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A conversation with Michael Knapp, founder and CEO of Green River

An academic discovers his entrepreneurial spirit, and a full-tilt Brattleboro web software development business blossoms

BRATTLEBORO—I THOUGHT I’d mastered our community’s center. The shops. Eateries. Banks. The quite-outstanding food co-op. The iconoclastic Latchis complex. The bookending cultural monuments: Brooks Memorial Library up north and the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center down south. And, yes, Brooks House — the belle of the ball — anchoring once again a town with a history to be proud of.

Who knew that in the old Paramount Building, across the street from where I worked for so many years, would be a bunch of techie brilliants at Green River generating techno-brilliance daily and be known far and wide for their amazing contribution to so many enterprises — thus proving that there’s more to our downtown than meets the eye?

In preparation for my chat with Michael Knapp — Green River’s founder, CEO, and one of its four partners — I checked out the firm’s website. There it was, on the home page: “Software and analytics for a better world.”

And a click away: “Green River builds software for sustainability, environmental protection, school improvement, and public health.”

Understanding what Green River does was not going to be a piece of cake for a bachelor of fine arts like myself, but I plunged in gamely.

* * *

Jerry Goldberg: Usually I’d start by asking how all this came about — how you, Michael Knapp, found yourself, or put yourself, on the path you’re on. But I’d like to know first a little more about Green River.

Michael Knapp: Well, Green River is all about how to use Internet technology for social good — that’s how I framed the company. And that defines the projects we choose to take on.

So whether we’re developing an online tool for worker safety and supply-chain certification for the coffee and cocoa farms and processing facilities for the Starbucks Coffee Company or writing software for Vermont educational startup SchoolHack, or helping the U.S. Green Building Council with research and development of the LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] rating system used to assess environmental buildings, constructing a measuring system — a sort of virtual library — for teachers who look to Scholastic for guidance and inspiration, or creating a reporting framework for the Population Council that will be used by public-health researchers around the world, there is a recurring and consistent theme — our DNA, if you will: social good.

J.G.: Green River obviously has a wide-ranging customer base fitting into a number of categories: organizations involved with sustainability, government agencies, corporations, education, health, and cultural enterprises. How do you service such a diverse group?

M.K.: I guess it comes down to keeping that theme I just mentioned as our guide. You can hire us to do a school-improvement project, an environmental-protection project, or a project improving health equity. At the end of the day, we’re using the technology in the same way. We’re deploying the same methodologies.

While it would seem that our work on behalf of the coffee growers who supply Starbucks might not relate to helping teachers build a classroom library that works for their students, the connection is there. We use the same building blocks and methodologies to craft new software.

J.G.: Now who is Michael Knapp and how did he get to be sitting across from me today? What’s your story?

M.K.: I was born in New York City. We moved to Brookline, Mass. when I was 6, when my dad joined the Harvard faculty.

I majored in biology at Wesleyan University and spent a year in Colorado studying wildlife — my own version of studying abroad, I guess!

In our freshman year, I met the woman who became my wife, which you could say was the remarkable experience I had while at Wesleyan.

My interest in pursuing my career started from the Bhopal gas tragedy. You might remember the disastrous gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in India in the mid-1980s. Its devastating impact on the environment and the scary potential for other such crises hit me hard.

Another strong influence on me back in the early 1980s was a book that President Jimmy Carter commissioned, The Global 2000 Report to the President.

This amazing work predicted the environmental challenges facing us in the coming decades. Attention was being paid to the pollution of the environment and the resultant possible loss of species, and that resonated with me.

It was clear to me that the loss of forests, the growth of deserts, the changes in our climate, the pollution of our air, land, and water had become and remains today the struggle of our generation. We have to try and make a better future.

J.G.: You had an “aha”! What did you do about it?

M.K.: I spent the next several years — from the mid-’80s on — circling in and out of the environmental arena.

Among many stops along the way, I taught environmental education at the Boston University Human Environment Institute. I worked on environmental projects with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and in South Africa. I worked at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. I consulted for the World Health Organization, reporting on the quality of health services in developing countries.

