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Devin: What is your superpower?
Shubber: What I think I'm particularly good at is identifying the right problem to solve.
Shubber Ali’s story is fascinating on several levels. He volunteered himself into a great job. Perhaps I should have him back just to drill down more on that brilliant career maneuver. We focused our discussion on how he identified a critical gap in the work of a national nonprofit and helped it close the gap with a for-profit solution.
After becoming a donor and a big fan of the work of the National Wildlife Federation, Shubber helped guide them to design a business line that initially operated within the nonprofit–selling the local plants the organization had long coached people to buy.
Shubber had figured out that the big box retailers with garden centers were selling invasive species–often exclusively–in their stores. Given the massive number of people shopping at those stores, this is a big problem. It proved difficult for him to get the native plants he wanted in his yard.
He approached the National Wildlife Federation with an offer of pro-bono consulting with this offer “We need to solve the problem of supply; we need to make it easy for people to get these plants so they can put them in their yards and help restore habitat one yard at a time.”
After the successful launch of the product line inside the nonprofit, the opportunity began to grow. He shares the story:
Long story short, I went to them again last year and said, this is a fantastic business opportunity, but it's not going to thrive inside of a not-for-profit because you're not designed to run a business.
They agreed and said, “We'll spin it out as a for-profit company [that they are the majority shareholder of], and then we could bring in outside investors,” but on the condition that I would come in and be the CEO.
So, I absolutely jumped at the chance. This is the combination of doing good and doing what I love doing–building companies.
Today, you can visit Garden for Wildlife at GardenForWildlife.com to find and order native plants for your zip code. This customized finder works for just about everyone east of the Rocky Mountains.
Shubber learned some of what guided his yard plantings and business strategy from Doug Tallamy’s book Nature's Best Hope. In this book, he learned the vital role native plants play in the ecosystem. He explains:
Native plants are actually the food source for the caterpillars of many of the pollinators, the butterflies and moths, etc.
Those caterpillars are the food source for the songbirds. So, as the book laid out very clearly, by wiping out all the beautiful native flowers and plants that are out there, we have systematically destroyed not only the pollinators but over 3 billion pairs of nesting songbirds, which is why you just don't see as many these days.
Sure, you see sparrows and crows and things like that–and pigeons, of course, in every city, but all the beautiful birds that we're used to, cardinals, wrens, blue jays, chickadees–all sorts of things. They've all basically really diminished in terms of population.
Recently, Garden for Wildlife launched a regulated investment crowdfunding campaign, allowing anyone to invest in the company. The National Wildlife Federation invested additional funds and remains the largest shareholder, but now everyone can participate.
Living in Suburban Maryland, Shubber will speak at SuperCrowdBaltimore on March 21, 2024. Superpowers for Good readers can save 30 percent with the discount code “SuperCrowd” right now. Register today.
Throughout his career, Shubber has been honing a vital skill that enables his success. He’s good at identifying the problem that needs to be solved.
AI Episode Summary
1. Shubber Ali is the CEO of Garden for Wildlife, which aims to educate people about native habitat protection and provides access to native plants for gardens, with a history extending from a program started by the National Wildlife Federation.
2. The initial focus of the program has been to protect species like the monarch butterfly and pollinators, creating certified wildlife habitats mainly in people’s yards and schools.
3. After moving from California to Maryland, Shubber transformed his lawn into a habitat for birds and pollinators by planting native species, inspired by Doug Tallamy’s book Nature's Best Hope, which emphasizes the importance of native plants for local ecosystems.
4. Shubber identified a core problem in the marketplace: the lack of supply of native plants, as most big box stores sell invasive species, harming local ecosystems.
5. Seeing an opportunity to address the problem, Shubber pitched a business plan to the National Wildlife Federation to create Garden for Wildlife, a company that would directly ship native plants to customers' doorsteps.
6. After a successful launch inside the National Wildlife Federation, Shubber proposed spinning Garden for Wildlife out as a separate company, with the Federation as the majority shareholder, employees as stakeholders, and bringing in outside investors.
