Making Sustainability Pay: The Virginia Story of Brenda Robinson
One thing about her grandparents’ farm in Southwest Virginia still sticks with small businesswoman Brenda Robinson, decades later: there were no garbage cans. “It was a totally sustainable farm,” she recalls, a smile on her face. “One of the excitements of my life was to see a dress I’d outgrown become a piece of material in a patchwork quilt.”
She gestured out the window toward the acreage of her current project—a former Brown & Williamson tobacco factory in Chester that she purchased and converted into the Sustainability Park, a campus for viable green-related businesses. “What we’re doing here is nothing new,” she said, “it’s what our ancestors did out of necessity.”
Brenda is at the leading edge of a no-labels vanguard in Virginia: businesspeople who firmly believe that sustainability makes for good business and that progress on energy and the environment is best achieved through proven solutions. She’s created her own mold in other ways as well. She created businesses using global solutions from the Richmond area. She helped build the region’s first small business incubators. She’s been a leader on using government to promote innovation. And she’s done all of this as a woman in a male-dominated field.
“If you can combine environmental stewardship with solving energy problems, then that’s just a double win,” she says. “I just happen to be one of the people who believe economics and environment can co-exist. From the energy standpoint I find that another exciting opportunity, it’s something else that can drive environmental solutions, it can drive the economy.” Finding economic opportunity in environmental challenges has become her life’s calling.
Brenda was born in Richlands in Russell County. Her mother was a school teacher. Her father was a sergeant in the Army, serving in the infantry in the Battle of the Bulge. After he came back, he worked as a coal miner and then, because of unemployment in Southwest Virginia, as heavy equipment operator for the state government.
Brenda got married, moved to Richmond, and spent about twenty years working at Reynolds Metal, which was later acquired by Alcoa. Though she excelled, she felt she was limited as a woman in a corporate environment. “I’ve always been an ambitious person that likes to continue to grow and move,” she explained. “I was at the point in my life where I said, I’m not sure that this is where I want to be. I’m about as far as a female is going to go in this company.”
With her husband, an environmental engineer, and her faith that sustainability could create good business as well as the promise of globalization here in Virginia, Brenda started a company that converted municipal solid waste into materials to protect shorelines.
“We wanted to get small businesses engaged in the global economy,” she recalled. So they reached out to the Department of Commerce and several embassies to look at environmental technologies that could be commercialized here in Virginia. Ultimately, they discovered a technology in Australia that had been developed at the University of New South Wales that used materials like municipal solid waste to create blocks for shoreline protection.
They named the company Environmental Solutions, for a reason. “I just felt the only way you’re ever going to change it is to come up with solutions,” she recounted. “That’s why our company was originally named Environmental Solutions. You need to be a good environmental steward, you need to create solutions.”
They worked with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, and the Center for Innovative Technology (which she helped found) to put on shorelines down at Pig Island out in Eastern Shore. The business proved profitable, and Brenda was up and running.
Meanwhile, Brenda helped found the first small business incubator in Richmond, in the then-new Tobacco Row redevelopment project, which, because of its connection with the Medical College of Virginia, focused on the theme of biotechnology. They worked to provide services such as a seed fund for early-stage capital and research services for new businesses. Of the 13 businesses that got their start on Tobacco Row, Brenda estimates that 11 are still up and running. One viable technology that came out was an equine flu test kit for racetracks and show horses.
Brenda has generally avoided politics, ideology, and labels. “I have never affiliated with a specific political party,” she said. “I embrace the views of both. I get aggravated with some of the views of both. I’m really more inclined to look at being an American and making our nation great and looking at how we can continue to grow intellectually, economically, and the problems we have to solve.”
She served on the energy subcommittee of Governor McDonnell’s jobs commission, where she emphasized her views that “Virginia is as energy-rich as any state.” She supports a portfolio approach, including coal, biomass, offshore wind, and nuclear. “You have a little bit of everything in Virginia. From an energy policy standpoint, I believe there is no one solution. Diversity will be the answer.”
To tour her current venture, the Sustainability Park, is simply astonishing. It sits on 140 acres of land given up by Brown and Williamson in 2006 after its merger with R.J. Reynolds. The Sustainability Park has thirteen tenants, whose services include biomass production; industrial composting for landscapers and gardeners; recycling of massive amounts of debris that would otherwise go to landfills; and even a baseball training facility for Richmond-area youth that uses all-recycled equipment.
The Park itself is a for-profit company and the tenants are all for-profits. There is a raging market for the services the tenants provide. One company, Ace Recycling, sorts large quantities of construction debris, recovering tons of metal, biomass and other materials, for later post-consumer use, whether as wood pellets or as road surfacing—and at prices often lower than landfills.
Even though the project is succeeding, it could still use some help. “We have been resourceful without government assistance,” said Robinson, “but infusion of government shovel-ready funding would have created many more sustainable jobs and additional tax revenue while helping the environment, promoting creative entrepreneurship and clean energy solutions.”
Recently, the Park considered applying for a federal grant to help increase efficiency of their own energy use, which could have saved $250,000 a year. They stopped the application process when they discovered that the regulations in place—including the requirement to purchase a $30,000 energy audit and a limit of 25% on the company’s savings—would have dramatically reduced their economic impact.
Yet, the profitability and early success of the Park’s tenants reveals the tremendous promise of clean technology as a business model and investment for society. Robinson noted the co-location of such varied “green” businesses has triggered tremendous cooperation, brainstorming, and even business deals within the Park. A recycler, for instance, sold material to another tenant to build a road.
$20 million has been invested in the Park, which has created almost 100 Virginia jobs, rescuing many employees who lost their jobs when the tobacco factory closed.
With those numbers—and solutions—Brenda Robinson has blazed yet another trail worth following. And it all goes back to a farm in Southwest Virginia.
For more on the Sustainability Park, click here.