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About Utah: This Utah company's goal brings light to disasters

Published: Monday, Nov. 12 2012 6:00 a.m. MST

Goal Zero volunteers distribute solar generators to victims of hurricane Sandy in New York.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

BLUFFDALE — In 2010, Robert Workman started a portable solar power company called Goal Zero with seven employees that less than three years later has grown to 100 employees and annual sales of more than $30 million.

But that isn't why Workman is beaming today.

He's beaming because of what his workers just gave away.

Two weeks ago, on Oct. 29, Goal Zero's workforce sprang to life as if Workman had just shouted "Raises for everybody!"

Only Workman hadn't said anything. The shout the workers heard was from the East Coast, where Hurricane Sandy had plummeted hundreds of thousands of people into darkness and despair.

Unbidden by anything other than their consciences, everyone from accountants to engineers to warehouse staff to receptionists poured into the Goal Zero warehouse and started assembling hundreds of portable power kits containing a backpack-size solar panel, a generator the size of a large thermos and a portable light (retail price: about $300 per kit). Then they reached out to Interide, the transportation company, and arranged for a semitrailer truck to haul it all pronto to New York, which Interide did free of charge.

Workman and other Goal Zero executives didn't know the relief effort was going on until it was already going on.

The boss's reaction?

"I've never been so proud of our people," says Workman, 57. "It wasn't a top-down operation, it was bottom-up. It was so touching to see these young people step forward and do what they did, on their own."

Then again, they did have a good example: Workman himself.

Seven years ago, Workman sold his successful family business, Provo Craft & Novelty, and with the proceeds set up a humanitarian nonprofit organization called TIFIE — which stands for Teaching Individuals and Families Independence through Enterprise.

He took TIFIE on the road to the African nation of Congo, where the most important lesson he learned was the important role power plays in allowing people to become independent, free and self-sustaining.

In 2010 he came back to Utah and started Goal Zero specifically to manufacture affordable solar-based equipment that can be used anywhere — as long as there's a sun around.

The benefits of cheap, available solar power for developing countries are huge, but so, it has turned out, are the peripheral benefits for people who might want to charge their cellphone while, say, climbing Everest, or set up hassle-free tailgating at the football game, or play Xbox on their camping trip.

And Goal Zero really shines bright in disasters.

No sooner had the business opened its doors than the earthquake hit Haiti. Goal Zero was there. A year later, when the tsunami flooded Japan, Goal Zero was there too.

Now, Hurricane Sandy can be added to the list.

Half-a-dozen Goal Zero people were already in New York to greet their shipment when it arrived via the Interide truck on Nov. 2. They connected with a group of military veterans called Team Rubicon to immediately begin distributing the goods.

"The stories coming back'll just make you cry," says Lisa Janssen, Goal Zero's public relations director who has posted many of the stories on the company blog (www.goalzero.com/blog/).

"Everything had to stop at dark," recounts marketing director Scott Sorensen, noting the widespread power outages that hit the greater New York area. "Then we arrived."

And it wasn't dark any longer.

The Goal Zero force was able to quickly provide non-gas generators that powered up everything from cellphones to music speakers to refrigerators full of insulin for diabetics.

They walked up and down dark streets, noticed people huddled around candles, and greeted them with, "Need a light?"

"We couldn't help everybody," says Swan Workman, Robert's son, who spent three days in New York. "But we were able to affect a couple of hundred lives at least."

And counting. On its website, Goal Zero has reached out to its client base across the country, offering to donate one product to the Sandy relief program for every product bought by a consumer. The offer extends to Nov. 15.

As of the weekend, the total to match was well past $300,000.

The reciprocal benefit for Goal Zero is terrific advertising, of course. Word of how effective a simple solar-power kit can be is bound to spread.

Workman gets that.

"You can't do good and not receive good," he says.

It's that policy that powers his company, from top to bottom, and bottom to top.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

Email: benson@desnews.com

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