0.5 Power Skills
Our Guest This Episode: Katherine Shayne
Did you know that what’s recyclable in one city might be trash in another? CIRT, Can I Recycle(/Repurpose/Reuse) This, is a startup company at the University of Georgia working on a solution to help people, governments and businesses figure out what products or packaging are locally recyclable, and how to get them to where they need to go. We love talking to people who are managing projects that make a difference, which is why we are talking to Katherine Shayne, the co-founder and president of CIRT. Kat shares what sparked her interest in environmental sustainability and why this project resonates with her on a deeply personal level.
Kat tells us how the project evolved as she describes “GiGi” and the CIRT SaaS platform which enables retailers and consumers to determine the recyclability of products and packaging based on location. We take a look at the practical side of managing this project as we ask Kat how she assembled her team. Was a passion for sustainability & recycling a requirement or did she focus on skills first and cause second? We also talk about stakeholders, collaborations, and how she has tackled obstacles and complex challenges encountered on this project. Finally, Kat shares lessons learned and how CIRT measures its impact in the worldwide community.
After receiving her Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of Georgia, Katherine Shayne worked in environmental sustainability focused on global materials management and marine plastic litter for the Jambeck Research Group and UGA New Materials Institute. She has a passion for bridging science and technology with business and mitigation strategies in communities, especially in terms of waste management and new materials.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
"...making sure that the people that are in place are doing the things that are their strengths, and providing access to resources and tools that help them work on their weaknesses."
"I was looking to create better products or better services that could do the least amount of harm, be the least toxic."
The podcast by project managers for project managers. This episode we share an environmental project story about CIRT, a startup company working on a solution to share recycling information to reduce waste. Kat Shayne and her team built a database to answer your recycling questions. Hear about the complex challenges encountered on this project.
01:37 … Meet Kat
04:37 … The Origin of CIRT
08:17 … Accessing CIRT
08:55 … Building a Database
11:19 … What is GiGi?
12:42 … Identifying What Can be Recycled
13:59 … Keeping the Data Current
15:40 … Skills or Passion?
17:51 … Satisfying Stakeholders
20:00 … Tackling Obstacles
22:44 … Lessons Learned Building CIRT
24:48 … Measuring the Impact of CIRT
26:14 … I Wish I had Known!
27:53 … Advice to Project Managers
29:49 … Get in Touch with Kat
31:12 … Closing
Kat Shayne: …making sure that the people that are in place are doing the things that are their strengths, and providing access to resources and tools that help them work on their weaknesses.
WENDY GROUNDS: Hello, and welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. Thank you for joining us today. My name is Wendy Grounds, and with me in the studio is Bill Yates. We like to bring you stories about projects. And today we are bringing you a story about Katherine Shayne. She worked in environmental sustainability focused on global materials management and marine plastic litter for the Jambeck Research Group and UGA New Materials Institute. Kat has a passion for bridging science and technology with business and mitigation strategies in communities especially in terms of waste management and new materials.
BILL YATES: Wendy, have you ever been holding something in your hand, or you’re about to throw it in the trash, and you’re like, wait a minute, maybe I could recycle this.
WENDY GROUNDS: Yes, yes, many a time.
BILL YATES: So this is the question. This is the problem that Kat and her team have been addressing. At the University of Georgia Kat is the co-founder and president of Can I Recycle This. It’s a startup company which is working on a solution to help people, people like me and you, governments, and businesses figure out what products or packaging are locally recyclable and how to get them to where they need to go.
WENDY GROUNDS: Hi, Kat. It’s great to have you on the podcast. Thank you for joining us today.
KAT SHAYNE: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
WENDY GROUNDS: I want to hear a little bit about your background before we start. You have a master’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of Georgia.
BILL YATES: Go Dawgs.
WENDY GROUNDS: Yeah.
KAT SHAYNE: Go Dawgs.
WENDY GROUNDS: What sparked your interest in environmental sustainability? How did it all begin?
KAT SHAYNE: Actually, I did not plan on becoming an engineer at all. I was an English major when I started at UGA. And I was going pre-law because I’d already looked up one of the highest-passing degrees for the LSAT was English. So I started off in English. I was really passionate about writing. And I had a class that was an elective science class. It was with Dr. Knox. He’s a climatologist at UGA. And he had me in his class, and he asked me to come in for office hours one day. He was like, what is your major? And I told him I wanted to do pre-law. I really had a passion for policy and law.
