Dedicated to empowering 900 million kids through technology
I had the opportunity to speak with Tony Selvaggio, the founder of eSmart Recycling, a socially conscious e-waste company based in Florida, USA, about his mission to empower 900 million kids in the world through technology.
In 2014, Tony founded eSmart Recycling, which became a division of Scrap on Spot the following year, realising that he could create value where others see trash. His company recycles computers and other electronics from corporations to invest back in tech labs for kids who don’t have access to technology in local communities and developing nations.
Born and raised in Venezuela, Tony is a 30-year-old award-winning entrepreneur with background in business development, business management and over 7 years of experience in the recycling industry.
He is a Tedx Tampa Riverwalk 2015 speaker with numerous awards under his belt including 2016 Up & Comer Under 30, 2016 Small Business of the Year Finalist, 2016 Big Pitch Winner (Key Person of Influence USA), 2016 Sustainable Business Award Winner, 2015 HBIF Success Stories Honoree and Hillsborough County Business Pitch Competition Winner.
In this interview, Tony talks about what life was like after moving to the USA, the inspiration for his e-recycling venture, tackling social challenges with a profitable business, public speaking, and his top tips for aspiring social entrepreneurs.
Life in a new country
Tony, you are originally from Venezuela. What brought you to Florida and how did your beginnings in a new country look like?
I originally came to Tampa, FL through a work visa in 2011. I had never been in Tampa before, in fact, when I arrived here I didn’t know a single person since the friend of the family, who had sponsored my visa, lived about an hour south. Typical immigrant story - with only a few $ in my pocket, I was leaving my country because of a new opportunity but also because the economy was starting to stumble rapidly. I am an only child, so leaving my family and friends behind was not easy. I would have never imagined that 5 years later I would have been through 2 jobs, gotten married, had a little baby daughter and started a company that would give me the higher purpose in life.
Solving social problems through a business model
How did the idea to transform recycling as a social enterprise come about?
It started when realizing that the only sustainable way to solve a social problem is through business. After doing plenty of research and meeting experts in both the for profit and non-profit sector, I noticed a significant gap between how the organizations must be run to guarantee a return on investment, not only in the form of dollars, but also in human capital.
How eSmart Recycling works
What kind of recycling do you do at eSmart Recycling?
We have developed a turnkey, on-demand, global, white glove solution for the compassionate recycling of commercial e-waste. Our proprietary process operates through the established principle of subsidiarity. In plain terms, it can be summarized in 5 steps*:
E-Smart Recycling takes care of all of the logistics. We pick up your old or recently upgraded IT equipment; you continue to do what you do best.
Our rigid inventory takes account for every piece of equipment we collect and we report it back to you.
We shred every hard drive in-house to protect your privacy and keep your mind at peace.
Stay in-the-know about what happens to the material we picked up and how we distribute it, downstream and/or upstream.
We allocate equipment towards our tech incubator programs.
* Best practice benchmarks for sustainable and compassionate environmental e-recycling.
When people recycle their old electronic devices, do you pay them?
We only pay large companies when their equipment meets our buy-back criteria. For the most part, we either charge a nominal fee for our services or offer the service at no-cost to them base on their community engagement strategy. Why? The delivery model can easily be integrated within their corporate social responsibility programs, or corporate citizenship initiatives. The multinational brands that partner with us are more interested in the social footprint and metrics we can provide than the extra few dollars they would get if they “sold” the equipment.
How do you decide if the recycled electronics are still usable?
We have collated differentiated hub and spoke systems within sub markets that we operate, both in the US and emerging economies. Our unrivalled guarantee is that before anything leaves the warehouse it is tested on site through a tier one analysis of technical and cosmetic competencies prior to the final assessment covering asset classifications namely, exports, retail or scrap.
I imagine it must take a long time to repair and upgrade a laptop. Do you have a set time or a number of people to repair one item?
Because we streamline our processes and work with large companies, most of the equipment we get is in very good condition. Remember large companies have a refresh cycle of 2 to 3 years. The only laptops we refurbish are the ones we allocate to the tech incubators we support.
We are Microsoft Registered Refurbishers and every laptop we deploy goes through a rigorous testing process. But in comparison to all of the equipment we get, the laptops we deploy are handled by a small group of bilingual technicians.
You have recently sent 100 laptops to a school in Sri Lanka and 50 laptops to a couple of schools in Venezuela. How do you decide which country and institution your repaired items go to?
