Why UC Berkeley is emerging as the leader of sustainable business

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Micah Fry/Staff

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Two years ago, I was in the market for an environmentally friendly toothbrush. I already used natural toothpaste and figured that some type of alternative to a daily use product like the plastic toothbrush had to exist. I was disappointed when I couldn’t find a good one. In the process, I learned that upwards of 2 billion plastic toothbrushes are used every year — a major plastic waste stream. After much discussion with a friend of mine (who became my co-founder), we decided, why not try to create an ecological toothbrush? This was the birth of our company — Brush with Bamboo. We manufacture biodegradable toothbrushes made from bamboo.

Fast-forward to the present. Brush with Bamboo is a successful and growing business with products distributed across the country and internationally. My co-founder and namesake, Rohit Sahdev, is also an alum — we both recently finished our undergraduate degrees at Cal. I strongly believe that the Berkeley experience played a central role in shaping our growth and success in the sustainable business sector. In fact, across the spectrum of emerging socially and environmentally conscious ventures, I see Berkeley alums paving the way. As the paramount importance of sustainability becomes more evident, the UC Berkeley brand is becoming synonymous with excellence and leadership in this field.

It’s the unique ecosystem at Berkeley that’s helping to make this happen: the university, the city of Berkeley and the surrounding network of established businesses form a nexus that makes Berkeley the ideal place to start a social venture.

The university campus and faculty embrace sustainability, which plays a large role in inspiring students. A recent study published in the International Business Times ranked Berkeley as the greenest university in the world. The study noted how UC Berkeley has been able to significantly decrease its carbon emissions and water usage while increasing the number of students who commute to school by bike instead of car. Additionally, the university sponsors various initiatives that support and promote sustainable ventures. One such program that helped us was The Green Initiative Fund. The TGIF program recently funded a full-time Berkeley graduate to work for us over the summer — something we would not have been able to afford on our own. Perhaps most importantly, the UC Berkeley faculty includes some of the world’s leading social and environmental advocates. In the study of sustainable food systems, for example, UC Berkeley scholars like Michael Pollan and Raj Patel are at the top of their fields.

For a student, being immersed in the rich culture of the city of Berkeley also has a profound influence. Mother Nature Network ranked the city of Berkeley among the top 10 greenest cities in America. Historically and politically, the city is world-renowned for its progressive views on human and civil rights, free speech and the environment as well as its commitment to equity and social justice. The city of Berkeley serves as a living example of sustainability and social responsibility. Simply by living in Berkeley, students are immersed in a stimulating and avant-garde context.

Finally, the surrounding network of businesses in Berkeley also plays a large role in making the university a hub for sustainable ventures. Many businesses in the city of Berkeley — and the larger Bay Area — are on the cutting edge of worldwide innovation in areas like Cleantech, natural products and organic agriculture. The David Brower Center, for example, is one of the most advanced green buildings in America and is located just across the street from the UC Berkeley campus on Oxford Street. The Brower Center is home to many leading green-minded organizations and businesses. When we first started Brush with Bamboo, we rented a shared office space at an organization in the Brower Center called The HUB. The HUB is a home for socially conscious startup ventures and provides a space for the cross-pollination of ideas. The presence of many social businesses in Berkeley allows young ventures to easily learn from the mistakes of old ones. This helps them to get off the ground quicker.

Why do so many new sustainable businesses emerge from UC Berkeley? It’s the ecosystem that’s making it happen: the school, the city and the existing businesses create a web that keeps Berkeley students thinking creatively about sustainability. As the co-founder of my own social venture, I’m proud to have joined this ecosystem and look forward to the exciting possibilities in this highly important field.

Rohit Kumar is a 2008 alumnus of UC Berkeley. He is the co-founder of Brush with Bamboo, a company that manufactures biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes.

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