Amanda LaGrange, chief executive of Tech Dump, was recently named one of 24 Bush Foundation fellows who receive up to $100,000 over 12 to 24 months to help them develop as leaders advancing their plans.
LaGrange, 32, an accountant by training, left a corporate finance job at General Mills several years ago to join Tech Dump, an organization that refurbishes and recycles consumer-and-office electronics. It was started by two entrepreneurs who made money in online retailing and wanted to do something to combat electronic waste and provide meaningful employment to workers, some of whom have criminal backgrounds.
Q: What have you accomplished at Tech Dump in recent years?
A: We currently have 50 employees between our Tech Dump and Tech Discount retail locations [in Golden Valley and St. Paul].
During all of 2017, we employed 89 individuals facing barriers to employment. Many graduate during the year to [better-paying] jobs, helping to solve the local workforce shortage. Reliable employment is critical to achieve stable housing, support a family and otherwise becoming self-sufficient.
Q: What about all that electronic “waste?”
A: Near the end of 2017, we hit a milestone: 20 million tons of e-waste recycled. In recent years, we’ve been challenged by [low prices] in the commodities market [for recyclables such as plastic and aluminum]. In response, we opened Tech Discounts, a retail outlet. We sell a variety of electronics at low prices, with a 30 day money-back guarantee and a fix-it or replace warranty for six months. You can’t get that on Craigslist! This has been a great way for us to stay visible, diversify our revenue streams, and support our jobs training and other programming.
Last summer, we launched an initiative called Cell Phone Summer. We partnered with local businesses, libraries and parks, and the Eco Experience at the Minnesota State Fair to collect 1,950 pounds of e-waste, which funded about 1,000 hours of work for our employees. It was a win for our employment and environmental mission. So many people have at least a couple of old phones, cords and miscellaneous old tech items in a junk drawer or basement. We tried to make it fun and easy to participate. We’ll be at the fair again this summer.
Q: You have been part of a coalition that has tried unsuccessfully to get the Minnesota Legislature to allow more independent repair shops, such as yours, to work on consumer electronics. Computer and other manufacturers don’t want to distribute repair manuals because this could lead to privacy leaks, lower-quality repairs, and they already have certified some repair establishments. What’s your take?
A: Our focus is not only recycling. It’s also waste reduction. Currently, consumers and business are beholden to tech companies, such as Apple and even John Deere. [They’re] unable to repair products due to lack of information, and forced to [buy] new tech items. The “Right to Repair” bill has bipartisan, urban and rural support. This bill could benefit everyone. And if you follow the money, you’ll see who is behind the fearmongering about ‘IP’ leaks. Manufacturers are working to keep [us] purchasing new items and retaining the monopoly on repair. Repair also decreases the need to create new tech items, and preserves natural resources. We could do a lot less mining for [copper and other metals] if we didn’t need so many new phones and laptops.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish through the Bush fellowship?
A: I will receive funding to pursue education and experiences to be a more effective leader at Tech Dump. I couldn’t be more excited. I have created a customized plan to help me develop skills and visit successful social enterprises nationally, study their models, and use that information to be even more strategic about how Tech Dump can grow. I plan to focus on identifying ways to scale the organization and establish the Twin Cities area as a leader in social enterprises. Frequently, the West Coast and East Coast are known as the leaders in this space. Our generous business community provides a great ecosystem for proving the Midwest’s capabilities to achieve great impact.
Q: Isn’t it the case that most electronics in the Twin Cities are recycled as opposed to discarded?
A: Unfortunately, we don’t know ratios of tossed-to-recycled electronics. We are quite sure that not all items are properly recycled. Because of the tough commodities markets, we now need to charge for items like CRT TVs, and as a result, some folks just leave those in the alley rather than bring them in to recycle. Often people don’t recycle because they are worried about security. We have the highest certifications. In fact, we recently conducted a very thorough audit of our procedures, and have updated security protocols even further.
Q: What are you doing [Sunday], Earth Day?
A: I’ll be at Can Can Wonderland for our second annual Robot Fashion Show. Each team will model a runway robo-look they’ve created; using at least 25 percent repurposed electronics. Teams are encouraged to get creative and think outside the box. The audience will then vote live for their favorite bot-couture and the winning teams will take home some amazing prizes. We did this last year, and it was a blast.
The event is free and open to the public. There’s more info at www.techdump.org.