Joey Hundert is not your average entrepreneur
And he wouldn’t have it any other way
by Lewis Kelly
Joey Hundert says the human mind can achieve anything, given the proper encouragement. Then he starts cussing out truck drivers.
Photograph Courtesy of Sustainival
Hundert’s Dodge pickup, which burns around 17 litres of biodiesel every 100 kilometres, is trying – and failing – to get around a convoy of semis going south on Highway 63. Unable to pass the long-haul units that are driving 25 kilometres per hour below the speed limit en route from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, the eco-entrepreneur decides to let loose with a cavalcade of well-chosen epithets instead.
A more serene person would be more patient, given the highway’s habit of killing drivers. And Hundert has cause to be a bit more relaxed, given that his vegetable oil-fuelled carnival, Sustainival, just wrapped up the most successful show in its history, drawing upwards of 5,000 people in Fort McMurray, a town known more for roughnecks than tree-huggers. Meanwhile, his salvaged-wood-iPhone-case business, called Knottycase, launched successfully in late August. But, then, patience and circumspection do not make up an appreciable portion of his personality.
Hundert devoted his life to saving the planet through business at the age of 19. Now 31, he’s worked as a property developer, First Nations business consultant, carnival impresario, cellphone-case manufacturer and senior executive with a startup looking to make flax- and hemp-fibre composites for use in construction. With his ideas, energy and aphorisms, he comes across either as Richard Branson crossed with David Suzuki or a young and bearded Bernie Madoff.
But back on the road, with the vitriol vented and the trucks overtaken, Hundert returns to ruminating on capitalism’s often-fraught relationship with the environment. “I firmly believe the organizational principles of life provide a sustainable way to do anything,” he says. “It’s a matter of getting the proper incentives in place.”
He didn’t always feel that way. After leaving the University of Western Ontario after his freshman year, Hundert found work fighting forest fires in Colorado. But after a hard day doing his bit to follow Smokey the Bear’s famous imperative, he glanced at his chainsaw and had an epiphany.
“It hit me that I was using an immensely destructive tool, but through the training I had received, I could reduce the risk of catastrophic forest fires,” Hundert says. “If one was able to use one dangerous tool with integrity, perhaps any dangerous tool could be used with integrity.”
He applied that line of reasoning to business. “Up until that point, my view of it was that it was a destructive force. But I realized business was a tool just like my chainsaw, and that the integrity depended on the operator, not the tool itself.”
After a similar eureka moment convinced him of the need to get humanity off fossil fuels, he set about creating one of his first business ventures: making diesel from vegetable oil and selling it to environmentally conscious customers. Though inspired by tales of Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the eponymous engine, Hundert quickly ran into a wall. With just a single year of university and no professional experience beyond the odd jobs that he had worked, his expertise didn’t quite extend to incorporating companies, raising capital or refining the waste of fast-food deep fryers into fuel.
“Thank God my advent as an entrepreneur coincided with the Internet changing from something new and cool into something actually rich with content,” he says.
Hundert read everything he could on internal combustion, fuel injection, fluid dynamics and reached out online to experts in the field for consultation.
Though the project never panned out commercially, it planted two seeds in Hundert’s brain: the importance of cultivating mentors, and the commercial and environmental appeal of changing used vegetable oil into diesel. In time, both bore fruit.
The latter went through several potential applications – taxi company, bus line, and so on – before Hundert hit on a formula that worked. In 2006, he came up with the idea of a mobile village that would tour the continent and exhibit the latest in eco-friendly technology, like a circus that had Al Gore as the freakish curiosity instead of a bearded lady. It would, he thought, serve as a beacon that would guide North America towards cities that contribute energy and nutrients to their surrounding environment instead of extracting them.
The economics of the scheme, he admits, were a little fuzzy.
“The eco-village struck me as a great way to spend money, but I hadn’t come up with a way to make it,” Hundert says. “I was stumped for several days.”
True to form, he soon became un-stumped. Hundert realized people might not pay to tour an eco-village, but they regularly pressed their money on carnies for the privilege of getting spun, shaken and flipped to the point of nausea. They would, he figured, do the same if they were powered by biodiesel, and be more than happy to check out some other green initiatives elsewhere on the fairgrounds while they were at it.
Raising capital and ironing out an agonizing number of final details took some time – Hundert sold a cache of silver for $27,000, for example – but at the inaugural Freezing Man festival in Edmonton in January of 2011, Sustainival made its debut.
The carnival featured four rides at the time, including the fabled Gravitron, a torturous contraption that spins people around at speeds sufficient to counteract the effect of gravity and lift them off the floor. Since then it has toured in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Edmonton Fringe Festival and the Boonstock music festival.
All the while, Hundert added rides. By the time Sustainival arrived in Fort McMurray in late August, the carnival featured 25 separate rides that required 750 kilowatts of power from four generators. Over the course of a weekend, the generators burned thousands of litres of diesel made from used veggie oil donated by the Sawridge Inn. (Hundert, a self-proclaimed connoisseur of deep fryer oil, says sushi joints provide the best stuff, since they must change frequently to maintain crisp whiteness in their tempura.)
Photograph Courtesy of Sustainival
Hundert has also grown the company from a one trick merry-go-round into a diversified business that trades in all things sustainability-related, including selling environmentally friendly Frisbees and doing consulting work for municipal governments. In late August, Sustainival submitted a study to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo proposing to use waste heat to grow vegetables and farm fish through a process called containerized aquaponics.
If all of this makes you incredulous, well, Hundert doesn’t really care. His past contains more than its share of burned bridges. He’s spurned auspicious partners, and, once, a six-figure salary. All, he says, without hesitation. While he’s as gregarious as anyone you could hope to meet, he won’t hesitate to sever a professional relationship if he feels it lacks integrity, regardless of its dollar value.
That’s typical of great entrepreneurs, according to one of Hundert’s mentors. Wayne Dorband became a serial “ecopreneur” while he was a graduate student, and since landing his PhD in fisheries from the University of Idaho in 1980, has founded or directed more than 100 companies, including the Institute of Ecolonomics and Mountain Sky Group. He met Hundert in 2010 and now contributes to the consulting branch of Sustainival.
“Frankly, we really don’t care what other people think about us,” Dorband says. “Entrepreneurs usually have pretty good self-esteem, and we really aren’t insecure.”
But when networking works for them, it really works. Hundert boasts about his ability to foster mentors, including four former Buddhist monks who are now seeking enlightenment through commerce. Dorband sees a lot of himself in Hundert, and he certainly feels the two share a deep connection. He thinks so highly of Hundert, in fact, that he even mentions him in the same breath as Steve Jobs.
“I think Joey’s going to be a thought-leader in North America,” Dorband says. “His activities will impact our cognitive world.”