As technology proliferates on a global scale, electronic waste is becoming an ever-growing, increasingly complicated problem at the nexus of environmental and social issues. When electronics are thrown away, toxic minerals such as cadmium and lead leak into groundwater. Many of these devices also store sensitive information, such as social security numbers and credit card information, which is often-times recoverable on a device’s hard drive.
Tackling this problem head-on is John Shegerian, Chairman and CEO of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) and ERI’s subsidiaries, RecycleNation.com and UrbanMining.org. Under Shegerian’s leadership, ERI has become the fastest and largest electronic waste recycler in the world. With a license to de-manufacture and recycle everything from computers to drones, ERI has developed and now houses the largest e-waste shredder in the world. The company processes more than 275 million pounds of electronic waste annually here in the US and has plans to expand its reach internationally. We discussed the issues surrounding electronic waste with Shegerian, as well as leadership, work-life balance, and the importance of going all-in.
On Electronics Recycling
How would you describe the problem that ERI is working to solve?
John Shegerian: We’ve taken clean tech and evolved it from what it was in 2005 - an environmental imperative - and we’ve made electronic recycling a social phenomenon in conjunction with the rise in awareness of cyber security and the importance of data destruction. It has gone way beyond just an environmental imperative - it is now a social phenomenon. You have to recycle your electronics the right way, not only for the environment, but to protect your data. Data is the new oil.
What is something that you wish everyone knew about electronics recycling?
JS: All electronics have arsenic, lead, beryllium, cadmium, and other hazardous materials in them that have no business going into our landfills and have no business getting shipped abroad to be recycled irresponsibly. When they go into our landfills, we know those hazardous materials will get into our ecosystems and poison our water, our land, our animals, our plants, and eventually the humans on this planet.
The cool part is, all electronics can be responsibly recycled - 100 percent can be turned back into commodities that can be repurposed after being appropriately dismantled and shredded. And all of those commodities - steel, gold, silver, plastic, aluminum, copper, glass - can be sold to smelters around the world for repurposing, which will therefore protect the precious resources that we still have below the ground, save massive amounts of energy, and keep our landfills and our ecosystems clean of all these horrible, hazardous materials.
What’s the largest challenge when it comes to electronics recycling and how can it be overcome?
JS: We’re creating a business where it didn’t exist before, in an industry that was horribly decentralized, and we professionalized it and we’re socializing the message. But it’s never easy to go, as Peter Thiel put it, from zero to one. To create something that didn’t exist before is never easy because you don’t have a game plan.
If you were to buy a franchise that’s already successful, they give you a book and a game plan and a blueprint on how to franchise because they have done it before. But when you’re going from zero to one, where no one’s ever been before, there are challenges that you never expected. You have to overcome all of them well enough so that you don’t make fatal mistakes and you actually create a business that becomes sustainable and valuable to the economy and society.
How have you seen the electronics recycling industry change over time? Are there any trends that you’ve identified?
JS: Going back to the first answer I gave you, it started as an environmental imperative and is now a cyber-security social phenomenon. The second trend is that the electronics are going from big to small, but there are more of them than ever before. When we first got started, there weren’t iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, 3D televisions, or Google Glass, for example. There are just more things.
We have to recycle all the stuff that goes into your smartphone, but who’s going to recycle all of the solar panels, drones, robots, and wearables? That’s us, too. So there are more things, with the internet of everything, including hard drives that are in cars and hard drives that are in all of our devices. It’s all got to go somewhere, and ERI provides a solution for responsible recycling.
What is the most pressing challenge that your industry is still trying to solve?
JS: It’s still very difficult, in an economically viable way, to recycle solar panels. We’re working on that. It is also economically difficult to recycle and recover certain metals. We have R&D going on for both of those challenges and we see solutions coming in the future.
Where do you see ERI going in the future? What are your future goals?
JS: The future goal is to continue to build our position in the industry, get better as a company, and continue to grow here in the United States, but now to live up to our name and become a truly international brand. We feel like it’s only the top of the second inning. We feel that the opportunity is greater than ever because we’re at the crossroads of regulations, sustainability, cyber-security, and data protection, and we feel that combination is something that’s unbeatable since we’re at that convergence of these mega-trends. It’s challenging but fun, I’ll tell you that. It makes it worthwhile to get out of bed in the morning.
You’ve been a lifelong entrepreneur. What advice do you have for people who are building businesses?
