Despite the global pandemic, Green-Sports entrepreneurship has been thriving. Many of the new businesses and nonprofits are run by women. GreenSportsBlog is running an occasional series, “Women Green-Sports-Preneurs,” to highlight some of the inspiring new ventures and the women behind them.
We kicked off the series by talking with Sarah Wilkin, founder of the Fly Green Alliance and followed that up with our chat with Katie Cross, the brainchild behind Pledgeball.
Today, we introduce you to Monika Dharia, the founder of startup GreenGear Supply Company. It manufactures sustainable, outdoor products, starting with ponchos, that are ideal for attending sports events.
GSB: From my research, it sounds like you were destined to be a Green-Sports-Preneur and that the launch of GreenGear is a logical result. When and why did your interests in the environmental entrepreneurship begin?
Monika Dharia: I studied environmental engineering, entrepreneurship and economics at Duke, and these subjects all reflected my passion and long-term vision to find practical business solutions to the most serious environmental issues that we face, including of course climate change.
One of the groups I was involved in, Duke Student Government, challenged us to develop services that would help the student body. Well, it rains a lot on the Durham, North Carolina campus so I thought it would be a great idea to rent out umbrellas for free. Duke authorities said “no” to that.
So, I thought to myself, “PONCHOS!” And the environmental engineer in me said, “NO PLASTIC!”
The first suppliers I contacted, who were based overseas, pitched me on their compostable ponchos. Problem was there were very few facilities to compost these ponchos so they would end up in landfills and, as they would break down, methane would be emitted…
GSB: …A 30 to 40 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
Monika: Exactly. I thought there had to be a better way and asked myself, “How can I create a better, more sustainable material? And how can I minimize greenhouse gas emissions in production?” You see, plastics use eight percent of world petroleum, more than the entire aviation industry!
So, I applied for the Melissa & Doug Bernstein entrepreneurship scholarship in 2016. They are the husband-and-wife business partners who founded Melissa & Doug toys. I was fortunate to get accepted into their program, along with 10 other student entrepreneurs for a fast-paced nine months. We learned pitch skills, how to structure the business, talk to investors, and develop a product. We also were awarded $5,000.
GSB: What was the most important thing you learned in that program?
Monika: I learned that I didn’t have to create the material I was looking for. I had to find the best material and then find the best people to source and fabricate it for me.
Researching this further, I found that sugar-based ethanol, which is oil-free, could be used as the basis for plastic and would work well from a lifecycle analysis perspective. We found that most of our customers would have better access to recycling facilities and we can work with stadiums to upcycle the ponchos (e.g., as part of roof tiles or stadium chairs). Therefore, we would avoid the “chicken and egg” situation of a product that be compostable but has a lack of access to facilities that can properly serve its end-use.
My goal became to be the first company to create gear, traditionally made from plastics, with the best sustainable alternatives by utilizing a science-based approach. In some cases, this might be through bioplastics (like the ponchos) or natural fibers, which we are looking into for our next product.
GSB: What kind of greenhouse gas emissions reductions are we talking about by switching to sugar-based ethanol?
Monika: Standard-issue plastic results in six kilograms of CO2 per each kilogram produced. We are trying to be life-cycle negative at best to life-cycle neutral at worst, even figuring in transportation. One thing that will help us get there is that sugar cane actually absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. In fact, our raw material production has a carbon negative footprint through a combination of sugarcane growth, use of sugarcane bagasse — the dry pulpy residue left after the extraction of juice from sugar cane, used as fuel for electricity generators — for production and carbon offsets.
GSB: So, when did you start producing ponchos from sugar?
Monika: We manufactured our first batch in Vietnam in 2017. There were several production issues that took all of that year to iron out:
- They used a string in the poncho that couldn’t be recycled,
- Packaging board was also not recyclable, and,
- The factory’s lead times were too long.
From 2018-19, we fixed the first two issues and added logos. Importantly, we won an additional $10,000 in funding from the Yale School of Management, where my business partner was an alum, and then another $25,000 from the Sabin Sustainable Venture Prize. And we moved production from Vietnam to China with the ultimate goal being to manufacture in the United States.
