The GSB Interview: Mark Davis; from NBA Hardwood to DC Solar-Preneur

Mark Davis is a member of two very exclusive clubs. He is one of about 3,200 people who have played in the NBA, and, with WDC Solar, he is one of an even smaller number of people who have started inner city solar companies. His dual goals? Put a dent in climate change and reduce urban unemployment.

GreenSportsBlog sat down with Mr. Davis to talk about his journey from being a rural Georgia farm boy to the NBA to installing solar panels on rooftops in the nation’s capital.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Mark, GreenSportsBlog is always on the lookout for eco-athletes so we are glad to have found you! How did you go from the NBA to building a solar company in Washington, D.C.?

Mark Davis: There were two main factors that may, on the surface, sound unrelated. First, my upbringing on a farm in Georgia in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and second, Barack Obama’s run for the White House in 2008. Let me explain. Growing up on that farm made me acutely aware of the environment, how it works, and how important it is to do what I can to protect it. Now, fast forward to 2008. I had been retired from pro basketball for about 10 years by then. I had been working in real estate and software businesses, but was looking for something else. I was very excited about Senator Obama’s presidential campaign and was particularly inspired by his advocacy of renewables as part of his overall clean energy plan.

GSB: What did that inspiration lead to?

Mark: I started to ask about and study the clean energy markets. Talked to a friend from Nepal who was involved with the hydropower business over there. I traveled to Northern California to see the solar market up close and took a course about the solar business. I created a business plan and, even more importantly, found the right business climate in which to launch a solar company to give myself the best chance of success.

 

Mark Davis Sierra Magazine Jonathan Timmes

Mark Davis, founder of WDC Solar (Photo credit: Jonathan Timmes, Sierra Magazine)

 

GSB: What do you mean by “right business climate”?

Mark: There were some aspects of a good business climate for solar when President Obama took office in 2009. For example, the federal stimulus program included funding for solar. But that wasn’t enough. And, at that time, incentives were not in place at the local, Washington D.C. level for solar and other renewables…

GSB: …and the prices for solar panels were much higher then than they are now.

Mark: …Yes, by a wide margin. We weren’t anywhere close to grid parity at that time. So what did we local D.C. installers do? The birth of a new industry doesn’t just happen. We did our homework and found that rebates and other incentives would be needed to allow solar to compete on a price basis with fossil fuel generated power provided by the utility. We lobbied local D.C. politicians and civic groups to promote legislation that put incentives in place that eliminated the boom-bust cycles that were the hallmark of the solar industry back then. Eventually, the city council and mayor joined our side.

GSB: Sounds like a lot of work!

Mark: It took a ton of homework and legwork, but it had to be done.

GSB: What happened next?

Mark: Once the legislation was in place and we were confident there would be a market for solar in D.C., we launched WDC Solar. But our approach to sustainability was not purely environmental. We also established the company to provide sustainable employment for young men and women who desperately needed it.

 

GSB: How did you do that?

Mark: We launched a training program that would teach young folks to be solar practitioners, which provided a pathway to employment at no cost to them.

 

Solar Trainees WDC Solar

WDC Solar installation trainees learning their trade (Photo credit: WDC Solar)

 

GSB: Incredible! How did you fund this? Through angel investors and/or venture capital?

Mark: We bootstrapped it.

GSB: Meaning that you invested your own money for those unfamiliar to the startup scene…

Mark: That’s right. That’s how we were able to get the solar training program up and running.

GSB: Impressive. And then how did you get solar panels installed on people’s homes?

Mark: Well, at first, back in 2012-13, we worked with the DC Sustainable Energy Utility to transfer the solar rebates, tax credits and solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) to private equity investors, so solar panels could be installed on the roofs at no cost to low-income homeowners. The low-income families owned the energy produced by the panels. They had to pay for any electricity they used over and above what the panels produced which became a major incentive for the homeowners to become more energy efficient.

GSB: How did that work?

Mark: Very well in most cases. I’ll never forget it when one of my customers told me he had a monthly electric bill of 56 cents!

GSB: 56 cents???

Mark: He couldn’t believe it. couldn’t believe it! I’ll tell you, our customers have been just so thankful; it’s been a blessing to be able to help people. Another great outgrowth of our business was that many of our early trainees used that experience to get better jobs, thanks to a program with the District’s Department of Employment Services.

