Apr 17 2018
Embracing Organizational Transformation: Ross Outten Podcast
Ross and Jamie sit down in The Friendship Center’s new location on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago, where they will be extending their services to include a hot meal service for those in need. Friendship Center has been around for 30 years, but Ross as Development Director is acting like an entrepreneur to expand the service offerings and really embrace organizational transformation.
Ross is committed to sustainability and reducing food waste, which aligns with their mission of reducing hunger in the Chicago region. I think you will enjoy his unique story and passion for his organization.
Speaker 1: Welcome back to episode 12 of the Verde podcast. Every week, we talk to local business leaders and entrepreneurs to understand the real story that doesn’t make it to the spotlight but is how actually businesses are actually built here in Chicago. Today, we have Ross Outten who is the Director of Development of Friendship Center. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Ross as an entrepreneur, his current role at the Friendship Center, he had did some work at a business organization that we’re a part of. And, Ross is like a five-tool player in the industry that can do a lot of things, and I’m excited about his current role.
So, we’re gonna talk a little bit about his current role as Director of Development and Friendship Center. So, welcome Ross.
Ross Outten: Hey, thanks for having me.
Speaker 1: I’m glad to have you. So, we’ll kick right in as we usually do. So, tell me a little bit about your background and what drew you to Friendship Center. And I guess, give us a little background for those who don’t know Friendship Center, what they do.
Ross Outten: Sure. Sure. So, I’ll start with me personally. I’m a chef by training. I had about a 20-year career in hospitality, a little time in the front of the house, a little time at the back of the house. I owned my own restaurant, Dulche Casa Café for about five years, which is actually where we met, James. So, that was sort of my career prior to this transition I’ve had over the last couple of years where after selling my business and trying to figure out kinda what I wanted to do next.
I knew I wanted to do something community oriented, something sort of public service oriented But, I never really lost my passion for food. And so when the opportunity to work at the Friendship Center came along, it seemed like the perfect marriage of the opportunity to give back to my community. Also in development, it is a lot about fundraising and connecting with other areas of the community, so using my connections in the neighborhood. And then also my passion for food and in the direction we’re going right now at the Friendship Center. I guess I’ll just say first of all, we’re a 30-year-old organization so we’ve been around a long time, obviously way longer since I joined last year. And it actually started in a church basement in North Park, and it started with all volunteers and it grew out of the church basement into a storefront retail space on Foster where we’ve had a location doing distribution for about twelve years.
And then, we’ve had a second location here in Lincoln Square for five years. And so, we’ve been around a long time and feeding people in the neighborhoods of North Park, Albany Park, Ravenswood, and Lincoln Square and Westridge for a long time.
Speaker 1: Just curious, how many people are you serving here?
Ross Outten: So we feed about 1700 people a month on average. Last year, our numbers were about 14% up from the year before and when I started, I sort of looked back at the curve and from the data I had over at least the last decade, those were the highest two years we have on record. So the need in our community is definitely increasing. We’re also seeing an increase in homeless, unfortunately, and so that to a degree has impacted our mission. First of all, just the fact that we need to expand our capacity to meet the growing need and also that the needs of homeless clients are different from people who come to the food pantry traditionally, which are largely people who are food insecure but had hopes.
Right? Seniors on fixed income, families that were struggling, et cetera. So if you’re homeless, getting a bag full of groceries doesn’t really help you that much if you don’t have any place to cook them, if you don’t have any place to sit and eat. And so over the last few years at the Lincoln Square Friendship Center, we’ve started just trying to adapt to that need of staying open late. We have a microwave. We’ll pop open some cans of soup and let guys sit and eat.
But definitely, I think there was a feeling that there was an imperative there if that’s a growing need that we need to grow to meet it. And so, it’s really exciting time right now for us because we’re just recently closed in on a new space in Lincoln Square where we’re gonna be…
Speaker 1: We’re sitting in right now.
Ross Outten: We’re sitting here right now. The sort of shell of what is going to be the new home of the Friendship Center hopefully in the next few months. It was slated to be a restaurant. It was built out to be a restaurant, and then they never opened. And so we’ve inherited a fully built kitchen and tables and chairs and really a lot of stuff that is going to make it possible for us to take a leap forward in terms of our programming and offer hot food.