7. They launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise additional working capital to scale operations, like building more greenhouses, offering different tiers of investment for shares in the company.
8. Garden for Wildlife's website features a native plant finder database, allowing customers to easily find plants that are native to their zip code, aiding in efficient and eco-friendly gardening.
9. Shubber touched on the connection between Garden for Wildlife’s mission and climate change at COP28, discussing how planting native species with deep root systems can help biodiversity, water absorption, and carbon sequestration.
10. Shubber invites interested parties to visit Invest.GardenforWildlife.com to read more about and participate in the investment offering, and he recommends reading Doug Tallamy’s book for a deeper understanding of the importance of supporting native plants for environmental health.
How to Develop Seeing the Problem to Solve As a Superpower
Throughout his career, Shubber has been using and refining his ability to find the right problem that needs to be solved. It is becoming a signature strength. He’s long used a quote that has sometimes been mistakenly attributed to Einstein, “If you have an hour to solve a problem, spend 55 minutes defining it and five minutes solving it.”
His work at Garden for Wildlife is an excellent example of using this skill effectively. He shares the story to illustrate the superpower:
Garden for Wildlife is a result of understanding the right problem to solve. It wasn't enough to educate people about native plants because, frankly, they've been doing it for almost 50 years, and yet it's only getting worse.
It's supply. It was a lack of supply and then awareness to the people who needed to know about it.
I was that customer. I gladly shopped at places and bought all the wrong stuff because I didn't know what the right stuff was, and then it wasn't available once I did figure it out. So that's an example of saying, okay, what do we have to solve for? It's an arc of awareness, education, access.
By following Shubber’s example, you can improve your ability to define the problem you need to solve before you try to solve it. With practice, you can make it a superpower that enables you to do more good in the world.
Remember, however, that research into success suggests that building on your own superpowers is more important than creating new ones or overcoming weaknesses. You do you!
Shubber will also be speaking at SuperCrowd24. Held on April 17 and 18th, Superpowers for Good readers can save 50 percent on tickets with the discount code “SuperCrowd” right now. Register today.
Shubber Ali (he/him):
CEO, Garden for Wildlife Inc
About Garden for Wildlife Inc: Garden for Wildlife (GFW) Inc. is a recent spinout from the National Wildlife Federation (our largest investor and shareholder), building on the 50-year history of the GFW educational program. The company's mission is to drive a massive increase in the planting of native plants in North America (at homes, schools, businesses, community gardens, etc) by making it easy for people and organizations to learn about, find and get the right native plants. It launched as an ecommerce site in 2021 and, in its first full year of operation (2022), sold approximately $1m of plants to consumers in over 35 states.
X/Twitter Handle: @garden4wildlife
Company Facebook Page: fb.com/gardenforwildlife/
Other URL: invest.gardenforwildlife.com
Biographical Information: Shubber Ali is CEO of Garden for Wildlife. He is a father, husband, avid gardener, and loves nature - and it’s those last two things that led to his current role. He has spent over thirty years helping companies solve their most complicated and difficult problems through innovation, identifying growth opportunities, enabling technologies and platforms. He was the VP and Global Lead for the Elevate team at Elastic from April 2021 to June 2022, and prior to that, he was one of Accenture’s global leads for digital innovation from September 2017 to April 2021, where he worked with the National Wildlife Federation to create the Garden for Wildlife business. He has also served as VP of Strategic Innovation at Salesforce. He has co-founded multiple consumer technology companies, some successes including Centriq (acquired) and Flaik (privately held), and some great learning experiences (aka “failures”). He serves as an advisor to numerous startups. In addition, Shubber has served for nine years on the Advisory Board of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown (where he has also been an adjunct professor of Innovation Management in the Executive MBA program) and a guest lecturer for the Emory University Executive MBA program. Since 2014, he also serves as a member of the global advisory STAR program for Airbus.
X/Twitter Handle: @shubberali
Personal Facebook Profile: fb.com/people/Shubber-Ali
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