Donnel Baird is an American entrepreneur who serves as the CEO and the founder of BlocPower, a company he established in 2014. The entrepreneur and his sister were forced to spend their formative years in a tough apartment in Brooklyn. The flat’s HVAC system was broken, and the family lacked the financial means to pay for clean energy during the winter. This enabled him to press forward with his plan to supply affordable energy to previously unserved places. Notably, the landlord couldn’t fix the issue, and their family was forced to remain because they did not have the financial means to relocate. Following the breakup of Baird’s parents’ marriage, the boy’s mother relocated the family to Atlanta, Georgia, where he finally won a scholarship to attend a prestigious private high school in the wealthy Buckhead neighborhood. Duke University granted Donnel a Bachelor of Arts degree, and Columbia Business School conferred him a Master of Business Administration degree.
Early life and schooling
The difficult circumstances that Donnel Baird experienced during his childhood helped shape him into the successful social entrepreneur he would become later in life. As a child of Guyana immigrants, life in Brooklyn was tough. When they were warming the house up in the winter, he and his family had to keep a window open because, if they didn’t, they risked breathing in harmful gases produced by the dysfunctional heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system in their home. They were in danger of passing away due to the high levels of carbon monoxide, and Donnel reminded them that they needed to open the windows and bring fresh air into the apartment. This method of heating houses was incredibly inefficient and was used in the entire city. On a more individual level, it posed a significant threat to the health of the families that utilized it. They lived in the same house as crack users, and their neighborhood was chaotic; it suffered frequent physical alterations. The Bairds’ parents, who had completed a good education before coming to this country, were taken aback by the living conditions. They were forced to abandon their house after the collapse of the economy caused them to lose their means of subsistence. During his boyhood and childhood, he was exposed to a high level of violence in the streets of Brooklyn, which he remembers quite clearly.
“I remember when I was six, I witnessed a 16-year-old shooting a 17-year-old on the head,” Baird recalled.
It was a regrettable incident for a six-year-old to witness. Although they were used to such incidents, there is one that prompted his mother to move. As his mother went home from work, she saw a mother and her baby being shot in the streets. She subsequently ran and locked herself up. From that day, she decided they were leaving Brooklyn forever.
“I believe growing up in Brooklyn was terrifying, but I decided I wanted to do something about it at a particular point in my life. After graduating from college, I decided to pursue a career as a community organizer, and that’s how I ended volunteering for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2007.”
“Even though I grew up in a pretty bad neighbourhood like that one, I always had the impression that I had access to many advantages and possibilities that many other children who were just as worthy did not. So it was important to me to offer something back.”
Early during his career, Donnel worked as a community organizer for three years in Brooklyn to achieve his dream of giving back to the society where he grew up. Although he was terrified by the streets of Brooklyn, he believed he could do something. He aimed to offer opportunities that he felt weren’t available to the people of Brooklyn, who maybe weren’t lucky as he was. After that, Donnel worked for the Obama campaign.
He led a countrywide movement that leveraged the department of energy to offer green construction opportunities for the unemployed. With the Washington Interfaith Network, he convinced the District of Columbia government to invest one hundred million dollars in the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. In 2014, Donnel Baird founded BlocPower to provide a solution to the use of fuel energy, which is a number one contributor to climate change. Because it is such a significant issue, investors have contributed more than one hundred million dollars in the form of debt and equity financing to the company to assist him in resolving it. The organization has received funding of more than US Dollars 111.4 million from multiple investors, with Bezos Earth Fund and Microsoft Climate Innovation being the most recent.
There is a direct correlation between the amount of energy used to heat a structure and the amount of carbon dioxide emissions produced in the United States. Most of the power comes from fossil fuels like oil and gas, which contributes to the problem of excessive carbon emissions.
In the end, Donnel posed the following question: “What if we could change the energy source? What if, instead, we were able to electrify the buildings?
However, like other tales of creativity, Donnel’s journey to solving this problem did not begin immediately. He had already spent several years developing BlocPower before recognizing that this was the specific problem that needed to be solved. In addition, to the greening building goal, Donnel intended to use human resources from the surroundings to achieve it.
While walking about in temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit in cities such as Cleveland and Bridgeport, he noticed that the apartment complexes he passed by had windows open. There hadn’t been much of a shift. Donnel concluded that these areas were suffering from actual “energy neglect” or “energy poverty,” and he decided to do something about it.
As part of the Obama administration, he worked on finding a solution to this problem, but he had little success. Later on, while earning his MBA at Columbia, he realized that he might be able to acquire venture-backed money to address the issue on a large scale and create a company. The first step in his plan was to change the principal energy source that buildings used from oil to gas. Although a fossil fuel, gas is more capable of complete combustion than oil. That was the initial problem that he attempted to resolve. He had recruited investors, produced a business plan, assembled a team, signed contracts with utility partners, and was ready to launch the business.
He also met Eric and Wendy Schmidt, enthusiastic about funding programs to combat climate change. When he first met the Schmidts, they were passionate about his business plan but declined to support a gas-based solution. Donnel thoroughly researched climate science to ensure that he addressed the pertinent issue for the planet’s future. As the Schmidts had suggested, he understood that gas was a bridge fuel. The fundamental objective was to transition to clean electricity produced by renewable resources, including water, wind, and solar energy. He saw that he needed to change the conflict in his innovation story. He decided to focus on electrifying buildings rather than finding getting away from oil.
The majority of the 5 million intermediate buildings waste excessive amounts of energy. Many of them have soiled and old heating and electrical systems, which is one factor that contributes to the high rate of asthma and other health problems in the inner city. BlocPower provides engineering and financial expertise to the municipal building retrofitting industry. The BlocPower team not only conducts unique analyses to discover the most effective ways to lower energy use, but they also construct a financial case for each project and connect the owners of those projects with financiers. They have renovated over 500 buildings in New York and are now expanding its operations to the cities of Chicago, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. The company promotes using clean energy sources such as solar energy and other efficient technologies that could help households and organizations significantly slash their energy budgets. Additionally, this could reduce climate change and its effects besides reducing cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, asthma, and other respiratory diseases.
BlocPower’s goal is to complete building power transmission projects at scale while putting traditionally marginalized groups and communities concerned with environmental equality at the frontline of its work. BlocMaps, the company’s specialized software, will identify the buildings with the greatest need for green upgrades, and the firm’s new funding model will make retrofitting affordable to all. Together, these two factors will allow BlocPower to achieve its goal. The Bezos Earth Fund is providing funding to support BlocMaps’ continued growth.
Leadership and awards
During their annual awards, the leadership Gala NVCA hosts honored BlocPower by awarding them their 2022 Startup Innovator award.
“Honoring those who have made substantial contributions to stimulate innovation, improve technology, and drive new company formation” is something that the NVCA does on an annual basis. The Startup Innovator award was given to BlocPower because of the company’s “commitment to creating positive change” and its leadership “inside the entrepreneurial ecosystem around the challenge it intends to address.”
Said a statement from NVCA.
What is most inspiring about Donnels story is how he has the planet’s future at heart. In addition, he remembers where he grew up, and he is working to make a change for the better.
Donnel Baird is part of our Black Founders50 Series. Download the complete 2023 BBVA Founders50 list here.