JS: It’s going to be harder than you ever thought, but the rewards are so amazing that the journey is worth every minute of every day. I would never change anything that I did. I have no regrets. I still get excited to get out of bed in the morning and look ahead. To me, it’s just a great journey.
For other entrepreneurs, if you believe you have something that you need to create or that would be valuable to society and to what we do here on this planet and it’s something that can be done differently and that’s never been done before, being an entrepreneur is both the most humbling and rewarding experience that any person could ever have. There’s nothing better.
We’re the artists of the business world. Every day we get to go back to the canvas and paint what we’re creating, retouch, remake, and continue to mold and update our creation. What better opportunity is there than creating something that adds value and that people want? When you’re filling a void that was needed, it’s truly amazing.
What do you identify as the top three characteristics of an effective leader?
JS: Brains, energy, and character. If you have the first two, but not the third, a person can be unbelievably dangerous. So to me, the three best characteristics of any great leader are brains, energy, and impeccable character and integrity. Knowing how to give yourself enough self-care to nurture all three of those critical elements will serve you well. Those are the three trademark qualities that I look for in others that I want to work with, that I want to hire, and that I aspire to be every day.
What have you learned from failure, either professionally or personally, that has served you well in your career?
JS: I have plenty of failures. Failure is a very humbling experience. If you can humble yourself enough to learn from the mistakes you made and then pick yourself back up, put the gloves back on again, and get back in the middle of the thing, failure will serve you almost better than any success that you can have. When you are successful, you almost start believing that it was all you and not the hard work of all those around you and how the stars aligned. You start becoming a little bit too self-reflecting on all that you did. If you do failure the right way and you really become humbled by it, and you realize that every day is best started on your knees and every day is best ended on your knees, then you’ll come out of it a much better person and eventually, a much better leader.
How have you approached work-life balance throughout the course of your career and found a way to not only devote yourself to your company but also devote yourself to a family?
JS: First of all, I don’t really believe in work-life balance because I don’t think it’s that binary. I don’t believe that you could ever totally say, “I’m at work and I’m shutting everything else out.” And I don’t think you could ever say, “I’m with family and I’m shutting everything else out.” If you’re the type of entrepreneur that I see as great entrepreneurs - besides bringing energy and character to your work - you need to have somewhat of an “all-in” personality. You’ve got to be all-in, whatever that means for your business.
When I started ERI, I had to personally guarantee a $10 million dollar loan before there was ever any company or an industry or anybody in front of us - that’s being all-in. When you have an all-in personality, there’s no going back. You have to demonstrate that quality to your employees, co-workers, and colleagues, but at the same time make sure your loved ones know that no matter where they are at any given time, you’re all-in with them, too.
If both sides know that you’re all-in with them at all times, and that when you need to be present with them, you will be 120 percent present with them given the necessity at that moment, then you can manage the work-life balance. It’s never going to be 50-50 because that’s just fantasyland. That’s “Field of Dreams” entrepreneurship. It’s just impossible. I’ve always been a hyper-focused entrepreneur, but my kids also know that I’m hyper-focused on them no matter where I’m at or what I’m doing. People love the all-in personalities because they know then that they’re safe, that in the end I’ll be with them, whenever they’re in real need.
What is the best advice that you’ve ever received?
JS: The funniest advice I’ve ever gotten, which is really good, came when I was sitting one day at a luncheon and I asked Ted Turner, who was sitting next to me, what the magic was to his success. He looked at me, and in a Southern drawl with a twinkle in his eye like only he could have, he said, “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise.” That was just the best. For Ted Turner to say that to me - I loved Ted Turner as a kid and I’ve always looked up to him - it doesn’t get better than that.
There are so many great people that have influenced me personally and taught me lessons in life. I’d say the best advice is just to be yourself and tell the truth; that way, you don’t have to fake it. They always say, “Fake it until you make it,” and there’s some element of truth to that in life when you’re starting a business, but if you’re yourself every day and you tell the truth, then you can go to sleep at night and get a good night’s rest and get up and hit it every day. It makes it really easy.
And the big one is to never give up. I’ll tell you what - there are more challenges that will come your way and being an entrepreneur is like walking a high wire without a net on a regular basis. When you want to give up and when you want to quit, you have to always remember why you started to begin with. When you can do that on a daily basis, there’s no quitting allowed.
What is giving you hope for the future?
JS: My two children, Cortney and Tyler. Both of them chose professions that make the world a better a place and have social bottom lines. The fact that they are more sustainability focused and care about the environment also gives me tremendous hope and helps reaffirm the good work ERI and its employees are doing on a daily basis.