Sharon McKenna & Paul Tasner

Sharon McKenna, a single mother of 13-year-old twin boys, and Paul Tasner, a budding entrepreneur in his 60s, may appear to be unlikely duo yet they were a winning team in April at the annual Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC) at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Appearing on stage at Andersen Auditorium as finalists, McKenna -- a GreenMBA candidate at Dominican – and Tasner – a graduate of Dominican’s Venture Greenhouse – delivered their business plan for PulpWorks Inc., Tasner’s start-up company based in San Rafael that creates a compostable, all-pulp-and-paper alternative to toxic plastic (PVC) blister packaging. That GSVC presentation earned PulpWorks the $7,500 third-place prize as the top American team in the competition that attracted 650 teams from 37 countries.

McKenna and Tasner agree it was a total team effort.

“It’s the only example I know of where it’s a true triangulation of the Dominican GreenMBA program, the Venture Greenhouse and a local business,” says McKenna, who graduated from Dominican’s Sustainable Enterprise program in May. “The way this all happened was really through a project through the GreenMBA program that led to the Global Social Venture Competition. It all kind of came full circle. This demonstrates ideas don’t live in silos. They’re integrated.”

McKenna arrived in the GreenMBA program from Seattle where, while working at Microsoft as a strategic and executive communications manager at Microsoft, she discovered Dominican’s program at an environmental fair. Tasner attended the GreenMBA’s Capstone Project several years ago with his wife, Barbara, an adjunct professor in the nursing school at Dominican. He was drawn to the Venture Greenhouse by a newspaper article.

Tasner’s PulpWorks. Inc. soon after became a resident at Venture Greenhouse, a pioneering, early-stage business incubator providing an intensive acceleration process for growing companies that have the potential for significant environmental and social benefits. PulpWorks was a client for 13 months.

Tasner met McKenna in a “Metrics Advocacy and Policy” class at Venture Greenhouse.

“The Greenhouse was great place for us. Not because it gave us a desk and a phone and physical things, but because we got some really good mentoring,” Tasner says. “If you never started a business before you need a lot of help, those guys helped.  There was tough love and a lot of focus and keeping the eye on the ball. Once they got what we did, they were really on board.”

Venture Greenhouse’s faculty helped PulpWorks change its business model, scaling it down to more realistic approach related to resources and economy.

“That’s probably the most important thing that’s ever happened to us since we formed our venture,” Tasner says. “They got us on the right track. As they say in the world of entrepreneurs, we pivoted. It was a really big pivot.”

Tasner’s business plan connected with McKenna, who offered to lend her marketing expertise to his business as a consultant. She saw an email promoting the Global Social Venture Competition and suggested PulpWorks apply. Tasner huddled with his partner, Elena Olivari, PulpWorks’ co-founder and Vice President in charge of Research and Development who has practiced architecture for 17 years in the United States and internationally, including Hong Kong and Italy. Olivari has a MA from the Istituto Universitario diArchitettura di Venezia, Italy.

“Sharon knows marketing and Elena and I have no background in marketing.  Marketing to us was looking through my Rolodex and making calls,” Tasner says. “Sharon said frankly that’s a good way to start, but you have to have a little more focus. She laid out what we really needed to do.”

Says McKenna, “The business proposition was very clear. I think that’s why they did as well as they did. I helped them tell their story and added a marketing component to their presentation, which was kind of missing.”

The GSVC competition was intense. It required long hours, meeting rigorous application guidelines and revising presentations after they were judged throughout the process. McKenna was simultaneously working on her Green MBA Capstone Project (OGO, a local and organic drive-thru food business) while Tasner was pulled away from his everyday work at PulpWorks’ headquarters in downtown San Rafael.

“If you are doing it for the first time, you are working for the Competition. You are putting your business on hold,” Tasner says. “The only way to really justify it is, if you do well, you are going to get some wonderful exposure.”

The hard work and sacrifices culminated with PulpWorks’ third-place finish.  Tasner, who plans to use the prize money to secure a permanent patent for the company, is pleased with the end result.

“I’d still rather have a big customer,” Tasner says, smiling. “Patience and perseverance are not clichés. This was a big victory, but we have learned to celebrate the little ones, too, and that keeps us excited and enthusiastic and that’s been the key for us to be able to hang in there.”