Monika Dharia and team displaying an early version of the GreenGear poncho at the Sabin Prize “pitch off” at Yale University School of Management (Photo credit: GreenGear Supply Company)
GSB: How does GreenGear account for those emissions generated by shipping materials and product to and from China? And what is the price difference, if any, between ponchos made with sugar-based ethanol and those made with petroleum?
Monika: We used a third-party shipping calculator and based it off the weight of the pellets we are using. Because these are being shipped by freight, the actual carbon impact here is very low in comparison to the amount of carbon we are displacing. We are hoping to get a carbon neutral certification as soon as we are able to generate an estimate on the carbon emissions from the poncho production.
GSB: Were you still an undergrad at Duke during all of this?
Monika: No, I had graduated and had gotten a job in the fall of 2019 at Bain & Company as an associate consultant…
GSB: …The hours are long in that world, no?
Monika: No doubt about it but I usually managed to get an hour or two of work done before or after work and caught up on Sundays. We usually started at 9am, so I grew accustomed to waking up at 6:30am pretty quickly. For me, GreenGear started as a hobby, so it was fun to do it.
During those first six months at Bain, I tested out the business plan, including determining what would be a good second product after the poncho — we looked at umbrellas and backpacks. And I was fortunate to be introduced to the head of sustainability at the Steve Madden shoe company. He liked what we were doing, offering guidance and resources.
And then finally, we were heady to hit ‘GO’ on the ponchos. We had some prospective orders ready to go, had ironed out our production issues, and I was thinking about going full-time with GreenGear, when…
GSB: …Let me guess — COVID hit?
Monika: That’s exactly right, Lew.
Of course, pretty much all outdoor venues and events were shut down and our customers were struggling badly.
GSB: What did you do?
Monika: One day, my mom was driving home from work in New York City to Long Island when she saw that doctors and other medical workers were wearing plastic bags as PPE. She called me and said ‘GreenGear should help!’
We spoke to a doctor at SUNY Stonybrook who told us the ponchos would help during intubation and that it was a good thing they were transparent. A GoFundMe campaign netted us around $5,000 and I donated some money from the business. This allowed us to donate 5,000 ponchos to the New York City-Long Island area as well as some to Liberia.
GSB: That is such a great story, Monika. But how did you keep GreenGear alive during the pandemic?
Monika: We had a great chance at a 300,000-unit order from Apple in August 2020 — they were doing a lot of selling outside their stores. But we didn’t win the request for proposal (RFP) largely because of supply chain issues. So, we went back to the drawing board again, from September to March of this year, working out those supply chain kinks. And so, in April, we were finally able to reach back out to customers who had been waiting on the ponchos — including the Bronx Zoo, some national parks in Hawai’i and the Philadelphia Eagles…
GSB: I was just going to ask you about where sports fits in. How did you get connected to the Eagles?
Monika: Well, Lew, this was at the 2019 Green Sports Alliance Summit in Philadelphia at the Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field.
GSB: I remember it well!
Monika: I was late to the session because I was having an allergic reaction to dairy. Norman Vossschulte, the Eagles’ director of fan experience was in the elevator with me. I shared a 1-pager about GreenGear and kept in touch.
Eventually, a partnership developed with the Eagles, Braskem, and GreenGear. We are all working together so that, at the end of life, our sugarcane-based ponchos will be part of closed loop recycled programs. A pilot is about to be underway, outfitting Eagles’ staff with our ponchos. Assuming that goes well, we expect a larger order for fans. We hope to expand the ponchos deeper into sports and introduce a second product.
GSB: I can see how the Eagles, which are one of the sustainability leaders among American pro sports franchises through their long-standing ‘Go Green’ initiative, would love GreenGear. Especially since green is their color! Your ponchos should be big hits in Philly! With what other sports teams are you talking?
Monika: Sports should be a significant sector of our business as we grow with college athletics departments being great targets for GreenGear. We’ve fulfilled orders with Duke and Yale and also the North Carolina FC, a professional soccer club. We’re looking to also expand further in the university space, other professional and minor league sports. These can also be great for large, promotional events where it might rain!
GSB: It sounds like you’re poised to go from startup to post-startup. How do you plan to realize that growth? And how do you plan to get to carbon negativity?
Monika: For us, the next several months are going to be focused on sales, sales, SALES!
On carbon negativity, we need another large order or two to do detailed carbon analyses of our manufacturing and confirm our shipping analyses. But we will get there.