Riff with Jonathan Quarles, Founder of Quartz Water Source

There's probably only two things people know about Flint: (1) don't drink the water, and (2) Michael Moore. Ok, so maybe most only know one thing, but they should know at least three and one of them is my friend and Riff guest Jonathan Quarles. Previously, I talked to JQ about his new book Making Dollars While Making Change, but this time we are riffing about him creating a solution to Flint's problem - a water business. As a passionate clean water advocate, I couldn’t resist sharing his story beyond his new book. As a proud native of Flint, Jonathan took action after the Flint water crisis hit the headlines and founded Quartz Water Source to introduce clean water to his community and beyond.


Watch and listen to our conversation below:



RIFF TRANSCRIPT:


Angel Gambino:

Hello, welcome back. Today we're going to talk about something near and dear to my heart. Of course, every episode we do, but this one particularly so. My background is as a public interest environmental attorney, before I got into media and entertainment and tech entrepreneurship. And I studied ocean and coastal law focusing on water policy at the University of Oregon School of Law and have spent a lot of my time as an activist and advocate, a donor, focus on clean water. And throughout that journey of mine, I'm always amazed at how reliant we are on clean water and how little focus we give it in terms of our attention, resources, investment, you name it. And so, I think many of you know, I'm a proud Detroiter and I'm representing today, but it's not just me representing because today we're going to be talking to Jonathan Quarles from Flint, Michigan.


Angel Gambino:

So, many of you are familiar with the crisis that really sparked public attention in 2014, but had been building up for some time before that, where over a 100,000 residents, including children, pregnant women, the entire community, older people, and otherwise healthy people were infected by toxic lead filled water. And Flint's not the only town in this world that has clean water issues. And I think we're likely to see a lot more of this coming out in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. So imagine what it's like in other countries. Today, Jonathan, who's from Flint, not far from my Detroit, is going to talk to us about what he's doing to help solve this problem in his community as an entrepreneur. And hopefully we'll learn some things that we can apply on a national and international basis.


Angel Gambino:

He's an international businessman. And so I think it's good for us to learn from him in terms of what we can do as entrepreneurs, not just to create wealth for ourselves and our teams and our families and our communities, but also so we can make an impact beyond wealth generation. So today Jonathan is going to be telling us a bit his experience and journey as an entrepreneur, and he is going to talk to us about Quartz Water Source, his company, and his solution coming out of the Flint water crisis. So, I'd like to welcome Jonathan.


Jonathan Quarles:

Hi, Angel. How are you?


Angel Gambino:

I am all right. Thank you for joining us.


Jonathan Quarles:

Thanks, thanks. It's my pleasure.


Angel Gambino:

It looks like you're in the Detroit Athletic Club, maybe.


Jonathan Quarles:

Yeah, yeah. They didn't have my Detroit Lions or Tigers, so I said, well, let me be in Detroit Athletic Club which is right next to where the Tiger Stadium is.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah. Okay. Well, I wish I was there and once we get to more regular travel, then I'll have to meet you there. So today, Jonathan, I am hoping that you can just share your story as a Flint boy, coming up, growing up in Flint and what your experience was like, and really, who in your community you looked up to or who were inspiring people in your lives and how that kind of sparked or served as a catalyst for the creation of this company and the work that you're doing now.


Jonathan Quarles:

Yeah. So I am a proud Flintstone, born and raised in the city of Flint, Michigan. My hero is, and always will be my father. And my father growing up, he taught me a lot of different things and one of the biggest things that he taught me is that service is the price that we pay for the space that we occupy. And so to me, that set the standard of who I am today, my core values and who I am and what I represent is made up of the community that raised me. I'm grateful for my community because you people clown and have a lot of jokes about Flint, whether it's the water or it's the crime that we have. But in the midst of all of that, Flint taught me grit. It taught me how to hustle and particularly I've learned how to hustle legally, but it also taught me how to have that kind of tenacity and that self drive that, everybody counting you out, so it's all about what do you want to do about it?


