Founder Profile: Gabriella Jacobsen, CEO of Green Upward - Detroit
Hey Gabriella! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hello, my name is Gabriella Jacobsen and I am the CEO, founder and designer behind Green Upward, a sustainable design company.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
Well, I’ve always been a bit of a “mud child.” I grew up always playing outside in the woods, watching birds and insects, and building A LOT of tree forts. I think this nature-based foundation made me a passionate environmentalist because I understood from an early age how everything was connected.
When I was 16 or 17 I had the opportunity to do service work in Haiti. I helped build a medical clinic in the small coastal town of Jacmel. After work, we would go to the beach and it was completely covered in trash with water so dirty we were told not to swim. I saw a Voss water bottle (expensive water) wash up one day and I knew that it was likely not from Haiti. I realized the concept of waste is a privilege of wealthy nations and not universally available.
I chose to pursue a B.S. in Industrial Design because I believe design can be a powerful force for good in the modern world. I then went to work for Fjord/ Accenture in their D.C. studio as a UX designer and researcher. I was able to contribute to many incredible design projects for our federal government and to serve the American people. But I couldn’t let the concept of better design for sustainable living go, so on the side I built Green Upward. I launched a Kickstarter for the Multi-Use food bag designed for eco-friendly grocery shopping and to reduce food waste. Eventually I took the leap and began to run the company full time. As I build and run this company I keep in mind the thousands of beaches of trash and those disadvantaged by waste. This fuels my mission and drive for Green Upwards success.
What led you to start Green Upward? How did it transition from a blog to a business creating reusable bags?
I started by trying to live more sustainably and zero-waste myself. I was in a grocery store trying to buy bulk food in a glass jar and I ended up dropping and breaking the jar in the middle of the aisle. I was super embarrassed but knew there was probably a better solution. I looked online, but at the time the zero-waste movement was only starting up and there were no good options. I found out that other people were struggling with this too so I created the Multi-Use Food bags – think elegant cloth mason jar – that keeps your food fresher for longer with a structured and breathable design.
I was always planning to launch the bags. Before I was ready to launch I wanted to engage with and learn from the sustainable community. Creating a blog was a wonderful, low cost way to do this, and I got to meet many wonderful people along the way!
Once you had your idea for Green Upward bags, what were the next steps you took to make them a reality?
I created the initial prototypes myself then I took them to a local professional seamstress to give me feedback on how to improve the sewing and design for manufacturing. She then created professional prototypes for me and I took these all over the DMV (District, Maryland, and Virginia) asking for feedback on the designs, what they should costs, how to market them, etc. After the designs were secured I researched manufactures and ended up finding one locally in Virginia. I shipped them more prototypes and negotiated pricing then drove down to visit them to make sure we were a good fit. I had a great time and felt secure that their factory was capable of producing extremely high-quality bags. Once this was completed I created my Kickstarter campaign and pressed launch them emailed everyone I knew to tell them to check out my campaign.
That was one big lesson learned – I didn’t put together a marketing campaign before my bags launched and ended up rushing to put together marketing material while the campaign was running, it wasn’t fun haha.
What goes into the process of making and producing the bags?
In terms of design, I spent many months working on a prototype. I began by making bags with paper and other materials around the house to get a feel for the size. Then I used scrap fabric and kept working to refine the design. I was adamant about limiting my materials and not using plastic in any form - even plastic thread. This quickly ruled out traditional closing mechanics like clasps and zippers (even many metal zippers are woven into plastic thread fabric). Finally, I worked with a seamstress to put together the complete pattern and prototype. This was then shipped to my manufacturer to copy and begin the production line. I spent countless hours researching materials and factories, looking for high quality goods and services that would match my cradle-to-cradle design philosophy.
The designs’ journey begins and ends with good dirt. The bag fabric is 100% organic cotton: grown without harmful pesticides. The cotton is then woven into the highest quality fabric and dyed with low impact dyes. If the bag is no longer needed the materials are completely biodegradable. This means the bag can be cut-up and composted, and returned to the earth. The weight of the bag (tare) is listed on the inside of the bag and can be deducted at checkout.
What do you wish more people would know/or understand about living a more sustainable lifestyle?
