Romanian native Andy Bogdan Bindea, 31, started out as a Greenpeace volunteer. Now his Charlottesville, Virginia-based business solves environmental problems at home and abroad by designing and installing solar-power systems in the D.C. region and Haiti.
–As told to Sarah Todd
I’ve always been bothered by the assumption that people have to choose between economic development and environmental protection. I started my company in 2011 because I wanted to do both.
I’ve seen the impact of improper development firsthand. I grew up in Baia Mare, a Romanian town that was the site of one of Europe’s biggest eco-disasters. In 2000, when I was in high school, a gold mining company’s massive cyanide spill polluted rivers and killed thousands of fish.
After that, I began volunteering with Greenpeace in Romania. I worked and consulted there for six years. But eventually I wanted to stop protesting what was wrong and start building the right things.
I came to the U.S. in 2006 and eventually started Sigora Solar with $4,000–the money left over from a community college scholarship from the National Science Foundation. In just three years, we’ve grown to a staff of 36 people; revenue went from $237,074 in our first year to $3.2 million in 2014. And we’re profitable; we’re showing that we can make money providing solar energy while also making a positive impact on the environment.
But I still wanted to do more. Now we have a 10-year plan to bring affordable, renewable energy to two and a half million people who lack reliable electricity in Haiti. The world has a lot of energy-poor places, but it was logistically easy for us to go to Haiti. We’re starting with a pilot project, a 50-year power supplier agreement with the commune of Môle Saint-Nicolas. We’re installing prepaid meters at every home and business, to work with a solar-power station and wind turbine. For the cost of one candle, our grid can provide 10 hours of energy.
The Haiti project is costing us $2 million, and we still need to raise $1.3 million from investors. Until it becomes profitable, the U.S. business has to support it. We plan to more than double our revenue, to at least $7 million, for this fiscal year. We’ve also opened an office in Washington, D.C., we expect to open three more in Virginia by the end of next year, and we’ve brought a lot of positions in-house.
The secret to our growth–besides our people–has been keeping volume up and profit margins thin. We don’t cut corners on expensive materials, but we still need the prices to be low enough that customers see an attractive return. We’re like toddlers whose only goal is to get candy–but with us, it’s about getting projects. We’ve seen particularly explosive growth over the past nine months, thanks to bulk-purchase programs, which allow neighborhoods to go solar as a group.
I’m a social entrepreneur, which means I care about the people I work with, the people I serve, and the environment. Every solar panel we install means less fracking and fewer mountains that need to be bulldozed to extract coal. The challenge is to be ambitious and go after the things I care about while making sure the company stays alive.