VX 2022 Game Changers: Meet The Innovators—ERI’s John Shegerian & RWI Synthetics’ Myrna Bittner


In this excerpt from 2022’s luncheon plenary titled “Game Changers: Meet The Innovators,” VX News highlights two innovative business leaders in very different fields: ERI Co-Founder & Chairman, John Shegerian, and RWI Synthetics' Founder and CEO, Myrna Bittner, moderated by Jim Kelly of S&C Electric. Read along as Shegerian tells the story of his early entrance into the e-waste economy with ERI and its phenomenal growth since, followed by Bittner’s remarkable world-building software to help visualize all futures, imaginable or otherwise. A recording of the entire plenary can be found here.

James Kelly: Our next speaker is somebody we're also grateful for because he's dealing with a problem that I guarantee you all have. John Shegerian is co-founder and Executive Chairman of an organization called ERI.

It is more important to you than you know. Don't you, almost every week, come up with an electronic device that is past the end of its life or you upgraded and you ask what do you do with it? In many cases, it’s filled with all kinds of toxic stuff. How often do you just throw it in your trash can because you don't know what else to do? A lot of people do.

Well, there's somebody who's figured out how to deal with that, but he's done a lot more than that. He's a serial entrepreneur. He co-founded Homeboy Industries, financialaid.com, Engage, and many other impactful organizations. ERI is the largest cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction and electronic waste recycling company in the United States. So John, come tell us how you do it.

John Shegerian: Thank you, Jim. Before I get into the topic of electronic waste, which is why I was asked to speak today, I just want to share a little bit of my background not on the issues that Jim just brought up.

The reason why I'm really here is because of David Abel and his brilliant wife, Brenda Levin. In 1990, when I was just a struggling student at Loyola Law School, I went to go work for the late Ira Yellen, who was a great mentor to me. He threw me right into the fire and said I was going to be the project manager on the redevelopment of the Bradbury Building and the Grand Central Market. I got to immerse myself into the education and the world of Brenda Levin and David Abel.

The greatest life lesson that they both taught me was that it was important to throw yourself into your work and make a living to pay the groceries and make a household, but at the same time, to make your community and the world a better place during the process.

They left such an indelible mark on me, personally and professionally, that I would not even be remotely here today under any circumstances, nor have any history of creating impact companies during my professional career. ERI is the latest of them. Whenever David calls me, the issue isn't if I'm going to join, it's just when and where is it? I owe a lot to David and Brenda. For that, I'm forever grateful.

I was lucky, at the tail end of liquidating and having a successful running and selling of financialaid.com to have been tuned into the issue of electronic waste in 2002. Back in 2002, even though it sounds not so long ago, it really was in terms of the technology world. Electronic waste, in 2002, was the backside of the dark side of the technological revolution. One that was never considered when the great icons that we now know, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and others, created all this wonderful technology that made our personal and professional lives more interconnected, more fun, and more enjoyable. They never thought about what happens to all our electronics when they come to their end of life.

E-waste back then, in 2002, was the fastest-growing solid waste stream in the world. It was before there was anything such as a chief sustainability officer. It was before there was an iPhone, an iPad, a drone, or a robot. Al Gore had not yet won an Academy Award or Nobel Peace Prize for An Inconvenient Truth.

We set up a facility in Fresno, California. In our first month of business, we recycled 10,000 pounds of electronic waste. We thought we hit the jackpot. We thought we were onto something. We were going to have a nice little business here.

Now, I have to say this because of where I am today. The City of LA was onto this really early. We bid on their business in 2007. They were onto the fact that you have to responsibly recycle electronic waste, not just dump it, not just ship it off our shores and let it become the problem of China or India or Africa. Nor can we throw it into our landfills, where the arsenic, beryllium, lead, mercury, and cadmium that's contained in all of our electronics can then leak into our ecosystem and do the harms that those hazardous materials will do when they get into our plant, animal, and human systems. The City of LA became a client in 2007 and 15 years later, they're still a client. They're still leading the way in sustainability and circular economy behavior and policy.

Yes, we recycled 10,000 pounds in our first month of business, but let me give you the in between. Last month, in our 12 facilities across the United States, where we cover every zip code in the lower 48 and also in Alaska and Hawaii, we recycled give or take 20 million pounds of electronic waste.

Now, the good part of the story is this. When done responsibly, the way we and other of our responsible competitors do it, it's a zero waste, zero landfill, zero emission business. What does that mean? 20 million pounds came into our facilities, and we recycled them. The order of weight that we produce in terms of commodities is steel, plastic, aluminum, copper, gold, silver, lead, palladium, cobalt, nickel, and then other trace metals and materials. Guess what? All of those materials go back for beneficial reuse. Nothing goes to a landfill. There are massive energy savings and none of the hazardous materials that are contained in electronics get into our ecosystem. Everybody wins.

That's the good part of the story, but here's the sad part. According to the United Nations, only 17 percent of all electronics that we're using on the planet are being responsibly recycled. Although I've already been in the business 20 years, I still feel like it's the top of the first inning. There's so much more for us and our next generation of entrepreneurs to do, not only here in Los Angeles and the United States, but around the world.

