The connection between college philosophy classes and running an international business might not be immediately apparent. But for Oregon State alumna Vanessa Keitges (’97), they are inextricably linked.
Keitges, owner and CEO of the Portland, Ore. based Columbia Green—a company that manufactures materials for green roofs—sees a direct connection between what she learned as a philosophy major and her leadership of a successful, environmentally conscious business.
“In philosophy class, you have to develop theories, package them and communicate them to the world,” she says. “It’s all about being a visionary, developing a product, packaging it, and then taking it to market and having more and more people follow it.”
This approach works in entrepreneurship . With Keitges at the helm, Columbia Green has developed innovative, unique technology that uses vegetation and a patented tray system to capture up to 80 percent of the water hitting their roofs.
And they’ve figured out how to package it—in 2010, a year after she purchased the company, Keitges brokered a relationships with several roofing manufacturers, including one of the country’s largest, Firestone. In turn, these partners brought Keitges’ product to an international market.
“It takes great partnerships to revolutionize,” Keitges says. “They have great roofing products, and we had the green component.”
An Eye on Green
Throughout Keitges’ time as CEO, Columbia Green has grown 200 percent each year for the past three, and received the “new to export” award in 2011. Keitges was nominated as one of the top 40 under 40 executives in Oregon, and one of the top 10 Oregon women CEOs in 2012.
In July, she secured venture capital funding for Columbia Green, something only 1-2% of women CEOs ever do. And in September, she was appointed to President Obama's Export Council.
Keitges, who grew up in Cave Junction, Ore., has always cared about the environment, and has travelled to Africa to work on water projects. Ultimately, her research brought her to green roofing. “I learned that green roofs are a great way to manage water runoff. And I really resonate with water,” Keitges says.
An example Keitges likes to use when explaining the value of green roofing is the devastating floods in New York during Hurricane Sandy last year.
“The drains on the streets in New York date back to 1896, and they’ve never upgraded that infrastructure,” she says. “There’s no dirt and trees. There’s nowhere for the water to filter down. It all goes into the street.”
Keitges’ system, on the other hand, could help mitigate that problem.
“Cities have little money to go back and change infrastructure, therefore, they are using green infrastructure to mitigate costs.”
Finding the Niche
Columbia Green knew they had a great product when they developed their tray system, but Keitges needed a strategy to market it.
In a down economy, Keitges figured her best bet was to find partners, particularly ones who had a corner on the domestic and international market for roofing materials. Columbia Green now exports, something, according to Keitges, only a percent of businesses in the U.S. do.
This year the company opened an office in Washington, D.C., where Mayor Vincent Gray’s commitment to creating green businesses and jobs allows green roofing to flourish.
A Valued Education
Keitges credits the skills she learned in philosophy for her ability to effectively communicate her vision for Columbia Green with employees, potential business partners and government allies.
“In class, you sit and listen, you practice patience and listening carefully, and then respond with an opinion. Those are all things that happen in a company with a team. You articulate your issue and debate proposals,” she says.
As a business owner, Keitges seeks out affiliates and employees with broad, flexible perspectives. “I look for well-rounded people. People with a philosophy background, they can take it all in, hold multiple ideas,” she says. “In sustainability, to thrive you have to be able to understand the environmentalist and socialist perspective, and be aware of the business, the economic perspective.”
Kathleen Dean Moore, the professor whose courses inspired Keitges to pursue philosophy, says Keitges has been inspired by her inquiry to define successful business beyond quarterly earnings. “I like to think that philosophy has something to do with the strength of Vanessa’s moral vision, her sense of personal responsibility for shared thriving.”
Keitges is proud of the impact Columbia Green has on the communities where they work, not just because of environmental impact, but because of the economic one, too.
“My job as a citizen,” she says, “is to create as much opportunities not just at my company, but at all the other companies that benefit from what we do—construction companies, nurseries, the growing medium companies, and the irrigation companies.”
Keitges is especially moved by the impact Columbia Green makes in therapeutic rooftop gardens at hospitals, like the Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati. “My mother was an amazing gardener. She passed away five years ago, and I truly believe that my path is to put gardens in the sky for her.”
Keitges wants to encourage other women to join her in leadership roles. “I always tell women to get out in front and just ask; ask for the executive position, ask for the salary, ask for the capital to start your own venture. You have to believe in what you’re doing, have the confidence to say you’re on the right path.”
Ultimately, Keitges wants to grow Columbia Green to a multi-million dollar company, and be acquired. “I want to be one of the women who does that. There aren’t many,” she says. “I keep wanting to push the limits of the female CEO. If you’re going to go, go. You’ll learn your lessons. Don’t be afraid to fail.”
-Story by Leslie Rutberg