Robbie Bergquist Of Cell Phones for Soldiers On How They Are Breaking the Cycle of Non-Renewable Consumption
An Interview With Monica Sanders
Don’t Wait for Change, Be the Change — My sister Brittany and I saw a soldier who needed help. Rather than watching the news and continuing with our days we proactively took it upon ourselves to help. Supporting sustainability and climate change is all about individual acts supplementing together for greater change.
Although the United States has had a long trend of non-renewable consumption, the tides are turning. Many companies are working hard to break this cycle, moving towards renewable consumption. In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders who are sharing the steps they are taking toward renewable consumption. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Robbie Bergquist
Rob Bergquist is Director & Co-Founder of Cell Phones for Soldiers. Founding with his sister Brittany at ages 12 and 13 in 2004, he continues to run the operation to collect used electronics to generate revenue to provide cost-free communication services to active duty military and Veterans. His passion is social entrepreneurship with a focus towards the military and sustainability.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
My upbringing began in the suburbs of Boston as one in a family of five. I had my mom and dad alongside my two sisters Courtney and Brittany. My primary passion growing up was playing sports. A passion that ultimately led me to schooling as a division 1 athlete playing soccer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
One primary event whilst growing up sparked the story that brings Cell Phones for Soldiers to today. My parents were schoolteachers and always had the TV news on during breakfast. One morning we watched a story of a soldier in Natick, Massachusetts who was calling home to his family from overseas and the roaming charges led to an $8,000 cell phone bill. The story explained how he didn’t have that kind of money being a soldier to pay the bill and needed help. We had two cousins who were actively serving in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time and thought this isn’t right, we need to help! So, we jumped into action, collected the piggy bank money of a few friends and ended the day with $21. Then we held a car wash, bake sale, and eventually paid off the soldiers’ entire cell phone bill. This is the starting point of Cell Phones for Soldiers.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My sister, Brittany, as I discussed we started on this mission together almost 20 years ago when we were just 12 and 13 years old. Being just two kids wanting to help a soldier who couldn’t pay their bill was the ultimate spark to a nonprofit helping support over 7,500 veterans to date. Without us embarking on this journey together the many lives we’ve affected would have never happened. Their story is this very journey together turning a news headline into two driven siblings fighting to make a difference for soldiers and veterans who struggle to have resources enabling vital communications lines.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve? What is your “why”?
At the heart of Cell Phones for Soldiers lies a profound mission: to deliver cost free communication services to active-duty military members and veterans. Since our inception in 2004, we have remained steadfast in our dedication to serving those who serve us, enabling them to stay connected with their families and loved ones.
Deeply rooted in our mission to provide vital communications lines to those who have served is to recycle others’ waste. Initially, our primary focus revolved around supplying active-duty military members and veterans with calling cards. However, as the mobile phone landscape grew our emphasis shifted towards fostering donations to recycle old, disused phones. By recycling more than 27 million cell phones to date, Cell Phones for Soldiers not only facilitates vital connections but also makes a significant contribution to the environment. Through responsible recycling practices, Cell Phones for Soldiers employs a meaningful life to unused technology. Preventing electronic waste from ending up in landfills thus reducing the overall environmental impact of discarded devices. This dual impact — bridging the communication gap for military personnel and championing eco-conscious practices — forms this core “why” behind our mission.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting story since the beginning of Cell Phones for Soldiers is also one of our most formidable, requiring us to pivot our mission early on in the founding of the charity. After the success of our local car washes and bake sales, Brittany and I got our big break. We were featured on CNN’s “On The Record, With Greta Van Susteren” back in 2005. At the ripe ages of 13 and 14, Brittany and I shared our new initiative live on air: Take donated devices from the general public, put minutes on the phones and send them overseas to deployed service members around the world.
Well, a General at the Department of Defense was watching that broadcast and called my father on our way home from the studio. “Your kids need to cease and desist as a matter of national security.” It was explained to my father that sending cell phones overseas was a security hazard. Making calls from an unsecured phone line could be triangulated and military members’ strategic positions could be compromised. This phone call forced us to pivot our initial mission to provide physical cell phone devices loaded with minutes, instead towards recycling those same devices in order to generate revenue to purchase prepaid calling cards, a more secure phone call home. Since then, we have sent more than 450 million minutes of talk time through these phone cards.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
“You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.” — Winston Churchill
This quote has always reminded me to remain grounded in the service of others. And that a life’s greatest purpose is to connect and serve within our communities.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our interview. Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to help break the cycle of non-renewable consumption? What specific problems related to non-renewable consumption are you aiming to solve?”
One of our programs provides veterans with phones and wireless service plans so they can find jobs, access healthcare and other support services, and stay connected with their loved ones. We do this by recycling and reusing old phones that we receive through donations. Millions of phones end up in landfills every year. Why not donate them to a good cause and help change someone’s life and help the environment at the same time? We collect approximately 30,000 devices a month and so far, have recycled 27 million phones, reducing carbon emissions by 1.725 billion kg CO2.
