How Native American roots inspired Traci Phillips to turn an environmental mission to stop toxic electronic waste into a successful business.
Traci Phillips recycles dead cellphones, washed-up computers and old dot-matrix printers so they can’t clog landfills and release toxic substances into the environment. Hear how the Tulsa, Okla., entrepreneur’s Native American roots inspired her to turn a personal mission into a successful business: Natural Evolution
Related Article: Cleaning Up Our E-waste Mess
Traci Phillips (TP): It’s extremely important that we’re recovering our resources. If it goes into a landfill then it’s just wasted. It’s gone.
INTRO: Welcome to The Story Exchange, featuring the stories and strategies of entrepreneurial women around the world. I’m Colleen DeBaise, host of The Story Exchange podcast, and we’ll be joined later by our co-founder, Sue Williams.
NARRATOR: We all love our gadgets -- too much so. Think about all the devices you have -- a computer, maybe a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone -- and you’re just one person. What’s more, you’ll replace those devices with the latest models, probably in a couple years -- if not sooner. (NUSHA: add tiny beat here) What happens to all your old stuff? Where does it all go?
Today, we feature an entrepreneur who -- fifteen years ago, even before the iPhone was invented -- was already asking this question. Her name is Traci Phillips of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Traci learned that dead cell phones, washed up computers, those old dot-matrix printers were clogging landfills, and even worse -- releasing toxic substances into the environment….
TP: You’ve got lead. You’ve got batteries, different, you know, lithium, alkalines. And you start mixing all of that material together ... in the wrong environments then you can, you know, have leeching problems.
NARRATOR: So Traci came up with a business idea that was very innovative at the time. She had managed tech projects for years, and had just been laid off….why not try to make a dent in this e-waste problem? She got started in 2001.
TP: Natural Evolution is an electronics recycling company that recycles (PICK UP) responsibly. We do not land fill. And we haven’t since the beginning.
NARRATOR: We wanted to find out more, so we headed to Tulsa to talk to Traci at her recycling facility
TP (SOT): Don’t junk that.
NARRATOR: If you go to our website, TheStoryExchange.org, you can watch a video we produced, telling Traci’s complete story. Today, we’re going to share snippets of that conversation. You’ll hear how Traci’s Native American roots helped inspire her company’s environmental mission, and you’ll hear about some of the setbacks she endured along the way. If you’ve ever wondered how to turn a personal cause or mission into a successful business, this is a story for you.
NARRATOR: Our story begins in Tulsa, where Traci was born and raised. She comes from an interesting ethnic background.
TRACI (02:29:08.1) My dad was (PICK UP) actually Native American and Irish. My maiden name is Finnegan [CHUCKLES], so Irish and Indian. And… he was Osage, Cherokee, and Potawatomi.
NARRATOR: Like a lot of young people, Traci didn’t give a lot of thought to her heritage. She was more concerned with school, and then work. Her parents divorced when she was young.
TP: It was my mom and my sister and I. I think the three of us were trying to survive. I...worked almost the entire time that I was in college. (02:34:19.03) I’ve pretty much done whatever it was necessary to feed myself and keep a roof over my head.
NARRATOR: That pretty much sums up Traci’s work ethic. She did everything from mowing lawns and waiting tables, to selling copiers. By the late 90s, she was doing well in the technology industry and had gotten married. That’s when she became interested in connecting all the dots….
TP: My Native American history and my culture and, and learning as much as I can about my tribes and where my ancestors came from.
NARRATOR: As she explored her roots, she became drawn to the idea of starting a business with an environmental purpose.
TP: My husband and I on the side had been researching and, and discussing the problems of old electronics and the material that is generated from these old electronics.
NARRATOR: The idea, though, just sort of sat in the back of her brain. But a few years later, in 2001, just when she had given birth to her daughter….something unexpected and pretty horrible happened.
TP: When I was in the hospital I, my boss called me and told me I was getting laid off. It was a real blow. I had given a lot to the company.
NARRATOR: But losing her job, while initially upsetting, had a positive consequence. As old adage goes, when one door closes, another one opens.
TP: I talked to my family. My grandmother was gracious enough to offer to loan us some money. And we decided to start the business. We started to give this new thing called electronics recycling a try.
NARRATOR: Traci named the business Natural Evolution…
TP: The name of the company actually came from how metal melts. It will actually evolve on its own into different forms and different shapes. And there is a natural process to that without man being involved in that.
NARRATOR: So that’s the first part of Traci’s story, and we’ll continue in just a bit with how her company overcame some initial obstacles and is now making about $1 million dollars in annual revenue. Now, as I often am, I’m joined by Sue Williams, our resident filmmaker, who spent a day with Traci in Tulsa and produced our video profile of her. By the way, if you’ve never checked out our site, please do so -- It’s TheStoryExchange.org. We’re a nonprofit media company and we produce articles and videos about women business owners. Welcome, Sue.
SUE: Great to be here, Colleen.
NARRATOR: So, you know, I know e-waste recycling is NOT a pretty business…
SUE: It’s really not. It’s actually pretty shocking… You know, I look at my phone or my laptop and they are sleek and silver and very attractive and you never think about what’s s inside, right? But a lot of chemicals, bad ones, heavy metals, and plastics go into making them. So taking them apart is pretty dirty work.
NARRATOR: So, I know you went there for the video. What’s it like to be inside Traci’s facility?
