From Graded to Goldman Sachs, reality TV star to sustainability entrepreneur Ian McKee '94 is a true Renaissance man. In this edition of the Graded Gazette, we learn about Ian's formative years at Graded, the life-long relationships he has forged, and the Bowdoin varsity soccer team captain's passion for the environment and zero waste.
1. What years did you attend Graded, and what is your earliest memory of the school?
I was two or three when I started studying at Graded in 1979. I think my earliest Graded memory is sitting in a circle with my classmates as a very young child. I loved my time at Graded. I had such a wonderful experience. What a great school! I left Graded at the end of grade 8 to complete high school at boarding school.
Ian's 1985 yearbook photo
2. What at Graded did you value most?
I came from a very US-centered household, with a "gringo-as-it-gets" American father. Graded's diversity impressed me. I was exposed to such interesting people and great teachers. Graded also provided students with so many great opportunities to play sports and be artistic. My father performed in the musicals at Graded and always asked me, "Why aren't you singing?" or "Why aren't you in a play?" I guess I was too shy. I was more into sports, like soccer.
3. Did you have a teacher at Graded who was particularly memorable?
My favorite teacher at Graded was Heloísa Pasquini, who is wonderful. When you are young, it is very important to have a teacher who cares about you. When I was three years old, and before I started studying at Graded, my mother passed away, and Ms. Pasquini became a mother-parent figure to me. I speak to her to this day! My friends and I have our own WhatsApp group with her called "Turma da Elô."
Graded teachers have a level of warmth that you will never find in a school in the United States. There is something extra that the Brazilian culture provides.
Ian's grade 2 class with Ms. Paquini, "Elô." Ian is in the top row, the second student on the left.
Ian with Elô, his brother Erik '95, and friends Marcelo '95 and Fabricio '94.
4. Are you still in touch with your friends from Graded?
Yes, we are still close friends to this day. Flavia Carvalho '92, Marcelo Carvalho '95, and Fabrizio Cascianelli '94 — my friends for life. I actually reconnected with Fabrizio during my time in New York while I was at Goldman Sachs, and he was at Morgan Stanley.
I also had a very close friend at Graded, Jacob Hounsgaard. We met in the first grade and were friends throughout. Jacob ended up joining me for junior and senior years at boarding school. Sadly, he passed away in a car accident.
The Graded connection remained strong! Ian and Erik are pictured with Jacob Hounsgaard on the varsity soccer team at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire.
5. After graduating from Bowdoin College, you entered the world of investment banking. Why did you ultimately decide to leave Goldman Sachs?
I was living a very fast-paced life in finance. To succeed in this world, you have to put in every ounce of your heart and soul. We arrived at work before 5:00 am and left at 9:00 or 10:00 pm. It was a fantastic and all-consuming experience, but I couldn't see myself continuing to enjoy this kind of life. Something was missing for me. After four or five years doing the same thing, I simply started going through the motions, and I often found myself taking up side projects. That was when I realized it was time to move on to something else.
6. How did you end up on the reality TV show, The Bachelorette? And how did the experience influence your life and career afterward?
I didn't have an immediate plan after I left my job at Goldman Sachs. I was fortunate to travel for a year and a half, venturing as far as Eastern Europe and Costa Rica, bouncing between New York, Los Angeles, and São Paulo. I loved the freedom, and I was able to check things off my bucket list.
Meanwhile, my friends at Goldman submitted me as an applicant to season two of The Bachelorette. I had never watched, and still don't watch, The Bachelor/Bachelorette, or any reality TV at all for that matter. Nevertheless, I ended up being selected for it, and it was a very interesting experience.
After the program ended, I moved to Los Angeles and started living a different kind of life, one with the fame that accompanied The Bachelorette. It was strange, to say the least, to have fans approach me unexpectedly. I learned how awful it is to be "famous" and how I did not want that life.
I discovered an entirely different world from finance and started exploring my creative side through writing. I hired a writing coach and collaborated on a few writing projects with friends who'd had success in the field. I'd like to return to writing and storytelling in my later years. Now, however, I believe there are more pressing issues that need to be tackled.
7. You're a serial entrepreneur. What are some of your start-up experiences, and how did you end up working with sustainability?