Speaker 1: And Friendship Center has never had their own kitchen before?
Ross Outten: Never had our own kitchen.
Speaker 1: That’s incredible.
Ross Outten: We’ve never had a hot food program of any kind, so this is a big leap forward for us as an organization. It’s also a larger space. It’s a newer building. It’ll allow us to expand our food distribution operations and also just operate as a community space where we’re be able to bring people together, maybe partner with other organizations, have meetings in here, things like that. It really opens up a lot of possibilities for the future of our organization.
Speaker 1: And we’re right now, we’re at 2713 west Lawrence.
Ross Outten: 2711-13, yeah. It’s kind of double storefront right here on Lawrence Avenue across from beautiful Gross park on a really nice, sunny day.
Speaker 1: Yeah. I’ve lived off of Lawrence about half a mile from here, maybe a little less than that actually. Western and Lawrence. And I now live about a half a mile west of here, and it’s such an interesting… I don’t think people realize how diverse the city is in this part. I mean, you could be on one block and it’s very affluent. You could be on another block… So I imagine there’s a lot of need for services around here. I have a five-year-old daughter and a couple days ago we were driving the car, and it was the first time she had ever asked about somebody homeless on the side of the road. I kinda thought to myself, “how have we never talked about this?” What a beautiful thing that a five-year-old can grow up and not understand people have that severe situation of not having a home. It’s kind of like, it’s a beautiful thing that five-year-old doesn’t understand it, but what a tragic thing that it’s going on.
Ross Outten: Yeah, it is a tragedy and homelessness, in some ways, is visible as it increases and we do see it on the north side. But then there’s also the more hidden side of food insecurity and that goes unnoticed largely because they’re not visible to us but they’re still struggling. And that’s in all kinds of communities. And you might say, “Okay, well yeah. Across the river in Albany Park, that’s a community that’s struggling a little economically, I’m guessing maybe they do have people who are in homes but still struggling with underemployment, with fixed income, et cetera, and putting food on the table. And that’s true. Based on data from the U.S. Census which classifies eligibility for SNAP benefits which means also your food insecure is 185% of the poverty line. And that goes to a complicated issue why that poverty line hasn’t been raised in thirty years and we won’t get in to all that.
But basically, that’s how the federal government designs eligibility for SNAP benefits. Another way of defining food insecurity that’s equally true is that it means that you’ve twice or more over the last year been unable to find food to put on the table for your family. And that describes 50% of people in Albany Park, so that’s a huge number and that’s absolutely real.
But even here in fancy Lincoln Square where people often tell me, where we’re opening our new center which is easily accessibly to Albany Park and to North Park and all of our other service areas. But they say, “Well but yeah, but right here in the center of Lincoln Square, those food insecurity rates can’t be very high. I mean, we’re in a wealthy neighborhood.” But I moved into this neighborhood… Well I bought a home in this neighborhood 10 years ago. I moved into the neighborhood 20 years ago and I remember when it wasn’t quite so fancy. I was lucky enough to buy my home right after the downturn in the housing market or I probably wouldn’t be able to afford it today.
This neighborhood has gentrified a lot in 20 years and 10 years. It’s changed rapidly. And what that means for people, some who own homes and are struggling with property taxes, others who rent and don’t as much control are getting priced out. Either they leave the neighborhood, or they stay and try to struggle either because they’re seniors who want to live in place or they have kids who they want to let finish school. And so these are the same people who have been living here all along and working and contributing to society and are just now struggling to make ends meet. And they’re coming to us for extra help so that might not be as visible in Lincoln Square, but it’s still very present and very real. I don’t think I said this one, but the corresponding number in terms of food insecurity from Albany Park is 50%. In Lincoln Square it’s 27% And that surprises everyone when I tell them.
Speaker 1: Yeah, for sure.
Ross Outten: ‘Cause most people when I ask them to guess, they think single digits. “Oh 7 8%.” It’s 27%.
Speaker 1: I think it’s also something that we just… it’s easier just not to think about. Like, it’s easier to go about your day and just… not think about that issue because it’s really hard and it’s hard to… It’s admirable that people like you are there on the front lines doing that work. But for the rest of us, they go about our lives. It can drag you down thinking about it.
Ross Outten: Sure.
