urban Partnership when they are full. This reduces staff time and fuel use to check on bins that are not yet full. 

The goal of the organization when it was founded, which remains today, is to connect community residents and businesses to community environmental protection, believing that this holistic approach to economic development and environmental protection are not in tension, but are compatible.

  1. Bethesda Green has an impressive and long list of mentors — is this program your most intensive and popular program? Do mentors offer help for free, or is there also a fee for service aspect, if an entrepreneur decides they need more than the 4-hour-per-month commitment?
  2. Bethesda Green is focused on providing bespoke attention to entrepreneurs in our program, as each of them has a different business model, different skill sets, and different specific goals and targets for their company. Our mentors operate the same way: some take a fee for service, while others donate their time and input. 

Our goal is always to connect company founders with the resources they will need to succeed in order to stimulate their growth and impact.

  1. Does Bethesda Green have members per se or how do you keep track of your children as they grow into adulthood?
  2. A. That’s a very interesting question, given our varied programmatic work.

In the community, we have supporters who are members of the Bethesda Green team. This includes Bethesda residents (and residents throughout Montgomery County); local businesses looking to improve their operations and become B Corp and/or Montgomery County Green Business certified; entrepreneurs starting new businesses; high school students participating in our Environmental Leaders program; government officials in the executive and legislative branches of local government who support green initiatives; and other partners such as the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, Bethesda Urban Partnership, and One Montgomery Green who we work with to implement specific programs or projects.

We keep in touch with our Environmental Leaders once they graduate and head off to college to see if they continue their environmental stewardship work (and maintain some of the projects they did when in the Bethesda Green program — planting a pollinator garden, for instance). Some of our Accelerator companies stay in our Innovation Lab after their program concludes because we’ve made an investment in their company, and they want to continue to take advantage of our community connections. 

We are all about relationship-building and those relationships are strongest when they are lasting. 

  1. What would you most like the public to know about Bethesda Green as it moves into a mature organization in Bethesda?
  2. A. There are two key concepts that underpin our work: everyone can make a difference; and our work is replicable.

Often, the threat of climate change and the environmental destruction we see all around us in the news is overwhelming and distressing. And because each of us lacks the power to single-handedly solve these problems, it’s natural to feel deflated and powerless. Bethesda Green provides an opportunity for each person to make a difference: expand recycling, shop locally and with businesses that balance profit and the planet, plant rain gardens, contact County Council members urging them to take action to protect the environment, etc. If we all commit to making a difference, together we will make a difference.

Similarly, the differences we make in Bethesda through this coordinated work can be replicated in every community in the country. Business development can be greener anywhere; economic growth can be coupled with protection of green space anywhere; local legislatures can take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions anywhere; innovative, inspirational founders can grow new sustainability-driven, social impact companies anywhere. Our hope is that Bethesda Green’s model of community conservation will be adopted throughout the country. Together, we absolutely can protect the planet for future generations and create more livable communities from coast to coast across America. 

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