Creating the World’s First “Sustainival”

How do you inspire the next generation to be optimistic about a sustainable future?

Power a carnival ride with waste vegetable oil. Duh.

At least that was what eco-entrepreneur Joey Hundert set out to do when he launched Sustainival in 2011, a sustainability-themed carnival with rides powered completely by bio-fuel.

As part of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, I had the opportunity to spend 30 minutes of rapid-fire dialogue with the person who is referred to as a rising “thought-leader in North America” by a director of over 100 companies. By listening to how Joey Hundert became the charismatic, autodidactic and prolific ecopreneur he is today, it was clear that his key to success was a rapidly adaptive personality.

Adapting Your Way to Success

After attending the University of Western Ontario for three months, Joey decided to drop out and dedicate the coming 16 years of his life to advancing sustainability as an entrepreneur.

“Back then, business schools were very … business schools,” Joey adjusted his non-existent tie, implying the formality of business schools in the late 90s, “if I had known you could channel what you learn there into entrepreneurship the way you can today, I might have stayed. I might have taken the long way.”

Joey adapted to the lack of a prominent startup culture in his college by breaking out of the convention and continuing the entrepreneurial streak that began long before his freshman year. To pursue his passion of advancing sustainability, he came up with the idea of making an eco-village with houses that “produce more energy than they consume”, called Synergy. Realizing that he had no revenue stream and that his idea was a “great way to lose money”, Joey’s adaptive mind quickly came up with another idea.

“A Gravitron powered by waste vegetable oil!”

sustainival.com
Image from sustainival.com

Having never been on the carnival ride before, I cannot attest to how fun/torturous it might be, or whether the idea is even possible. However, Joey was able to strike a deal with those who see potential in his bio-fuel Gravitron to set up an exhibit. Excited, he drafted what he knew was “a tight business plan”– only to find out on the day of that the deal was off.

“Yeah, of course, I was swept off my feet!” Joey said when I asked whether the surprise came as devastating.

Once again, Joey’s adaptive personality saved the day. Realizing that carnivals attract more than 150 million people per year in the United States, Joey immediately developed his idea into Sustainival – a mobile carnival, powered mostly by waste vegetable oil, meant to educate its visitors on the immense potential of bio-fuels.

Since then, Joey has been recognized as a “player in the sustainability field”, and his team scored a contract to develop their award-winning mobile eco-pod idea. Since the day he dropped out of college, he has dedicated his life to sustainability – starting a venture capital fund and a clean-technology consultancy among numerous other ventures.

Even his business cards are printed on 100%-recyclable paper.

Fear as Motivation 

When asked whether he subscribes to the “Lean Startup” mentality of failing quickly and learning from each iteration, or the “focused” approach of finding one great idea and pursuing it no matter the cost, Joey’s response was telling of his personality: “You can’t go about entrepreneurship with theory”.

What motivates Joey at times is not theory, but fear. His fear of mediocrity – of not “being able to make it to the level I want to as an entrepreneur” is what compels him to “make that phone call”, even at times of waning motivation. That fear has allowed him to focus immensely.

“When you’re running from a tiger, you don’t check your Tweets and run from the tiger,” he explains in his humorous TEDx talk.

To pry deeper into the specific concerns that he has, I asked Joey what is the one question that keeps him up at night. He took a moment, chin in hand and elbow on knee, before turning to me and giving me a barrage of answers.

“I’m always asking do I have what it takes to build a billion-dollar company, or do I just think I do,” he admitted, “I also wonder whether my current company (referencing his eco-pod idea) will work. Whether I can balance all the resources from 6 countries. Whether my lights (referring to how the correct use of strobe lights can save up to 20% of energy) work…”

He continues for a while until I pointed out that he has given me about a dozen more answers than I was asking for.

“Yep,” he said mid-laugh, “I’ve got many concerns, man.”

How Joey answered that question is perhaps more telling than what he answered. Constantly re-evaluating and questioning his decision is a key sign of his highly adaptive personality – a key trait in any successful entrepreneur that any ambitious individual, entrepreneur or not, could learn from.


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(published on Wharton Social Impact Initiative Blog)

Jason Choi

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