I enrolled in the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and in 1991 earned a Master of Environment Science with a concentration in pollution science. I stayed at Yale until I graduated in 1997 with a Ph.D. in Environmental Health Sciences.

When my wife finished her residency in medicine and I was done with my coursework for my Ph.D., we wanted to leave New Haven, to find a place to “settle down.”

J.G.: So why Vermont? Why southern Vermont? Why Brattleboro?

M.K.: My wife wanted to be within a reasonable driving distance of her suburban N.Y.C. family, and my family was in the Boston area. We looked in the Amish country in Pennsylvania. We looked in and around Cooperstown, N.Y.

But in the end, Brattleboro felt the most comfortable, the most right, to us for a variety of reasons. My wife liked the medical community here.

And finally, this was a world where it was both rural and beautiful, yet had all the things we were looking for: a sense of community, a place where the arts, music, education all felt very comfortable. This would be the right place to raise our child. (We had one then; the second came a few years later.)

How many towns the size of Brattleboro have a New England Youth Theatre, a Brattleboro School of Dance, a Brattleboro Music Center? What a fantastic place for kids! It’s all here if your child is interested. And ours was.

We found this gorgeous parcel of land in Green River overlooking a land trust conservation. So we found our house spot and built on the ruins of a barn that had burned down in the 1950s with only the foundation remaining.

We’re as much in love with it today as we were when we first saw it. When I travel, I can’t wait to come home. I never had a sense of place before.

J.G.: I love what you said about a sense of place. Especially when you are a New Yorker, it’s hard to admit that you can be happy off the isle of Manhattan!

M.K.: My wife was working a full schedule at the hospital, and I was kicking around trying to figure out what would be next for me. Our second child was on its way, and I had to come up with a way to help support our family!

Just as this was going on, then–Marlboro College president Paul LeBlanc launched the Marlboro Graduate Center. They cut the ribbon in 1997. I convinced Paul to hire me to teach in the school’s new Master of Arts in Internet Technology program.

Over time, I began to understand that I had been working on projects for Marlboro Tech and I could now work on them for myself — that I should work on them for myself.

J.G.: I’m sensing a burgeoning entrepreneur here.

M.K.: I first started a company with some other teachers at the Marlboro Grad Center which didn’t last, so I then decided to try to make it on my own. It was very hard at first — I almost gave up because I couldn’t find enough work.

Then in early 2000, Bob McLaughlin, an innovative leader in educational improvement, contacted me from Montpelier, where he was running a project for the National Education Association that needed help.

We’d be working to improve America’s schools — to carve a new role for the teachers’ union, working closely with superintendents and principals to make schools better for our kids. And Internet technology would be key to making this possible.

There I was, with an assignment that not only would bring in $30,000 in the first month, it could change the world! So I pulled people in, I put together a team, and we got going.

J.G.: Wait a minute. You “pulled people in”? From where? If I seem a tad incredulous, it’s because there’s some local conventional wisdom that there are jobs around that go begging for qualified people to take them.

M.K.: I found people through the Marlboro Graduate Center. And contacted people I had met in the community. I got recommendations from all sorts of folks around the area.

Bottom line: there are a lot of very talented programmers living here. As a matter of fact, two Green River principals — my business partners — are graduates of Brattleboro Union High School. So yes, there is a richness of resource to be tapped here.

J.G.: O.K., but there are limitations. There have to be.

M.K.: Sure. It’s true that not everyone can design and write software. Like art, music, or creative writing, it requires innate talent in addition to training.

But there are a lot of people here who have what it takes. Or we look elsewhere. Right now the Green River team numbers 19 — split between our Brattleboro headquarters office and our Boston site located in the Cambridge Innovation Center. We also have a couple of people in other locations — one who lives in Utah and one in North Carolina.

J.G.: You said earlier that certain values mean a lot to you and that you are dedicating yourself to more than making money. So how do you find folks qualified to do the work if others can pay more?

M.K.: Good question. I placed an ad recently for some programming help. I put it onHacker News, a site that programmers hit daily.

The headline announced that we were looking for a programmer committed to sustainability. The text described our thoughts about the Internet — that we consider it a societal nervous system, a growing global network of awareness and intelligence that must be put to good use.