Speaker 1: And I’m sure you feel that.
Ross Outten: Sure. It can be really tough. I think everyone’s been faced with what they call ‘The Panhandlers Dilemma.’ Do I have enough money in my pocket to give a dollar to everyone? Am I really helping if I give a dollar to everyone? It becomes this sort of overwhelming sense of tragedy that you feel helpless to do something about. And so, I think that’s the exciting thing about working at a place like the Friendship Center because we exist as an organization to channel that in a positive direction and find people’s urge to help and care and have empathy for their neighbors and channel that in a productive way. Where we can first of all economize their efforts and that’s through the GCFD, The Greater Chicago Food Depository, sorry, of which we’re an affiliate agency and where we get a lot of food and a lot of support. Like, for example, a lot of that data I just gave you comes from them. They allow us to take that energy and take the volunteer hours and efforts of our local community and channel them in the most efficient way, to offer the most services to our neighbors and help the most people possible.
And that’s a really exciting and fun thing to be a part of, and it kind of acts as an anecdote to that feeling of helplessness that you feel when you drive by someone on the side of the road and you see that human tragedy and feel helpless to do anything about it.
Speaker 1: Well, I’m excited to see an outlet for your creative food design and building almost. It’s cool to think that a top tier chef is doing this. I’m sure you’re not going to be cooking every night, but I can’t imagine you’re not going to get out there once in a while and influence the food being made.
Ross Outten: Yeah, well we’re gonna be implementing the hot food program slowly. That’s very kind of you. I wouldn’t consider myself a top tier chef. I ran a neighborhood café and I consider myself a pretty decent cook, but I think that whether you’re talking about, and there’s nothing wrong with going out to a nice restaurant, but even just a simple, humble meal. There is really something about bringing people together around a table. And I have worked in fine dining and I’ve worked at all different levels of dining, and that’s something that’s sort of universally true.
And so, one of the things I think is definitely a goal of our programming and that we’re excited about is making this a community space where we can blur some of those lines and distinctions between our donors and our volunteers and our clients. So, yes we want to operate a hot food program, you know to a degree that’s sort of in the soup kitchen model, but you know the soup kitchen model is still also much about us serving clients, clients coming and receiving help.
One of the things that I really find interesting and exciting is the Karma Kitchen model that Bon Jovi’s been doing in New Jersey, and that’s the idea of creating a pop-up restaurant environment where you give people choice on what they wanna eat. They sit down and they’re actually served. You have volunteers working in the kitchen, volunteers waiting tables, and people come in and have a meal.
And if you’re someone who hasn’t been able to afford to bring you’re family out to dinner in two years, it’s a meal out. And if you’re a volunteer or a donor and you wanna come out, you can come out and then the idea is people pay what they can. If you can’t pay anything, then we’re happy to give it to you. If you’re a donor and you want to come and you had a great time and you want to leave us $100 and help support the mission, great. But everyone comes, everyone pays what they can, and we break bread together. That’s the sorta concept and vision that we wanna try to bring into the hot food program we do here at the Friendship Center to really make it a community space where people are coming together and making those kinds of connections that build community.
Speaker 1: Yeah, that’s great. So one of the questions I always like to ask people, and I’ve interviewed a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of… which you were I would say so far and also a couple people in the nonprofit sector. I always find it… Personally running a business, it’s really challenging. It wears on your person, as any professional role does, but I feel like the entrepreneur takes a certain brunt of a lotta different aspects that’s challenging.
I always like to hear about the favorite parts first. In your role as Director of Development, what are your favorite parts? What do you wake up most excited and jump out of bed to do everyday?
Ross Outten: Oddly enough, one of the things that initially I was most afraid of, which has become one of my favorite things, has been asking people for help, asking people for money, asking people for volunteer hours, just asking people for help generally. There’s a sort of joke that development is french for fundraising, right? And so in my role, I have a bit of a dual role because I am project managing this move and we’re developing hot food programs so I have some operational responsibility. But we have also a director of operations, Dean Morrison does a fantastic job running our day-to-day. A bit part of my job is also getting out there and raising the money to pay for all this.
