Making It: Elizabeth Wilmot Takes Out Your E-Trash

Making It
REWIRED: Elizabeth Wilmot left an international marketing job to start Turtle Wings, an electronics recycling company. (D.A. Peterson)
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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Elizabeth Wilmot's parents, like many from the "Greatest Generation," never let anything go to waste: They saved string and wrapping paper and purchased used cars. So perhaps it's not surprising that Elizabeth, a former international marketing executive, would establish a company dedicated to recycling electronics.

As senior vice president of international marketing for CitiFinancial, Elizabeth had traveled the world and had seen some of the huge used-electronics dumps that have been created in nations such as India. She also had experienced the difficulty of trying to recycle a computer herself. "I thought to myself, 'I would pay somebody to pick this up and recycle it and scrub my data off of it,' " she recalls. Thus the idea for her company, Turtle Wings, was born.

Elizabeth, who was then a single mother living in Maryland, quit her well-paying job and used savings and home equity to start the business in 2004. "Everybody thought I was crazy," she says. But she had faith: "I really believed in taking care of the Earth, and I believed there were other people out there who were worrying, too."

The company, once run from her kitchen table, now occupies two warehouses in Capitol Heights. Elizabeth's 12 employees serve households, corporations and government agencies (minimum pickup fee is $85). They gather the products, decide if any have resale value and dismantle the rest for recycling. Components that don't work are separated into basic materials such as steel, copper, aluminum and glass. (Circuit boards are sent to a company that retrieves precious metals from them.) The company owns a large shredder, a mobile shredder and a degausser to erase information on magnetic media. (Classified material must be degaussed, as well as shredded.)

Elizabeth, 48, named the company Turtle Wings because she wanted a green image and because she wanted customers to envision a creature that could "angelically swoop down and save the world from e-waste." The information-destroying part of the business is called Data Killers. Turtle Wings is located in what the federal government calls a historically underused business (HUB) zone; 35 percent of its employees live in the zone. The company tries to reduce its own carbon footprint: The warehouse roofs have been painted white to reduce heating costs, and everything from paper and cardboard to drink bottles is recycled.

One year into the start-up business, Elizabeth remarried on a Saturday, honeymooned on Sunday and was back to work on Monday. She and her husband, a lawyer, live in Alexandria and have three children between them; the youngest still lives at home.

In the company's first nine months, "we did a whopping $100,000" in business, Elizabeth said; in 2008, a year that included a brief merger that didn't work out, it grossed $1.4 million. Elizabeth has recouped about half of the thousands of dollars in start-up costs. After expenses including her salary, the company's profit is about 8 percent.

Elizabeth says she makes about one-third of the salary she earned at Citigroup. But there are other forms of compensation: "I employ people who might not have had the opportunity without me. I am saving the Earth every day; I've diverted millions of pounds of electronics from landfills. And we save companies from all sorts of negative exposure with the data-destruction service. And I think we make people's days brighter. Our guys have a big smile, and they're friendly. ... I think half of Washington, D.C., is in love with my pickup guys."

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