by John Shegerian — Co-Founder, President and CEO, Electronic Recyclers International

Thank you again to Armen Orujyan for allowing me to continue my conversation about profitability and sustainability, and how we can all benefit.

Starting from nothing in 2002, in Electronic Recyclers International’s first month of business we recycled about 10,000 pounds of electronic waste at our first location. Today, we have seven locations nationally, and we recycle about 18 million pounds a month of electronics.

One of the most rewarding parts of our business is that we run a sustainable operation that makes great profits — we’ve made a profit every month we’ve been in business — and we employ about 440 people in total. What’s more, up to 50 of our employees have come from what is typically called marginalized sectors of our society, including: employees off welfare rolls; people who were homeless or from addiction clinics; ex-prisoners and ex-gang members who have reformed themselves because they want to have a better life for themselves. It’s a major social responsibility element to our business. The truth is, you can be a tree-hugger and a capitalist just as long as you keep in mind that making a profit is number one and then you can go save the world, or whatever your mission is.

Over the door of all of our locations it says, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.” Those words are from Dr. Martin Luther King, and that’s our mission. Everyone who walks in the front door, they see the same sign, and it’s how we really work at ERI and it’s how I got into the world of social entrepreneurship.

In 1993, when I co-founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots, that was my “aha” moment — that I could go and create any business that I wanted to . . . but it had to have a social bottom line. From that point on, every business that I created had a social bottom line. For instance, 1998 when I started, we made a very nice living for ourselves but what were we doing at the end of the day? I went to bed at night, and I felt good about helping to get America’s youth educated. And there’s no greater feeling than connecting people in need for finances to get further educated. So it had a massive social bottom line. And it was tremendously profitable, it became a $3 billion a year venture and we sold it. It became the most successful consumer lending online venture in the world. On top of that, we were getting people educated. That was the real bottom line.

So you can save the world as well as create a venture that makes a profit — it can work hand in hand successfully. At ERI, we also get to do our fair share of saving the planet and preserving the environment, hopefully leaving a better legacy of environmental stewardship than we inherited. For example, what we deal in is e-waste and it’s more than just a problem. It’s actually in a crisis situation, an unintended consequence of the technological revolution. Sure, we all enjoy our iPads, laptops, Kindles, smartphones, and our 3-D televisions, but little thought went into where does this stuff go after we’re done replacing it. But all these electronic items go away faster than they ever did before.

When I was a kid, my grandmother’s TV set was a piece of furniture that just stuck around for over 20 years. Now it’s all very transient. And as we’ve all learned there is no place called “away.” So the idea is how to recycle this stuff in a legally and environmentally appropriate way. And basically what happens to it, it comes into our facility as a TV or laptop and we break it down into three forms of commodities — plastics, glass and metals. And all of these commodities, all of those 18 million pounds goes into smelters around the world for re-purposing. None of it goes into a landfill. So we create jobs everywhere, green collar jobs, which is very important. And we help the world two ways: we save it from filling up landfills unnecessarily with stuff that can ultimately be recycled; but we also save it, because when you send these commodities to smelters, it saves those companies and also mining companies from chasing our natural resources which are continually being depleted and becoming more scarce below ground. So why deplete those resources when we can keep the stuff above ground and recycle it? We call ourselves the new urban miners because that’s what we’re really doing, we’re the new urban miners of the world.

The good thing is that young people today are glomming onto what’s needed. Armen calls it “constructive entrepreneurship.” I have two kids, a 24 and 18-year-old. They see the world differently now. Anything they do, they already know, it’s like imprinted onto their brain, that they have to be giving back, that it has to be part of their business model or has to be part of their own personal life. That it’s not cool just to take and to be a capitalist or entrepreneur and have a one-way sign pointing towards you. You have to be doing something that gives back whether it’s in your personal sphere or mission or part of your business venture that creates a social force or a democratizing tool that helps other people not just yourself.

The next generation behind us is saying, wait a second it doesn’t all have to be about me. I can be a success and it’s not mutually exclusive, me being successful but also doing the right thing along the way. And I think that’s how young people are thinking now. So once again, I say, let’s go!