Enjoy interviews with trailblazers who have achieved purposeful careers.

Applying Industry to Nature

Shubhendu Sharma has re-engineered his experience designing cars to planting forests.

Heather Caspi

Image by Elisabeth Stiglic

Shubhendu Sharma was an industrial engineer at Toyota when one day in 2008, a scientist named Akira Miyawaki came to the factory campus to plant a forest. He discussed how to amplify the growth process to establish a mature forest in ten years, which is ten times the normal rate of growth for forests planted by humans.

Sharma was hooked. He volunteered with Miyawaki and tested out the methodology by planting a forest of 275 trees (comprised of 42 native species) in a garden plot behind his house. It worked, and he left the car industry to found Afforestt, a for-profit company that plants dense forests in areas as small as 100 square meters, with a 92 percent survival rate.

Part of Sharma’s success is due to the application of his knowledge from industry to develop a computer program that determines the best combination of native species and planting arrangements for any specific location’s soil and climate.

Now, he’s working to go beyond serving clients such as farmers, corporations, and city governments, by building a website to teach people to plant these forests themselves and to provide tools for remote soil analysis and growth monitoring.

What about your work makes a positive difference to society? Why is this important to you? 

I think that humans deserve a better and healthier environment. This is what drives me to make more and more forests in urban areas and to share the methodology.

To bring sustainability to the mainstream, it has to happen at an industry level. For example, why can’t organic food compete with Dominoes?

Size can only happen when the methodology is openly shared with people. It can only happen if money isn’t associated with it.

Were you looking for a new focus in life or did this take you by surprise?

My only dream was to get into automobile manufacturing because I love it so much. However, the current production methodology cannot run the show forever because we are dependent on materials harvested out of nature.

Let’s compare making an automobile to making a forest. The day I make a car it’s the best that car will ever be. When I make a forest, it is better 10 years later.

Is this a line of work you plan to pursue indefinitely?

I can’t say. I hope at least the next 20 years.

Would you ever go back to car manufacturing?

No, never. I hate that they still run on gasoline. Why not apply technology to the natural world, and be that hypocrite who uses it instead of just hating it?

You already had a career. Have you ever had doubts about whether it was worth the professional and financial risk for you to make this change?

I knew about the risks but I wasn’t worried about them. A person with worries does not go on positively. It helped that I did not have financial obligations; it was only me.

Did you have any obstacles to overcome in order to change careers and build your business?

Oh yes—convincing my family. My parents were concerned about me getting into an industry that does not exist, because my idea was radical, and no one has ever done it before. That was one of the obstacles. As this forest grew [in my back garden] they got to see I was making some sense. Now they are very happy because of the acceptance my work has gotten in India and internationally.

You’ve successfully applied your car industry experience to the tree growing business. Did you see how you could apply your previous knowledge from the very beginning, or did you only make the connections later?

No… luckily it could apply to the arrangement of trees in a forest. There’s a lot of science behind it. It couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t worked at Toyota.

There has been some debate raised about whether planting new trees is in fact beneficial for the environment, arguing that it could actually increase global warming. How would you respond to this concern?

Yes. If trees are not chosen properly and are not indigenous, and you just keep creating deserts of non-native, dominating species, that is an issue for the environment. All these forests are native and self-sustaining. Our vision is to bring back lost forests.

What advice do you have for others who want to build a career that benefits the common good?

The first thing is, don’t go for advice. If I had I never would have built Afforestt.

However—one of my tips—is whatever you do, keep making money, even if it is a nonprofit organization. We have to have some money to sustain ourselves and our organization. Afforestt has been cash positive since the beginning because we’re a service provider.

Put more into your action than into your activism. It’s the action that is very important. Whoever takes it first will be the early bird.

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