By Danielle Spears
This year’s Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) was held April 1-3 at the University of California, San Diego in efforts to bring together the next generation of young leaders to discuss pressing global issues and take steps toward solving them.
One of the major events of this meeting was a panel of professionals who answered questions about sustainability in architecture and design. The main participants were White Tops NYC owner Priscilla Lee, Founder of Design AVEnues LLC Ann V. Edminster, and CEO of Serious Materials Kevin Surace. As each speaker demonstrated, utilizing green design in building structure, materials, gardens, and other conservation approaches can make a huge impact in the fight against climate change and carbon emissions. Panel questions included background information on each speaker as well as specific details about how green companies are making a difference in the atmosphere and creating an economy for more green jobs.
Priscilla Lee spoke about her own work painting flat roofs in New York white, a simple change that reduces each building’s energy use by up to 43 percent. Since beginning this enterprise, which she started while still an undergraduate at New York’s New School of Architecture and Design, the idea has established itself and now functions out of a fully developed website and a professional blog. Last year Priscilla and her peers won President Clinton’s commitment award, an honor that provides funding for projects that will have a positive impact on the world, on behalf of White Tops, and was then invited to San Diego to be an event panelist—all while still finishing her undergraduate degree in architecture and environmental studies.
PROSPECT sat down with Priscilla Lee and White Tops Treasurer Katrina Liao to get a first hand account of her experiences as an undergraduate business founder and her involvement in CGIU.
PROSPECT: Are you a grad student right now?
LEE: No, I’m an undergrad. I’m in my fourth year.
PROSPECT: Wow. You described how you started your company on a whim, basically. You were going about your day, and you had the idea of painting roofs white and you wanted to run with it. Can you talk about what it was like starting from this idea and turning it into an actual company? Can you tell us some of the challenges you ran into?
LEE: So how I started was I gathered some friends and I told them my idea and they really responded well. We started the nonprofit not really knowing what we were getting into, just kind of diving in. I think that’s an advantage, actually, because if you know all the headaches and all the obstacles that you have to go through, then you’re not going to want to do it. It was really difficult – there was a big learning curve. I mean, none of us have ever started a company or nonprofit before. And then from there, we tackled our resources, namely our university, our professors, people in our working fields and that’s how we met the people that we needed to get us where we are now.
PROSPECT: So you were able to get mentors that helped you with this?
PROSPECT: What is it like being an undergrad and being a business entrepreneur at the same time?
LEE: (Sighs) It’s tough. It is tough. You have to balance schoolwork and, you know, some people have internships like Katrina was working and are also helping us with White Tops, and we have some other friends who are working and volunteering their time. So it’s about time management.
PROSPECT: So do you feel like you are spreading yourselves thin?
LEE: (Laughs) We’re New Yorkers, so we can pull it off.
PROSPECT: Are you both from NY originally?
LEE: I was born and raised in New York. Katrina’s actually from San Jose.
PROSPECT:You mentioned you had come to CGIU once before.
LEE: Yes, we came last year when they had it in Florida. We’re actually the commitment winners for last year. I don’t know if you knew that (laughs).
PROSPECT: Oh okay, wow! Congratulations I actually didn’t know that. So how did your relationship grow with CGIU after you won last year?
LEE: Well they check up on you by asking for progress reports and such. So then one of the representatives contacted me a few months ago about if I would like to be a guest panelist for the Anatomy of a Building session that I actually just got back from. And I thought, well, that sounds amazing!
PROSPECT: Do you guys plan to spread outside of New York? I know you have already started to a bit, from looking at your website.
LEE: A little bit, we’re targeting NY first. But we were contacted by New Jersey and they want us to do their city hall building this summer so I guess it’s spreading before our eyes already!
PROSPECT: So people are actually contacting you now, instead of vice versa?
LEE: Yes, pretty much.
PROSPECT: How long do you think a project like that will take?
LEE: It depends on the weather. I mean, if it’s good weather we can do it in three days maybe. Of course that depends on the size of the building and how many volunteers we have. But with city hall I’m expecting it to be a lot larger, so maybe two weekends?
PROSPECT: That’s still not very time-consuming. That’s pretty efficient.
LEE: Yes, and again that’s the key. I mean, white paint is cheap, it’s easy to paint and easy to maintain.
PROSPECT: Yes it’s an easy solution. Are you planning on taking this full on when you graduate? You’ve experienced the motivation of the first hurdle and you know you can do this now, so do you have any other ideas you want to pursue?
LEE: Yeah I guess it would be nice to see it really develop and I’m trying to get it there. I don’t know exactly where just yet, but yes it’s an option.
PROSPECT: What else are you both interested in pursuing?
LEE: I study architecture so I definitely want to go down the green architecture path. I’m probably going to get an internship before getting a master’s. White Tops is always going to be a part of my day; a part of the process.
LIAO: I’ve already accepted a business position in New York, but I will continue to volunteer my time with White Tops while I’m working.
PROSPECT: Explain why you think it’s a good idea to start a business idea while still in school.
LEE: I think it’s an advantage actually. As a student, you are able to tackle the resources that the school gives you and you have the time to learn and mess up. Do crazy things. You don’t have as many responsibilities, like a family. So you have the chance to do good things as a student.
PROSPECT: That’s really good advice for people who are students now and have ideas but haven’t yet taken that leap of faith. Do you have any other words of wisdom for any students?
LEE: I think the better commitments are the ones that are simple, practical, and focused. You know, if it’s all over the place and you’re trying to implement green rooms and PV panels and monitoring devices I think it’s too much at once. I mean I’ve heard of commitments that want to tackle 5 things at once and you wouldn’t be an expert at any of those things if you do that. To have a focused commitment is more practical and you can follow through with it better. Then you are able to pick an area where your passion lies and where you’re motivated. Not everything at once. I think they’re looking for something that’s practical, not some wild fantasy.
PROSPECT: How does your company save money?
LEE: It’s kind of an indirect effect. By having a white roof, it cools the interior space and causes people to use less energy to cool it. That helps with not burning so many fossil fuels and emitting green house gases, etc. And in that way by using less energy they save money. The numbers get tricky because there are so many factors that affect the numbers, but that’s the basic idea. And the paint is really cheap.
PROSPECT: Are you making money?
LEE: I mean, we do charge the building owners, but it’s basic costs that keep our company running. We mainly will charge them for the paint that we use.
PROSPECT: How can readers find out more about painting roofs as volunteers or get their own roof painted?
LEE: Visit our website! You can do both at www.whitetopsnyc.org.
Photo courtesy of Samir