GSB: Talk about a blessing…So is WDC Solar only involved with residential customers?

Mark: We started with small-scale residential jobs; I’m talking 3-4 kW. Then, we got involved with bigger jobs when the District put out a request for proposal (RFP) to put solar on public school roofs. The RFP was for installations totaling 12 megawatts. We were fortunate to work on a portion of that portfolio. We also were involved with some commercial and utility-scale jobs, thanks to a partnership with Standard Solar. Our “sweet spot”, however, still remains low-income residential at this point.

GSB: Have you expanded beyond Washington, DC?

Mark: It’s been slow because in places like Maryland, the SREC prices aren’t so great. But with the price of solar panels coming down, the SRECS are becoming less important and that makes it is easier for us to go to other jurisdictions. Heck, when you and I first spoke, I was on the roof at Chevy Chase Baptist Church, just across the street from Maryland, helping to install a 100 kW system. Currently, we’re looking at opportunities in Atlanta and Chicago, but both are a bit complicated right now. One thing is certain: We only go into a market where we can create jobs for the local community.

GSB: I love the “solar plus jobs” business model. It just makes so much sense! Has WDC Solar worked on any sports venues?

Mark: We partnered with New Columbia Solar to provide installers to the Audi Field project, the brand new home of D.C. United in Major League Soccer (MLS).

 

Audi Field Solar

Artist’s rendering of the solar installation on the roof of Audi Field, the recently-opened home of DC United (Credit: New Columbia Solar)

 

GSB: I’ve heard great things about Audi Field; I need to get there soon. Sticking with sports GSB is constantly on the lookout for eco-athletes like yourself who could have a great effect on fans. Why haven’t we seen more eco-athletes and what can we do to change that?

Mark: That’s a complicated question. I think a big part of it is that it is so difficult, from a communications perspective, for many folks to connect extreme weather to the global, long-term climate change problem. The perception among many is that climate change is coming on slowly, that it is not a problem for today and that solutions are a century or more away. On the other hand, so the argument goes, there are clear and present dangers right now like police brutality against people of color and the opioid crisis that need more attention.

GSB: I couldn’t have said it better myself. So if that’s the case, how do we fight back?

Mark: Athletes and ex-athletes who work with people of color — WE have to be the agents of change! We need athletes to help us emphasize the massive economic benefits that will come to those who help solve the many climate-related crises. I see it starting to occur here — installing solar on your roof is definitely a statement of self-empowerment.

GSB: So which athletes can we get? How about LeBron James?? Nothing like aiming high, I always say!

Mark: LeBron James will be tough right out of the box. I think we should go for some great elder statesmen of sports who are also involved in renewables. In particular, I’m thinking of Bernard King, member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, who has worked on climate change issues and in the solar business. Also Dusty Baker, the Washington Nationals’ manager has a solar company. Another idea I have is to create a celebrity golf tournament dedicated to raising money to combat the climate crisis. Basketball players and other pro athletes love golf and this way we can highlight and communicate the urgency of solving the climate crisis in a collegial atmosphere. What do you think?

GSB: LOVE IT! Forget LeBron; let’s get serious and line up NBA superstar and scratch golfer and Brita water filter endorser Steph Curry in the mix! We must make this happen.

Mark: Hey, we’re in the “let’s make the impossible happen business”. I’m in!

 

Obama-Davis 2

Mark Davis with President Obama at the 2016 State of the Union address (Photo credit: The White House)

 


 

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Green-Sports Startups, Part 6: Raea Jean Leinster and Yuck Old Paint; Helping Stadiums Find New Homes for (Yuck) Old Paint

Well-known global corporations, from Anheuser-Busch to Nike, have waded into the Green-Sports waters. While it makes sense for them to do so from PR and mission points of view, Green-Sports (for now) represents a small aspect of these companies’ businesses.

Then again, there are startups for which Green-Sports is a significant part of their raison d’être. Last year, GreenSportsBlog launched an occasional series, Green-Sports Startups that focuses on small (for now) companies and nonprofits that see the greening of sports as essential to their prospects for success.

In today’s sixth^ version of Green-Sports Startups, we bring you Yuck Old Paint (yup, that’s the name of the company), brainchild of Raea Jean Leinster, that finds second uses for stockpiles of leftover paint — including from places like Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.