Can you give a few examples of what you are implementing to help address those issues?
We have several programs to make it easier for consumers to donate their old phones instead of throwing them out, so they don’t end up in landfills. We accept donations directly through our website, and if you donate more than 10 phones, we will cover the shipping costs. We also partner with local businesses throughout the US so consumers can drop off their old phones for donations. We currently have more than 30,000 drop off locations. Finally, we partner with larger companies like AT&T and others that give consumers the option to donate their old phones.
How do you measure the impact of your company’s sustainability initiatives, both in terms of environmental benefits and business growth? Can you share any key metrics or success stories?
On average we collect about 30,000 phones a month and so far, we’ve recycled 27 million phones, reducing carbon emissions by 1.725 billion kg. We are coming up on our 20th anniversary next year so we’re currently looking at our goals for the next 5, 10+ years. A big part of that is how we can get more consumers to donate their old phones so we can recycle and reuse even more phones and keep them out of landfills.
What challenges have you faced while implementing sustainable practices in your company, and how did you overcome them? Can you share a specific example?
The biggest challenge is making it easy and comfortable for consumers to donate their old phones. If we can get them to donate their phone it won’t end up in a landfill or just sitting around in a junk drawer. The first step is making it easy to donate the phone–either by mail or at one of our thousands of drop off locations across the US. It’s also important consumers trust us and know that their phone will be wiped clean, and we won’t jeopardize any of their personal data or info. We provide step by step instructions, and if they can’t wipe their phones, we can do it for them safely and securely.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
When we started the nonprofit nearly 20 years ago it was about calling cards. When mobile phones were introduced, we changed and expanded our program to provide phones and wireless service to veterans, service members, and their families. We could have provided phones and service through monetary donations, like we did with the calling cards. But we noticed a long time ago that consumers had a lot of old, unused phones that were either ending up in landfills or just sitting around. What if we could use those old devices to not only help more people but also help the environment at the same time. It was a win-win situation. We’re a nonprofit so being sustainable doesn’t make us more profitable per se, but it does help us increase our donations and impact. Consumers can donate their phones for a good cause AND to help the environment.
This is the signature question we ask in most of our interviews. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started promoting sustainability and climate justice” and why?
1. Don’t Wait for Change, Be the Change — My sister Brittany and I saw a soldier who needed help. Rather than watching the news and continuing with our days we proactively took it upon ourselves to help. Supporting sustainability and climate change is all about individual acts supplementing together for greater change.
2. Measure & Quantify Your Impacts — Using data to help depict the change that is occurring helps enable transparency and viability in the sustainable efforts you are conducting. By quantifying the positive impacts we’ve made such as recycling over 27 million phones to date, we can consolidate individual acts of goodwill into a greater congregate success.
3. Safeguard Data in Recycling Efforts — Incorporating recycled phones into your business requires focus towards data security. Familiarizing yourself with The Responsible Recycling (R2) standards is essential. Implementing these standards helps ensure we are using our recycled technology ethically.
4. Responsible Recycling: Industry Standards Matter — Responsible recycling, especially when dealing with electronic devices, requires adherence to industry standards. It’s important to stay well-informed about these standards to the responsible recycling of focus materials (electronics)
5. ESG is Essential to Corporate America — With ESG factors being at the forefront of corporate America, partnering with like-minded corporations has been instrumental in Cell Phone for Soldiers ability to amplify our impacts.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to see the business model of Cell Phones for Soldiers’ mission to responsibly recycle electronics to support the military community applied in different groups and areas of need. Think: Donating your old cell phones to support cancer research. Everyone only has so many dollars in their pocket. But donating your cell phone and other unwanted electronics can turn one man’s trash into another man’s treasure, and potentially save someone’s life!
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
You can check out our website at https://www.cellphonesforsoldiers.com/. Join us at one of our three socials:
Twitter & Instagram @cpfsofficial and Facebook at Cell Phones for Soldiers!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
About the Interviewer: Monica Sanders JD, LL.M, is the founder of “The Undivide Project”, an organization dedicated to creating climate resilience in underserved communities using good tech and the power of the Internet. She holds faculty roles at the Georgetown University Law Center and the Tulane University Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy. Professor Sanders also serves on several UN agency working groups. As an attorney, Monica has held senior roles in all three branches of government, private industry, and nonprofits. In her previous life, she was a journalist for seven years and the recipient of several awards, including an Emmy. Now the New Orleans native spends her time in solidarity with and championing change for those on the frontlines of climate change and digital divestment. Learn more about how to join her at: www.theundivideproject.org
Robbie Bergquist Of Cell Phones for Soldiers On How They Are Breaking the Cycle of Non-Renewable… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.