Building connections in the community, finding in kind donations, working with people who do recycled food programs, all that sort of stuff. And so that involves, generally yeah, a lot pf going out and asking people for things. Initially, as a hospitality person who had run a business, that was a new thing for me. The idea of having to ask people for money, ask people for support. I was nervous about it going in but now, I’m less than a year on the job and I’ve actually learned with each time that it’s like…
First of all, there’s so much good will in our community. Our local business community is really fantastic and having been a part of it and knowing a lot of people, the generosity that I see from our neighbors, from our business owners is outstanding and it’s inspiring. It really makes it kind of fun and when we do events especially and we’re able to bring people together and whether it’s volunteering at a beer festival or running a fundraiser, you see the best in people and it’s really exciting and it’s fun. People end up thanking me and feeling like they walked away getting more than they gave, and that’s just mutually rewarding thing and so it’s definitely torn down that wall of feeling shy about asking people for money, asking people for help because I’ve had such a rewarding experience on the back end seeing the people that do volunteer with us, the people that give up their time and their money walking away feeling like it was 100% worthwhile.
Speaker 1: It’s funny, so the thing for me that I was most terrified in running my business was sales, and before we pivoted our business model to the one you’re familiar with, I did some software development and software sales. Yeah, I was the only person in the company, so I would try to sell it and it was really hard. Eventually when I pivoted the model, I had to go out… I mean that was a little bit different software sales because you would email people and it was a little bit safe, right. But when I had to start going door-to-door, I was terrified.
The reason I’m bringing this up, there’s a couple reasons, but one is I remember the day… So you were our fifth customer ever at Casa Dulche and I remember where I was when you said yes. I was on my patio on the phone with you and I called you a couple times and hadn’t caught you and you were like “Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to get back to you. Oh yeah, we’re gonna do this.” And I remember coming in and telling my wife, “We got one!” It was a big moment. So that was ironic that we’re talking about this, but also I learned to love it. I imagine development and sales is very similar… there’s a lot of approaches and I’m sure there’s a lot of textbook ways to do things, but in general, it’s just about connecting with people and providing an outlet. You’re providing an outlet for their money, which is they wanna give, so you’re providing your resource for that. And, my company is providing an outlet for them to save energy.
So, there’s a lot of similarities, but I was terrified in the beginning, and now I love it so it’s fun. I never would have though 10 years ago I’d be basically a glorified salesman. So, life’s a journey, right? You don’t always end up where you expect.
Ross Outten: I never thought I’d be working in nonprofit world, so yeah. Who knew?
Speaker 1: So that’s cool. I definitely could see that, and you’d be good at that. Do you have a most challenging part? I know you’ve only been here for a year with Friendship Center? Is there a most challenging point of man, you hit a wall and the lease fell apart and whatever? Is there some moment that you can remember as really challenging?
Ross Outten: Well I mean, I’m trying to think if there’s a single moment. I will say for me personally, there’s certainly been a cultural slash technological shift in terms of what I have to be responsible for in this new role. As a business owner, you definitely deal with some of that. But I was definitely a chef owner, heavy on the chef. I tried to delegate as much as I could, and I still do. We have a fantastic team from volunteers to people who help us out with things like accounting services et cetera.
But moving into this new role, I’ve definitely had to learn some new software, client-relation management software, I’ve had to improve my social media game. I mean, it’s funny I think all the time now about that was one of the things I struggled with when I ran my restaurant. I just didn’t allot a lot of time to it, didn’t care for it. But, I think, “Man, I kinda wish I could go back in time,” and apply all the skills I learned. But I’ve had to learn a lot and… I don’t know if you’d call it cultural, but there’s something different about having to spend that kind of time sitting in front of a computer whereas I’m used to being on my feet in the kitchen. So that’s required a change in my personal attitudes, work habits, and life style.
But, it’s good. It’s invigorating to learn new things. I’m 40 this year.
Speaker 1: When do you turn 40?
Ross Outten: I turned 40 last year in November, so I’m 40 now.
Speaker 1: I turn in September so…
Ross Outten: Okay, yeah. It’s a tough pill to swallow sometimes but… it’s also I feel like I’m at an exciting time in my life where I am learning new things and taken on new challenges and it feels like a fresh so. And so, it doesn’t feel as over-the-hill as it might otherwise feel.
