While traveling through a remote area of India, Michael Dwork’s mind was taken aback by the sight of women on the roadsides of villages that appeared to be baking palm leaves in waffle irons. In reality, they were actually creating crude yet durable, makeshift plates using only leaves, water, and heat.
Realizing the potential of marketing the plates as a compostable alternative to the traditional plastic and non-recycled paper dinnerware, Dwork started VerTerra Ltd., in Queens, NY. Quickly, VerTerra evolved into a successful, eco-friendly company with products that are sold in several retail stores including Whole Foods Market and are frequently used at sports stadiums and in carbon-impact-friendly kitchens across the country.
Year after year the company has experienced annual growth, leading to the creation of hundreds of fair-waged jobs for the inhabitants of the region in India where the business was first dreamed up. Upon moving production indoors, VerTerra refined the process to be more sanitary while also recycling more than 80 percent of the water used in the process for reuse.
However, navigating through a target market that consists of working chefs and catering companies, Dwork knew that social media and online tactics alone would not be sufficient for gaining enough attention in a skeptical economy.
“What worked for us was getting in front of the different people and influencers from the industries that we were looking to tackle, and then taking them from being people who are challenging us to being people who are excited about our product’s success,” Dwork says.
Dwork also chooses to approach colleagues and potential clients and investors with an open mind — willing to consider product reactions, suggestions, and even criticisms.
“All the ideas are pouring out of your head, and you quickly settle into a narrow-minded mentality that says, ‘All of my ideas are the best; look how far I’ve gotten all by myself,’” Dwork says. “When you shut out what other people have to say, you may also shut out innovation or opportunity.”
Only in his early 30s, Dwork’s entrepreneurial career has gained him attention from several major media outlets, including Time, The New York Sun, The Economist, and CNN.
Part of Dwork’s success in building a company from fallen leaves may rest in advice given to him time after time. “Several of the entrepreneurs that I’d spoken to kept saying, ‘Look, there’s certain things from a strategic point that you’re going to know better than anyone else, but the real key to building a successful company rests on your ability to learn quickly what you don’t know anything about and to find the best and smartest people that you can afford. Otherwise, you’re going to have a lot of expensive mistakes,’” Dwork says. “And they were right!”