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Sheila Samuelson
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SHEILA SAMUELSON  UI alumna helps businesses and environmentalists break down a historical disconnect in order to recognize and reach for their common goals.

Sheila Samuelson is helping companies incorporate sustainability, and not just because it’s the right thing to do from an environmental perspective. According to Samuelson, it also makes good business sense.

“Social and environmental values are important to both a company’s clients and employees, and many changes can be made for little to no cost,” she says. “Sustainability efforts within an organization can cut expenses, increase efficiency and productivity, and prevent companies from having to scramble to meet regulations.”

Samuelson is the founder of Bright Green Strategy, a new Iowa City–based consulting firm specializing in sustainability strategy, including carbon management, green supply chain, and green messaging. The Oelwein native received a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2004 and an MBA in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco.

“As I entered the workforce, I saw opportunities for environmentalists and businesses to work together instead of butting heads,” Samuelson says. “They were working toward many of the same goals, but not using the same language, and there was a history of animosity. I wanted to help break down that disconnect.”

Samuelson helps businesses calculate greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and other energy use. Once a baseline carbon footprint is established, she can help set goals and strategies for reduction.

“There’s a perception that sustainability is expensive, but many times businesses miss the low-hanging fruit,” she says. “Setting your printer so it prints on both sides costs nothing, but cuts paper use by almost half. Most computers come with energy management software preinstalled, but a lot of people don’t have it turned on.”

Samuelson also assists with “greening the supply chain”: looking at where materials come from and where products end up, and identifying ways to curb negative impacts on the environment. For example, a cereal company could use local ingredients to reduce transportation and choose packaging that can be recycled. Or an appliance company could design for longevity, making products that are easier to repair than pitch.

As efforts are made, she says, it’s important to communicate with clients, employees, investors, and other stakeholders through green messaging, whether to enlist their help or simply inspire a sense of pride.

“Green messaging requires walking a fine line,” Samuelson says. “As a company, you should get credit for your sustainability program, but you don’t want to ‘greenwash’ by overstating the good things you’re doing.”

Samuelson’s interest in environmental causes dates back to childhood. Even as a preschooler, she was upset when she witnessed someone littering or saw a plume of particulates emerge from a truck.

After earning her biology degree at Iowa, Samuelson worked on a campaign to build an indoor rainforest in Coralville, tested water quality at the State Hygienic Laboratory, and wrote a book on corn as a source of biomass energy.

As a graduate student at Presidio, she interned in Greensburg, Kan., a rural town that was leveled by a tornado in 2007 and decided to rebuild green. The Discovery Channel followed the town’s progress for its documentary series, Planet Green.

Samuelson worked with Greensburg GreenTown, a nonprofit that helps city and county officials, business owners, and residents incorporate sustainable principles into their rebuilding process. The organization serves as an educational resource and a conduit through which donations can be distributed, and has led efforts to develop the town’s ecotourism industry.

Just a month after the tornado, Samuelson moved to Kansas to assist the organization. She created its web site, logo, and graphics; developed informational materials; conducted extensive research; and networked in the environmental community inside and outside the town.

“Sheila lived and breathed our organization for 10 solid weeks,” says Daniel Wallach, Greensburg GreenTown founder and executive director. “She took the risk to come out to a completely unfamiliar setting, committed several weeks of her life to aiding an organization and idea nobody knew would even survive, and made invaluable contributions of energy, time, knowledge, ideas, and passion. Hers was a giant gift to Greensburg and to the birthing of GreenTown.”

Upon completing her MBA, Samuelson was hired as the first sustainable community coordinator for the city of Dubuque, where she helped develop a sustainability certification program for local businesses. In Chicago, she worked for a company that helped global corporations track sustainability progress with specialized software.

Ultimately, she wanted to help companies develop and implement sustainability programs, so she launched Bright Green Strategy this spring. She has received a warm reception from the Iowa City community.

“People are very interested in becoming less wasteful and more efficient,” Samuelson says. “That’s why sustainability is a long-term movement, not just a fad. It’s definitely here to stay.”

story by Nicole Riehl; photo by Tim Schoon

August 5, 2010