But there’s certainly a lot that’s different in the role and anytime you have to take on different things, it’s a challenge to the way that you’ve always operated. But, I can’t say there’s a single moment that stands out. We’ve been negotiating a lease for the last two and a half months, and so there were challenging moments. Again, they’re learning experiences for me but it’s like…
Speaker 1: But you’ve done that before, right? With the restaurant?
Ross Outten: Kind of, yeah. I negotiated a lease there. That is true. Although it was a simpler situation because it was a single owner and it was kind of a very simple lease. This is a little more complicated working with a nonprofit, working with a board, expanding into a new, larger space. And so, there were certainly a lot of moments along the way where I wasn’t sure that this particular deal was gonna happen. We needed it to happen because we needed to expand but also because our current Lincoln Square space was coming up on the end of its lease in any case.
So we needed to find some kind of a new home, and fairly early on identified this as a really a fantastic target for a new home. But, there were definitely three or four times along the way where I wasn’t sure that this deal was necessarily going to work out and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to work with the terms that they wanted or whatever. Thankfully through a lot of hard work, on our board and people have more expertise and thankfully we have a couple lawyers on the board, they will help out, and really again I can’t give enough credit to our landlords who really were excited to have us and work with us from the beginning. A lot of landlords just aren’t interested in having a social service operation in their building. They worry about the elements it’ll attract, whatever. You get that sort of nimbyism, and it makes it sometimes tough. We’re very lucky and blessed, I guess, to have landlords that wanted us here and were willing to work with us and our board and be patient through that process as we ironed out all the details we needed to sign a long term lease.
We’re definitely here now. We’ve closed. We’re moving in and we’re gonna be here for 10 years and hopefully for a lot longer than that. We have a lot of options to stay here. This could hopefully be a real long term home for the Friendship Center’s Operations.
Speaker 1: Congrats. Moving has to be one of the worst things, both personally and professionally.
Ross Outten: It is. It’s gonna be a tough couple months ahead of me right now as I project manage this move and get this space ready and get everything moved. It’s convenient in a couple of ways. It’s literally right down the street from our current location. We’re less than a hundred yards from our current location on the same side of the street. So, I’m not sure we’ll even necessarily need to rent trucks. We might just have a team of people with dollies like ants going down the sidewalk. But it’s still gonna be a big project over the next few months but an exciting one and I hope you’ll come back and be here at the ribbon cutting in May when we’re ready.
Speaker 1: Yeah, I’ll be here for sure.
The last question I always enjoy… You know me personally for the last couple years. We’ve overlapped a few employees, and we’ve had different relationships professionally, so I personally my passion is sustainability and it has been for a long time, probably my whole life. So I like to ask this question. Tell me about your experience in making sustainability a priority here at Friendship Center? ‘Cause I know it’s not your mission, your mission is helping the community avoid hunger. But it sounds like from our off-radio or of-podcast conversations that you’ve put a lot of emphasis into sustainability. So tell me a little bit about that and why.
Ross Outten: Sure. Well first, I would say that yes, our primary mission is to feed people, but as an [inaudible 00:23:50] sort of side product of that mission, we do already keep a lot of food out of the waste stream and out of landfills simple because we are the last stop for a lot of donated food and we work a little program through the Greater Chicago Food Depository called the Food Rescue Program which someone down at the GCFD warehouse which is on the south side was clever enough to say, “You know what? It doesn’t make sense to send out trucks to supermarkets and take their food rescue and bring it all the way back to our warehouse and then ship it all the way back to neighborhoods.” And so what they do is they actually work with our agency locally and independently with businesses, supermarkets in our neighborhood and we’re able to be a part of that process and do food rescue where they send up a truck and take it directly from the supermarket directly to our door.
That limits the amount of fuel they’re consuming and we’re also taking all of that food that otherwise would have ended up in the trash usually and distributing it immediately so the people can consume it. That’s already a part of what we’re doing for sure and also with our clothing programs and other programs, we are definitely down stream of a lot of stuff that we are taking, reusing, recycling, and getting it out to people before it ends up in the waste stream.
But also, this new space, obviously, presents a lot of opportunities and so we’re really looking as we move in to ways we can reimagine our processes and reimagine this space to make it as sustainable as possible going into the future. One thing I’m excited to do is work with Liam Donnelly from WasteNot WantNot Compost. I don’t know if you know who he is. He’s a great kid and we’ve already talked about working together for when we do the hot food program, trimmings, whatever compostable waste, food that we’re not able to give away for whatever reason that we can divert to him and I think that’ll be a step forward for us.