We went on to say that helping to transform the market requires software skills, analytical experience, business sophistication, and a genuine commitment to ethics and social responsibility.

The response to the ad was overwhelming, and we selected three amazing young developers to join our team this past year. Two moved here with their partners, and one even bought a home.

We offer fantastic benefits for a small company, but that’s become the standard for the technology industry. Clearly, if you want big, big bucks, you’re not going to work with Green River. But if you want your work to touch people’s lives in a meaningful way, work with us here in Brattleboro.

Compared to the rest of the tech industry, we have very little turnover. It’s not that folks have no other option or that they are stuck in golden handcuffs. It’s that together, our team is working hard to create a better future.

J.G.: And you, the first Green River employee, chose here. Tell me why — aside from the fact that you and your wife liked the community.

M.K.: You know, technology — any technology — can be used for good or in a harmful way. It can be used for surveillance and oppression, or to promote health and improve schools and environmental protection.

The “climate” and the sensibility are right in Vermont to build a company focusing on social justice and environmental protection. There are no billboards on our highways — we look out at trees, not at traffic. We live and work in a green valley, not a Silicon Valley!

J.G.: What about the business climate of our state and our corner of it? What effect has that had on you and Green River?

M.K.: We hear from our politicians — whether they want to say this or not — that we’re trading off between economic development and environmental protection. That’s an old paradigm that’s no longer relevant.

There’s a new economy emerging — and the companies, the businesses, and the organizations that get it will be part of our future.

Vermont is uniquely positioned to lead the coming market transformation, and that’s beginning to resonate here. We’re marketing Vermont’s small-scale agriculture. We’re marketing tourism.

Yet we’re ceding the technology sector to Silicon Valley and to Boston — work that belongs right here.

Let others focus on making the most money possible without worrying about the future. We’ll take the part that’s about environmental protection, that’s about school improvement, that’s about public health, that’s about the world we want to live in.

And let’s retain and attract the people to do that work here.

J.G.: You mentioned earlier the green building movement. Talk a little more about that.

M.K.: The folks at Building Green here in Brattleboro gave us a start in the green-building field in the early 2000s, and we’ve been working extensively in it ever since. So many companies working in green building and sustainability are already located in this region: the Resilient Design Institute, the Healthy Building Network,OneReport, Window Quilt, Soveren Solar, and so on.

BDCC’s efforts to create a green building cluster centered in Brattleboro is brilliant — and working! It’s exactly the kind of industry this area needs — spot on and so aligned with the work many of us already do and the contribution this area can make.

There’s a vision emerging now that’s very exciting. I’m very optimistic about economic development in southeastern Vermont. I see a lot of potential for growth in technologies focused on school improvement and environmental protection emerging from this region.

J.G.: So you’re at a party and someone who knows you have a business that you started chats you up about their idea and asks you if you’d encourage them to open up here. What would you tell that person?

M.K.: Yes….

J.G.: You’ve stopped. I sense some hesitation.

M.K.: I may hesitate because I want to see my neighbors’ businesses be non-resource-extractive. I’m hopeful that what makes this area great is also what’s going to attract the kind of businesses that make sense to be here.

I’d also tell people that contrary to what they might have heard about our state being “unfriendly” to business, structurally or governmentally, that has been irrelevant in my experience. It never felt that way to me.

J.G.: Finally, did you make any mistakes as you moved from point A to point wherever you are today in your career? Is there anything you’d have done differently?

M.K.: Growing up, I didn’t want to admit to myself I might be an entrepreneur. I took lots of courses in toxicology, but I never took a single accounting course — I’ve had to learn about business on the job.

I wish I had recognized my interest in business a lot sooner and gotten the training I needed along the way so I wouldn’t have had to learn so much by trial and error.

I am no longer ashamed to admit that I love business. I love that I turned out to be an entrepreneur. How else would I get to be part of such an amazing team and work on projects touching so many people in positive ways?

I get to make a living working on the issues we care about here in southern Vermont. I couldn’t have accomplished this if I weren’t an entrepreneur.