And he says, “Well, you really have a knack for this,” because it was a climate course. He said, you know, “Have you explored engineering, applied sciences?” I said, “No, I didn’t even know UGA had engineering.” So I went and checked it out, and at the same time I was trying to find a little bit more purpose in my degree, you know, what kind of law did I want to go into if I was going to do that.
Because my significant other at the time had been diagnosed with cancer. And he was 20, and he had colon cancer. So I was, how can this happen? Why is this a reality? Like I didn’t understand how that could happen, you know. My stepdad had been getting a colonoscopy when he was 50, that’s when you start to check for those things. So I was trying to find something where I could do good and do the least amount of harm, right, or trying to fix systems.
And so I looked at engineering, and I said, okay. I can either be reactive, go into law and try and fix it from something already happening, or I can look at systems and try to fix them before they happen, like design better systems, design more efficient systems, design systems that do no harm. And so my significant other ended up passing away when he was 21 of colon cancer. So that made it a mission to use the skills that I had and create better systems through engineering. And that’s how I got into my sustainability path is because I was looking to create better products or better services that could do the least amount of harm, be the least toxic.
BILL YATES: So sorry to hear about that loss. And what an impact on you at that age, to have someone that close pass away. So sorry for that. And it makes sense, too, you know, I can see how that would lead you to these bigger questions that many times, you know, it’s much later in life that we start to ask these questions of ourselves. Okay, what am I going to do? What is my purpose in life? And how can I make a difference? I love that, “So do good and fix systems.” That’s a good mantra.
That turns us to CIRT, or CIRT. You developed CIRT because you saw a problem. Tell us what CIRT stands for, and through that I think you’ll describe the problem.
KAT SHAYNE: In 2018 myself and Jenna Jambeck, Dr. Jenna Jambeck at the University of Georgia, started CIRT to answer the question Can I Recycle This? So it’s an acronym. We’ve shortened it now because we answer many, many more questions like can I reuse this, can I recover this, can I refill this. So we map out materials recovery systems, mostly in North America. But we are looking to expand elsewhere. After I graduated from undergrad in engineering, I went on to work with Jenna in grad school because she was the only one doing research on plastic pollution, and I was really, really fascinated by it because when that leaks into our environment it’s really harmful to people and animals and our ecosystems alike. So I wanted to make an impact in that area.
So I started working with Jenna. We were studying plastic inputs into the ocean. So if you’ve ever heard that there’s going to be more plastic than fish in the sea, someone took a stat from our research and turned it into that other statistic. And so we were getting a lot of attention, her group was, for that research. That also meant we were getting questions about plastics and recycling and waste management from people all across the globe, really. So we would get questions like what do I do with the No. 1 plastic that I have? What do I do with my chip bag? Or why is my recycling truck going to the landfill?
We would get all these questions from people across the country and across the world about recycling and waste management. So we decided to put together a way to find that out really easily. So we built a database to answer what to do with a product wherever you are. That was kind of the thesis for it. How do we tell people exactly what to do with their products, after they buy them and after they use them? So we initially came up with an artificial intelligence bot, and it was on Twitter, and it was on Facebook Messenger, so anyone could ask without having to download a new app; right? Like I’ve got a thousand apps on my phone. We wanted people to be able to use that with the apps they already had.
And we were trying to sell it to cities. Well, city timelines and budgets were just not in line with the startup, unfortunately. So we pivoted, and we started to offer this information to companies, and it quickly caught on. And so now we work directly with CPGs and large multiunit institutions to help procure, purchase, and use the right materials for recoverability.
BILL YATES: And what does CPG stand for?
KAT SHAYNE: Consumer Package Goods companies. So you can think of like consumables to decking material, like all sorts of things that we use as consumers can be put into that category. And so one other thing I wanted to mention was another reason we did this is because many recovery systems are very localized. So when you think about your waste management, it’s usually based on your city or your county. And so they’re very different as you move around the U.S. and into Canada. So they can change mile by mile. I mean, I’m in Athens, Georgia. What I can recycle is not necessarily what you can recycle in Atlanta. So they do change. And they also are in flux. So they also have changes per month. So they might accept glass this month and not next month, and so we keep track of all that information.
