Layoff Plants the Seed of a New Green Career

Awie Smit, former corporate executive turned eco-landscaper, strolls around the perimeter of San Francisco's new EcoCenter at Heron's Head Park with the gait of a proud artist admiring his work.

He pauses, squinting into the sun, to look up at the roof, which is topped with grasses and plants that jut into the sky and cascade over the side of the building. The living roof really is a work of art.

"It was my first green roof," he says, smiling broadly. "And quite an experience."

The 42-year-old Smit, like the green roof he helped create, is a living example of reinvention. Like so many business executives who found themselves laid off during the recent recession, Smit was forced to drop back in order to move forward. Calling upon his college studies, 20 years in the past, he rebounded, and is now in a new career that is on the cutting edge of urban landscaping: cultivating green roofs.

For the uninitiated, a green roof is partially or completely covered with vegetation and a growing medium, planted over a waterproofing membrane. Green roofs are environmental wonders, absorbing rainwater, providing insulation, creating a habitat for wildlife and helping to lower urban air temperatures.

"You see the water comes down these pipes and is captured in these large containers," says Smit, pointing to a series of pipes along one side of the building. "It's then used for plumbing. It also has its own leech field where the greywater goes."

He unlocks the door to the EcoCenter, for a brief tour and shows a visitor where his team has created an artificial wetlands area, complete with tiny fish, inside the 1,600-square-foot structure--noting that EcoCenter is run by the nonprofit Literacy for Environmental Justice and teaches schoolchildren about the environment."

"It's the first entirely off-grid building in the city, and supplies its electricity with solar panels, and its own water, thanks in part to the green roof," he says.

A lifetime environmentalist and outdoorsman, Smit spoke with SecondAct about embarking on a new green career after spending 13 years with Visa International, where he worked on high-profile sponsorships for sporting events around the world--including the Olympics.

SA: How did you get go from sports marketing to getting your hands dirty doing environmental landscaping?
AS: Yes, my two careers could not be more different.! In many ways, my Visa job was the best ever. I love sports and I love travel, so it was just a dream come true. I never woke up in the morning and thought, "Oh no, I have to go to work." But after 13 years, I was content but not fulfilled. I'd been thinking about making a change for maybe two years but just didn't have the courage. I was thinking about what else I might do that could be more rewarding, but didn't know what that would be.

SA: As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for!
AS: [laughs] That's right! My department was consolidated in March, 2008, and I was laid off. So I took some time off to think about where else in marketing I might work, but then the economy started to really go south--especially the sponsorship industry. People really had to cut budgets, and agencies were not hiring. So I thought OKokay, what is Plan C?

SA: So how did the inspiration come to you to do landscaping?
AS: Actually, in a dream.! One morning I woke up thinking, landscape. I could not believe I had not thought about that before. I majored in plant pathology and entomology in college, and I'm lucky to live in a wonderful house in the city with a wonderful back yard that resembles a mini Santa Fe, and I loved taking care of it. And when Visa laid us off, they gave us six months of career counseling, and one thing I kept hearing over and over was "find something you really, really love doing." So when the landscape idea came up, it almost felt like a big relief.! Once you plant that pole in the ground, it makes it easier to rally around that idea. I ended up going to City College to get up to speed on the latest developments, which was a little odd, in that I had not been in a classroom in 20 years.

SA: How were you able to get someone to hire you in a brand-new profession now that you're over the age of 40?
AS: It wasn't easy.! I had the schooling but not the experience in landscaping. I needed someone to give me a chance. Some folks were reluctant to bring me in because they train you, and theny you leave and become their competition. It turns out that someone who works with my wife knows Casey Lyon, the owner of Habitat Gardens, which focuses on native landscaping and green roofs. That really piqued my interested because it's something new, and it sounds very cutting- edge. So that really got my juices flowing.

SA: So they gave you a chance?
AS: Yes, they did, and God bless them for it.! I started there about a year ago, and helped them develop their marketing materials first--their website and such. And then I got to get my hands dirty. That's what makes it so different and so rewarding. If I were stuck behind a desk, I would go nuts. There's nothing like the satisfaction of actually working with soil and growing things. Your back is killing you, but at the end of the day you look at what you've done and say, "Wow."

SA: How did you end up working on the EcoCenter?
AS: The company bid on the project and won. My role was both being the compliance manager--because it's a federally funded project and the record-keeping is very arduous--but and also as a landscaper. I was also able to physically get my hands dirty installing the roof, and habitat, and everything. It was just a great, great experience.

SA: Would you say you're happier doing this than you were working in a corporate office?
AS: Definitely. I loved my years there, but this is a new industry, I'm learning something new, I'm outside, and working with a great bunch of people. And that's what it's all about.

SecondAct contributor Jane Ganahl is a Bay Area journalist, the author of Naked on the Page and the editor of the anthology Single Woman of a Certain Age.

Read more: 10 Green Businesses for Boomers

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