Jonathan Quarles:

And then once you get it, and once you actually are able to do something that is impactful, how are the community benefiting from it? And so I always know that wherever I was in the world, I was representing Flint. But more importantly, I want to make sure that I have some tangibles that Flint could actually be proud of.


Angel Gambino:

Well, I'm proud of you as a Michigander, so I think there are plenty of other people who are proud of you out of Flint. I'm also proud of Tunde. Tunde is from Flint and he's an amazing artist. So in terms of your journey as an entrepreneur, when you can create just about any business that you want to, why was it important to start Quartz and how did you go about the creation of the company, determining whether that was the right company and tell us a little bit about your journey in the creation and development of Quartz.


Jonathan Quarles:

So, let me back up just a little bit. Ever since I was a kid, I've always been a problem solver. And again, it goes back to my father. My father taught me at a very young age that you have to be an owner. In order for us to get out ... We come from very humble beginning, so our only solution was, my dad had told me education, and he also said, "You have to be able to own your future, which means you have to be a small business owner." Because the word entrepreneurship wasn't the popular word back then, but I've always been a problem solver since I was a kid, I've always realized I was that person that would go to the problem and always somehow get in trouble just so I can figure out how to get out.


Jonathan Quarles:

So for me being a problem solver was something that was second nature. And just again, my community kind of have influenced that for the most part, but speed up to where we were in 2014, is when the Flint water crisis actually became international news. I remember hearing about it. I remember people calling me. A lot of my investor friends was like, "Where can we write checks to?" And I didn't know where, I didn't know where that I can actually ... If someone's going to write a six figure check, I want to make sure it's going to the right place. And this is being used the way it's supposed to. And then other people were donating bottled water and I was like, that's good, but I just know that that was a band-aid and after kind of doing some digging and I realized that there's going to be a lot of learning disabilities.


Jonathan Quarles:

There's people that have died. I have family and friends that either died or still are affected through the lead poisoning to this day. And so I wanted to do something that was sustainable, not just to put a bandaid on it, because most people forgot about Flint. The water crisis and the water situation is still not a hundred percent fixed, which most people don't know that. And I had an opportunity to travel to Israel, and within Israel, I got a chance to see all of these different technologies. One thing most people don't know that Israel has, they're a leader and they're the pioneer of water technology because they have to. Because most of Israel is in the desert where it doesn't have access to water. So there's so many ... The thing about water technology, there's so many different solutions that has been discovered in Israel and other countries and other places are actually replicating it right now.


Jonathan Quarles:

But I saw all of this technology and I was like, "Wow. I wonder if we can have some of these opportunities and options for Flint." But then when we get back to Flint and started doing some research and development, started talking to the community and asking them what they want and what they needed, I heard different things. And so for me, after realizing there's one out of three people in the world does not have access to clean drinking water, I realized there's not a one size fit all. And so it's important for us to have a variety of water solutions and particular with Flint, they needed just filters. They needed filters because that was the first thing so that they can actually take baths and cook and things like that. So there's a lot of solutions.


Jonathan Quarles:

And so Quartz Water was founded on the whole idea of us being a hub for second-line clean water solutions. So we want to be able to be the hub for all clean water solutions everywhere in the world. And so that's how we got started. We was able to build a team of very, very ... Colored people from Flint or Flint natives that we started with and we built, we're continuously building our team, and we're continuing to build in our footprint. And my goal for Quartz is to make sure that we play a dent or we at least play our part in solving this one out of three lack of access to clean drinking water. And it's a long feat, but we're up for the challenge. Again, I'm a problem solver. So, I am committing my entire life for this and making sure that we fix this problem that's huge in the United States.


Angel Gambino:

And so did you have a background in this or how did you kind of make sure that you're learning while you're growing the business?


Jonathan Quarles:

It became personal to see that I have family and friends that are suffering. I was like, I couldn't sit back and just let this happen. This is my community. I take ownership. And then after seeing that this is bigger than Flint ... We're talking to several other states just in the United States, particularly States that have a lot of old infrastructure, whether you have water shut off ... There's people that have not had water during the whole COVID-19, since January. There's communities in Virginia that had water shut offs and it's still shut off because they couldn't afford to pay their water. They have contaminated water, they have lead.


