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Meet Jessica Toth of Solana Center for Environmental Innovation in North County Coastal/Encinitas

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jessica Toth.

Jessica, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Today, I run Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, the nonprofit organization that brings environmental education and consulting services to every corner of the San Diego region. It was quite a circuitous route I took to get here, involving an engineering degree, Wall Street, solo backpack travel through Asia (including the Tiananmen Square uprising), business school, the World Bank, high tech industry (from Dallas to Barcelona), entrepreneurship (with a patent to my name), motherhood, and legendary surfer Rob Machado.

The abbreviated story is that I’ve been passionate about the environment and minimizing my family’s footprint (think: cloth diapers and community-supported agriculture) all my adult life. I kept these beliefs in place while working in very different industries. But once my girls were born – Quincy (now 20 years old) and Zoe (17 years old) – I focused more intensely on making a better natural environment for the next generations. Beginning when they were in pre-school, I started a parent-student program, borrowing from Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, to learn and create positive change on the environment, animals, and community. We continued Roots & Shoots through elementary school with beach clean-ups; tours of our local wastewater treatment facility, recycling center, and landfill; establishing school recycling; etc. Eventually, I began working with Rob Machado Foundation to set up the organization, create the flagship environmental programs, and co-author a chapter on sustainable surf products with Rob.

Being the Executive Director of Solana Center is where I landed. It’s the most rewarding and the most challenging job I’ve ever held. Not only do I work with really amazing staff (each with our own unique back-stories and wonderful quirks) and clients, but, best of all, we make an impact every single day. Whether it’s 400 rain barrels sold on a single day to capture and store water or a classroom of students learning that worms can eat our food waste and return it to the earth or establishing a connection between a restaurant and food pantry to “rescue” edible food for people in need, every program is truly incredible.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I started at Solana Center over six years ago, not knowing much about the importance and science behind composting. Now, as director of this tremendously impactful organization that pioneered the first curbside recycling program in Southern California, I’m invited to speak about the impact and solutions to food waste disposal in landfills at events around the country. It’s been a steep learning curve in an industry in which many of the players have worked together for decades.

In 2013, I was asked by the Solana Center board president to join the board in order to help them determine whether the organization could continue to exist. Instead, I asked to manage the organization, promising that in three months I’d provide a determination of whether Solana Center should close, merge, or create a new future. Six and a half years later, with creative and smart staff, guidance from our very capable Treasurer Mary Ann Stone and the support of a visionary board of directors, we have more than doubled our revenue and increased the reach of our programming three-fold.

It turned out that the organization needed leadership with a combination of dedication to the natural environment plus business acumen. I realized that Solana Center had to gain credibility. To do that, we had to “go and go faster” without looking back. Very quickly, we saw that food waste was a tremendous regional problem without a regional solution. We implemented innovative projects to demonstrate the possible ways to “recycle” food waste into nutrient-rich compost and to re-route edible food to people in need. We told people – local community, elected officials, and national publications – about the detrimental consequences of not acting and about the alternatives to landfilling food scrap. And soon we were winning awards and recognition for our achievements.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation story. Tell us more about it.
Solana Center is educating businesses, local government, and individuals about how local actions have global impact – from tackling single-use plastics to food waste diversion.

Last year, we directly educated over 30,000 residents and businesses in the San Diego region and prevented 2.3 million pounds of organic material from being landfilled, which avoided over 245 metric tons of greenhouse gases from being emitted! Our rain barrel distribution program saved more than 40,000 gallons of rainwater.

In 2015, Solana Center for Environmental Innovation was recognized with the first Encinitas Environmental Award. The next year, we were awarded California’s highest environmental honor, the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award, for our innovative food waste diversion programs, bringing organic waste solutions to the state’s attention. In 2017, I was named by the San Diego Business Journal as one of 100 outstanding women business leaders for my work at Solana Center.

Solana Center was presented with a 2018 EMIES Unwasted Food award from the San Diego Food System Alliance for food waste diversion programming on education and recycling in communities across the region. And this year, we were recognized for food waste diversion programming and education with awards from the California Resource Recovery Association and the US Composting Council.

These accolades come our way because of the tireless work of Solana Center staff, creating results when confronted with environmental obstacles. We channel the power of imagination into viable solutions for our region and our planet.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I think life’s journey is all about serendipity. And curiosity is my guide. (My now-defunct educational software start-up was named Curious Company.)

I couldn’t be happier with where I’ve ended up professionally. My friends from that first job out of college – on Wall Street – could comfortably buy a luxury car with cash worth my annual salary. But I wouldn’t trade places with them for a minute. Not just in my current work, but the journey – with uncertainty at every junction – has been the best luck imaginable.

It was crazy dumb luck that my kids were at the right age for me to return to full-time work just as Solana Center needed to find a new direction. In another time, when the organization was doing well, no nonprofit board of directors would have picked me, with minimal direct experience, to be a director.

For me, the best approach is to define the vision and then work to achieve it. To get there, don’t focus on obstacles; look at the possibilities. With that philosophy, there has to be some element of luck in order to succeed.

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