It's undeniable and unstoppable that we're moving from a linear to circular economy. ESG and circular economy behavior is here to stay. It's not a trend or fad that's going to peter out in a year or two. To make the world a better and greener and cleaner place, we need all the stakeholders to be involved.

Unfortunately, when you turn on CNBC or Bloomberg, when they cover the environment and ESG, it toggles between two stories. It’s either Elon Musk or the boogeyman of the environment post-consumer waste plastic. Important stories, like responsible e-waste recycling, don't get any coverage at all.

We have innovated along the way and created proprietary shredding technology. Also, we're the first recycler to use AI and robotics. We’re the only recycler in the world, which is still an incredible fact to me, to bring on strategic partners along the way. The LG family invested in us in 2008 and sits on our board because they’re not only the second largest OEM in the world, but they own the second-largest copper and precious metal smelter. They get back all of our copper and precious metals to recycle and repurpose into new beneficial reuse products. ALCOA, a year later, invested in us, sits on our board, and gets back all the aluminum to do the same. About 20 months ago, JB Straubel, the co-founder of Tesla, who created one of the world's largest lithium-ion battery recycling companies, also invested in our company and sits on our board of directors.

Why is that important? For what was a little startup in Fresno, California, you have some of the greatest brands and minds on the planet giving us visibility and strategy that we would have not necessarily had, no matter how many books we read or how many TED Talks we watched. These are the folks and the brands that really make it happen every day.

Something also really important to the circular economy, ESG, and sustainable behavior is radical transparency. That is something that we haven't seen enough of. When I got in this business, there was an opaque sense of where everything went, whether it was a landfill or off our shores. Now, when I have strategic partners and collaborators, such as the brands I just mentioned, all of my clients and potential clients know where everything goes and what they're doing with it. Radical transparency, I believe, is part of good sustainability and circular economy behavior.

Again, there's more that can always be done: education, policy, and behavioral changes for all of us. If you listen to the EPA, we all have 18 to 25 pieces of old electronics in our attics, our drawers, or our basements. It's not because we don't want to do the right thing. Most of us don't know what the right thing is nor what the outcomes will be.

Secondarily, along the way, electronic waste has become a cybersecurity hazard. Your new EV car has all of your information in the hard drive. The cell phones that you have with you today and the laptops back in your office all contain your life's information. If they were to get in the wrong people's hands, a catastrophe could happen. It happens every day with big brands. It can happen with your household as well. It freezes us from doing the right thing with our electronics because there's just an abject void of knowledge of what to do with them.

I'm honored to be here today and I'm honored to be part of the circular economy wave that's now upon us for good. As I said at the top of my comments, E-waste now is not just the fastest-growing solid waste stream anymore in the world, it’s the fastest-growing solid waste stream by an order of magnitude of two to four times what it was when I got in the business. The Internet of Things, my wedding ring, my Garmin watch, your Nest or Alexa or Ring at your house. It's the biggest waste stream on the planet, many times over from everything else. So all I ask of you before I step off: if not now, when? If not us, then who? Thank you very much.

James Kelly: Kind of makes you feel good, doesn’t it. That's an environmental hero. They look like all the rest of us, but the difference is they just step up and do it. Thank you very much for that.

We've got another wonderful speaker ahead, who's also got an amazing biography, but I'll tell you a little bit. Myrna Bittner is the CEO and co-founder of a group called RUNWITHIT Synthetics, It’s an advanced data-modeling and visualization company that's answering some of the most challenging questions we have about decarbonization, sustainability, equity, resilience, and growth on a global basis.

Seven years after she incorporated, the RUNWITHIT team has received numerous international awards including the United Nations Global Call for Decarbonization, Taiwan's top technology gold medal, Toyota Mobility Foundation’s Architecture of Tomorrow Challenge, NATO’s Space Awareness, US Air Force's Showcase, and it keeps going. RUNWITHIT is a women-led, certified Aboriginal business with a diverse team of very talented people in multiple disciplines. The stuff they're doing will blow your mind. Myrna, come tell us more.

Myrna Bittner: Now for something completely different. I am a new inductee into David Abel’s crowd. I’m really happy to be here at VerdeXchange with coordination through the Canadian government.

We’re a western Canadian company. I heard David introduce several times this week other companies with the size being 21,000 and 27,000. We're a whopping 24. We’re really a relatively small company, but doing some really engaging things around the world and being asked some profound questions.

To kick things off, I'm really excited to be here. This is a conference like no other than that I've been to. This conference really highlights what we are about as a company. It's about looking forward, understanding the imperatives of the future, and coming together. There are so many people here from such diverse perspectives, from planning to technology to policy to investment to government. They need to come together to create new ideas and need to put those forward so we can follow them and debate them and decide and act.