Jonathan Quarles:

So all of these things ... Water is so much bigger than what we think it is. In particular, around COVID-19 we realized that from just a basic hygiene, like what do you do during COVID-19 when you don't have water and you can't go to the grocery store and all the water is gone. These are big problems that we have to tackle. And I'm glad to hear more people really taken on this battle and this fight, but we have to figure out a solution and it's a comprehensive solution. We're just one solution. There's a ton of solutions. And we want to be very intentional about partnering with other organizations, community organizations, and companies that understand the importance of this and how do we collaborate to bring clean drinking water to everywhere that's without.


Angel Gambino:

And so what kind of products or services does Quartz offer right now and who are those targeted at?


Jonathan Quarles:

Yep. So our target is primarily municipalities, state governments, prisons, hospitals, and even heavy industrial organizations. And so like I said, we serve as a hub. So we help source and distribute the technology to those areas. And again, it's based upon what the needs are. And so we want to be very intentional about that. Within municipality alone, that's a huge struggle. There's a lot of municipalities today that are having issues with water for many different reasons. So, our number one target is municipalities.


Angel Gambino:

And you've got a lot of experience there, so I'm sure you'll be able to build that up across the nation. At least I hope so. In terms of getting the kind of resources that you need to be able to service municipalities, who are notoriously slow at dealing with big infrastructure projects or even decision-making itself, have you self-financed so far, have you raised capital for the business? What are your plans for the kind of working capital and ongoing needs that you have to grow the business?


Jonathan Quarles:

Yep. And that's the biggest challenge. So, up to this point, Quartz Water, I've been self-funding, also with the help of COVID relief grants that we got through several organizations and financial institutions. But for communities, our motto, we like to work with community foundations. We used to work with neighborhood. So it's a community project. We don't want to come in and be prescriptive in our approach. We want to have partners on the ground that knows the community, that is respected by the community, that can help facilitate the relationship with business owners that might be able to write the check, but we are focused on public private partnerships.


Jonathan Quarles:

In most cases with municipalities, they can't afford any additional expenses, particularly a city like Flint. And so we work with local foundations that can actually write grants. And then the thing about us is that because we're a triple bottom line company, we also feel that there's a responsibility that after everything that we make annually, we provide a portion of that to water related projects. So we have a donor advised fund that we provide this funding for. And then the community can decide where, but it has to be water related. [inaudible 00:13:52] no responsibility. We can't ask the business community to write checks and to help the community if we're not doing the same thing, so.


Angel Gambino:

For sure. So, in terms of your goals for this next year, what have you got planned for the business right now in trying to bring some of those municipalities on and getting some of these projects under way?


Jonathan Quarles:

The biggest thing is, like I said, getting the municipalities to actually know that it's important for them to have water insurance. Because I think a lot of people just as insurance, they're like, yeah I don't need it until I actually need it. So, that's the challenge. And then also making sure that we tie into ... We're an MBE company, so we've set ourselves up to start applying for federal opportunities, whether it's through FEMA and other different federal government agencies. And so we're fairly new with that. We just finally got all of our certifications. And so next year we hope to be doing more work federally, whether it's through military bases or disaster relief organizations. That's what the hope is.


Angel Gambino:

And so for all the entrepreneurs that are out there or people who are out of work and saying, "It's too difficult to find work right now, so I got to think of starting something myself." What advice could you offer them as an entrepreneur in terms of starting up a new business right now, and a business that has impact beyond creating jobs?


Jonathan Quarles:

Yeah. I think the key thing is understand what it is that you're passionate about. I always tell people, never start a business just because it makes a lot of money or you think it can make a lot of money. Because the reality is, if you really want to be an entrepreneur, you have to really put some skin in the game. And that's why for me, all of the businesses that I've ever started and sold, and then those that fail, I had my money in before anyone else. Not a business loan, but it's my own personal money because I realized that when my money is in it, then I'm going to work hard for it because I don't want to lose money. Which I have, I have lost money in the past, but then also making sure that it's aligned with your mission.


