The 2012 DC Green Festival, which bills itself as the “nation’s largest and most trusted green living event,” put down temporary roots in Washington DC from September 29-30 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The event featured a packed schedule of events on a dozen stages, including a Green Business stage, a Fair Trade stage, an Eco-Fashion stage, and even a Green Pet stage, where visitors could attend programs on topics such as “Sustainable Cats: How to Support Their Environment and Yours.” As someone who shares a home with three cats who have been cheerfully shredding items in her immediate environment for years now, I’m sorry I missed that one. But I digress.
The Festival tries its best to cover many areas of interest to an environmentally-oriented, politically progressive audience, and for the most part it succeeds. A Main Stage presentation on Saturday, reviewing the lives and accomplishments of historic figures in the civil rights and environmental movements, drew a large crowd. But the Festival is also a showcase for scores of businesses participating in the Green Economy. Green America, one of the main organizations behind the Green Festival (which will hit Los Angeles and San Francisco in November), uses the slogan “Harnessing economic power to create a just, sustainable world.”
While D.C. exhibitors included economic heavyweights such as Ford, Aveda and Clif Bar, the majority of booths appeared to belong to small local businesses and boutiques selling craft items, toiletries and foods, many exquisitely presented and displayed. An unscientific sampling of these booths also suggested a high proportion of women business owners in the mix. Certainly, for women who aspire to eco- entrepreneurship, the Festival offered a wealth of examples and real-life lessons in what it means to run a small “green” business.
“I feel like women are more connected to nature,” says Alekhya Ravulapalli, whose business MaMa Organic Vitamins (www.mamaorganicvitamins.com) was among the exhibitors. The business was named in honor of Ravulapalli’s late mother, a woman her daughter describes as a lifelong lover of nature and the environment. The business was started on a shoestring with $1,000 of the family’s savings, and sells all-natural vitamins, herbs and spices. It’s committed to social responsibility, which Ravulapalli says was also a passion of her mother’s.
“My mom used to invite poor kids to our house, and feed them,” says Ravulapalli, who was raised in India. Even though her own business is still getting off the ground financially, she says it was important to start giving back to the community early on; this year, she donated 500 gift baskets of MaMa’s products to an area children’s charity.
That way of doing business also resonates with Kimberly Wilson, who runs a sustainable clothing business, TranquiliT (www.tranquilit.com), in conjunction with her D.C. yoga studio. “Green business is about doing your best to do business in the most compassionate way possible,” she says. In addition to using only rayon fabric from organic bamboo plants and donating part of its proceeds to eco-friendly organizations, the company plants 150 trees a month to offset its carbon footprint.
For both of these women, the businesses they run are clearly a labor of love. But that doesn’t mean there were no bumps in the road. Kimberly Wilson says she wasted time and money early on when she attempted to get her clothing line produced and marketed in New York. For her, competing for resources in the nation’s fashion hub turned out not to make sense. She says she ultimately turned to Craisglist to find a local seamstress to make the products, and to social media for much of her marketing. Customers are invited to vote online for the colors of the next season’s collection of dresses, tops, pants and skirts.
Greenbacks for Green Businesses
Both Wilson and Ravulapalli used savings or existing business revenues to get started. But for those who need another source of funding, loan officer Christina Stackamore of micro-lender LEDC (the Latino Economic Development Corporation, www.ledcmetro.org) says women who might face hurdles at a traditional bank can consider an alternative lender. LEDC, which calls itself a “mission-based” organization, counts among its success stories the Sweet & Natural Vegan Bakery, a woman-owned business that now supplies retailers such as Whole Foods. As a featured speaker on the Green Business stage at the Festival, Stackamore offered tips that were eagerly received by would-be business owners.
“We look at the whole entrepreneur” in making a loan decision, says Stackamore, who estimates that about half the clients of LEDC’s micro-loan ($5,000 – $50,000) business are women. This approach might help an entrepreneur with an eco-friendly business plan, because as Stackamore points out, “green” businesses can have higher upfront costs. You still need to have your ducks in a row when you see the loan officer, says Stackamore. Most helpful is a loan application that clearly and succinctly articulates the amount and purpose of the loan: for example, the $20,000 to buy a freezer that lets a bakery accommodate its first big retailer order, and launches its business to the next level. “You have to be able to answer the question, how does my business generate revenue?” Stackamore says. LEDC requires that applicants have at least two years’ experience in the field in which they intend to start the business, though different lenders might use different yardsticks for determining business loan eligibility,.
As for whether women might be more attracted to doing business with an alternative lender, especially one with a mission to reinvest profits in the community, Stackamore says, “I think women appreciate the holistic approach to things.”
Attractive to the Uninitiated
The September event was the eighth D.C. Green Festival, and while visitor totals had not yet been posted on the Festival’s website as of this writing, the site claims 30 thousand people were involved in the last Festival, in 2010. As an event aimed squarely at the consumer/homeowner audience (a DIY stage is a newer addition), as well as those interested in political activism, it offers a highly palatable introduction to green living to the uninitiated while also attracting those already on board.
Despite the seriousness of the issues at stake, the event is a “Festival,” after all. That means a substantial focus on things delicious, attractive and fun: a reasonable way to seduce the urbanites who attend into hearing the overall message, which was artfully expressed by businesswoman Kimberly Wilson. “Every decision is a choice,” she says. “You have a choice to cause suffering, or not to cause suffering.”