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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When Baird was ten, his mother saw a woman and her baby gunned down on the street and decided she’d had enough. She and Baird’s father divorced, and she moved her children to Atlanta. Baird won a scholarship to a private high school there and went on to college at Duke. But a decade after he had left, Baird returned to Brooklyn, where he got a job as a community organizer in Brownsville — one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods.

“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.”

In Brownsville, Baird’s goal was to help community members advocate for themselves, which often meant petitioning officials to improve local facilities, such as housing projects, schools, and houses of worship.

“People really relied on the community organizations,” Baird says. “The churches were the heartbeat of the neighborhood.”

Baird started to grasp how outdated many of the buildings were, which was not only an environmental concern but a financial one, especially in a neighborhood so desperate for resources.

The startup's busy office is in a New York State–sponsored cleanenergy incubator in Downtown Brooklyn.

“In the hood, everyone has their window open, even in the dead of winter,” he says. “The boilers are old and the buildings overheat. But someone is still paying for that heat.” 

There was a tremendous amount of work to be done improving these buildings — and, as it happened, a tremendous number of workers available to do it. Brownsville, like most low-income neighborhoods, was plagued with unemployment, which had driven crime rates up and plunged the neighborhood further into poverty. Baird wondered if there was any way to connect the dots.

“When I was working in Brownsville, a third of the men were incarcerated. After they had served their time, they came back to the neighborhood and had nothing to do. No one would hire them. It was impossible for anyone to get back on their feet. But with the right employment opportunities, it seemed like there was a lot of potential.”

In 2007, Baird left Brooklyn to join the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama ’83CC. When Obama was elected, Baird moved to Washington and partnered with the administration on a project that used stimulus money to create green construction jobs for underserved populations in the District of Columbia. The project was successful — using $2.5 million, they were able to update four hundred homes and train twenty formerly unemployed workers while providing them with health insurance and a salary high enough to support a family of four. Based on the results in Washington, similar projects were implemented in Portland, Oregon; Milwaukee; and New York.

Baird knew that he wanted to start a company with a similar goal in Brooklyn. But while he was familiar with the neighborhoods and their problems, his business experience was lacking. “I literally didn’t know what a stock was,” he says.

“In the hood, everyone has their window open, even in the dead of winter,” he says. “The boilers are old and the buildings overheat. But someone is still paying for that heat.”

He enrolled at Columbia Business School. Though he was interested in social entrepreneurship, he had expected that he would have to work in the corporate world before launching his company. Instead, his professors encouraged him to jump in headfirst. Entrepreneurship professor Barbara Roberts, who had been working with small-business owners in Harlem to help them increase their profit margins, provided Baird with some of his first clients. By the middle of his second year, Baird had earned a seventy-thousand-dollar Black Male Achievement fellowship from the nonprofits Echoing Green and the Open Society Foundations, funded by philanthropist George Soros.

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