Greenprint Partners is making big plans
By Michael Blanding
Nicole Chavas ’15 MBA wasted no time in pitching. On her first day at Kellogg, she was carpooling to a class on social impact investing with classmates April Mendez and Laura Brenner Kimes ’15 MBA. Knowing they’d be asked to come up with a sustainable investment project for the class, she took advantage of the opportunity. “I had them captive in the car, so I said, ‘Let me run some ideas by you to see if you want to form a team,’” Chavas says. Out of that brainstorming session, the three classmates ultimately co-founded Greenprint Partners, a Chicago-based urban design and engineering company that uses innovative natural techniques to manage stormwater infrastructure and beautify communities. The company has developed or is in the process of developing 47 sites, with 49 “greened” acres constructed and 83 more acres in delivery or in the pipeline of future projects.
The carpool meeting didn’t happen by chance. Chavas, who comes from a financial investment background, did her homework to specifically seek out Mendez, who worked in community nonprofits, and Kimes, an environmentalist working on climate policy. “The fact we were bringing these three different lenses was pivotal in helping us align on the core concept,” says Mendez, who knew firsthand how important the built environment was for low-income communities. “I would work with young people who would wake up every day and walk past blighted lots and abandoned buildings, and I saw how it impacted them psychologically and spiritually.” Chavas, meanwhile, with more than 10 years of experience in investment management, had heard the talk about impact and sustainable investing but had seen few models for how to do it on a large scale.
The plan the trio initially floated in Dave Chen’s ’84 MBA impact investing and sustainable finance class was to reclaim abandoned city lots and turn them into urban tree farms. Municipalities could offload blighted properties, the community could benefit from beautiful green space, and the trees could eventually be harvested for profit. Chen, adjunct professor of finance, joined the board and became an early investor. The founders got a shot in the arm by winning the $10,000 Kellogg-Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenge and created pilot projects in Gary, Indiana, and Flint, Michigan. But they had trouble lining up additional investors because of the slow return on investment. “They would look at this proposition and say, ‘Wait, so I’ve got to wait 20 years for my money, and you are creating these farms in small urban environments where you can’t get economies of scale?’” Mendez says.
Then the co-founders realized that the fast-growing trees they were planting were very thirsty, naturally soaking up the excess stormwater that can be a huge problem for cities. In fact, they found, many cities had significant pots of money already available for stormwater management, so they pivoted to become a design and engineering firm and started installing beautiful, high-performing rain gardens to soak up the water as an alternative to costly tunnel projects. “Our business model has completely changed, but the mission of using nature-based solutions to drive environmental change in the urban environment is still the same,” says Chavas, Greenprint’s president and COO.
Along with that mission is a parallel mission to empower communities, which are involved at every step in choosing the mix of plants and collaborating in the design. “They can say, ‘I co-created this; I had agency over how my built environment was transformed,’” says Mendez, Greenprint’s CEO. “And maybe [they develop] a little more trust for government agencies funding the work.” While their initial idea may have been more ambitious, their simpler solution ultimately has more potential for impact, Chavas says. “When I came to Kellogg, I wanted everything to be innovative — the business model, the delivery model — but I realized there is a lot of value in making things boring,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to leverage existing structures, and if we can cause an established industry to change the way that business is done, that is a path to much more impact.”
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