There are many ways to describe Niki Okuk. Among a variety of things, she is a small-business owner; lifelong activist; worker for social, economic, and environmental justice; a dreamer and a doer. Okuk studied economics at Columbia University and completed her MBA with the Nanyang Fellows program in Singapore, and the MIT Sloan School of Business program in sustainability. She returned home to Los Angeles where she launched Rco² Material Reuse, a tire waste upcycling company. Rco² Material Reuse diverts tens of millions of gallons of petroleum waste from landfills into new products annually while also creating numerous green-collar jobs in Compton, California, where Okuk lives and works.
TNJ.com: Why did you start your company?
Niki Okuk: As I was wrapping up my MBA program, I knew in my heart I didn’t really want to go back to finance or a corporate position. My program featured a segment on sustainability at MIT and the climate crisis loomed large in my mind. At the same time, I wanted my contribution to be local and tangible. An old friend, now my partner, asked me to help him write a business plan for a scrap brokering business. Once I started quantifying the potential, I knew I wanted to come on board. We never knew the company would grow into what it is now. We’ve diverted more than 14 million gallons of oil from landfills.
TNJ.com: What were some of the main challenges in starting it?
NO: Capital is always the key challenge. Startups are too risky for banks, but a manufacturing startup wasn’t sexy enough for venture capitalists looking for the next billion dollar app. I had to use my savings, my credit cards, borrow from friends and family – it wasn’t glamorous. I also didn’t pay myself, even as the company grew and we had more than 15 employees and a million in revenue. We were growing fast, our cash flow wasn’t smooth, I never felt like I could take for myself and that made for a couple of very difficult personal years.
TNJ.com: What have been some of the challenges in growing it?
NO: Capital. Capital is always the key challenge. Not to sound redundant, but every time our cash flow was in a lurch, we kept looking back and thinking, “Jeez, we were really undercapitalized when we started this.’”
TNJ.com: Are there many Black women in this industry?
NO: Actually, I don’t know of any. I am sure they must be out there. If you are a Black woman working in waste management, recycling, or manufacturing call me! Most of the businesses I deal with are second or third generation family-owned. History tells us who had the social and financial capital to start businesses two to three generations ago, almost exclusively white Americans. With the exception of a few Asian or Latin American immigrants who arrived with capital from their home countries. Nonetheless, I remember being inspired, I remember reading a magazine spread on a Black female executive of a food manufacturing company. She was featured in her pencil skirt, looking strong and serious, leaning against row upon row of stainless steel counters in her company’s huge industrial kitchen. I remember thinking, “That’s real.” I look back and I see how important those images are, how hard it is to imagine something you have never seen. That’s why I have to thank writers like you, and publications like this one, that offer a view of our community that is so often overlooked.
TNJ.com: Why is what you do important?
NO: I began with a big environmental mission: diverting oil from landfills, combating our “take, make, waste” economy. I also really wanted to make dignified jobs in my hood, wage labor jobs can be demeaning, especially for the formerly incarcerated and immigrants. I wanted to make sure we were making a place where folks would treat each other like the hard-working and competent adults we are. The people-focused mission has, in fact, become equally, if not more, important than the environmental one. We have come to realize how many employers penalize people who are trapped in a circle of racially-biased criminalization. People miss days for random parole officer raids on their homes, short notice drug testing, court dates, rescheduled appearances; not to mention the health, transportation and childcare shortfalls that plague the working poor. Making space to understand how these systems are failing most Americans helps us to strategize ways to collectively address them.
TNJ.com: What has been the biggest business lesson?
NO: It’s nice to tell the bootstrap story in retrospect; but at the time, when I was taking cash advances against my personal credit cards to cover payroll, it wasn’t smart and it wasn’t exciting. My advice: budget well, take a cash-flow management course, think carefully before taking on new products and customers. Above all, you have to believe in what you are doing, or you may not have the heart to stick it out.
TNJ.com: What do you love the most about what you do?
NO: I am a numbers and goal-oriented person. It can be easy to get dragged down by the monotony of payroll and expense reports, so I have to remind myself to do the important numbers. Gallons of oil have been diverted from landfills: 14 million. Pounds of rubber made into new products: 46 million. Number of employees’ children whose parents can provide better food and housing: 52. Number of small business vendors we rely on: 34. Number of people who have finished school and transitioned to better jobs from here: 5. Employees who have bought homes while here: 2. That’s what I love the most.