For These ​CSU Alumni,
Every Day Is Earth Day

Meet the remarkable entrepreneurs whose innovative products are helping to meet California’s most urgent environmental challenges.


With each passing year, Chico State alumnus Matt Petersen saw the pollution in California's Central Valley get worse. His hometown of Modesto routinely appeared on lists of U.S. cities with the worst air quality.

So h​e decided to do something. Now president and CEO of Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), Petersen assists clean technology startups in creating a green economy that doesn’t leave behind underrepresented communities.

“In California, there is an urgency around the undeniable science of climate change and how to accelerate the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” says Petersen, who served as the first-ever chief sustainability officer for Los Angeles under Mayor Eric Garcetti. “For me, it's about, how do we show we can grow the economy while protecting the environment?”

The Golden State stands on the front lines of climate leadership in the U.S., giving California State University students unparalleled preparation for thriving careers in green economy jobs. Indeed, the spirit of sustainability permeates their lives on campus. Meet six more exceptional CSU alumni working on solutions to California’s most pressing environmental challenges.


Alumnus: Amer Orabi, chief operating officer 
Campus: CSU East Bay (Business Administration, 2015)
Environmental Issue: Ocean pollution 
Company: Pathwater, purified water in a refillable aluminum bottle


“Every day, we are reducing the number of plastic bottles going into California’s oceans by offering a true alternative to single-use plastic.”

— Amer Orabi, COO, Pathwater

Amer Orabi, CSUEB alumnus and co-founder and COO of Pathwater, isn’t one to think small. He knew the seemingly overwhelming problem of plastics polluting the planet’s oceans was the issue he wanted to tackle.

“We encourage our consumers to refill, not landfill,” he explains. “For every refill we inspire, we’re taking a plastic bottle out of the ocean.”

After researching the properties of aluminum, Orabi knew he’d found the perfect material. One of the most abundant metals on earth, aluminum takes five times less energy to recycle than plastic, and 70 percent of aluminum products are already recycled in the U.S., compared to a dismal 30 percent for plastic bottles.

The company’s mission goes beyond adopting a more eco-friendly hydration habit; they want to educate consumers about the global plastic pollution epidemic and make sustainability something everyone can do, every day. “I grew up in the Middle East, where people don't recycle,” Orabi says. “I've always envisioned myself being part of the solution. I’m truly inspired by the CSU’s initiatives to eliminate single-use plastics by 2023. I believe a sustainable business can be a platform for real impact.”

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It's estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Every plastic bottle that isn't recycled takes 700 years to decompose.


Alumna: Sarah Akin, founder and chief compliance officer
Campus: CSU Long Beach (Fine Arts, 2001)
Environmental Issue: Greenhouse gas emissions
Company: ZON Powersol, a solar-powered umbrella and USB charging station


“Anytime you can use solar instead of traditionally generated electricity, it’s a benefit to the environment.”

— Sarah Akin, founder and CCO, ZON Powersol

When it comes to solar technology, California ranks number one. In 2017, it topped the list for number of solar-power companies; number of residences powered by solar; percentage of electricity produced; and total investment in the sector. Starting in 2020, all new homes built in the state will be required to include solar rooftop panels, the first mandate of its kind in the U.S.

California State University, Long Beach alumna and entrepreneur Sarah Akin is part of the solar wave. “I realized there was a need for outdoor charging of mobile devices while I was sitting outside working on my iPad,” she says. “I wondered why there wasn’t a solution for people who wanted to enjoy the outdoors instead of having to be tethered to a wall inside.”

In 2012, Akin created the ZON Powersol, an umbrella that uses solar panels and a lithium battery to charge USB devices such as smartphones and tablets as quickly as an outlet.

“Our core conviction [as a company] is to keep mobile devices charged while reducing our carbon footprint,” says Akin, ZON's chief compliance officer.

The Powersol is now being used at a number of CSU campuses, including Bakersfield​, Channel Islands, Dominguez Hills, East Bay​, Long Beach, Northridge, Pomona​, San Bernardino and San Luis Obispo“The Powersol serves a dual purpose of providing much-needed shade and a charging station for students’ devices,” says Melissa Soto, campus planner at CSULB. “An additional benefit is it makes sustainability visible so users can make the connection for themselves instead of us telling them about it.”

In 2017, 15 percent of all electricity generated in California came from solar power.


Alumni: Matt Clifford, co-founder and chief operating officer, and Nik Ingersoll, co-founder and chief marketing officer
Campus: San Diego State (Finance/Business, 2009 & 2012)
Environmental Issue: Food waste
Company: Barnana, organic snacks made from upcycled bananas

The average U.S. family of four wastes 1,000 pounds of food every year. Pictured, from left to right, are Barnana co-founders Nik Ingersoll, Caue Suplicy and Matt Clifford.

