This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Delta Institute chief shines spotlight on opportunities for eco-entrepreneurs

Jean Pogge tells sustainably-oriented entrepreneurs there’s gold in the garbage if they’d only take a closer look.

After about 16 months at the helm of the non-profit Delta Institute, Ms. Pogge believes there’s great potential in creating companies that find ways to reduce waste headed for the landfill.

Ms. Pogge has been helping entrepreneurs in the sustainable and community-minded sector launch businesses in the Chicago market for two decades. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when she assumed leadership at the Delta Institute in 2011 after the non-profit’s founder, Donna Ducharme, stepped down. The Delta Institute aims to develop market opportunities that are focused on environmental sustainability and job creation.

Jean Pogge

Before taking the CEO job, Ms. Pogge spent 18 years at ShoreBank. The lending institution was widely known for working with “triple bottom line” companies, including green start-ups. Prior to ShoreBank, Ms. Pogge was president of the Woodstock Institute, a Chicago non-profit engaged in research and policy on fair lending and wealth creation.

Crain’s recently spoke with Ms. Pogge to discuss highlights of her first year at Delta Institute and to get her views on opportunities for small green businesses in the years ahead.

You were at ShoreBank for almost 20 years. What was it like for you to return to a non-profit?

Ms. Pogge: It was very exciting to join the Delta Institute. I look for triple bottom line organizations that make a difference in the world, but run a successful business as well. One of the great things about the Delta Institute is the breadth of its agenda. What drew me in was the opportunity to come to an organization that works on the bigger picture and creates these small businesses too.

We created the ReBuilding Exchange, which takes materials out of buildings slated for demolition and resells them. It’s become a growing, thriving business and it’s a model of how anyone can start a business that’s sustainable and focuses on job creation too.

Can you describe some of your organization’s efforts in the last year that had an impact on small businesses and entrepreneurs in the local green economy?

We created the Boost Awards, which are small awards given to startups to help them move from the garage to the marketplace. We gave a total of $7,000 to three companies last spring. We also gave out $3,000 in Green Opportunity, or GO Awards, this past year, to people who developed green-related APPs. These are small awards, but we want to shine a spotlight on their talent and give them a small boost so they can grow. Even if some don’t win awards, these entrepreneurs come out and hopefully make other connections while attending our events. The fabric of this city is being changed by entrepreneurs.

We’re a center of innovation and we encourage people’s creativity by bringing people together on panels and organizing many events. We’re also very well networked with lots of partners.

Are there specific sectors within the green economy you believe are good places for entrepreneurs to seek out new ventures?

We think the waste stream in particular has a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurs. Most of it is job-rich and not very technical. It makes the barrier to entry lower. If you can find that special market niche and put your own sweat energy into it, there are hundreds of opportunities in the waste stream.

For example, all these ash trees in Cook County have to be cut down because they’re infected with emerald ash borer. They’re mulching all the wood that’s being cut down. Imagine if there were small saw mills here and there that could turn that wood into lumber.

Delta Institute has paid close attention to the manufacturing sector in particular. Why have you made that a priority?

Manufacturing creates a lot of local jobs and it represents 14% of the gross domestic product in Illinois. Most of these businesses are small, family-owned firms. The economy has been rough, but making them more sustainable can help them compete globally and be successful.

Delta Institute recently released a report showing how manufacturers in the region weren’t doing all they can to achieve energy efficiencies and cost savings, even after audits showed them what to do. What’s your reaction to the main findings of that report and what can small and large manufacturers do better in this area?

We know that energy efficiency is good for the environment but it’s also good for small businesses if they implement changes suggested from an audit. Small businesses that are successful are really good at running their business, but they may not be so good at achieving energy efficiency because that’s not part of running their business. Sometimes we have to help them understand this will help them save money and run a more efficient business.

What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities green entrepreneurs will face in the year ahead?

I think the green economy will grow even faster. The opportunities are everywhere, but the value in the waste stream is huge. Other big areas are energy efficiency, and new products and services for the green economy. We made a small loan recently (which we don’t really do) to a company that does maintenance on electric vehicles. You can’t take those cars to a regular mechanic. There are so many opportunities that go along with new green products that are coming out.

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