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Join host Paul Shapiro as he talks with some of the leading start-up entrepreneurs and titans of industry alike using their businesses to help solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Feb 1, 2024

Most startups are founded by entrepreneurs hopeful that their idea will be the next big thing and pad their bank accounts in the process. Yet sometimes companies are started not by enterprising capitalists, but rather by a far less likely progenitor: nonprofit charities. 

That’s exactly what happened when the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation decided to spin out a for-profit corporation devoted to advancing the charity’s mission to protect wildlife.

The company, Garden for Wildlife, is already selling native plants to homeowners seeking to make their yards a bit more nonhuman-friendly.

The basic premise is this: Too much wilderness has been destroyed by humanity for us to only rely on parks and preserves to give wildlife a chance to survive. While much of the animal biomass alive today is comprised of the animals who we farm for food, if we want to give free-living animals like songbirds a chance, we need to turn over a portion of our lawns and corporate landscapes into wildlife-friendlier corridors, or what author Douglas Tallamy calls “Homegrown National Park” in his book on this topic, Nature’s Best Hope.

Take the state where I lived most of my life, Maryland, as one example. Maryland alone has more lawn than two times the land allocated to its state parks, state forests, and wildlife management areas—all combined. Sadly though, lawns are essentially biological wastelands capable of supporting less than 10 percent of life that a more natural landscape can support.

So why do we do it? Why do we Homo sapiens like to create these nearly lifeless lawns wherever we go? In short, we do it because it makes us feel safe. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that humans prefer unobstructed views of our surroundings because that’s what kept us safe on the African savannah where we evolved. As a result, as we’ve spread off the savannah and across the globe, we’ve transformed forested ecosystems into something akin to our ancestral home. And this isn’t something that only started only once civilization was founded. Even tribal hunter-gatherers living in forests are often proficient at deforesting their surroundings. 

So that’s the bad news.The good news is that homeowners can actually do quite a lot to make their yards more welcoming to pollinators and other friendly creatures. The key is to ditch part or all of your invasive, water-thirsty lawn and replace it with a beautiful array of native plants and trees that will attract butterflies, hummingbirds, songbirds, and other amazing and harmless animals to your property. But where to start?

That’s where Garden for Wildlife comes in. Its entire business model is to make it easy for you to do just that without becoming an ecologist yourself. Just type in your zip code on their web site and check off which species you hope to attract, and they’ll show you a menu of attractive plants native specifically to your region that you can order straight from their site, delivered to your front door.

Profiled by Martha Stewart Living and Better Homes and Gardens, Garden for Wildlife has raised $5 million from investors (primarily its founder, the National Wildlife Federation) and is already bringing in an annual revenue of $1 million. The company is also crowdfunding now, meaning for an investment as low as $250, you can own shares in this startup. And we’ve got their CEO, Shubber Ali, on the show to talk all about it.

While I’ve not personally used their services, my wife Toni and I four years ago removed our front lawn in Sacramento and replaced it with a tiny little meadow of native, drought-tolerant plants. Combined with a water fountain for avian visitors, since then our front yard has become a Mecca for hummingbirds, songbirds, and other little neighbors we love watching. And it’s even become a frequent stop for our human neighbors, who we regularly catch photographing the flowering beauty and bringing their kids by to enjoy the sight. In other words, our own little Homegrown National Park has made life not only better for wildlife, but for a lot of humans, too. 

This is an interesting story about one charity’s decision to use the power of commerce to advance their cause. I’ll let their CEO Shubber Ali tell you all about it.

Discussed in this episode

More about Shubber Ali

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 9 years on the Advisory Board to 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 has served as a member of the global advisory STAR program for Airbus.