Don Shaffer.

What work do you do?

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I’m executive director of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies and co-owner of Comet Skateboards.

What does your organization do?

BALLE is a growing alliance of more than 5,400 entrepreneurs and small-business owners from across the U.S. and Canada who are dedicated to building Local Living Economies, and to a different way of doing business that enhances community life and natural systems. These entrepreneurs are committed to the long-term health of a particular place — whether it’s a big city like Philadelphia, a medium-sized town like Grand Rapids, Mich., or a rural area like the Rogue River Valley in southern Oregon.

Skater Joe McLaren on Comet board.

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Photo: COMET Skateboards.

At Comet Skateboards, we design and manufacture our products in the world’s only solar-powered skateboard factory, located in downtown San Francisco. We use Forest Stewardship Council certified wood and water-based coatings, and source our supplies locally whenever possible.

What are you working on at the moment?

We’re creating a local stock exchange for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area that will support small, community-based, triple-bottom-line companies. We’re also implementing a new approach to economic development in California that we hope will be a model for other regions. Instead of the 20th century model of throwing tax breaks and subsidies to large corporations, we are working closely with city and county governments to identify opportunities for small, locally owned companies in growing markets such as sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, green building, and zero-waste manufacturing.

In partnership with Cornell University, Comet is developing eco-based epoxy resins for our skateboards. We’re also building the largest urban skatepark in the Western U.S., all eco-designed, in downtown Oakland.

How do you get to work?

I skateboard three-quarters of a mile to BART (the transit system), go six stops while reading the paper, get off, and skateboard another half mile.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

My ancestors were Quaker farmers and small-business owners from the Philadelphia area. I studied American history at Cornell. And I bicycled cross-country, hiked 800 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, and had a very close encounter with a mountain lion in Olympic National Park. After college, I taught high school, helped grow a for-profit education company, and helped start/grow a multimedia software company.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

Princeton, N.J. Berkeley, Calif.

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

Several years ago, I worked closely with an entrepreneur who was starting a beer company. He raised almost $1 million from angel investors. Two weeks after the close, he stole the money and lost it all at a casino in South Lake Tahoe. The investors filed a lawsuit against everybody. Though I didn’t do anything wrong, I was dragged into it. Lessons: take your time when evaluating a business partner and develop thick skin for hard times.

Who is your environmental hero?

Wendell Berry.

What’s your environmental vice?

I don’t compost at home.

How do you spend your free time?

I try to eat well, sleep well, and spend unstructured time with my wife and our close friends. I need to exercise more.

Read any good books lately?

America’s Constitution by Akhil Reed Amar.

What’s your favorite meal?

Pasta with homemade tomato sauce from the Bensadoun organic farm in Newfield, N.Y.

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

I’m as idealistic as I was when I was 18.

What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?

The Valle Grande in north-central New Mexico, near Bandelier National Monument. Most amazing stars you will ever see. Camp there in August, make a small fire, get in your sleeping bag, and watch the show.

Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?

Neil Young. Neil Young.

What’s your favorite TV show?

CSI: Miami. (We don’t have cable.)



Which actor would play you in the story of your life?

Nick Nolte. Robert Redford. No, actually it’s probably closer to Matthew Modine.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Take the 5 percent challenge. Do an audit of your personal spending and investing — then commit 5 percent more every month to locally owned farms and businesses in your region. This could mean a trip to a local bookstore instead of Barnes & Noble, or supporting a local artisan instead of a national brand of clothing, or investing $50 in a community loan fund instead of a conventional mutual fund, or buying lettuce at the farmers’ market instead of the supermarket. Experiment, have fun, spend a few dollars to help create a healthy, diversified local economy in your area.

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