Raea Jean’s story is colorful (there, I had to say it!), important and fun so ENJOY!

 

How does a Russian Studies major and a Czech minor who pursued a career path to work at the NSA, CIA and State Department and then became a concert violinist end up in the business of finding reuse opportunities for tons of cans of unused paint— from places like Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nats? And she calls her company Yuck Old Paint?

I know what you’re thinking: “This has to be FAKE NEWS!”

Nope. It’s the real, incredible story from the incredible Raea Jean Leinster.

 

FROM BRATISLAVA TO BELL LABS TO CONCERT VIOLINIST TO INTERIOR DESIGNER TO…

Leinster’s unlikely journey to becoming a Green-Sports pioneer started in an unlikely place: Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia. But back in the late 80s-early 90s, just before the Soviet Union was about to collapse, Bratislava was part of Czechoslovakia. I’ll let Leinster pick up the story from there:

“I was in the middle of my Russian and Czech studies at George Mason University when the Soviet Union collapsed. So I dropped out of school to go to Czechoslovakia and teach English. While in Bratislava, I saw first-time-ever capitalist billboards in the former Eastern bloc for Apple, Coke and Marlboro. I asked myself, ‘how do these companies permeate a city like Bratislava when there was no real diplomatic US presence there?’ I realized that brands and business move faster than countries, so I redirected my career path to international business.”

 

Raea jean 1

Raea Jean Leinster, founder of Yuck Old Paint (Photo credit: Raea Jean Leinster)

 

Leinster returned to GMU and upon graduation went into the telecom industry just as AT&T was being deregulated: “I worked in telecom for ten years, helping MCI launch its ‘Friends and Family’ program and managed global channel communications and branding for Lucent Technologies for 80 countries before I was 30,” she recalled. “Then, in 2002-3, the telecom industry imploded and hundreds of thousands of people across the country lost their jobs, including me.”

So Leinster licked her wounds and took a gap year, spending much of it playing volleyball in the Virgin Islands. Batteries recharged, Leinster returned to Northern Virginia in 2004 and pivoted to a different career path, that of concert violinist/faux finisher/interior designer.

HOLD ON A SECOND…She became a concert violinist and a faux finisher? What the heck is that?

Turns out Leinster had been playing violin since she was a little girl, kept at it throughout her various adventures and continues to perform today with a variety of orchestras.

 

Raea w violin at GU

Raea jean Leinster (r), rehearsing with a string quartet at Georgetown University (Photo credit: Raea Jean Leinster)

 

And as a faux finisher, Leinster restored murals, became an expert in Venetian and Italian plasters, a gilding artist and created custom art in restaurants, commercial spaces and private homes.

 

Contemporary Metallic

A “contemporary metallic” faux finish from Raea Jean Leinster (Photo credit: Raea Jean Leinster)

 

And that led to…

 

…YUCK OLD PAINT

Over the next ten years, Leinster “…kept hearing a steady drumbeat of ‘Raea, can you help me get rid of these pallets of Sherwin-Williams off-white leftover paint in my building?’ or ‘Raea, I have 40 cans of paint in my garage. Can you take them?’”

Leinster’s initial answer was a flat NO — after all, what would she do with the paint? She didn’t have the space to store all the paint her clients asked her to take away, and in Virginia, the landfills are only permitted for residential use.

But in December 2012, she started to figure it out.

“A DC design client asked me to take away four paint cans at the end of a job. I have no idea why I said ‘yes’ after years of telling clients ‘no’. But I did,” recalled Leinster. “And to my surprise, a $25 Starbucks gift card accompanied the 4 gallons of paint that were left at the concierge desk.”

As Leinster drove away, she took stock of what just happened.

“My client was totally capable of taking the paint cans herself to the DC landfill,” Leinster thought to herself. “But she couldn’t be bothered with it.”

The client also didn’t care what Leinster did with the paint, but trusted her to do the right thing and handle it safely. The client gained more space in her condo and time.

“Turns out it was worth it to my client to compensate me for my trouble to pick up the paint and to do something with it,” said Leinster. “I then wondered, ‘How many other home owners are out there who would pay for a professional service to pick up leftover, unwanted, unused cans of latex paint?’”