SUE: Well, the building itself is massive – it’s about 30,000-square-feet. It’s really huge, and there are rows and rows of huge cartons filled with old computers, laptops, printers, wires, cables and keyboards and phones just as far as you can see. It’s really amazing. And then there are mountains of old TVs – you know, the old analogue ones that are full of lead. So it’s actually a bit overwhelming. And most of Tracy’s 13 employees work all day long “de-manufacturing” all these devices…..
NARRATOR: “De-manufacturing.” So explain what that is. (I have terrible headphones but I feel that the overall level on our voices are lower than Traci’s - esp. in this section. Can you boost overall?)
SUE: Well they’re basically taking everything apart and stripping away anything inside that’s valuable -- like the steel, the aluminum, the brass and copper — from all the different devices. They’re drilling the computers open and tossing the parts into different piles, going right down to the circuit boards. And it’s in the boards where there are very small amounts of precious metals like gold, silver and iridium. Here’s how Tracy describes it.
TP: The concept of de-manufacturing is really reverse of manufacturing. So you can say, “Tear it apart” but it’s more methodical than that. So it’s looking at particular category items, separating that material, doing it efficiently, doing it quickly, doing it in certain ways that it can then be processed further or shipped out to the next downstream vendor.
SUE: This is also how Traci’s company makes money…her facility takes e-waste (either for free, or sometimes she charges a small fee) from all sorts of clients, including public schools, local hospitals and government agencies.
TP (SOT): Yes, how many pallets do you have to pickup?
SUE: And then she sells the scrap metal and the other precious ones to recyclers.
NARRATOR: And there’s a lot of non-metal, too...like the glass of a computer monitor, say, or plastic from a TV set?
SUE: Yeah, well, those are bad because they are full of lead -- especially the old TVs. Traci ships leftover glass to a lead smelter in Texas. And anything plastic goes to Tulsa’s waste-to-energy facility, where it’s actually converted into fuel.
NARRATOR: She’s really serious about not landfilling anything.
SUE: Yeah, she really is. And that’s what sets her apart.
TP: Recycling electronics irresponsibly creates more harm. So that’s whether it’s in the US or overseas. When you are trying to process your own gold recovery, be it by fire or chemical process — it’s extremely toxic. When you’re taking just the higher value material, being the copper, and discarding the leaded glass, the mercury, into our water streams -- that creates a huge problem.
SUE: There are about only about 3,600 recyclers in the entire United States, and the unscrupulous ones ship this stuff to developing countries in Asia and Africa, where workers get paid sweatshop wages to smash and burn them.
NARRATOR: That sounds awful.
SUE: It is, it is -- both for the humans who are being exposed to toxic chemicals, and the environment. Traci’s company is certified by a third party called E-Stewards, which means she adheres to strict environmentally responsible practices. And she is quite rare. When we spoke to her, Natural Evolution was one of only five certified companies to be led by a woman and the only one led by a person of Native American descent.
NARRATOR: That’s great. Well, thanks so much for joining us, Sue.
SUE: That’s a pleasure, Colleen.
**musical interlude **
TP: We’ve taken on some responsibilities and done some things that have cost us a lot of money but have done so because it was the right decision environmentally to do.
NARRATOR: We’ve been sharing the story of Traci Phillips, whose Native American roots inspired her to start the e-waste recycling company Natural Evolution. The good news is that business took off, right from the start.
TP: Our first 18 months we were very fortunate in we won a particular job and we were able to realize a profit within the first year and were making good money. Our first few years really skyrocketed.
NARRATOR: But as many startup entrepreneurs can attest -- sometimes you can grow too quickly.
TP: Unfortunately, we weren’t in a position that… we could manage that very well. We had all the wrong people in place. We didn’t have the capital in place to be able to manage that growth.
NARRATOR: Traci contracted with another company to help handle the volume. Then she learned it wasn’t operating to her high standards.
TP: We ended up taking in about 23 semi-loads of material back, that we had already paid for, to have recycled properly and they didn’t. And so in order to keep it from going into landfill we took it back. Even though it cost us a lot of money.
NARRATOR: It took years for Natural Evolution to recover financially. And then after that, the 2008 financial crisis hit… the company struggled as the price of commodities dropped. Once again, Traci had to ask her family for help. But today, things are better.
TP: We’ve made significant leaps and bounds and, and from a healthier company standpoint we’re miles ahead of where we were.
NARRATOR: The company is making a profit on about $1 million dollars in annual revenue, and Traci recently opened a second plant with a partner, a Native tribe in Albuquerque. About 60 of her nearly 400 clients are Native tribes.
TP: Hopefully we’re making more money for them and us in creating jobs. I am very focused on creating good jobs… wherever possible. I think it’s important that people get up every day and do something that they believe in and are proud to do.
NARRATOR: Traci herself used to make MORE money when she worked for someone else in the tech industry. But today, as she recycles about 3 million pounds of e-waste a year, she is grateful to be making a dent in a global environmental problem -- even if it’s a very small dent. She encourages other women who are inspired by a cause or mission to do the same.
TP: Face your fears… follow your passion. Get out and do [CHUCKLES]. I think women by nature can be very doubtful, a lot of self-doubt and it really brings us down. Don’t succumb to the doubts.
OUTTRO: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or….maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange. If you like what you’ve heard, visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. I’m Colleen DeBaise. Editing helped provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is Michelle Ciotta. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.
Posted: February 3, 2016