CORI CULVERT IN CONVERSATION WITH FORA.IE AS PART OF A SERIES ON UNLIKELY ENTREPRENEURS
BEFORE LAST YEAR, I had been working for a US government-backed energy service company for two decades – and I was very happy.
Originally I wanted to go to law school so I could become an environmental lobbyist.
I actually grew up on a farm, so I know exactly the tug of war going on. We’ve been battling with the question: Is farming hurting or helping the environment?
I could see both sides to the story. It was recommended to me that, before I go to law school, I should do a year working for some agencies related to the area I wanted to specialise in.
The agency I started working for was involved in habitat, water, energy and carbon sequestration improvement projects. So I started there, getting a year of experience – but I ended up falling in love with it.
I loved working directly with business owners and helping them do these environmental projects that they might not have been able to afford.
I stayed there for 20 years and didn’t go back to college because I really felt I had found what I wanted to do. That was up until last year, when I moved to Ireland to set up a business.
A short visit
I love seeing the world and new cultures and have travelled to lots of places in South America and Europe.
So in 2016, I joined a group of my friends who were planning a girls’ holiday to Ireland. They planned it and I tagged along on their coattails.
From the minute I landed in Dublin, I just knew. You visit some countries and you think it’s a great place you would recommend to others, but Ireland was different. I just knew it felt like home for some reason.
When we were travelling and I walked into hotels in the west of Ireland, I kept questioning why they don’t have LED lights and why are they heating with turf. Is there not a more efficient method to heat, or is it a cultural reason?
I would ask those questions of the bartenders or hotel staff, and one time in a pub I noticed that every 30 minutes this poor person behind the bar kept having to feed turf to the fire. You could tell this was talking up a lot of his time.
I asked him about it and he said, “It’s such a nuisance.” And I asked why he didn’t upgrade it, and he told me they didn’t have the money to do it. I got the exact same response in other hotels.
I said there must be government resources to help him do energy efficiency improvements and promised him I would look up this information for him.
I came back home and started doing the research but found Ireland doesn’t have any government-based resources to pay for these improvement projects. You do have grants, but no one-stop-shop to walk you through the process.
I started thinking about what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years and saw it could easily be privatised, like it was in the UK and Germany. But there wasn’t anyone in Ireland really doing it.
There were UK and German firms coming into Ireland to do the bigger projects, and there were Irish companies that were offering some technologies. But there wasn’t anyone that would completely do the energy efficiency retrofit for a hotel, nursing home or farm.
In the end, I kept in touch with one of the pub owners I met on that trip, Brian O’Callaghan, and we set up Glas Éireann together.
We will not only do the energy audit to determine what is needed, we will also do the implementation, maintain it all and pay for the capital.
I didn’t move over straight away – it took about a year of going back and forth. I got to explore Ireland more and get to know the people.
The mindset here is a bit different to that in America. Yes, we had an economic downturn too, but I don’t think it hit us as hard.
People in the US are waiting for the next downturn, but they aren’t terrified of it. Irish companies and business owners are still terrified.
That encouraged me more because we can take a business with an energy bill of €10,000 and cut that in half.
I knew I had an idea that could put €5,000 per month in the pocket of business owners, money that they could save to improve their business in other ways. And these are 20-year projects, so this is a long-term saving.
The big move
Moving to Ireland to set up this business hasn’t felt like a big change to come to terms with. I know the energy sector and business model I wanted to go for. And a hotel owner here is the same as one in America. The same goes for farmers.
My friends said that it was crazy I was planning to move over, but when explaining it to my family I came prepared. I made slide decks to show my parents in their kitchen when I sat them down to say why I wanted to do it.
I knew if I was to convince them, I would need the proof and potential of the Irish market. By slide three, my parents were saying, “This makes sense.”
I settled quite quickly. I could have set the business up anywhere, but I chose Limerick because the second I stepped foot in it I felt welcome.
I remember I met with one business owner and they had were adamant they had three more people for me to meet. They set up appointments with other business owners and the process continued as they set me up with more contacts.
I felt part of the community, so last October I made the big move.
I fell in love with the business idea and it has been all-consuming since I moved over, so time has flown by. I’m not stressed, I’m excited. I worked all day on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day just doing different things for the business to get it started.
But I would be lying if I said there wasn’t some fear in the back of my head. Especially since I was leaving a secure, government-backed job.
Let’s not forget that things were changing in the US. Donald Trump had been elected president and that was changing environmental regulation in the states, which directly affected what I did.
It also felt like there’s a lot of turmoil. For me as a single person in the US, I couldn’t go running at night because it’s just not safe to do that. All I needed here was a high-vis vest.
The business is focused on Munster at the moment, but I would like to be Ireland-wide by the end of the year.
I would also like to be approaching export next year and am eyeing up the Polish and Spanish markets for a similar-style service. I’m fluent in Spanish, and their market is seriously underserved, so I feel we could move in there.
While I’m positive about the future of this business, there are always low moments that get you down. I’ve gone to a lot of networking events, which is the best thing to combat that.
When you’re surrounded by fellow entrepreneurs, you see that it’s not just you facing the hurdles. You can feel like the world is against you, but hearing what other people go through helps put that in perspective.
Luckily for us, we’ve only had small hurdles like finding office space. One of the biggest issues is approaching people to be partners who see us as a threat and back out.
That is tough but I’ve learned it’s OK. You can’t take it to heart.
Cori Calvert is the co-founder of Glas Éireann Solutions. This piece was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.