Engineering alumna helps others go ‘green’

How does an undergraduate engineering fellowship lead to becoming a green home coach?

Marla Esser

In alumna Marla Johns Esser's case, it allowed her to study engineering and public policy on a Langsdorf Fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, where she discovered green as her calling.

That was in 1980. Today, Esser not only advises homeowners and businesses as a Green Home Coach, she is also the founder and CEO of HomeNav, a home-inventory tool and resource library.

"From the beginning, I got my education on the concept of entrepreneurship," Esser says.

Feeding from WashU's green goals

The attitude towards green has changed a lot since Esser's student days in the 1980s.

"Present WashU has what I call green gothic architecture — gothic look and green by performance," the Texas native says.

Then and now, green means different things to different people.

"To me, it embodies mindful choices — using what we have wisely," Esser says.

It was during the tenure of the late School of Engineering & Applied Science Dean Chris Byrnes in the 1990s that WashU began paying attention to green. The four areas of emphasis Byrnes chose for the school are still in place today: computers and communication; biomedical engineering; environmental engineering; and materials science and engineering.

WashU's early focus on sustainability culminated in the 2010 Strategic Plan for Sustainable Operations and the creation of the Office of Sustainability a year later. Now, six years into the initiative, the university is home to 21 LEED Certified projects. The Engineering school is also home to the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, the first department of its kind in the world.

Figuring out how to make green go

To speed the translation of commercial standards into private homes, Esser focused on helping to meet the homeowner education portion of green home certification. Esser offered a licensed software on CDs dubbed green living education. (Homes need to meet criteria in five other categories to be certified as "Green.")

The software was the genesis of what would become HomeNav.

"It was a combination of a customized inventory and all the education needed to meet the requirements to have a certified green home," Esser says.

In 2011, Esser joined the Innovate Venture Mentoring Service (now GatewayVMS) and ITEN, a St. Louis-based startup accelerator. She also competed in the Olin Cup (now Skandalaris Center Cup) Capital Innovators and the St. Louis regional business plan competitions in 2011-2012. Although her mentors repeatedly told her green education was not a big piece of her business, Esser did not deviate.

"I had always envisioned that certification was a key to helping people understand that green was a huge value," she says.

Esser officially re-launched HomeNav as a green home-certifying tool in 2013. Her online homeowner manual solution is a National Green Building Standard (NGBS) Green Certified Product.

"This is when I really turned the business into a tool for green-certified homes," Esser says.

The entrepreneur's hope was that having an NGBS Green Certified Product would translate into more customers.

It didn't. Esser had fallen into the "build it and they will come" trap, as she puts it. To find out what would really make green go, Esser signed up for a business coaching program called 10K Club.

"It made me realize I was a service-based company as opposed to a technology company," she says.

That change in perspective caused Esser to do more consulting work and brand herself as the Green Home Coach.

Since then, Esser has written more than 150 blog posts and two e-books about green homes. In March, she launched the Green Gab podcast, where she talks to guests about their experiences with green homes and green living.

Esser says the writing started to build her business.

"The big lesson was that putting myself out there counted more than the certifications and accreditations," she says. "I realized I had an expertise to share that doesn't have to be just through a product."

Giving back, looking ahead

Esser has remained loyal to her alma mater throughout her winding entrepreneurial journey. Since her graduation in '84, the alumna has volunteered her time and expertise to the School of Engineering & Applied Science. Among other things, she helped found the Women & Engineering program in 2013 and served as a mentor for the Olin Business School's Women's Mentor Program for five years.

"I wouldn't be anywhere with any of this if it hadn't been for WashU," Esser says.

The former IBM employee believes her competitive advantage is her ability to speak the language of the homeowners and the builders.

"I've built myself to be an intersection between green, homes, women and the building industry. There are very few people in that niche," she says.

Over the next three years, the size of the connected home market is expected to grow from $400 million today to almost $2 billion. Esser says banking on green is both sustainable and lucrative.

"We're at a point in our society where we have to learn how to use our resources better," she says. "The whole issue of justice and societal issues are really part of the whole sustainability movement."