Introducing Tom Szaky, CEO TerraCycle: Becoming Aware

tom-shot.jpgThis is the first post of our latest addition to the 3p team of writer-visionaries — Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, named by Inc. Magazine as the “Coolest Startup in America — The ultimate growth company, built on garbage, run by a kid, loved by investors.” 3p interviewed Tom in August and he will be writing regularly on his experiences as a social entrepreneur and visions for business and technology that leave the world better off right here on TriplePundit.
Everyone experiences those formative “A-ha!” moments when a scene or image strikes us in a profound way. Many spend their lives building beliefs and passions stemming from that very moment. My life’s dream, to champion the triple bottom line business model and eco-capitalism, was inspired by very two similar moments in my formative years. My family left Hungary as political refugees in eighties and after a brief stop in Holland, settled down in Toronto. It was in this environmental progressive city that my first moment occurred. Wandering, as children do, through my family’s apartment building I found a stack of old televisions ready to be thrown away. In Hungary, a TV of any kind was a luxury, so I was taken a back that these perfectly fine TV sets were being discarded simply because they were outdated. I found the wastefulness of this image staggering, that people would freely discard goods or materials that must still have value seemed unfathomable.
The second occurred years later when I moved to America to attend Princeton University. One night my freshman year, as I walked to my dorm, I saw large tubs of cafeteria food being discarded in dumpsters. I thought of all the energy, work, money and raw materials that went into making and cooking that food and how all of that was going to waste. It really shook me! It seemed environmentally harmful, socially careless and incredibly economically wasteful (how much of my tuition went to buying and cooking food that was thrown away!) It was that moment that I knew that garbage was my key to making a difference in my world and that instantly inspired me to find ways to work with waste. Only months later I was digging through the very same dumpsters for food waste to feed to my worms and TerraCycle was born.

What are your seminal moments of social awareness? As a new member of the 3p community, it would be great to hear about other powerful scenes that have had this affect on other people’s lives! So please, whether you have started a business or only patron responsible ones, all of us want to hear your story!

Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, Inc. a company that makes eco-revolutionary products entirely from garbage! TerraCycle, since its humble beginnings in a Princeton University dorm room, is committed to being a triple bottom line company. Tom at the ancient age of 19 learned about composting with worms. The concept of using tiny little worms to turn food waste into a powerful, organic fertilizer fascinated Tom, who was appalled by the amount of food discarded by his campus's cafeteria. Tom started TerraCycle with no investors from a friend's garage by building a Worm Gin where he could house millions of worms in a small area. He all but bankrupted himself and maxed out all his credit cards to build the machine. With the help of friends he would shovel pounds of rotten, maggot-infested food from the Princeton cafeterias. Without any money left over, Tom could not afford to buy bottles to package his fertilizer. That's when the sustainability gods smiled on Tom, who was up one night wandering the streets Princeton in search of an answer to his packaging dilemma. It just happened to be recycling night and Tom realized that millions of homes were putting billions of free bottles out on the curb once a week! That serendipitous moment set everything to follow into motion. Slowly he began to finance his infantile start up by winning business plan contests. Finally he hit the pay dirt! He won the million dollar grand prize at the Carrot Capital Business plan contest. However, the financiers of the contest wanted to move TerraCycle away from used bottles and away from it's environmental focus. Despite being on the verge of bankruptcy, Tom turned down the money. In the six years since then TerraCycle has grown to a multi-million dollar company that doubles in size every year. Still we are committed to our triple bottom line beginnings. Still making our products from other's people waste. Still based in an Urban Enterprise Zone in Trenton, NJ. Still a second chance employer. Find out how and why, here at