KAT SHAYNE: We have a web application that is online, so you can access it through your browser. The reason we didn’t go down the app road, we did have that on our product roadmap at one point, was the hurdle to adoption. We wanted people to get this information as quickly as they could. So the way that we’ve done that is we’ve created integrations for apps, for websites, for different types of ecommerce, so that this information can be used by the brand and the company or the organization to, A, get that information out to their consumers, or use it to purchase better products.
BILL YATES: I don’t want to go too nerdy with you, but the idea of building out this database of information is just so intriguing to me. I’m thinking of all the data science and the computer design that goes into that. How did you guys go about finding the right talent to build out this database? How did that work?
KAT SHAYNE: Yeah, it’s a great question. So Jenna and I had worked on an application that she started, oh, gosh, I think when like Palm Pilots were still a thing. It was called Marine Debris Tracker. It still is in existence. It’s actually now backed by Morgan Stanley and National Geographic. We had experience in building an application, maintaining an application, and using the data from that. What the application does is you can track litter anywhere in the world, and it pulls your GPS location, and then it enters that into a database, and you can access it online and use it for however you want to use it. Organizations tend to be really big users of it.
So we had experience doing that. It was a very academic application, though. So it was not something that could be, like, put out into the marketplace and have crazy user adoption because it was still kind of this clunky academic application. We brought in a team called Deeds Creative, this digital marketing company, from Athens, and they helped us redo the application.
Now it’s beautiful. You can go download it. It’s amazing. It works seamlessly. But in that process, as we were growing CIRT, I was like, I want to bring these guys in for CIRT. They have done a great job with the applications development for Marine Debris Tracker, like this is exactly what we need for CIRT. So once we’ve pivoted to reaching out to companies and going that route instead of cities, we started to win and get places in accelerators and grant programs, and we could build up some cash flow to bring on more team members.
So I brought on Mark Babcock and Christian Foster who were part of Deeds. And then Jennifer Davidson shortly after that. She is a serial entrepreneur that has marketing and development accolades with IXL, So rounded out the core team, which was super important. And then started to look to UGA, honestly, for development talent – computer science, software engineering.
So we’ve gotten a lot of organic growth out of UGA, and of course the College. And the University has been really helpful in that.
BILL YATES: It’s really cool that this idea and this problem is being addressed where it is, with the resources that you have. Now, I want to ask one question that kind of comes into this story. What is GiGi, and where did GiGi fall into this kind of this growth?
KAT SHAYNE: So early on, she was a Bitmoji. So when I was talking about that, we had the Facebook Messenger bot. She was our Bitmoji AI representation of the smartest girl on recycling; right? That was supposed to be her persona. It actually stood for Green Girl. She was green, and she had pink hair. But as we started to develop her into a logo, it was – she looked like Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy. So we’re like, well, we might have copyright infringement, something down the road. So we’re going to change this.
But simultaneously we’re thinking about Green Girl. We’re thinking about who can interact with or how does she interact with people about recycling. At the time my youngest sister was 10, and her nickname’s Gigi. So it’s a two-sided thing here. Green Girl, but also, you know, my sister was super into talking about how do we stop plastic, from a very innocent 10 year old’s brain, from entering the ocean, and hurting the sea turtles and all those things. Yeah, that’s where the origin story comes from.
WENDY GROUNDS: How do you identify what can be recycled in various locations and cities? Because I was looking on your website, and it’s different for different cities. It’s not always the same protocol. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
KAT SHAYNE: Absolutely so cities generally are the groups that have to educate their citizens about what they accept. So we’ve worked directly with cities, directly with MRFs, Materials Recovery Facilities. So those are recycling centers where they process all the material. And then any NGO groups in those areas that are educating citizens on what they accept.
Then we look at secondary markets and say, what is being bought on secondary markets? Because recycling is a business, usually. And so if they’re accepting a certain material, they’re selling that from the facility to someone who can process it. And then it goes back into making another good or packaging type. So we look at all those systems and decide based on what is being asked by the city to recycle of their citizens. And then secondary markets, we say, okay, this material is acceptable. And then if the product and that packaging had that material in it, then we say this is accepted in your weigh shed in your jurisdiction.
