Libby Zemaitis: The Climate Scientist Turned Sustainable Entrepreneur

Libby MurphyWarning! This is not a traditional Career 2.0 story. This woman did not plunge into a new profession after years pursuing another career. This is a story about doing what you love, finding your passion and going after it, no matter how big or overwhelming it may seem. It’s also a great business idea that we just can’t resist sharing.

For someone who is intent on revolutionizing the manufactured housing industry, it’s pretty ironic that Libby Zemaitis lives in the same house where her grandfather was born in New Paltz, not far from the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York.

But really it isn’t all that surprising that a woman who aims to bring affordable, modern and eco-friendly homes to the masses cherishes her old home and the sense of belonging.

“Our housing market is so broken, environmentally, socially, and economically. I want to build homes that are light on the earth and on your wallet. We are not aiming for niche. Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy a beautifully designed and sustainable home, not just higher income people. This is our chance to change all that.”

Growing up, Zemaitis always gravitated toward science. So it was no surprise when she headed to Vassar to study geology followed by two master’s at Bard, one in climate science and policy and the other in sustainable business. Throughout her studies, Zemaitis has worked in the field. She spent over two years with a Tidal Power start-up and then worked with a Hudson Valley initiative to turn farm waste products into fuel. For the past seven years, Zemaitis has been a sustainable business consultant on a freelance basis and since 2012 has been a climate specialist with the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“I’ve never wanted to be one of those people stuck in an office working on a project without seeing the bigger picture of how it impacts society and tackles the Libby Murphyproblems we face today. I’ve always wanted to take science a step further and fuse it with business and economics.”

The MBA was a revelation for Zemaitis. “We were studying different types of companies with sustainable products and how they grew. And it always struck me how people would get distrustful, almost offended, when they realized some of these businesses had to form partnerships with bigger firms – companies like Walmart for example – in order to bring their products to the market. It really frustrated me because it’s elitist. I have the privilege to be able to shop where I want but most people need to go where the prices are the lowest. To be unwilling to work with these bigger firms is keeping sustainable products out of the hands of customers who deserve them just as much as you and I.”

The fact that many of the ‘green’ companies she was studying were so dedicated to minimizing their environmental impact that they priced themselves out of theLibby Murphy market was not lost on Zemaitis either. “The intent is great, but the effect is minimized because it reaches so many fewer people due to the cost.”

Although she has been working in governmental organizations on and off for years, Zemaitis knew the start-up environment was more her thing and took the opportunity of her final MBA project to do a market analysis and business model of a concept she had bouncing around in her head.

“I got obsessed with this idea of bringing more balance and moderation into products; making sure that the price point is just as important as sustainability. You might have to give up a little bit in terms of efficiency to get that balance but in the longer run when costs come down you can gain back those efficiencies. My hope was that the analysis would show the potential for the business and I could run with it after graduation.”

Boy, did those numbers look good. And the business?

Libby Murphy“We design and manufacture modern ‘manufactured’ homes. I like to avoid the term ‘mobile home’ because historically it has such a negative connotation, but UpHomes plans to change those perceptions through innovation. We are starting from scratch and redefining the prefab market by marrying design and affordability with sustainability.”

Zemaitis didn’t have to look far for a partner. Her classmate’s husband, Blake Goble, is an architect and immediately took to UpHomes when Zemaitis presented the concept of balancing the impact of materials, energy efficiency, the design and economics.

The approach could be loosely described as being the “IKEA kitchen of houses”. Customers can combine the 250 Libby Murphy square-foot modules as they wish and design the home online with the help of a consultant. UpHomes meet the federal HUD standard and can be rapidly manufactured and easily transported. Prices start at $100K.

It’s been overwhelming at times starting something so big, but Zemaitis is in this for the long run. “I’m looking to create something that lasts. I don’t want to get in and cash out, and I’m not interested in working with people like that. I want to develop partnerships with developers and small businesses and, longer term, look at the disaster recovery and public housing market.

“To get over the day-to-day self-doubt about tackling something so huge has been hard, but you just have to push through it. I think I’ve got what it takes, but I’ve got to admit it’s been a lot harder than I thought it would be. I’m just taking it day by day for now.”

Libby Zemaitis’ tips
  • It’s very helpful to have start-up experience. You can recognize and avoid pitfalls in advance.
  • Be able to learn – be teachable and open – and surround yourself with like-minded people.
  • When you start your own company, that’s when you start asking for favors.
  • Be ok with a lot of risk and uncertainty, not to mention stress. Reassure yourself and keep moving forward.

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