That's really what my company does, except we support that process from a technology perspective. What's kind of unique about our technology is that we support this activity. On the people side, there's a lot of technology and policy and infrastructure changes and ideas. If the world were just a rational and logical place, we'd be far better at the future than we are now. We probably wouldn't be all gathering here and having these lively debates. That's where my company comes in. We’re looking at how can we develop and support this people-side of the transformation that we need to see in our world.

There's no better way than an example, I've been told, because we get asked a lot of really big questions. I'll give an example about our first environment in the energy world, which was working with the Electric Power Research Institute. At the beginning of COVID, they needed to understand disasters from a new perspective, the vulnerability of their population, and the dramatically changing energy and economic situation that we find ourselves in. What happens if there is a disaster from the perspective of a utility and utility research institute.

We created this synthetic world where they could bring all of these experts together and converge all of the data and the timely research, because things were changing very quickly at that time. Then, we could make the future happen. We could actually turn the lights out in Phoenix, virtually, and synthesize so that they could understand the inflection points that they had and the differences that they could make. This was what we created in 12 weeks.

Our technology and our platform enable us to synthesize and model cities and their populations in a very hyper-localized way from publicly available data. We avoid all of the privacy and regulatory protected data and silos, add all of the up-to-date research from around the world, as well as local research, and then give these inflection points so decisionmakers can manipulate and infect the future and get the data they need.

This is where we sit today answering the big questions from around the world: questions about the imaginable futures that are right in front of us and we know are coming, as well as questions about the unimaginable futures. That could mean multiple convening disasters, accelerated climate events, cyberattacks, food insecurity, or population and climate migration even. It’s both very everyday questions about electrification and some very unimaginable questions.

At the basis of this is something that's akin to Sim City, except it’s real. How we can answer these questions is we synthesize the population. We synthesize the individuals households from publicly available data. It's a never-identified population, and we can add a layer of all the characteristics, demographic cycles, psychographics, consumers segmentation, preferences, choices, activities, lifestyle, incidents, fear, anxiety, and economics. You name it, we get asked to layer it into these populations. Then, we can we can make choices or we can add people that don't exist today. We can add new behaviors, consumption, energy, waste, and even disaster scenarios and dial those forward.

We've been asked many questions, but here are some of our more public examples that we can describe. Again, in that very industrial utility question that came from an energy provider, we're asked questions about long-term trust, willingness to pay, engagement, and other very human questions about how to navigate as grid operators and distributors of power, but do so in an environment where they absolutely depend on the engagement of customers, affordability, and how they're going to participate in energy futures.

We get asked questions about mobility. This was for Kuala Lumpur. How can we possibly, when our roads are full and congested, change public transportation or attract people to public transportation in ways that involve policy, widening boulevards, accessibility, shade, and pedestrian security? What difference will it make and to whom and in what neighborhoods and how quickly? We can implement and then measure these things without any real sensors or devices or controls in this sandbox environment and give them the answers to make policy changes.

Better yet, we can actually show this to the public. We can engage all different kinds of stakeholders and it becomes very visible. I think it reaches a new generation of understanding in terms of how we can see things that are really quite complex and sophisticated far easier than looking at reports and generating excitement about graphs.

This is some of our latest work in Washington, DC. This is one of the unimaginable futures. I'll try to end optimistically, but we can model this in our environment. This was work that we did with some of the large government agencies like NASA, NOAA, USGS, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, FEMA, NERC, and that's just where I ran out of fingers, as well as the grid operators on the east coast. They were wondering what happens when we look at solar weather. We're at a 150 year cycle and it's starting to get active. Do we now have the science and the grid where it is, which it wasn't 150 years ago, where can we bring those communities together so we can understand if we have the right information and can take the right action to mitigate if there is a really bad solar flare.

This was a fascinating experience, again, about convergence. Not everybody in those rooms agrees, but it's important to provide them with an environment where they can focus, share all of their data, their models, and their expertise. We can run through scenario after scenario to look at the future of the events that they are anticipating and the unimaginable too.

We've been really lucky as a small and diverse team to be engaged in so many different sectors around the world and being asked some really vital questions about our future. What we have done even since this was produced has been announced as a part of the Electric Power Research Institute’s Incubatenergy Labs cohort, as well as Greentown Labs on the East Coast. We'll be doing more modeling and energy transition, primarily in hydrogen, which is a modeling environment that we have begun in work in Canada with 16 different municipal regions.

Like I say, it's a small company, but we have a brilliant team and a ridiculous trajectory now, which is part of why I think David invited us here. We'll be opening a round of investment. As we grow, we are wanting to participate in this area, especially in Los Angeles. We created, a couple of years ago, a synthetic Los Angeles to deal with utility issues and scenarios. We would like to flex that a little bit more, given our current context.

So that's me. I would just like to say that the future is solvable. Things are complicated, but together, we can focus and put all of that amazing science and wisdom and expertise and data and research together in one place and dial it forward to help people see the visibly better future.

"Something also really important to the circular economy, ESG, and sustainable behavior is radical transparency...all of my clients and potential clients know where everything goes and what they're doing with it. Radical transparency, I believe, is part of good sustainability and circular economy behavior."—John Shegerian