Speaker 1: He picks up everything on bike, right?
Ross Outten: He picks up everything on bike. He is an amazing kid. Yeah, he bikes around the neighborhood picking stuff up and then I think he’s working on, I don’t think he’s quite there yet, but he’s working on raising money to get an electric vehicle so he can expand his operations but stay carbon neutral.
Speaker 1: Cool.
Ross Outten: And we’re also… I mean part of the reason you’re here today is ’cause we’re excited to talk to you about working with Verde on our lighting, on our other electrical implements. We obviously do deal with a ton of refrigerators as part of our food distribution process, and so we’re probably not going to do it all here in this podcast, but off-mic, Jamie and I are gonna be kinda kicking the tires of this new space and talking about ways that we can be as energy efficient as possible.
Speaker 1: Yeah, we didn’t mention this, but we’re actually up on a ladder right now changing LED lights in an exit sign, so… I’m just kidding. But the first thing you were mentioning was really interesting to me about the food waste kind of all coming in, whenever the grocery store has waste I never knew that happened, which is cool first of all. But second of all, it’s almost like a local… like you’re the chef and you’re gonna get in a delivery and you’ve got to create a menu based on the food that comes in that day.
Ross Outten: Yeah, we call it the mystery truck when it shows up on Wednesdays. Right now it’s kind of a mystery basket for our clients. They don’t know what they’re gonna get, but we distribute it and they take it home and they cook it, but definitely… And that also happens from just people in the community. We do canned food drives. We do donations. We had one really creative canned food drive last year at one of our local schools that it’s a uniform school and I guess kids really hate wearing the uniforms and so the deal was, you get to wear whatever you want as long as you bring a can of food in that day. So we collected 3,000 cans of everything from pasta sauce to black eyed peas.
Which by the way as just an aside, if you are donating food, don’t give us your black eyed peas. It’s the one thing that we really can never…
Speaker 1: It’s always on sale at the grocery store and everyone buys it…
Ross Outten: Everyone gives us their black eyed peas. But we do. We get a mix of donations. In the neighborhood, we get the mystery truck and when we start running our hot food program here, it’s gonna be very much where we never know what we’re gonna get from week to week but we get the ingredients we get and make it work.
Speaker 1: It’s almost like a four-star restaurant or something that they go to the store that morning and whatever the special’s gonna be is whatever was freshest and best. It’s the same concept. I can imagine it’d be really fun and creative.
Ross Outten: I should also give a shout out because with the food rescue, obviously that’s stuff that’s going off the shelves and so a lot of times it’s post-expiration and we get a lot of canned food which is great, but we like to be able to offer healthy options to our clients. We are a client choice pantry, which is an important distinction. If you don’t know what that means, it just means that we don’t just hand people a bag of food. We let people shop as if they were… choose their food. We like to make sure that we have healthy options and we have produce and there are a number of local garden projects including the [inaudible 00:28:49] Garden Project and the Montrose Metro Community Gardens that grow local produce. Amazing, fresh, local, organic produce right here in the neighborhood and they give generously to us. That is some of the best stuff that our clients get all year, and they’re thrilled to be able to take stuff like that home.
Speaker 1: How’s the roof up there?
Ross Outten: What’s that?
Speaker 1: How’s the roof up there?
Ross Outten: I’m not sure if the roof could load… We’d have to definitely have a conversation with our landlord about that, but who knows. Who knows. Who knows what the future holds. It is a single story building, so maybe someday if we could get the grant to do it, we could put a rooftop garden on the roof.
Speaker 1: Maybe rooftop chickens.
Ross Outten: Rooftop chickens. Yeah. That could work.
Speaker 1: We’re actually looking into that for my family. We have a big dog so I haven’t quite pulled the trigger on it because I’m worried about how that plays out, but it’s in my two year plan is to have chickens in the backyard.
Ross Outten: Okay.
Speaker 1: Cool. Well Ross as always, love talking to you and you’re a very interesting Chicagoan, and so hopefully people enjoy hearing your story.
Ross Outten: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, James.
Speaker 1: Alright, take care Ross.
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