More and more millennials are starting their own recycling enterprises. One of them is Tony Selvaggio, a ‘social entrepreneur’ who runs eSmart in Tampa, Florida. Here, he shares his story.
Can you describe what eSmart Recycling is all about?
‘My business, eSmart Recycling, is a social enterprise with the mission of recycling technology and IT equipment from the best companies in the world, at the highest compliance standards, and use a portion of the proceeds to provide computers to kids and families in a sustainable and scalable way. The name came about because as an immigrant, looking at how computers and electronics are disposed of and recycled in the United States, the first thing that came to my mind was: There has to be a smarter way to leverage these resources”, and that was one of the main reasons why our business model has evolved the way it has.’
You were born in Venezuela. How did you end up running a recycling business in Florida?
‘I was born in Caracas and I grew up in Maracay, a city about two hours away from the capital. I was twenty-four years old when I moved to Tampa, and it was the first time I was away from home, from my family, friends, and everything I ever knew. You can say it is a typical immigrant story, I only had US$ 350 in my pocket at the time and I didn’t know a single person in the area.
The good thing is that I came on a work visa, which was sponsored by a friend of the family that was opening a recycling business in the area, and wanted my help because I had just graduated from college with a degree in Business Management and I knew how to speak English. I started working with him and his family back in Venezuela before he decided to migrate a couple of years before.
I learned about recycling at that time, mainly nonferrous because his company would consolidate container loads and then they would ship them to Asia or Europe. I knew he and his family had made a lot of money in recycling, and that caught my attention; once I learned how the business worked, I was hooked. Never in a million years would I have imagined that my path would take me to electronics.’
Do you often go back? And are you involved with recycling outside of the US too?
‘I left on April 10, 2011, and went back in June 2016 to set up a computer lab in an at-risk community right next to where I grew up in Maracay. We tried doing business there but things started to get really bad economically and politically, so my Mom and Dad migrated to Lima, Peru ( My mom is Peruvian), and they have been there since 2017.
I opened an office in Lima in 2018 and our focus was to ship refurbished products and create a network of team members and talent to help us expand our operations, we ended up setting another computer lab in Lima and Cusco, and we have plans of growing our footprint throughout the country in the coming years.
Regarding e-scrap in Latin America, it’s a tough nut to crack. Primarily because the Hispanic market in that region is used to repairing and upgrading rather than buying new because of the high costs of purchasing imported products vs their economic reality.
There are countries with more solid programs primarily sponsored by government entities that are creating awareness about the importance of keeping these electronics away from the landfill and proper recycling methods, but the cultural and behavior change curve is steep, and it is hard to have business models that would make a profit purely based on the volume of a single country.’
It’s been a strange year and a half… How did the pandemic impact your operations?
‘Because our main customers are companies and offices, we naturally saw a downward trend in the amount of material we processed during the months of the shutdown. However, Florida only imposed mandatory closing for a few weeks. We never closed because the demand for refurbished technology increased, and even though we were not processing material at the time, we were working on testing, refurbishing, and deployment.
We work alongside non-profit organisations to organise recycling drives and it was very successful. During that summer we deployed almost 400 computers to kids and families in the community who desperately needed devices to go online for distance learning. Overall, we adapted, we remained strong, and our team succeeded.’
You also organise tech labs. How does this work?
‘The whole mission of the company is to find a sustainable and scalable way to address the device gap in our communities by bringing corporate partners on board as part of the solution. The solution is using about 30% of the proceeds and “outdated technology” we recycle from them as a way to fund the deployment of refurbished computers, laptops, and tablets to kids and families.
So far we have deployed over 2 000 devices to more than 50 non-profit organizations, mostly in the United States, but have also worked directly in Colombia, Haiti, Peru, and Venezuela. It’s mind blowing to see a parent or a kid cry tears of joy when receiving a computer, especially after knowing that for someone else, it was “obsolete equipment” that needed to be discarded. I am incredibly honoured to create a business that allows that to happen.’
Think big; where do you hope to be ten years from now?
‘Ten years from now I see myself running an impact investment fund that supports and funds companies such as eSmart Recycling, worldwide, by connecting them to clients, markets, and advisors. It will be focused on social enterprise companies, mission-driven projects, and triple bottom line initiatives.’
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