Jo-Anne Perkins, vice president of environmental systems and services at Cascade Cart Solutions, is no stranger to effective business and entrepreneurial tactics. However if you ask Perkins her key to success, she'll light up with laughter and a simple response: "I'm a goofball."
Perkins' lighthearted nature is attributed to one of the most valuable lessons she's learned as a successful business woman: to be self-confident. With this confidence — and her connections at Cascade — Perkins founded The Pink Cart, an initiative to raise money for local American Cancer Society chapters with unique refuse bins.
Waste Dive caught up with Perkins to discuss how she entered the waste industry, her drive to become an entrepreneur and her vision to turn curbsides across the nation pink.
WASTE DIVE: Can you give me some background on how you got started as an entrepreneur, specifically your start in the waste industry?
JO-ANNE PERKINS: I grew up in a family business. My father was a heating engineer, we made coil tube boilers and heat exchangers and all kinds of things, incinerators, for that business, and when I graduated from college I naturally went into the family business. I started off on the floor learning how to weld and learning all the ins and outs of the facility and then moved into the front office and found myself in sales.
After a few years of being in sales, I had sold a pyrolysis incinerator for biomedical waste to a hospital ... They were asking me for modes of transportation for the waste. ... We didn't have anything in the business, but I told the customer I would look for something. ... I was living in the Toronto area, and I went looking for a rigid, lidded container for biomedical waste. I found a supplier and called them, and negotiated the right to be their exclusive distributor in Canada, and then that really kind of started it. [Eventually] I left the family business and I started my own business when I was in my late 20s, and I ran that for 13 years, and then I sold it. Then Cascade heard that I was available and came hunting for me, if you will.
So how did you get your inspiration for The Pink Cart?
PERKINS: So as you likely know, one in eight women are affected by breast cancer. When you think about that, that's just kind of basically everybody — I mean we all have a mother, we all have two grandmothers, we all have sisters and aunties and cousins, and so there's certainly eight women in my life. My personal story is that my mother died very young at 51 from breast cancer, and my grandmother died at 51 from breast cancer. I'm the oldest of three girls, and I made a promise that if I made it to 52, I would do something a little bit more than walking in the "Strides" events and canvassing in my neighborhood.
"I made a promise that if I made it to 52, I would do something a little bit more than walking in the 'Strides' events and canvassing in my neighborhood."
VP at Cascade Cart Solutions, founder of The Pink Cart
Of course, I did hit 52, and I had to make good on my promise. I wrote a business plan and I went to Atlanta where the American Cancer Society (ACS) has their head office, and pitched this idea that as a woman, and the only woman in the United States who runs a large manufacturing company that makes trash cans, with my personal story, I'm really in this unique position to do something about it. My idea of doing something about it is to turn, what I said at the time, a few thousand curb sides pink ... They gave Cascade Engineering an exclusive contract to represent them, and the ACS ribbon is on the side of every cart. $5 from every cart gets donated to the American Cancer Society, and my deal with them is that that $5 makes its way back into the community where it was generated.
We kicked off the program, and I of course got the first pink cart off the manufacturing line. The governor of Michigan, Governor Snyder and his wife — a breast cancer survivor — they were here for the first day, and got cart number two and cart number three. That was a crazy experience, watching the Secret Service put the carts into the back of their black Escalade ... Anyway, we started manufacturing them, and I really did think if we sold a few thousand was pretty bold, but of course here we are, seven years later, and we've sold 130,000 carts, and donated to the American Cancer Society over $600,000.
So how far does this project reach? Are you in states all across the country?
PERKINS: We're in dozens and dozens of states, and we're in multiple provinces in Canada, because the program took off so fast that my father suggested that I reach out to the Canadian Cancer Society, which we did ... On any given week, you can walk into the manufacturing area back here in the plant, and there are pink carts being made on a press.
What has the response been from customers?
PERKINS: Much, much more emotional and engaging than I ever dreamed, honestly. It turns out that the community of breast cancer survivors and their friends and their family that support them are incredibly passionate people. Honestly, the outpouring that we've received because we've started this program ... I always tell people that this is not a marketing gimmick, we are an incredibly busy business, and we don't do this for the sales. We do this because we want to start a conversation, and you know we donate everything we can to ACS anyway. I believe that it's gotten such traction because it links back directly to my personal story.
It seems as though your mother had a great impact on your life, not only for the Pink Cart project, but also in becoming a successful business woman. What was the greatest lesson that she taught you, or the greatest piece of advice that she gave you?
PERKINS: The greatest lesson she taught me was to be self-confident. You know, I think all the things are really important, you need the right education and you need to be smart about your career moves, and you need to be lucky to some degree, but I don't think any of it really happens successfully unless you have the confidence to step forward, and as Sheryl Sandburg says, "Lean in to whatever opportunities are brought your way." My mother taught me to "lean in" years before that expression ever became famous.
"My mother taught me to 'lean in' years before that expression ever became famous."
VP at Cascade Cart Solutions, founder of The Pink Cart
What is the biggest challenge that you face in your experience as a woman leader in the waste industry?
PERKINS: I certainly acknowledge that there are very few women leaders and executives in the industry, but I think that largely comes down to what's happening with girls at a really young age. I'm a really big supporter of STEM, I think that we have to work with the students really when they're really young, and make sure that their interest continues in the sciences and the engineering and the mathematics. That's really where we are going to get the future talent. I can't say that my experience has been bad, in fact I would say it's been nothing but good, you know I don't ever remember being shunned or missing an opportunity because I was a woman. I have always felt like I got a very fair shot at any opportunity that presented itself to me, and I had, thanks to my mom, the self-confidence to reach for it.
When you're looking at the next five or 10 years [of your career], what else do you wish accomplish or leave as your legacy on the industry?
PERKINS: You know, when I think about Pink Cart 2.0, the biggest obstacle we have for Pink Cart and the reason there aren't millions of pink carts out there — because the draw is unbelievable, we have people contacting us three times a day, "How do I get a cart? How do I get a cart?" — the Pink Cart 2.0 would sort of wrestle to the ground this logistics issue. A cart is basically $50, but for us to ship a cart out of Grand Rapids, MI which is where corporate is located, to Seattle, is $200. Then it becomes a cost that is just not easily managed by so many people that would like to buy them. I would love help ... to solve the logistics problem, so that we could get pink carts into the hands of cancer survivors and their families to support the work.