David Feldman was working for the British Embassy in the 2000s, helping businesses from the U.S. set up shop in the U.K. and vice versa when he was struck by how aggressively the U.K. was courting clean energy and other sustainable companies. The U.S., meanwhile, lagged behind on such ventures. Recognizing that green businesses here could use a champion, Feldman left the service of the Queen in 2007 and joined a consultancy, The Livability Project, to help communities in the U.S. grow sustainable infrastructure and services.
The consultancy has helped a handful of cities in Maryland and California establish green community hubs through some combination of public/private/nonprofit partnerships. Earlier this month, EarthShare had a chance to tour one of the country’s most successful models, the nonprofit Bethesda Green, founded in 2009.
Bethesda Green, an EarthShare Mid-Atlantic member charity based in the Maryland city of the same name, has established a plethora of programs and events that benefit the community including a city recycling bin fundraiser, a green internship fair, and local farm visits. They also hold workshops on everything from clean tech and building efficiency to composting. But perhaps their most unique program has been their Green Incubator.
Business incubators aren’t a new idea, but an incubator devoted to green ventures is a rarity (do a web search on “green incubator” and you’ll find Bethesda Green has all the top hits). The incubator supports 14 businesses and nonprofits from a LEED certification specialist and rain barrel company to an environmental filmmaker and local nature conservancy. The many organizations share a welcoming space in a downtown Bethesda building provided by Capital One. Offices, educational displays and meeting rooms fill the suite.
Mark Leisher, a filmmaker and one of the green incubator tenants
Typical economic development assumes a model of competition while Bethesda Green values collaboration above all else. “This isn’t a traditional incubator,” says Feldman. “It’s a community.”
Heather Phipps, program manager at the nonprofit Rock Creek Conservancy (one of the incubator organizations) agrees. “It’s been a wonderful partnership for us,” she says. “It’s a hotbed of green activity.” The other tenants echo the sentiment: having many passionate, environmentally-minded people gathered in one place is a great source of creativity and support.
Monthly incubator meetings, guest speakers, a partnership with the University of Maryland and strong relationships with the local chamber of commerce, businesses and government bodies have allowed the incubator to flourish after just three years. Now many other city leaders in the region are coming to the incubator to learn how to set up similar programs in their own communities.
“We’ve done an incredible amount with very little money,” Feldman says. Funding for Bethesda Green comes primarily from corporate sponsorships and in-kind donations. Other sources include the incubator’s own revenue, events, donations, foundation support, local government funds, and the EarthShare @ Work giving program.
While this particular funding mix has worked for Bethesda Green, programs elsewhere may have a different approach depending on their community’s resources.
Feldman has found that communities seldom lack for an interest in sustainability; they often just don’t know how to assess their resources or implement their ideas. “Part of what we do is connect the dots and accelerate the process,” he says.
Bethesda Green has proven to be a test kitchen of sorts for sustainable business. Feldman sees the organization growing not necessarily in size, but in results and connections, ensuring its example will be adopted around the region and beyond.
Bottom photo: Heather Phipps of the Rock Creek Conservancy holds an artist's rendering of Rock Creek Park.
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