No monkey business
Tech Networks founder Susan Labandibar finds joy in
giving back

Photos courtesy of Susan Labandibar

The barren white office walls and dull furniture at Tech Networks of Boston (TNB) starkly reflect the priorities of Susan Labandibar. The kitchen is void of paper and plastic products and guests are given glasses of water instead of bottles. She recently sold her battery-powered Toyota Prius to even lower her carbon footprint. To get around, she now relies solely on public transportation.

On a typical day she begins work at 8 a.m. Labandibar started TNB 15 years ago and it now has 30 employees and two locations: a storefront and office building on the east and northwest sides of the Andrew MBTA Station.

By 5 p.m. she starts working behind her computer on behalf of several nonprofits, including a group, the Hutan Project, that is fighting to preserve rainforests in Borneo, Indonesia as well as Sustainable Business Networks (SBN), a Boston-based group that is helping entrepreneurs develop sustainable business models and practices.

By 8 p.m., some 12 hours after her day began, she is off to attend a meeting of one of several nonprofits to which she has committed her time, resources and expertise. “I’m an extreme socialist playing a capitalist,” Labandibar says.

To say the least. She is one of the most unlikely capitalists. It was the early 1990s when Labandibar was a recent Harvard graduate figuring out what to do with her life, that her computer broke down and she didn’t know where she could afford to have it fixed.

“I’m really an accidental entrepreneur,” she explains over a cup of coffee in her TNB boardroom, her rescue pug Otis snoring under the table.

She says that she couldn’t find a place to buy used computers that serviced students or small businesses, and though she wasn’t very technical at the time, she recognized a market need.

She began working out of her parent’s house, buying used computers, fixing them up and selling them to college students. And the business took off. “I had this little miniature Lane Hope Chest that my mother had given me. I used to put all of my money in there. And one day I opened it and I couldn’t fit any more money in it and I thought, ‘Oh! This must be working!’ ”

And then tragedy struck.

In 2000, Labandibar’s father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of skin cancer. Though melanoma accounts for only about 3 percent of all skin cancer cases, it causes the majority of skin cancer deaths. For two years she and her family tried to find a cure.

Labandibar poured through listings of clinical trials, wrote doctors all over the country and fought with insurance companies. The family opted into as many clinical trials as possible. She created a website to track his progress, and fought as hard as he did for what she knew was a futile attempt to save his life.

“Even though melanoma did kill my father,” she says, “what he endured to try to be there for his family was a shining act of bravery that will resonate forever for everyone that knew him.”

Labandibar’s life would never be the same. “The truth is,” she says, “I didn’t start Tech Networks with a social purpose. But after my dad died, I started to realize that I had the strength and courage to try to address real problems in this world.”

Dan Monti, a professor of public policy at Saint Louis University was developing a program at Boston University called “InnerCity Entrepreneurs” when he first met Labandibar in 2004 during one of his classes. They have remained friends ever since.

“She’s a wonderful combination of a person who tries to keep her business life and civic life in really good working harmony with each other,” says Monti, “and she’s done a splendid job of doing that.”

Labandibar credits Monti with showing her a purpose for her business. TNB was thriving and while she was already giving away a large portion of her profits to charity, she didn’t know how to utilize the business leader platform on which she now stood.

“Some of what I talked about in terms of the larger responsibility that entrepreneurs have historically taken on in American community life really resonated with Susan,” says Monti. “She already was thinking and doing things like this, and if I did anything, I helped crystallize for her the ideas that she was already acting on without appreciating the historical roots that her work was building on.”

Monti inspired her to take up the causes that were important in her personal life and apply them to her business life. One of the applications was her attempt to make TNB a leader in energy efficiency.

She developed the EarthComputer — a low energy computer that she marketed to social conscious businesses — a product that landed her on the front page of the Boston Globe, but failed to deliver sustainable energy savings.

It was right about this time when Labandibar showed up at a meeting of Sustainable Business Networks (SBN) and met Laury Hammel, founder and CEO of SBN.

“When I first met Laury, it didn’t occur to me that he would become one of my heroes,” she wrote in May 2008 in the Boston Techie — The TNB Blog. “I thought he talked too much at our Sustainable Business Network board meetings. But, I was wrong. Laury did not talk enough. … He believes in people, he cares about people, and he puts his heart on the line every day.”

The respect is mutual. “I was the person who invited her to join the board,” says Hammel.

He says that her devotion to their programming was invaluable to the organization. Rather than just agreeing with people’s ideas, he explains, she devoted her time, money and business to SBN. “The work that she did and who she was spoke volumes and it was pretty much a unanimous request, will you be president?”

As president she’s stood behind SBN’s growing commitment to sustainable business practices in Boston. She and Hammel developed a Sustainable Business Leadership Program where business owners work through a six-step program. They secured funding through the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the Air Pollution Control Commission and have enrolled more than 100 Greater Boston businesses in the program.

Labandibar has a reputation for being what Hammel describes as a “doer.”

“If she has a fault,” says Hammel, “and I’m always hammering on this — it’s that she’s always thinking she’s not doing enough, and I’m saying, ‘Susan you need to sleep. That counts!’ She’s so committed to making these things happen; she sees so many ways to help; she has such passion for it, she’s always looking to do more; because of that she does some magical stuff.”

Monthly CEO roundtables were another idea that she and Hammel worked on creating, and once they decided they were going to make this a SBN initiative, Landibar showed up with a group of about a dozen entrepreneurs from her extended circle of peers.

Bing Broderick of the Haley House was one of them. He joined the roundtable to swap ideas and notes with other community leaders and Labandibar quickly had the Haley House enrolled and certified in the Sustainable Business Leadership Program.

“Her level of commitment is really admirable,” says Broderick. “Her commitment to causes; her commitment to her work and her business; and her commitment to the SBN between working on the Local Food Festival, and all of the events,” he says, “she’s committed to supporting the little guy and supporting them so that they can thrive.”

He says it was hard to share a story that demonstrated the immense impact that she has on the Boston community.

“She’s someone who works in subtle ways,” says Broderick, “She’s very much a behind the scenes person, connecting people, making things happen but not really taking the glory for it.”

Hammel says she has other traits that he jokingly explained should be cloned. “I would just say that if we could clone Susan, at least four or five more times, the world would be a lot better place,” says Hammel. “I think we could definitely use a lot more Susan Labandibars.”