Toronto’s Geoff Cape inducted into International Ashoka Fellowship

For redefining the relationship between people and the natural world to “mainstream nature” back into cities, Geoff Cape was one of 14 social entrepreneurs from the United States and Canada inducted into an international fellowship by Ashoka: Innovators for the Public at a special ceremony last week at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. Once elected, Fellows benefit from being part of the Ashoka fellowship for life.

Through Evergreen, located in Toronto, Cape has demonstrated that all sectors of society can work together to bring nature into urban spaces: bringing vibrant life back to concrete school grounds, creating community in downtown urban cores, and transforming an abandoned urban industrial site into a hands-on educational center.

Cape linked his family’s long history in the building industry with his own passionate interest in the environment to create Evergreen, an organization dedicated to creating greener schools, communities and homes. Started 15 years ago, the group’s mission is to bring living, breathing, organic space to city dwellers. Evergreen features three distinct initiatives:

* Learning Grounds creates outdoor classrooms for students so that they have a healthy place to play and learn.
* Common Grounds helps to conserve national and cultural landscapes, restore degraded environments, and protect spaces for recreation, education and enjoyment.
* Home Grounds educates the home gardener on projects such as working with native plants and supporting chemical-free lawn care practices.

Headquartered in Arlington, Va., Ashoka elects emerging social entrepreneurs to an international fellowship of their peers, providing significant financial support and an array of pro-bono professional services, primarily through three strategic partnerships: McKinsey & Company, Hill & Knowlton, Inc. and the International Senior Lawyers Project. Additional support is available from Ashoka for Fellow-initiated collaborations and exchange visits.

“Ashoka is a global organization that works to elevate and strengthen the citizen sector,” said Ashoka founder Bill Drayton in announcing this year’s Fellows. “We do this by supporting those who have the kind of qualities traditionally associated with leading business entrepreneurs – vision, innovation, determination and long-term commitment – but are committed to systemic social change in their fields. Ashoka Fellows are recognized for their innovative solutions to some of society’s most pressing social problems.”

Evergreen’s biggest challenge is a $40 million project to reclaim the derelict Don Valley Brick Works at the edge of downtown Toronto. For the past eight years, Evergreen has been helping to restore the ecosystem of the undeveloped portion of the site, using native plant stock to create a natural space. For the next phase, “Evergreen Commons at Brick Works,” Cape has brought together a unique coalition of environmental, creative and business entities to plan the development of the abandoned factory. On the drawing board are a native plant nursery where disadvantaged teens can gain hands-on employment experience, a world-class restaurant headed by a renowned chef, camp facilities and office space for Evergreen and other socially conscious organizations.

Evergreen is the result of a lifetime of experiences for Cape. “My family has been in the building and general contracting industry for 150 years,” he says. “My ancestors helped build railroads, factories and universities all across Canada. I always knew I could follow that path, but it didn’t feel quite right to me.” A vivid childhood memory is probably at the root of Evergreen: “When I was young, my father – the classic entrepreneur – purchased 600 acres in the middle of the woods. That deep woods experience had a profound impact on my values and learning. As an adult, I realized how fantastic that experience was growing up, and I want to make cities more livable so that more children have the kind of experience I had living in and with nature.”

A serial entrepreneur, Cape created several small businesses while still in college, including one that sold houseplants to students. When Cornell University asked for seedlings instead of plants, Cape got the initial idea for Evergreen, which started as a tree planting program on campuses and schoolyards in Toronto.

The organization has now grown to 50 employees with a deep culture for innovation and openness to new ideas. A third of its employees are project managers with the core responsibility to develop ideas and then find the funding (“We’re still very entrepreneurial,” Cape says proudly). Evergreen actively fundraises for its on-going programs however Evergreen Commons at the Brick Works will help provide more stable revenue for the organization, which opens up exciting growth opportunities.

Ashoka Fellows and Affiliates work in six broad fields: learning/youth development, the environment, health, human rights, economic development and civic participation. Selection criteria include the social impact of the idea, demonstrated creativity in problem solving, the newness of the idea and the entrepreneurial quality of the founder.

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public is a global community of social entrepreneurs who deliver innovative solutions to social problems. To build this citizen sector community, Ashoka identifies and supports leading social entrepreneurs, creates opportunities for collaboration, and builds systems and institutions that facilitate high impact social solutions. Over the past 25 years since Bill Drayton founded Ashoka, the organization has invested in more than 1,600 Ashoka Fellows in 60 countries. Ashoka’s global fellowship is privately financed by individuals, volunteer chapters, foundations, and leading business entrepreneurs.