Categorized | Social Entrepreneur

Bennu: Completing the Recycling Loop

What is the name of your social enterprise and what does it signify?

Our company is called Bennu and we make and market consumer products out of trash. The Bennu bird is the Egyptian equivalent of the Greek phoenix, which represents rebirth. We named the company Bennu because we give a new life to the materials we recycle, and we promote a new lifestyle of sustainability.

Who are the people behind Bennu?

Bennu was started by three MBAs, Ashok Kamal, Sayaka Eto and Kevin Ng. We met while in business school in New York City in 2009. Our personal and professional backgrounds are quite distinct. Sayaka grew up in Japan and has a graphic design background. Kevin is from Houston, TX and worked in finance. Ashok is from Boston, MA and is a lifelong social entrepreneur. Our common ground was a passion for using business to solve the worst environmental problems.

Bennu Team

What motivated Bennu’s launch?

We started Bennu as a response to the obscene amount of waste that ends up in landfills. In America alone, over 30 billion plastic bottles get dumped each year. But a lot of our waste has properties that make it environmentally destructive yet industrially marvelous. Therefore, if we recycle waste rather than discard it, it becomes a renewable resource. But recycling requires not only collection and processing (the first 2 arrows on the recycled symbol), but also market development (the final arrow in the cycle). In other words, we need to recycle more, process it more efficiently and transform recycled materials into new and improved products. Bennu fills that final void in the cycle, so we say we “complete the recycling loop.”

What is your product or service?

Bennu launched by selling customized backpacks made from recycled plastic bottles to schools. Each “Greenpack” keeps 20 16-oz bottles out of landfills and uses up to 70% less energy to make than material for conventional backpacks. As the company matured, we started looking at new waste streams to transform into cool and practical products. Our latest product is a T-Shirt made completely from recycled fabrics. We use a blend of recycled cotton scraps and plastic bottles, which keeps trash out of landfills, reduces agricultural chemical emissions and saves energy and water.

Bennu Leaf Bag

Beyond designing and manufacturing products, we also devise socially responsible marketing programs. For example, in October 2010 we launched the “Greenpacks for Great Kids” online backpack drive to provide over $5,000 worth of eco-friendly bags to low-income students in New York City. The drive supported the “I WILL GRADUATE” dropout prevention campaign, which is endorsed by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a host of A-list celebrities, including MTV’s Sway Calloway, WNBA all-star Cappie Pondexter and recording artist/actor Bow Wow. We offer companies opportunities to sponsor the drive and further their corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns.

Our latest initiative is an online community design contest called “Green My Bag.” The contest gives students an opportunity to express their artistic side and promote a greener world by submitting designs that promote going green. Students get their friends to vote and the most popular design is featured on a limited edition Greenpack. 20% of sales proceeds go to a charity chosen by the winning designer, who also wins a tablet drawing tool. Working with dozens of schools over the past year, we learned that young people are passionate about greening and they have creative ideas to spread the message. Green My Bag provides them with a forum to go green and be seen.

How was Bennu financed?

Bennu was born out of student business plan competitions. During our first year in business school, we won the Merrill Lynch and Baruch College Invitational Competition in NYC. We were awarded sufficient seed money to get off the ground and start developing our infrastructure. This led us to paying customers before we graduated from business school. During our second year of business school, we were selected to compete in the Rice University Business Plan Competition, which is the world’s most prestigious business plan competition for students. That experience helped us refine our business model and emerge as an integrated product development and marketing company focused on recycling.

Can you describe your experience with business plan competitions?

Business plan competitions are like entrepreneurial bootcamp. While they are emotionally and physically exhausting, they make you stronger and provide several complementary benefits. One, competitions force you to write a detailed business plan, which statistically increases the likelihood of your venture’s success. Two, competitions build camaraderie and chemistry among the startup team. Three, competitions expose you to mentors and judges who share invaluable feedback – and may eventually invest in your company.

Any tips for people planning to start businesses in a down economy?

Operate lean. Bennu is a bootstrapped enterprise, meaning we have not raised external capital. The best way to bootstrap is to organize key resources rather than creating them from scratch. We’ve entered the era of lean startups due to the emergence of global supply chains, cloud computing, shared office communities, social media marketing and alternative forms of financing such as crowdfunding websites that aggregate small investments. If you model your enterprise after a constellation rather than single star, you will both pass off fixed costs and leverage your network’s core competencies.

What advice do you have for aspiring social entrepreneurs?

Every successful company – social enterprise or not – needs to solve problems to justify its existence. The difference with a social enterprise is you address problems that affect everyone, such as environmental degradation. Find the intersection between your passion and a pressing social problem.

What’s more critical to success – the idea or the people behind it?

No idea is immune to imitation. Moreover, ideas are worthless without the people to execute them and make the idea a reality. Teams, especially during the startup phase of a business, are the most important driver of success. So what makes a great founding team? We call it the “3 C’s.” One, there should be Complementary skill sets: technical, marketing and management expertise are different domains. Two, there should be Cohesive work styles: hours, approaches to deadlines and accountability are just some of the critical variables . Three, there should be Congruent values: some people value money, some people value mission, other people value both. The amalgamation of the “3 C’s” makes it much more likely that a team will overcome other hurdles and win.

How is Bennu evolving?

Bennu’s mission is greening the standard for a new lifestyle. Waste is one of the areas we need to address in order to create a more sustainable society. But we also need to re-evaluate how we eat, consume, travel, generate power and take care of one another. This requires educating ourselves about our everyday actions and challenging ourselves to make smarter decisions. Toward that end, Bennu is getting involved in green social gaming as a means to educate people about sustainability and call them to action in fun yet meaningful ways.

How can people learn more about Bennu?

Bennu is very active with social media, including Facebook (www.facebook.com/bennuworld), Twitter (www.twitter.com/bennuworld), and our blog (www.thinkactshare.com). Our objective is to build a community that shares our vision for greening the world.

Signature:
Ashok Kamal, Sayaka Eto, Kevin Ng
Bennu, LLC
www.bennuworld.com

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