Interview with Steve Gelb

Member Steve Gelb is planning on changing the face of Seattle green buildings - while creating equitable jobs - by 2014. Find out how!


Q: Who are you? Introduce yourself as you would at a dinner party.

A: Hi there, my name is Steve Gelb. I'm originally from Long Island, but have lived in Seattle for the past thirty years. I’ve been working as the local director of Emerald Cities Seattle for about a year and a half now. Emerald Cities is a national network of ten cities around the nation that has a triple bottom line focus of improving our environment, growing our economy, and doing it in an equitable way. We are focused on making buildings in our cities more energy efficient, and working with construction companies that pay good living wages, as well as provide opportunities primarily for people of color, low-income individuals, and women. Our mission at Emerald Cities is simply creating jobs while cleaning up the environment.

Before Emerald Cities, I was the Executive Director and co-founder of another nonprofit called SustainableWorks, which works on energy efficiency in residential buildings. SustainableWorks was actually a member of Emerald Cities, so you could say I've been involved with Emerald Cities since the very beginning!


Q: What are you working on right now?

A: We have two primary focuses right now within Emerald Cities: 

1) Encouraging development and efficiency in large commercial buildings, while also ensuring that the workforce working on projects like these receive a living wage and have opportunities for apprenticeships to grow their own professional portfolio; 

2) Enabling energy and water efficiency projects in affordable housing complexes.


Q: Why did you join Impact Hub?

A: I joined Impact Hub for many, many reasons! It's a great place to be. I was working at home when I became a member, and I think having a place to go to work benefits my personality quite a bit. 

Emerald Cities also works with many utility and government agencies, as well as other nonprofits, and they're all located in downtown Seattle! Obviously the ability to have a coffee meeting, come back and get some work done, and then have another meeting in the afternoon - all in relatively the same neighborhood - is incredibly valuable, and makes me that much more efficient. It's also nice to just have a home base, and tell others, "I work out of Impact Hub!"

I also bike everywhere, and so it's great to have a place to change when I ride from my home in North Seattle. When I was commuting back and forth from my house, I would never have a place to change; once, I had a meeting with the mayor and the mayor's chief of staff. I rode my bike to meet them downtown, I was on time, all of my notes were in order... except I left my shoes at home, so I ended up walking into the meeting with my silver bike shoes. Luckily, with our current mayor, that probably earned me brownie points! But, it is nice to have an operational base.


Q: What is your background? How does it differ from what you are doing now?

A: Most of my background workwise is in business and marketing. My degree was in government, but I haven’t really used that. I like to say that my background is in taking complex challenges and finding solutions, and I think that’s been true whether I'm developing a product, creating a program, or solving a social problem.


Q: What is something that really excites you right now?

A: For me, it's energy efficiency. Early on in the Obama Administration, there was a huge buzz of excitement about energy efficiency, without necessarily understanding all of the challenges. I think that we are now at a point where we realize the difficulties and realities, but we also have a core group of interested parties - from contractors to nonprofits to city to state-wide entities - who are up for the hard work ahead. I'm excited that we’re on the edge of breaking through barriers and understanding that we need bold action, and that we have leaders all over who are starting to realize this.


Q: You have $10M to spend in the next year, and you can’t spend it on you, your friends or your family. How do you spend it?

A: That's easy! I would set up a revolving energy efficiency fund for affordable housing complexes. It's especially difficult for these types of projects to receive loans for energy efficiency, because of the way their projects are structured. A $10M seed fund would easily build three hundred buildings, and they would be able to repay the loan through money saved through energy efficiency tactics, so the fund could continue replenishing itself. $10M would be great; I’m ready!


Q: What’s on the horizon for you?

A: Expanding Emerald Cities' work with community colleges. Basically, we've discovered that many community colleges here in Seattle don't know how much energy their buildings use; in some cases, they don't even have meters. I’m excited to bring an understanding of the potential efficiency of these campuses to the people running them, but equally as important, I'm looking forward to engaging students and faculty in these developments so students can actually get involved and learn from them. 

It seems like the stars are aligning around the marriage of technology and understanding efficiency, and especially in Seattle, there are a number of projects already headed in that direction. I'm looking forward to be able to walk in community colleges by 2014 and see energy used by the minute, as well as have administrative staff receive alerts when something is off. 


Two questions that we ask every member...

Q: What is something we don’t know?

A: I used to be a Girl Scout troop leader! When my daughter was about twelve, our Girl Scout troop leader moved away and the parents of the girls in the troop didn't want to disban the troop since the girls got along so well. I was hoping that another one of the mothers would stand up and volunteer, but that didn't happen, so I ended up volunteering! Girl Scouts is an amazing organization - they are always looking towards the future. I remember attending conferences with 300 women and then me, along with a couple of other guys from the kitchen. Despite this, I never felt singled out, never unwelcome. It's really a great organization. 


Q: Give us your top three Seattle gems.

A: It's hard to limit myself to just three! So, I'll give you five:


Contact Steve at [email protected]