With her business, Murray is hoping to transform her adopted city—one garbage can at a time. Her goal? To reduce waste by turning some of it into nutrient-rich compost.

By Alexandra Churchill
June 16, 2020
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Kevin J. Miyazaki

Have you ever wondered how to turn your dreams of owning your own business into a reality? We can help. Each week, as part of our Self Made series, we showcase female entrepreneurs—as well as their quality, handmade goods—and share their best advice related to starting, maintaining, and growing your own business.

Pashon Murray is a woman of many hats. In addition to being an eco-activist, community organizer, and entrepreneur, she's also busy leading a compost revolution in Detroit. She knows that fertile soil, the life force of our fruits and vegetables, begins with compost. Through her company, Detroit Dirt, she is making as much compost as possible from the organic waste she collects from local businesses; in the process, she's diverting thousands of pounds of garbage from landfills every week.

Homegrown Beginnings

Murray learned about gardening as a child from her grandmother and grew up visiting landfills with her father, who owned a maintenance business in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After college, she worked for a spell in corporate America before embarking on a career of environmental advocacy, lobbying for Repower America, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Sierra Club. Along the way, she met a lot of people—farmers, corporate executives, maintenance workers, and environmentalists—they were all committed to the same cause, yet "no one was sitting at the table together," she recalls. "So I asked myself, 'What can I do to join all these different people in a way that will actually benefit the entire community?'"

Her answer came in 2009, when she met Greg Willerer, a pioneer of urban farming in Detroit. Willerer wanted to grow food locally, and Murray wanted to reduce waste. Together they decided to pursue compost, and the pair launched Detroit Dirt two years later. (Willerer has since left the company to focus on farming.) "We were kind of rebels," says Murray. "We never really asked permission in the beginning. We just did it." Detroit didn't have any composting rules at the time, but they found a two-acre unused plot in an industrial area and compelled the city to piece together permits to allow composting. Then, they rallied local businesses to set aside their food scraps. "The entrepreneurial spirit is phenomenal in Detroit right now," Murray says. "If you're doing something positive here, you can't go anywhere but up."

Going Green Together

Today, Murray and her team of five collect organic waste daily from local small businesses (more than 30 restaurants, breweries, and coffee shops), corporations (including General Motors and Blue Cross Blue Shield), and even the Detroit Zoo, which provides weekly drop-offs of herbivore manure. "Waste reduction is my passion," says Murray. Each month, Detroit Dirt picks up more than 25,000 pounds of waste. And since its founding, the company has diverted more than 90 million pounds of waste from landfills by converting it to nutrient-rich compost. But even as she adds businesses to her growing roster, Murray is not content to sit tight. "I want the whole city to participate," she says. Every year, she makes a list of new big businesses to bring on board. It can take up to two years to convince a corporation to join, so she knows she's in it for the long haul. "You just have to be very focused and stay committed," she says.

Luckily, Murray is just that. In addition to winning over the Detroit business community, she is creating a line of composting products and bagged compost for consumers across the country. The compost ($15, detroitdirt.org) is packaged in partnership with Shinola, a manufacturing and retail company, and Goodwill's Green Works, the long-standing nonprofit chain, to offer high-quality fertilizer to gardeners around the country. And as any gardener knows, good fertilizer—which helps rehabilitate soil quality—is key to growing healthy, happy plants. And as of late, it's currently fielding interest from big-box retailers like Home Depot and Meijer.

Underscoring the business, Murray says, is her passion to foster a zero-waste mindset in the community. To that end, she launched the Detroit Dirt Foundation, which provides educational programs and assistance with research on soil contamination. These efforts haven't gone unnoticed: She was awarded an MIT Media Lab fellowship and represented Detroit at the 2016 Global Enterprise Summit hosted by President Barack Obama. She's also writing a book and helping to get sustainability and agriculture integrated into the local school curriculum. She encourages fellow entrepreneurs to follow in her footsteps with two points of advice—create a solution and dedicate their lives to the mission. "You have to eat, sleep and live the mission," she says. "Keep the faith and have hope beyond measure. Faith, hope, courage, confidence, perseverance are the main ingredients and the keys to the door that unlocks the future."

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