Erin Barnes and Brandon Whitney
The co-founders of ioby say the environmental movement is wildly unprepared to address three major groups: people living in cities, people of color and young people. Their online platform for urban initiatives encourages everyone to get in on the movement, offering real community engagement over “slacktivism.”
“As consumers, we can express desires and create demand, but we’re never going to buy our way to a more sustainable future.”
Years after graduating from The Forestry School at Yale, Erin Barnes, Brandon Whitney, and Cassie Flynn reconnected at the monthly get-together Green Drinks in New York City, commiserating over their growing discontent with the limited impact of so-called green products. “You can make a difference with a purchasing choice,” Erin says, “but you can’t change the world — you have to actually make a transformative change in your life.” Brandon remembers that it was during these social gatherings that the idea for ioby sparked and slowly built momentum.
They were all young environmental professionals with growing resumes but an admitted lack of business knowledge, so they reached out for advice from DonorsChoose.org, an organization that had greatly inspired ioby’s model. A surprisingly speedy and supportive response got the trio on their feet, steering them through what Brandon dubs the “start-up-y stuff” and into the impact phase. From there, ioby began working to transform consumers into participants by connecting people and funding to site-specific projects “in our back yard.” Now a nationwide program, they help carefully screened applicants generate small-scale but highly impactful environmental improvements on a local level, allowing participants to directly benefit from the individual actions they take.
Today, Erin and Brandon are full-time Executive Directors of the site, doling out the business advice to startups around them. Their first-hand knowledge is freely shared, but they say it’s an interesting role-reversal, given that they’ve “learned a lot on the fly.” True to the collaborative ethos of their project, Brandon asserts that "people think of New York as super-competitive and hard to launch something, but that really wasn’t our experience. In fact, I don’t think we could have done it without all the people that supported us.”
Erin is also on the Board of Directors for the Manhattan Land Trust that manages New York City’s urban community gardens. Brandon is a visiting fellow with the Next Generation Engagement Project at UMass, Boston, focused on public-oriented scholarship and engagement.