Leinster spent 2013 beta testing the business concept and in April 2014 launched Yuck Old Paint, LLC.

Since then, the phone has not stopped ringing.

Four years later, Yuck Old Paint now counts among her clients several federal agencies, the U.S. Army. the Washington Nationals and Nationals Park.

 

“WE DON’T RECYCLE PAINT; WE HELP FIND USES FOR UNUSED PAINT”

Leinster’s business is based on the “reuse” model in lieu of recycling. “Our first step is to qualify paint for reuse,” reported Leinster. “About 75 percent of the paint we pick up in its original containers is perfectly good and useable.”

Yuck Old Paint gives the useable paint to theatre companies who use it for set design, and to local contractors looking for a specific type of paint. Much of it is distributed overseas, to developing countries for sale in hardware stores and for humanitarian construction projects.

Wait a second.

Yuck Old Paint gives the paint away? 

Yes, that’s what they do. Because they are paid by customers who need the paint to go away a flat service fee plus a per-can price  — $5 for one quart and one gallon can; $10 for a five-gallon bucket.

OK, back to what happens to the Yuck Old Paint.

“Twenty percent of the remaining liquid paint stockpile is not useable — think of it like sour milk,” continued Leinster. “That batch gets turned into solid waste material. Another five percent is solid and dry. In either case, we ensure it is no longer in liquid form, which is a hazard to local soil and water tables. Once it has been cured into a solid material, it is delivered into the solid waste stream.”

 

Yuck Old cured latex paint

Some of the “sour”, unusable paint recovered by Yuck Old Paint after it has been cured into solid material using organic ingredients (Photo credit: Raea Jean Leinster)

 

YUCK OLD PAINT PARTNERS WITH THE WASHINGTON NATIONALS

“Before the start of each season, Nats management repaints the entire park: from the press box to the offices, from the locker rooms to the concession stands,” shared Leinster. “And every June we get a call from the Nats to remove between a half a ton and one ton of paint.

 

Yuck Old Paint Nats

Unused paint outside of Nationals Park before it gets picked up by Yuck Old Paint (Photo credit: Raea Jean Leinster)

 

In addition to removing the paint from the ballpark, there are four important reasons the club is happy to have Yuck Old Paint on their green team:

  1. Adds to the team’s environmentally responsible brand — Nationals Park was the first LEED stadium in Major League Baseball.
  2. Earn up to 2 LEED points because they transfer the leftover latex paint waste to Yuck Old Paint, which employs a landfill diversion model.
  3. Win back much needed storage space. One ton of latex paint is about 225 single gallon cans. That takes up a lot of space! And Washington D.C., along with 44 states, has banned the commercial dumping of latex paints in the landfill. Before, Yuck Old Paint, the Nats’ only solution — as well as for many sports stadiums — was to stow it away.
  4. The Nats are no longer in violation of the fire code. Per Leinster,
    “Even though latex paint is not combustible, it is flammable. And although how much paint commercial buildings and stadiums are allowed to have varies from city to city with no statewide or national standard, there’s no fire marshal who will look past 1 ton of latex paint as acceptable.”

 

“MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW THEY HAVE A PAINT PROBLEM”

Leinster, with the Nationals Park case study in her hip pocket, came to the Green Sports Alliance Summit in Atlanta in June, looking to attract other sports venues. “This was my first GSA Summit,” said Leinster. “I soon realized that most facilities managers and team owners have no idea they have a latex paint waste problem! We received some very enthusiastic responses from other Major League Baseball and NFL clubs. We look forward to working with them to be their latex paint and hazardous waste solutions provider. Which is great news for Yuck Old Paint.”

And it is great news for the environment.

 

^ The first five startups in the series were: Nube 9, a Seattle-based company committed to making recyclable sports uniforms; Underdogs United, which sells renewable energy credits to sports teams in the developed world that are generated by vital greening projects in the developing world; Phononic, a tech company that views sports venues as key to its ambition to disrupt the refrigeration market, leading to a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions; Play Fresh, a nonprofit that uses American football as a catalyst to help build environmental awareness among at-risk kids and teens; and Hytch, a Nashville-based startup that uses a state-of-the-art ride sharing app and financial rewards to encourage ride sharing to Nashville Predators games.

 


 

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