Jonathan Quarles:

So for me, water was never a desire for me. But for me to know that I can play a small part, or hopefully a huge part, in decreasing that one out of three access to clean drinking water, that's what wakes me up in the morning. So when I have days where I'm just discouraged, especially when we had to go through our pivot during the COVID-19, that's what kept me motivated. It was like, it's not about me. It's bigger than me. So I've invested my time and my money. I'm committed to it.


Jonathan Quarles:

And then you also have to ... There's other tools, so one of the things that most communities have a technical assistant organization. So in Flint, there's the Ferris Wheel, in Detroit there is TechTown, and other incubators that actually provide free services. And so I would say, look into your economic development corporation. Most cities have economic development corporation, and usually they have grants. They also have opportunities through different federal funding opportunities where they can actually help you with your legal fees, they can help you with how to, how to write a business plan. There's different mechanisms, but I would say most cities have that and you just have to look it up to see where you can get those kinds of technical assistance without having to pay all that money like you would if you didn't have it.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah. I think any support that we can get as entrepreneurs in those early days in terms of really getting the problem or the opportunity right And building the plan around it, and then the team and aggregating resources. We definitely all need help. And that's part of the reason we're doing this series so that we can not only inspire each other, but also support each other and find different ways to help each other grow. So I really appreciate you spending time with us today telling us about Quartz. And if people who are working in any of these municipalities want to get in touch because they want to learn more, what's the best way for them to engage with you.


Jonathan Quarles:

Yep. So you can go to our website, drinktheair.com and you can write a comment. You can send us a note. We get all of that real time. So, drinktheair.com. You can also follow us on all our social platforms @drinktheair ... I'm sorry, drink Quartz, @drinkQuartz.


Angel Gambino:

Stormy wants to say hi. One of the advantages and disadvantages of a quarantine is our pets and our family like to enjoy meetings too.


Jonathan Quarles:

I think it humanizes us though. I really think this kind of humanizes, where people understand that you have kids or animals, it's like, okay, I get it.


Angel Gambino:

Exactly. Exactly. I know I remember seeing that BBC News reporter who was very serious. And then his kids came in during the broadcast. He was clearly frazzled. And I thought at the time, and that was a few years ago, right, I thought at the time, whatever this is life, right?


Jonathan Quarles:

Right. Right.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah. And I think you're right. I think it does humanize. I feel like part of the reason we have Zoom calls is to meet each other's families and pets now. Get a little peek into their home. So, well, Jonathan, we all need you to be successful. So I'm hoping that whatever you need, you'll let us know and we'll be as resourceful as we can be in supporting your success.


Jonathan Quarles:

Thank you so much. I appreciate it.


Angel Gambino:

Of course. So thanks for that. And we'll talk to you soon.


Jonathan Quarles:

Okay. Thanks.


Angel Gambino:

Thanks.


Jonathan Quarles:

I've always had a passion for entrepreneurship and social impact. And so it's truly a privilege to introduce Quartz Water Source, whose story was rooted in my hometown, Flint, Michigan. Flint gave me grit, love for my community, and a sense of obligation to help those in need when I can do so. In 2014, Flint became the biggest story in America When it was uncovered that the water supply was heavily contaminated with lead. I have family and friends that were directly impacted by what happened.


Jonathan Quarles:

I quickly realized that Flint was not alone. Flint had simply become a U.S. epicenter of a global crisis and that one out of three people in the world does not have access to clean drinking water. That's when I knew I had to do something about it and that the people of Flint, and all over the world, deserve better. I first learned about atmospheric water generation technology on a trip to Israel. And immediately my wheel started to turn on the potential of this cutting edge technology. The technology taps into the planet's most abundant source of water, the air. So it literally takes water out of thin air.


Jonathan Quarles:

These machines are portable, low in energy consumption, and generates five times more water per kilowatt hour than any other technology on the market. I knew that I had to evangelize this technology and bring it home to Flint, and to all over the world. And that water is a right, not a privilege. We're not looking at replacing municipal water. We like to think of ourselves as a reliable second line water solution. I look forward to witnessing Quartz' impact in the world and helping community leaders better prepare for emergencies, but more importantly, bringing water to the people.

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