We have pledged 100 laptops to Sri Lanka via a partnership with the Ministry of Education and the private sector. I went back to Venezuela last June 2016, for the first time since I left, to set up a 25 laptop tech lab in a school with over 1400 kids. They had equipment which was over 20 years old. In Venezuela, we partnered with my university alma mater and a school called (Fe y Alegria) to deploy this solution across the country. Internationally, we have also created an incubator in Peru with the same goal.
What has been the biggest challenge you've faced as an entrepreneur?
As someone who arrived in a new country and started from scratch, one of the biggest challenges has been to learn “the way of the land”. The USA is a hotbed of opportunity, but like everything in life, you get out what you put in. I have been blessed to have found good people along the way who I have befriended, partnered up with, and who have been there for me since almost the beginning. I am a positivist, so even the doors that close or the people who do not live up to their part are a great way to learn, be nimble, and turn the other cheek.
You are a start up at the moment. How will the business make money in the future? Are you looking for venture capital or possibly crowd funding investments?
Even though we are still a start-up we have gotten a great deal of attention from large companies who like our model as a way to gain market share and create a competitive advantage, essentially a revenue driven corporate social responsibility arm. Our most powerful asset is the social impact, the story, and a feasible – and scalable solution to one of the biggest social problems we are facing as a society. Ultimately we remain open minded, my personal preference - and my partner’s - is to raise money through debt, however if the right player comes to the table with the right number, we are always open to ideas.
Which part of running your own social enterprise do you enjoy the most?
Without a doubt the most enjoyable part of the journey is to live a purpose centric life through the work we do every day. I am a believer of the phrase: 'We do what we have to do in order to do what we want to do'. For us, what we want to do is to put technology in the hands of every child who cannot afford it. Being able to wake up every day and knowing we, as a team, are making a difference in the lives of children, is one of the most rewarding things ever.
From your work experience, what did you learn about hard work, leadership and motivating others?
Servant leadership is my personal way to lead. To lead by example and to make sure that nobody in my team is doing anything I wouldn’t do myself. I always try to foster a horizontal organizational structure where we are all on the same team aiming towards the same goal; we can all make decisions on our own because we should always be looking after one another, and when we win we are rewarded in a way where we all feel like we had something to do in that accomplishment. The smiles from the guys and girls in our warehouse are our fuel to keep punching our way to the top.
You are a confident public speaker and always put yourself out there by taking part in various business competitions and pitches. What helps you prepare to speak confidently in public? Do you get nervous at all?
I get nervous EVERY TIME. Ha-ha. I think the one thing that helps me the most is that I am really passionate about the mission and the vision of the company and what we are trying to accomplish. In my head, every time I go somewhere to present the company and to “pitch”, it is not only myself going, it’s the entire team, children, organizations, family members, and all other people that we don’t even know or haven’t even met, that are counting on me, on us, to succeed.
How does your future vision for eSmart Recycling look like?
We have developed a white glove, on demand, worldwide solution for compassionate e-recycling. This essentially means that we have created a platform to be light footed enough to service different parts of the world. In addition, we have the ability to cater to our clients in terms of logistical needs, and quantify meaningfully, the trickledown effect of social impact.
The future looks promising, either by growing through a licensing model across the country and ultimately worldwide, or by providing value to a mature player in the market who sees our social enterprise as an opportunity to increase their wallet size while exploding their bottom-line.
What advice would you give to someone with an innovative idea who wishes to start a business and needs more guidance?
I would say 3 main things.
First, get ready to sit on the biggest emotional roller-coaster ride of your life. You will have small wins followed by defeats that feel like the end of the world. It is normal and it never ends, no matter the stage of the company. Entrepreneurship is largely romanticised when in reality it is a lonely, ugly, hard and inherently dirty road.
However, for those who decide it is the right path for them, it is the best thing in the world. I wouldn't change it for anything.
Second, follow your gut. Mentors are great, but you will never believe the amount of mentors who have told me to NOT focus on community because nobody cares. I care, and that’s all that matters.
Lastly, do not be afraid to think BIG. Sometimes we are limited by what by our minds can logically comprehend at that specific moment in time, but then all of the sudden a bigger and more ambitious goal comes into play, and then belief takes on a new meaning. Ghandi once said; “the enemy is fear, we think it is hate but in reality it is fear’.
We are often afraid of ourselves and the potential, in that regard I thank my business partner because he always pushes me to think bigger.
Being born with the desire to dream and push boundaries serves little purpose unless your efforts can change the lives of many, not just the few. Staying close to the ground while looking beyond the horizon through the eyes of my little girl is probably the greatest gift I have been given.
Her world is my world and one day she should be able to see that innocence and curiosity inspired a movement to act and act swiftly for the benefit of all humankind. Thank you.