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"I always knew I wanted to give back in some way."
In looking at Donnel Baird’s family and early childhood days, it is easy to see how they helped shape his social entrepreneurship goals later in life. Baird grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in BedStuy, Brooklyn with his parents and sister. Baird’s father worked as a mechanical engineer and his mother was a social activist and social worker.
In the 1980’s, the neighborhood they lived in was a tough, drug and crime-infested area; something Baird and his parents, immigrants from Guyana, found distressing. “I grew up with kids that were so used to living with the sound of gunshots, that they automatically knew to expertly run for cover as if they lived in a war zone,” Baird remembered.
Baird’s family later moved to Atlanta and after graduating from Duke University, he returned to Brooklyn as a community organizer. “I became a community organizer after college, and worked on the Obama campaign,” Baird said. “I always knew I wanted to give back in some way.”
The neighborhood scenes he witnessed in his youth left an impression on Baird and he thought that a way to give back was through job creation. “I noticed how, in the dead of winter, people in the ‘hoods would have their windows open because the buildings were overheated. I thought ‘Why not hire and train people to learn how to better insulate the buildings?’ This would create jobs and save tax-paying dollars from literally going out the window.”
He sought to focus on updating the energy installations of buildings in those underserved neighborhoods in inner cities, in particular in upper Manhattan, West Harlem, the South and North West Bronx and Central and East Brooklyn. Through BlocPower, Baird and his team weatherized hundreds of houses, providing training to local unemployed people to do the construction work.
Today, BlocPower’s target clients are a unique and worthy one; they primarily focus on communities of faith in inner cities. “Historically, communities of faith have played an important role in giving African-Americans the right to vote and supporting immigration,” Baird explained. “They are central to the nurturing and support system of inner city communities and we are engaging them in conversations on coming into the clean-energy space, taking ownership of it, and how it creates jobs, supports climate change – all while saving on their energy bills.” Baird uses their collective power in a community to bargain for lower electricity billings on energy-efficient products. “It is a unique for-profit capitalist business strategy,” Baird added.
“I credit Columbia Business School for being the entrepreneur I am today,” Baird shared. “I enrolled at CBS with no business background at all and Columbia took me from ‘0-to-60’ in two years.” Learning how to operate and monetize social and environmental change made all the difference. “Columbia gave me the time, space and mentoring to make BlocPower happen.”