BILL YATES: To me this just – it sounds like this is data that expires; right? You have to constantly refresh this. I’m sure that’s a big effort that your organization is undertaking is just to make sure the data is fresh and current. What strategy do you guys have for that?
KAT SHAYNE: Yeah. So we use a series of algorithms to do that. And then we have an SME database group that goes and actually QA/QCs that data if there have been any changes. Maybe there’s a discrepancy, and we got flagged in our system that some material is not accepted in Athens anymore. Well, we’d go and check that out manually and say, okay, does the website say that? Does their collateral say that? Does their Instagram say that? And if it’s some discrepancy in there, we actually send a survey. We call them and say did this change. But usually our automated systems can pick changes up.
And the cities, you know, we’ve found that these jurisdictions that we’re mapping out also want to know what people are asking about. So something that we’re formulating, we haven’t released it yet, but we’re formulating it in our portal is that the information that we’re getting back from people asking about if something’s recyclable, we want to give that back to the city to say maybe there’s a targeted campaign you can do around plastic bags or tires or, you know, just whatever we’re getting high frequency on.
And so that the cities can then plan to do that, but also understand why there might be contamination at the recycling center that can cost cities a lot of money because they have to send that to landfill, and that is tipping fees and the taxpayers are then paying that. They’re just creating really expensive trash. So that’s something that we want to help cities reduce is that contamination.
WENDY GROUNDS: We’ve talked a little bit about how you assembled some of your team. But just hearing the extent of this project you must have a lot of people involved in all the various aspects of what you do. Does every candidate that you have on your team, do they need to have this same passion for sustainability and recycling? Are you looking for skills, or are you looking for passion? What is the real thing that you’re looking for in your team members?
KAT SHAYNE: So that’s a great question. I think it’s a combination of skills with the right mindset and alignment with mission. Definitely when I was creating the core team it was mission alignment and are we all on this boat together, no matter what happens; and are we all charging towards the same goal. And then it was how do your skills fit into problem-solving and creating the company. So then subsequently, as we’ve been hiring developers and database team members, it’s a mixture of those things. It’s starting off as do you have this skill, and then it’s how are you aligned with the company and our culture and our mission to create better systems and reduce the amount of stuff that ends up polluting the environment.
And so I actually have a concrete example of this. We have a woman named Ariel who’s on our development team, so DevOps. We have a series of interviews for DevOps where they have to do a technical interview so we can make sure all their skills are up to date for our system, and then we have a cultural interview, so like do you fit into the company. And she, in the interview, was talking about how she was born and raised in Haiti, and she saw all the effects of not having waste management, first-hand.
She’s like, “There was no collection. We didn’t have a landfill. There was no recycling. Everything ended up in a canal near my house or on the beach or in a river. So I’m really passionate about solving this problem because I’ve seen it, and I’ve lived in it.” And so not only is she amazing at development, but she’s also very passionate about the problem we’re trying to solve. So that’s definitely something that is a combo.
BILL YATES: It’s a great story.
WENDY GROUNDS: Who are your stakeholders? Who are the chief stakeholders? And how do you keep them happy?
KAT SHAYNE: So we’ve got several clients and groups that are in the CPG space. And with that the immediacy for data and the expectancy of how SaaS is supposed to perform is something that we’re constantly making sure we have available for them. Software is one of those things that it’s expected up to a certain level. So when you’re a startup, and it’s almost kind of like still in this development space, you’re working with your team to get something, you know, like an API 10 seconds faster, or little things that matter a lot to larger clients, but for us are kind of a big lift, to gather all our team and make sure that we’re on call for anything that goes wrong because, you know, we’re a team of about 15, and we’re talking to teams that are companies that are, five times that.
With that, we’ve created really good internal processes that have reduced the amount of labor that it takes to prop up a system. You know, we went through the duct tape time, right, where everything was put together with duct tape; and we’ve moved into this process flow time, which is – it’s amazing to see that transition with the team. And we try to make sure that no one’s in silos. We are really good about communication because we’re still small enough to be able to do that.