The first technology start-up I worked at was a digital content management platform that delivered a private network for malls. Following that experience, I returned to writing for a few years and worked as a screenwriter. My roommate at the time got me interested in sustainability, and I started researching it. The more I learned, I said to myself, "Man, somebody has to start doing something about this." I felt compelled to take on the responsibility, and I dove into that world. At the time, green building was the most viable way to help the environment. From a technical standpoint, you can implement energy- and water-efficient measures and construct buildings using reusable materials. Once you understand the fundamentals behind a green building, you start to question why all buildings aren't green. This topic piqued my interest, and I returned to Brazil to introduce Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green-building certifications.
8. Tell us more about your trajectory in the sustainability space. What areas have you focused on, and what problems are you currently tackling at Solidos, Inc.?
In 2008, I founded EcoArenas, LLC, a consulting firm focused on delivering LEED-certified constructions or improved operations (EBOM) for schools, commercial buildings, and sports facilities. Through EcoArenas, I certified the first LEED Gold stadium in the world, and I was fortunate enough to help FIFA reform its stadium guidelines, requiring that all stadiums seek and receive a green building certification from a reputable organization.
Ian laying the foundation for CopaVerde. Source: EcoArenas Website
Though dealing with LEED certifications was eye-opening, I didn't see the immediate effect I had hoped for. As I considered the concept of zero energy, zero water, and zero waste, I realized that I could move the needle in the area of zero waste.
Ready for a quick recycling lesson?
Globally, we recycle only 13% of our waste. The world's most advanced countries recycle between 20-60%, of which 10-25% is incinerated under the guise of energy 'recovery.' Brazil recycles a mere 3%. Waste is a serious problem globally, and the solution will come from raising awareness and introducing new technologies. Food waste and organic materials account for 50% of 'trash,' while glass accounts for 20-25% of post-consumer waste in many post-consumer scenarios. Both are 100% recyclable when they have their own logistical routes. Once organics and glass are removed from conventional waste streams and proper composting and recycling are implemented, reaching 'zero waste,' or more than 90% recyclability, is easy — which is amazing. There is no better environmental investment in the world today than moving to zero waste and transitioning from a linear 'materials' economy to a circular economy. The benefits go beyond limiting land, water, and air pollution. They dramatically reduce raw material extraction and the carbon footprint of our supply chains.
In 2018, I became manager at Ecozinha Institute. I was determined to prove my theory that building a privately-run circular economy in Brazil would be possible. We created Brazil's first and largest zero-waste bar and restaurant network, recycling 93% of the total waste generated. Ecozinha Institute established the first pay-as-you-throw shared street bin network for glass in Brasília, recycling more than 600 tons of glass each month. We also created the first multi-composting business network, composting more than 200 tons of organic waste and eliminating the equivalent of 1,000 tons of CO2 emissions per month in the city that is home to the second-largest open-air landfill in the world.
Then, in 2019, I founded Solidos, Inc., intending to scale what I learned at Ecozinha. Solidos assists businesses and households in contracting professional recycling services and tracking waste until the material reaches a certified recycler. We believe that our waste codification technology and chain of custody tracking will help develop a new and reliable Recycling Credits and Food Waste Carbon Credits market. This market will enable large companies to compensate for the waste they generate (known as Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR) without having to run their own reverse logistics operations. These are exciting times!
9. What advice would you give to current Graded students?
The most important thing is to be brave. You have to develop your skills before setting out on your course. Don't let anybody tell you what path to take. You will struggle. You will have to work hard. Sometimes you will accomplish things that might seem insignificant to others but are important to you. That's what matters. And that's when you can look back and feel good about what you've done. I think that there will be so many amazing opportunities before us in the following years and generations. We need to be the people that are courageous enough to take them. There is no better time for starting companies and nonprofits. My overall recommendation is to follow your dreams and do what you really want to do.
10. Do you have any advice for those who haven't yet found their passion?
My one big piece of advice is to be flexible. If you end up changing careers, you have to start from scratch every time. Every time you enter a new market, you have to learn everything, build new networks. Starting a new career is very difficult, and it takes time to achieve success and find comfort with each change. If you are flexible and enjoy the learning experience, you can adapt to everything in life.
Ian and his brother Erik '95 during a visit to Graded.