That it isn’t difficult or expensive, really it just comes down to small choices you make on a daily basis. I encourage folks to re-think regular choices like how they buy a cup of coffee (bring your own mug), to think about buying less and buying well and investing in quality goods with long life (like Green Upward bags for food), and finally to not under estimate the impact of everyday small changes. Last year, my customers helped save over 1.1 million single use plastic bags from trash and oceans by opting to buy and use a reusable bag. Each reusable food bag saves about 700 single use bags over the course of the reusable bags lifetime.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
I believe that design – and designers – is powerful. In recent years the power of design has increased as it is now seen as a fundamental component of business, and more designers are in executive business positions. Designers often are the decision makers behind material choices, packaging, the ability to disassemble and recycle a product and so much more. This means that designers play a critical role in a companies and end-consumers ability to be eco-friendly. I am deeply passionate about exploring, challenging and teaching sustainable design because I believe the health of us and our planet depends on it. I believe eco-friendly consumers should have access to well-designed, functional items that help them live sustainably and well, while making a positive impact.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face?
As a small business it can be hard to prioritize what your next big steps should be. I’m lucky to have a great business network and great mentors, but even still it can be difficult to prioritize what to invest in and what’s going to be the best pathway to grow the business. There are so many options now with multiple types of ecommerce platforms (ex. amazon) and retail options.
Another big but important challenge was setting up a supply chain that honors Green Upwards and my customers values but is still business savvy. I have spent a lot of time researching and speaking with my manufacturing and material suppliers to ensure that all Green Upward bags remain at the highest quality and ethics possible.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other? How have women supported you?
When I first started to explore entrepreneurship I really only saw it through a male-dominated lens. The world of start-ups seemed to be made up of tech companies, with “work-hard play-hard” mentalities, where you would need to stay up all day and night working then drink heavily with your buddies. I struggled to see how I would fit into that picture. Then one day a woman who created and ran a yoga products company came and spoke at my university. She built a company that used eco-friendly materials and that prioritized taking care of its people. We stayed in touch and through her, and a couple other female entrepreneurs I saw how creating a meaningful, well-balanced company was possible. It is critical that women continue to redefine how business can be done and bring other women along in the process.
What women bring you inspiration?
Oh gosh there are so many. While there are multiple celebrities, the women closer to my home and heart are my daily inspiration.
My mom has helped me stay balanced and positive as well as being my all around MVP. Actually as I type this, my mom is driving and helping me move to my new home in Detroit!
My neighbor and good family friend Colette: she is an entrepreneur and small business owner many times over. She encourages me, while still asking me the hard questions.
My former design lead Jo, who led by example, showed me how to be a strong woman in business, and believed in me before I believed in myself.
What have you learned from creating your own business that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
Build as much structure and processes as possible before you begin, and learn to build structure as you go. Quite a few creatives I know struggle with creating a structured process to grow and study their business. They either seem to think that they need a business partner who will create this for them, or that their creative endeavors can’t be measured. Building structure means you create a basic business plan, a basic budget, project your costs as best as possible, and capture as much data, contact information, etc. as you go. You can google how to set up much of this structure, then create and capture data using google sheets (it’s free). You will use this structure to develop your business strategy and hopefully remain successful for years to come!
Do you have any resources that have been helpful to you that we should know of?
SCORE offers free mentorship from retired business executives. I love my SCORE mentor and he helped me set up the before mentioned structure and develop my numbers prior to me quitting my job.
Mailchimp is a great service to capture and send emails. It’s free up until you have 2K subscribers. MailCharts helps you better understand and develop your email strategy if applicable.
Alibaba, Global Source, Thomas Network, Source America can help you with sourcing.
Upwork and FreeUp can help you with freelancers and short-term contract work.
HARO can help you gain publicity.
Is there someone who helped shape your career path?
I think the women mentioned above certainly did. I am also lucky to have several incredible male mentors who inspire me and provide me with invaluable feedback as I build my business.
What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
Something I am working on is enjoying the journey of starting and growing a small business. I am a naturally a goal-oriented person, and I put my head down and work, work, work until I achieve my goal. I’m working on remembering to stand-up, get out, and stop to smell the roses once in a while.
What are some of your favorite places in DC?
So I’ve actually just moved to Detroit! But for those interested in exploring DC I recommend visiting all the national museums and the national mall, seeing a show at the 9:30 Club, grabbing Compass Coffee, and farmers market shopping at Eastern Market - with a reusable bag of course haha!