But yeah, the stakeholders in this are large companies. They’re multiunit companies that have different campuses or hotels in different places. And they’re also citizens and consumers; right? The consumer wants to know, oh, I want to know what to do with this in my city. So we’re constantly making sure that our data is accurate, as well as available, because they’re ultimately the ones who are going to be making that decision to put it into the right bin, and we want to make sure we have that as soon as they ask. That, if not anything, is our largest stakeholder is the consumer, the citizen trying to do the right thing.
BILL YATES: Let’s talk about obstacles for a minute. What hurdles or obstacles have you encountered on the project, and how have you tackled them?
KAT SHAYNE: Yeah, that’s a good question. One of our biggest hurdles I think, and this is probably true for a lot of startups, is cash flow. When you’re working with companies that are very large, their idea of the procurement process and time to pay invoices is much, much different than ours. That’s been an interesting learning curve. And figuring out how to overcome that with non-diluted funding or accelerators or things that we can do like pilots and try out a new product, and get cash flow going in a little bit of a different way, but in time to continue to service companies that have a longer procurement process and invoice payment process.
You know, finding talent is always something that is challenging, especially on a startup budget. So when we’re looking like, oh, we want to hire three new software engineers, well, if you look at someone like a Netflix, they’re paying software engineers $600,000 a year. That is not realistic for us. You know, coming back to that team question, making sure that they’re aligned with our mission, like that they want to do something different in their career or contribute and have impact. And so we really try and feed that while also getting in really talented people to our team. So that’s something that’s been a challenge for sure.
And then growing team management, like a growing team and managing everyone and making sure that we don’t fall into silos. There’s always, you know, I know this is a tale as old as time. But the difference in sales and development is something that we’ve been encountering lately, so our sales team’s like, okay, we promise XYZ to Company Y over here, and another thing to Company X over here, and our development team’s like we’re not doing any of that; right? That’s not in line with our product.
So it’s one of those, you know, making sure we don’t fall into silos where the sales team is going to pitch something that our development team isn’t necessarily in their sprint cycle or something that we’re working on right now. And that’s actually happened lately. We’ve had a couple of different products that we’ve been trying out having some pilots with. And one of those catching on, but the development team is like, on this core product path, and so it’s balancing those things out that it becomes more challenging as you have more people in that equation.
BILL YATES: Those are real challenges. I can relate to those and think of those, you know, personally. And we’ve seen that in so many of the conversations we’ve had.
WENDY GROUNDS: Yeah. That leads us into lessons learned. What has worked well? What have been some of the lessons learned, if you reflect and you think, gosh, that really did work well?
KAT SHAYNE: We’ve had a process in place now for deciding on client needs. So we have a matrix that we go through as a team and decide is this something that aligns with our scalable core offering, or is it something that, you know, is not on that path? And if it’s not on that path, what’s the budget for it, and how much are we getting paid for it? So it’s balancing the professional services because there’s a little bit of that with what we do because we’re in a relatively new market. So there’s a little bit of consulting that goes on. And then the scalable replicable core product that we have.
So we’ve created these internal processes, but it’s taken trial and error to do that. We’ve, you know, said yes too many times, and then said okay, we can’t do this anymore. And so having a decision matrix and being able to take that to, our investors and say this is why we didn’t do this, this is why we didn’t take this project, has really helped us in our management of the company.
BILL YATES: That’s good. That speaks to scope for project managers and for a startup company. It’s so tempting to say yes. There’s an opportunity. Yes, of course we’ll take it; right? And many project managers fall into that trap, too, with customers, especially if it’s a fun project or a new exciting customer. The last thing I want to do is disappoint. But, man, you know, then you promise things, to your example with sales and developers, you promise things on one side that the other side is not comfortable with or can’t deliver or says, whoa, that’s vaporware. We can’t do that today. And it creates such a struggle.
So the idea of having a matrix and having a system by which you can decide, yes, this fits, this is something we can do and should so, you know, we can make money at this, or provide a good service to the customer on the back end of this project, that shows a lot of maturity.
Here’s an obvious question. How do you measure your impact?
KAT SHAYNE: You know, one of our biggest metrics is how many people we’re reaching. So currently we have over a hundred million people that we can reach with our service. That was an amazing metric when we got that from the database being there, like, this is how many people are in our service area. You’d think about it like coverage from a cell phone network. So we’re growing, and it’s moving, and it’s covering more people and areas and it’s really exciting to see. We also measure that by the amount of people that are asking about products, and then where they’re ending up.
