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Sustainable wisdom: 'If it makes sense, it often makes dollars'

Kevin Keleher Headshot
October 14, 2013

At age 15, Kevin Keleher survived a spectacular rollover accident. The vehicle he was riding in was transporting a boxful of razor-sharp chef’s knives that burst open as the vehicle flipped through the air, rolled and crumpled. Knives littered the highway and the vehicle was smashed beyond recognition. Yet somehow Keleher and the driver of the vehicle walked away, virtually unscathed.

Keleher was incredibly lucky, and his father told him so. “His words really hit home,” said Keleher. “He said that I’m here for a reason. Not that I’m better than anyone else because I survived. It just helped me to realize that we are all here for a purpose: to make the living experience better for everyone. I have been seeking the best way to do that ever since.”

Years later, he lost his job in the mortgage industry, and then his home when the housing bubble burst in 2006.  These life experiences have made him pretty philosophical about things. The way he sees it, that job – and other jobs – taught him as much about what he doesn’t want to do in life as what he does.

Fast forward to 2011, when Keleher came to Arizona State University.

Keleher transferred to ASU from Mesa Community College, where he earned his associate’s degree in business, after his departure from the mortgage industry. Through his involvement with Phi Theta Kappa international honor society, he earned a place on the All-USA Community College Academic Team, which netted him a scholarship to ASU.

Although he considered Columbia University, as well as some schools in the San Francisco Bay area, at ASU he found high academic rigor, an outstanding sustainability program and an excellent business program. “It was the trifecta for me,” said Keleher.

And so Keleher came to ASU, where he enrolled in Barrett, the Honors College, double-majoring in supply chain management and sustainability. He is set to graduate in Spring 2014.

A passion for innovation

When you talk to Keleher, it’s clear he’s passionate about innovation. Particularly, he wants to develop revolutionary business models that create benefit for society as a primary driver, while returning a sustainable profit to companies as an incentive.

One of the first things Keleher has learned from the School of Sustainability is that it’s not enough to have a theoretical understanding of sustainability. To succeed in landing the sustainability-related job of one’s dreams, experience is needed. So Keleher innovated.

Together with four other ASU students, Keleher co-founded GreenLight Solutions, a student sustainability consulting service that enables ASU students to gain experience applying their knowledge and enables organizations to begin embracing sustainability.

The initiative, structured to provide mentorship to newer members of the group and ensure an ongoing pool of student talent to serve clients, began with an email in Fall 2012 from a School of Sustainability alumnus.

Max Scott (class of 2012) reached out from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) with a proposal. Cognoscere, a student consultancy made up of LSE students, was working on several business consulting jobs with sustainability components. Could ASU’s School of Sustainability provide sustainability expertise on some of their projects?

And so the ASU students began working on a project for Cognoscere, contributing to a Sustainable Business Innovations Report for the World Wildlife Fund. As a result of the success of this project, as well as the desire to do more of this work and create a similar opportunity for other students, GreenLight Solutions formally launched in Spring 2013.

Right away, the service attracted clients. In its first semester, the group worked on a project for local architecture and planning firm, Orcutt | Winslow, and collaborated with ASU’s Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives on a project for the City of Phoenix. Since then, they have begun working with filmmaker Peter Byck on a project related to his film Carbon Nation, and they consulted for Local First Arizona.

Keleher credits his experience with GreenLight Solutions for giving him the skills and experience to land a Summer 2013 internship with PepsiCo. Working as a Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) Intern, Keleher was assigned to improve recycling and waste diversion at the company’s Tolleson, Ariz. Gatorade bottling plant.

Thanks to Keleher’s work, the facility now diverts more than 400,000 pounds of waste per year, an annual improvement of $40,000 against their bottom line. “I feel like I made a difference in waste diversion and recycling, and I think the process is sustainable,” Keleher says.

One of the most important things Keleher observed in his internship was the business benefit of sustainability. “If it makes sense, it often makes dollars,” he says.

A future in sustainability

Keleher will take his experiences with GreenLight Solutions and with PepsiCo, and carry them with him into his future. He currently works with a wellness and nutrition company, Vemma, where he will continue working after graduation to pursue his mission. He hopes one day to lead an organization that will help people become healthy, happy and free.

“An organization has to be led by a united purpose, driven by the right reasons,” he says. To get there, he says, sustainable business model innovation is a key component.

Keleher is ready to take his passion, his education and his experience and make the world a better place, one innovation at a time.