Power for the People

How one Columbia startup is helping low-income communities across New York generate a clean-energy revolution.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Winter 2015-16
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Donnel Baird, bottom row center. Photographs by Ben Rayner

It was May of 2013, and Donnel Baird ’13BUS had a decision to make.

He was about to finish business school — just one presentation for one class stood between him and a diploma. The only problem? At the exact same time as his final, Baird was scheduled to make another presentation a few hundred miles south of Uris Hall: at the White House. 

“The professor said he’d fail me if I missed the presentation,” Baird says. “And I’d never failed anything before in my life.”

But there was a lot at stake in the White House visit, too. Baird had recently founded BlocPower, a company that retrofits buildings in low-income neighborhoods with solar panels and energy-efficient equipment. After a slow start in fundraising, he was up for a two-million-dollar contract with the US Department of Energy.

Baird made the trip, failed the class, and won the contract. It was, he says, the best professional decision he’s made.

In addition to the funding, the contract came with a challenge: BlocPower was expected to match the amount with private-sector contributions. That summer, Baird met with over 250 investors and was still falling short.

“But because I’d failed that one class, I had to take a make-up class in the fall,” Baird says. “It ended up being Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad, which was a hands-on, practical course taught by a guy who had launched eight successful startups. More than any other class, it taught me what I needed to know to really start the company.”

That fall, Baird made another crucial connection. At a Columbia Entrepreneurship board meeting, he met Chris Dixon ’96GS, ’99GSAS, a general partner at the enormously influential Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Dixon and firm cofounder Ben Horowitz ’88CC  ended up investing in the company, and also helped the BlocPower team figure out how to refine their software-development strategy. By efficiently analyzing financial data for each customer, the software catapulted the company’s potential client list from a few to hundreds.

BlocPower engineers perform energy audits on inefficient buildings.

“It ended up being the difference between having an idea for a startup and actually having a startup,” Baird says.

For Baird, the idea was never the problem. It had been percolating since his childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which was then an almost entirely black, low-income neighborhood.

“Brooklyn was in bad shape when I was growing up there” Baird says. “But I always had more educational opportunities than other kids in the neighborhood. So I always wanted to give back.”

Baird’s parents, who had fled the Caribbean nation of Guyana after an economic decline in the 1980s, raised him and his younger sister in a one-bedroom apartment. The heating system was old, decrepit, and unreliable. Outside the apartment, people were selling crack cocaine on the street corners, and gunfire was common.

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