So, for example, we have all plastic bag drop-off locations mapped out in our system. And there’s a company that we have worked with that actually takes those, that aggregates that material, and we can see if it’s increased or decreased at different points and if we’ve introduced our service in an area, like has it increased? We measure it by the materials that end up going to the right place.
And then we can also measure the CO2 emissions reductions impact or the greenhouse gas emissions reduction by companies that don’t send material to landfill. That’s a huge one. You can save a lot of emissions by not sending material to landfill. So we look at, okay, did you buy this product over here, or this one? This one’s more recyclable. This one’s going to go to landfill. If you bought this one and it goes to a recycling center, you’re saving X amount of greenhouse gas emissions.
WENDY GROUNDS: Looking at you personally, you’ve done an amazing amount of work, and you’ve just kind of grown into this from college. It’s just become your life’s work, which is really exciting to hear. Is there anything that, if you look back and you reflect, that you wish you had known before coming into this position?
KAT SHAYNE: Yeah, I always think about I could have taken more business classes or, you know, like…
WENDY GROUNDS: I was wondering about that.
KAT SHAYNE: I think that was a really, really sharp learning curve for me. I think just like everything that went into starting a business from the professional services like having an attorney and having an accountant and having all these things that personally I do my own taxes and, like, you know, like all these things that weren’t ever applicable to me were now all of a sudden like, no, this has to be done this way. And I think coming out of college I was a consultant for a while. I got an idea of contracts and proposals and like how to do, you know, certain aspects of what we do now.
With building a business, definitely having more, I guess it wasn’t even really access to resources, it was just like these are the steps you take to make sure that you have a business and not just an idea. And the amount of time it takes to raise money, that would have been nice to know beforehand because I was always in the data, you know, formulating the database, understanding how it applied to the core product, and I have taken on a much different role as soon as we started to raise money. And so I think that just knowing how intense the fundraising process is, that would have been awesome to know.
BILL YATES: So Kat, I want to ask this question. Let’s pretend you have let’s say 10 or 20 project managers sitting in front of you, and they’re just early in their career. What advice or what encouragement do you have for them?
KAT SHAYNE: I really admire problem solvers and people that can look at something and say I don’t have all the pieces to answer this question. But I’m going to figure out what they are and what the missing pieces are to formulate something that will work. It’s problem-solving. It’s making sure that not only that you have the right components, but also the people along the lines of hiring and finding talent. That’s a big checkmark for us if they’re like, I figure things out on my own, I’m a problem-solver, because we’re in an environment that’s so fast-paced that we can’t always train to the full extent or not handholding, but just we want them to go off and on their own and figure it out.
So I think problem-solving for us is a big one. And making sure that the people that are in place are doing the things that are their strengths, and providing access to resources and tools that help them work on their weaknesses.
WENDY GROUNDS: Where can people hear more about CIRT? And how can they get in touch with you if they want to ask any questions?
KAT SHAYNE: We are on all the socials. So we’ve got an Instagram, a LinkedIn, and a Twitter, and also a Facebook. Everything is CIRT or CIRT.tech. We also have a website, www.cirt.tech. And we have a contact form on there, as well as if you’re a company and want to learn more about our product offerings, we have a Contact Sales button on there. I am on LinkedIn, as well, under Katherine Shayne. We just were accepted into the Google for Startups Women cohort. So you can find us on Google Developers now. It’s pretty exciting. And we have a blog on our website, as well, where we keep track of the current recycling trends and waste management trends in the market.
BILL YATES: Excellent. Well, we love talking to people who are managing projects that make a difference. And it is such a pleasure to just get an inside look at CIRT from you. So thank you so much. And just knowing the background, too, Kat, it’s just so fascinating to see how this has all come together, and the passion that drives it. So thank you for what you guys are doing and what you all are working to accomplish.
KAT SHAYNE: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. This has been awesome. And I really look forward to having people follow up with me and ask more questions.
WENDY GROUNDS: That’s it for us here today on Manage This. You’ve earned your free PDUs by listening to this podcast. To claim them, go to Velociteach.com, choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page. Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps. Until next time, keep calm, recycle, and Manage This.