BY AMY MILSHTEIN
Astrid Scholz scales up sustainability.
BY AMY MILSHTEIN
Astrid Scholz scales up sustainability
Astrid Scholz can’t help but look magisterial. Wearing jeans, a simple sweater and a scarf, she is seated on a lounge at Glyph Café in Northwest Portland. It’s one of those chairs that articulate and bounce with the sitter’s every movement, but Scholz still manages a commanding presence. The coffee shop, just a few blocks south of her old digs at Ecotrust, serves as a temporary landing pad while she starts her new chapter as CEO of the Resilience Exchange.
The Exchange, a B Corp that launches this month, is a software as service platform that aims to curate the best social- change solutions from around the world and distribute them for — gasp — a price. “It’s my midlife crisis,” Scholz says with a wink. “Other people get a red sports car. I’m a middle-age, female nonprofit executive turned tech entrepreneur instead.”
Lucre doesn’t motivate Scholz. After more than a decade at Ecotrust, the nonprofit sustainable development organization, the 43-year-old has not turned shameless capitalist in her “middle age.” Instead it’s her desire to do more and go faster — to disrupt what she describes as a calcified social-change industry and spread success from different bioregions around the world — that drives her ambition. “I’m finally working at the speed of my impatience,” she says.
Social change as a global endeavor has moved at a glacial pace since its inception. Scholz witnessed this in person during the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg. Known as Rio Plus 10 — because it took place a decade after the first summit in Brazil — the organization’s own website doesn’t mince words: “It was hardly a secret — or even a point in dispute — that progress in implementing sustainable development has been extremely disappointing since the 1992 Earth Summit, with poverty deepening and environmental degradation worsening.”
While global solutions have proved elusive, social-change practitioners have demonstrated a healthy measure of success by thinking small. Working within their own backyards — “bioregions,” to use the jargon — groups like Ecotrust act locally, aiming to transform resource-extraction industries like food, forestry and fisheries into more sustainable operations.
A German native with a Ph.D. in energy and resources, Scholz worked in different areas of the organization for 13 years, eventually rising to president in 2013. Modest by nature, she doesn’t point to successes during her tenure. “To frame things as wins and losses is counter to Ecotrust’s mission,” she says, calling it short-term thinking. “Behavior change is hard. Behavior change takes time.”
Scholz and Ecotrust challenge what many think of as a nonprofit. Only 50% of the organization’s operating capital comes from grants. The rest is earned income from consulting or returns from investments. Over the years, Ecotrust has fostered some interesting hybrids that push the triple bottom line. Examples include mission-based ShoreBank Pacific, now operating as One PacificCoast Bank, and Ecotrust Forest Management, an investment firm. Ecotrust’s own building, the Natural Capital Center, is a place of business, renting out offices to like-minded organizations and event space for parties.
Still, Scholz hungered for more results and bigger change. “There are organizations like Ecotrust around the world working on practical, tangible models,” she says. “We don’t need new solutions. We need a way to scale and accelerate the solutions we already have.”
Thus the Resilience Exchange (a working title) was born. Initiated by Scholz in 2011, the organization takes a page from the sharing economy and blends it with social media. She compares the venture to Airbnb, Facebook and GitHub, the open-source code-sharing platform. The Exchange model will curate solutions provided initially by six core groups, the Rockefeller Foundation, Mercy Corps, Oxfam America and the Island Institute. At first these groups will be the sole users of the Exchange. “Just like Facebook was initially for Harvard students only,” explains Scholz.
Eventually smaller, individual practitioners will enter the Exchange — through a different portal. Once in they will be able to search through solutions, picking and choosing different facets and adapting them to their own needs. This new strategy will then be fed back into the Exchange for others to see and use.
A for-profit venture, this sharing comes at a cost. Initial annual pricing for organizations will be in the $15,000 to $25,000 range. An organization like the Rockefeller Foundation, with multiple portals, will purchase bundles in the $100,000-plus range. A public-facing Portal, launching later this year, will offer free access, Scholz says.
“The value proposition is straight from business,” says Resilience Exchange CFO/COO Jon Kruse, an 18-year Intel marketing, finance and venture-capital veteran. “A funder from Rockefeller is less excited about the latest idea than one that’s proven,” he says. Nonprofits and NGOs are used to chasing grant dollars, so they keep their ideas close to the vest, Kruse adds. “Ironically, for-profit companies are better at sharing.”
Kruse says he and Scholz have complementary skill sets and a shared devotion to the cause. “Astrid is so in touch with the problems of the social-change sector and has a clear vision of how she wants it to change,” he says.
But first Scholz needs to find an office and hire staff: curators, code developers and a four-person management team. She prefers a dog-friendly, west-side location that allows her to cycle to and from her Woodstock neighborhood. She wants to sign a lease by June, then get moving on the Exchange, which she also calls “an App Store for the planet.”
After a respected career in the nonprofit world, can Scholz make the jump to the fast-paced, cutthroat world of tech? She is bullish about the Resilience Exchange’s eventual success but admits there will be no crazy returns on investments for social and foundation investors. “We aren’t going after venture capital,” she says. “No one expects to make 10 times their investment in three years. We’re a mission- driven tech company.”
There’s always the chance that the Resilience Exchange will end up being the MySpace to someone else’s Facebook. But Scholz is undeterred. “The goal is to accelerate change on the ground,” she says. “We’re up against some urgent planetary boundaries. The more of us trying to solve problems, the better.”