“The beauty of conscious capitalism is the ability to do good while simultaneously creating economic prosperity.”

— Nik Ingersoll, CMO, Barnana

What’s the difference between a beautiful banana and an ugly one? Absolutely nothing, say Nik Ingersoll and Matt Clifford, alumni of San Diego State University. Even so, half of all bananas worldwide are thrown away simply because they have scuffs, are too ripe or aren’t the right size. “On our quest to end food waste, we use unsalable ‘ugly’ bananas to make our products,” explains Ingersoll, co-founder and CMO of Barnana, a brand of sustainably sourced, organic banana-based snacks.

Together with their partner, Caue Suplicy, founder and CEO of Barnana, Ingersoll and Clifford have saved more than 30 million bananas from the trash bin in just nine years. While most people don’t think twice about throwing out food that’s biodegradable, the truth is that discarded produce still releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as it breaks down in the soil.

“The problems in the food industry were simply too big to ignore,” Clifford says. “We discovered that approximately 1.4 billion tons of food are wasted each year, enough to feed 45 percent of the entire world’s population. With 723 million people classified as food insecure, this is a modern tragedy.”

Barnana is not only good for the environment, it’s good for California. To date, the company has created more than 50 jobs, generated more than $70 million in taxable sales and manufactures 85 percent of its goods within the state.

“During my time at SDSU, my strong passion for environmental stewardship and responsible consumption formed,” says Clifford, COO. “To this day, I have business mentors and close friends who were professors at SDSU. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”


Alumni: Don DiCostanzo, co-founder and chief executive officer, and Terry Sherry, co-founder and chief financial officer
Campus: CSU Fullerton (Business/Finance, 1979 & 1980)
Environmental Issue: Greenhouse gas emissions
Company: Pedego Electric Bikes

The transportation sector is the single largest source of greenhouse emissions in California. Pictured, from left to right, are Pedego co-founders Don DiCostanzo and Terry Sherry.

“I believe the future of all transportation is going to be electric.”

— Don DiCostanzo, CEO, Pedego

Don DiCostanzo and Terry Sherry met while pledging a fraternity at California State University, Fullerton. They were later college roommates, best men at each other’s weddings and now serve as CEO and CFO, respectively, of Pedego Electric Bikes, a company they founded in 2008.

“I use the marketing, finance and accounting tools I learned at Cal State Fullerton in my business every day,” DiCostanzo says.

Pedego offers 14 different types of zero-emissions electric bikes that can travel up to 60 miles on a single charge from a 110-volt outlet. “They're simply bicycles, but we added a motor and a battery to help people ride farther and faster and get up hills,” DiCostanzo explains. "There are no emissions with an electric bike. It's about as green a form of transportation as there is.”

After working in the automotive business for almost 30 years, he became a true believer in renewable energy in 2006 when he purchased his first electric bike. “The only way we're going to get people to be environmentally friendly is if we offer products that make economic sense,” notes DiCostanzo, whose home is nearly 100 percent solar-powered.

“California residents [now] have another alternative for getting around to help combat traffic emissions.”

Green Career Pathways

Here are a few ways to learn your way to a green economy job, says Tom Abram, energy and sustainability officer at San Diego State:

Ecology and Conservation: Studying and protecting natural spaces
Potential majors: biology, ecology, environmental science

Government and Policy: Developing and implementing policy that promotes environmental and social sustainability
Potential majors: political science, public administration, sustainability, urban planning

Green Building Design and Construction: Creating buildings that minimize environmental impact as an engineer, architect, contractor or sustainability consultant
Potential majors: architecture, construction management, engineering, sustainability

Sustainable Food: Growing and promoting healthy and local food 
Potential majors: agriculture, biology, public health, sustainability

Sustainability Management: Working to advance sustainable practices within an organization
Potential majors: business, engineering, environmental science, sustainability 

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Sustainability at the CSU

The California State University is working hard to make our campuses greener and more efficient. The CSU Sustainability Report, released in 2018, examined the university’s progress against its 2014 sustainability goals, including building partnerships with communities and nonprofits to take action on global climate change; increasing opportunities for directed research; and adopting vital best practices to facilitate broader adoption. The CSU continues to encourage greater integration of sustainability into university-wide strategic goals. 

Learn more about each​ CSU campus’s commitment to sustainability.

Story: Michelle McCarthy

Photography & Videography: Patrick Record; courtesy of companies

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