There’s Always a Better Way When You’re Part of a Community

Job security is a funny thing to consider when you’re a 16-year-old. Most kids simply and emphatically respond to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” with a confident, “astronaut!” or “movie star!” but have yet to consider the harsh realities of career trajectories in those fields.

Not me though. When I was young my father, a practicing physician, told me I’d always have a job if I became a scientist or an engineer. So I listened.

In college I pursued a chemistry degree. I found early on that what I enjoyed even more than the content in the classroom was the supportive community within the department. We studied together, worked together and struggled on tough problem sets for many hours together. Our togetherness helped us conquer organic chemistry labs and physical chemistry problem sets.

Turns out, aside from enjoying chemistry I was actually pretty good at it. My mentor suggested I pursue a graduate degree so before fully committing to that idea, I spent a summer at Argonne National Laboratory to see if I liked conducting research. Once again I found a supportive community of fellow student researchers who had similar interests inside and outside the lab. After this eye-opening summer I listened to my mentor and decided to go to graduate school for physical chemistry. I figured I’d be able to learn a lot and embed myself into a similar community. And for the first two years, I did. We took classes together, supported each other and worked together.

But then, you see, in order to earn a PhD you have to develop your own scientific research question and answer it. In order to do so each individual scientist spends a lot of time in the lab, alone, day-in and day-out. In my case, I spent three entire years in the lab by myself.

You can imagine that after these incredibly isolating years I was eager to run from academia and jump into an industry-specific job where there would be more people! I yearned for a role within a business that focused on scientific development and encouraged team comradery. I quickly realized that although there were brilliant scientists working in the lab and excellent business professionals working in the office, they were not collaborating across disciplines which is necessary to solve big problems.

I knew there had to be a better way. I realized at that time someday I wanted to create a community for scientists and engineers to thrive alongside their business counterparts.

Despite the challenges within the workplace, I quickly climbed the corporate ladder. I managed bigger and bigger teams, had more responsibility and was able to get team members to efficiently work together. This was all well and good but I suddenly had this existential realization: had I really spent 21 years of my life in school to simply help one organization make an incremental additional profit?

It was about this time when I found clean technology. Cleantech — as it’s called — presented an opportunity for me to combine my scientific training and business experience to solve global environmental and energy issues. Yes! This sounded like a good solution so I joined a company that was focused on this mission. Sadly, within a short period of time I quickly encountered the same morale and team challenges I encountered at my last job.

After these experiences in industry and academia, I decided the better way was to run my own company! So I went back to school for my 22nd year of education. This time around, I went to MIT to earn my MBA where again, I found a community of people working toward similar goals. We supported each other and worked together, and finally, after 11 years in industry, this community felt right!

During my time at MIT I searched for a cleantech company in which I could create a community. I heard about a group of cleantech startups that were squatting in a basement in South Boston and went to check them out. I immediately fell in love. Not with the location — they were breaking every laboratory safety rule I had ever known — but with an incredible buzz and passion — it was palpable and drew me in! Here were 15 startups of scientists and engineers who simply wanted to share rent and develop their prototypes. The four founding companies were trying to run Greentown Labs while also managing their own businesses and they needed help!

“This IS the better way!” I thought. I finally found the community of scientists and engineers that I dreamed of creating.

Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And the U.S.’s largest cleantech incubator certainly wasn’t going to be built in a day, either. There were some challenges: no money and only six months left on a lease with skyrocketing rent prices. We knew this community was special. This group of entrepreneurs needed to grow to continue making an impact. I signed on as Greentown Labs’ first executive in February 2013.

This engaged community on a mission proved to be more powerful than even I had ever imagined. We planned to stay in South Boston but by chance were introduced to the Mayor of Somerville who continues to be incredibly supportive of our mission. After a community vote, we decided to move to Somerville where The City found us a building and helped us finance its buildout. We signed a lease and within seven weeks, finished construction on time and on budget. Our doors opened officially in Somerville on September 23, 2013.

Now, as we look ahead to 2016, Greentown Labs is home to more than 40 member companies and recently announced an $11M expansion in which we will nearly triple our size, right here in Somerville. I’m incredibly proud of our growth to date and our planned growth in 2016, but I’m just as proud that we’ve maintained our mission as we scaled: a community for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs, working to solve the world’s greatest energy and environmental challenges.

My Dad was right, if I pursued science I’d always have a job. But what I discovered was that I needed more than the job, I needed a community.

I had the opportunity to share my mission for a community and Greentown Labs’ evolution at TEDxSomerville in September 2015. Please see below to view the video of my talk.