Brownieland Pictures interview with Kelly Smith

Having the privilege to work with amazing people who are helping others is what inspires us here at Brownieland Pictures. We had the opportunity to check in with Kelly Smith, Marketing Director at Georgia Tech’s Renewable Bioproducts Institute, or RBI, to find out more about her job promoting the amazing work going on in one of the top research institutes in the world located right here in our own backyard.

What got you involved in the work you do at Georgia Tech’s RBI?

Well, I certainly wasn’t a scientist, that’s for sure! I’ve actually worked and lived all across the country and was looking to come back home (I was born in Opelika, AL). Amazingly, this opportunity was one of the first things I found. I was really intrigued by the history and how for more than 90 years, RBI (formerly the Institute of Paper Science & Technology) had not only revolutionized the paper industry but was moving in the direction of sustainable and renewable materials and products. Some of the biggest challenges we face globally deal with traditional resources. Some are becoming scarce. Some, in their current state, are having a devastating effect on our environment and climate. The researchers here at RBI – both faculty and students – work every day to find solutions to these very issues.

How do you feel about the impact Georgia Tech’s RBI is having on
the future of our renewable energy sources?

Well, energy is a part of it, certainly, but it’s
not the only industry that is being impacted by the work done here at RBI. Our focus is to increase the use of renewable materials and processes across an array of industries, so these new methods or materials must be efficient, affordable and performance-driven. We are doing extensive research in multiple areas with lignin, one of the most abundant sources of renewable carbon – as a substitute for plastics, among other goals. Others are working with lignin to develop cost-effective and ecologically sustainable processes for energy and fuel. The use of lignin will be an important step to reaching the goals set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Energy to have 20% of transportation fuels and 25% of U.S. fine chemicals from biomass by 2030. We are also finding renewables can replace, or be used in combination with, heavier and less environmentally friendly processed materials used in automobiles, aerospace and military equipment. Increased demand for these high-performance materials has led to a research surge in nanocellulose, another renewable bioproduct from trees.

How has RBI remained relevant over 90 years and what is it doing to ensure its place in advanced research for the 21st century?

I think the key to RBI’s longevity and survival – and this really applies to any entity at all – is its continual ability to evolve and embrace change. That’s really hard for all of us, frankly. The leaders of this institute have been ahead of curve on trends and global issues. They positioned themselves on the frontline of new fields of research that would be in high demand as population grew and alternative resources were needed. They also began treating sustainability as an important objective in the overall strategy as more and more industries did the same to increase growth and global competitiveness. We’ve moved far beyond the early 2000s when ‘Going
Green’ was a company line, but there was very little substance to back it up.
RBI has managed to retain its traditional competencies and deep roots in pulp and paper, while pushing the limits and finding the true potential of what those forest products can do in an endless list of industries around the world.

Outside of your career, you’ve been involved in a variety of nonprofits over the years. What makes a successful nonprofit, in your opinion?

You must have people with a passion for the purpose, of course. But there’s a lot more to it than that. I have to say back in the 1990s and even in the early 2000s, many nonprofits struggled to structure themselves and operate like a business. While the mission was admirable, the organization and business model just wasn’t there. Many boards consisted of by-name-only members, who weren’t really involved in the day-to-day business and who weren’t responsible for the success or failure of the organization. We’ve really seen that turn around in a big way, I think, especially over the past decade. The most successful nonprofits I’ve been affiliated with have had equal parts passion for service and a solid business model. And these two are rarely driven by the same people. I think another key point is tapping into the younger generation. Millennials are engaged. This generation is involved politically and socially at the grassroots level. Many nonprofits out there recognized this potential and are tapping into these 20-somethings to expand their reach. They’ve transformed their communication platforms effectively, and use social media to tap into this large volunteer base. There is a dependency on nonprofits – you could say more pressure – in this day and age that is unprecedented, and it is only going to grow if government continues cutting spending on social programs. Efficient and effective nonprofits are truly going to be the cornerstone of achieving social change.

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