By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
Yale Wong learned life’s most important lessons while growing up in a crowded home in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
“My grandparents, my parents, and my aunt all lived together in one house,” said Wong.
As a child, Wong marveled at the stories his elders would tell about life outside of home.
“I remember watching my aunt Judy bake cookies or put on makeup, and she’d tell me what it was like working at the bank and how she was moving up in the company,” he said.
When Wong was about 10 years old, his aunt gave him advice that resonated with him.
“She told me, ‘Yale, you’ve got to strive to be somebody someday. This is America, and you can have anything you want. It all depends on how far you want to go. Don’t be afraid.’ ”
“That really inspired me,” said Wong.
Wong took his aunt’s advice to heart. In 1994, he founded Compass Communications, becoming the first Asian American in Washington state to own an internet service provider. Without a specialized degree in the field, Wong made it his mission to teach himself the intricacies of internet technology by reading books, meeting experts, and asking lots of questions until his dream turned into reality.
“I knew nothing about the internet when I became involved,” said Wong. “But my company eventually became one of the top three ISPs in the state.”
Colleagues can attest to Wong’s willingness to take risks.
“When he believes in what he’s doing, he becomes consumed with it,” said Rick Noji, Wong’s childhood friend and former Compass co-worker. “I remember when he was learning how to ski. The guy was fearless,” said Noji. “He learned by watching and asking others… Now, Yale is one of the best skiers I know.”
When Wong sold Compass Communications in 2004, he used his fortune to fulfill his childhood dream of buying sports cars and giving to charities. Still, Wong hungered for more.
“I was only 37 years old. I was too young to retire,” said Wong. “So my wife Laura and I literally got in our car and toured the country in search of the next big thing. When we came back to Seattle, we said, ‘Renewable energy is where we want to be.’”
Birth of General Biodiesel
After attending a $35 crash course on biodiesel brewing and learning the environmental benefits of low-carbon fuel, Wong unveiled his latest business plan to family and friends. He wanted to start a biodiesel company that collected waste and converted it into positive energy on a mass scale. The initial reaction wasn’t what Wong expected.
“Everyone except for my wife told me, ‘Yale, you’re crazy. You’re going to lose money; it’s not the right thing to do, and what do you know about renewable energy?’ ”
Wong thought back to his internet service career and responded, “No, I can do it.”
Wong believed that biodiesel could revolutionize American industry by reducing carbon emissions, reducing foreign dependency on oil, and supporting local economies. According to the EPA, vegetable oil-based biodiesel produces 85 percent less life-cycle carbon dioxide per gallon than petroleum diesel produces.
Wong’s clear convictions kept his goals in focus.
Despite their initial reluctance, Wong’s family and friends pooled together $2 million to support Wong’s newest venture. Wong also gave up his own personal funds and belongings to get the ball rolling.
“[Yale was] very passionate about General Biodiesel, so passionate that he sold his Ferrari, which had been his dream since childhood,” said Noji. “Yale thought it was too hypocritical to be the owner of a biodiesel company and a gas guzzling sports car.”
In 2006, Wong turned his dream into reality and founded General Biodiesel, Inc. The company collects food scraps and used vegetable oil from local restaurants and converts them into biodiesel that is now used to fuel Washington state ferries, city vehicles, buses, trucks, and personal cars. Wong said that it “just made sense” to make biodiesel from food waste.
“What distinguishes my company from other biodiesel producers is that we take waste that would have otherwise gone down the drain or into animal feed, and turn it into positive energy,” he said. “Other companies use virgin food stock such as soybeans, but that method involves planting the seed and harvesting the crops, and produces much more emissions.”
Wong’s business generated buzz from clients, environmentalists, and the media. But despite its early success, a troubled economy couldn’t keep the company from hitting its first major roadblock.
“When the economy took a hit around 2008, we had to lay off a lot of people because we ran out of money. It was the hardest time for us,” said Wong.
Desperate to keep his company on course, Wong traveled across the region to try and recruit new investors, but he had little success.
“We traveled to Portland, Boise, and Canada, but not one person would invest a single dime in us,” said Wong. Eventually, Wong got a little help from his friends.
“I had a friend in the Asian community, Yoshi Minegishi, who introduced me to a Seattle-based investment firm who helped raise $4 million for our company. Yoshi kind of saved us,” said Wong.
With the major financial boost from investors, Wong was able to jumpstart his business.
“With that extra $4 million, we were able to expand our management team and acquire new talent. We added on a marketing director, built a sales force, added real smart chemical engineers to our group,” said Wong.
Another friend also helped Wong negotiate the purchase of an existing, fully-permitted biodiesel plant in Seattle, which later replaced the company’s previous, smaller facility.
Upward and onward
The year 2010 brought a wave of good fortune to General Biodiesel. That year, Dean Allen, CEO of mechanical engineering firm McKinstry and board member of General Biodiesel, invited Wong’s company to be a tenant in the new McKinstry Innovation Center in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. General Biodiesel moved into the new facility that summer and has since enjoyed a major upgrade from the company’s old offices above its greasy rendering plant.
“This space is really beautiful, and it’s really working well for us as far as networking and having a good venue. It was also a real morale boost for our employees,” said Wong.
Another morale boost came in the form of recognition by the local media. That fall, Seattle Business Magazine awarded General Biodiesel the 2010 Green Washington Award in the “Reuse” category.
In light of his company’s recent triumphs, Wong said that he is thankful for his family and friends who have supported him over the years. He is especially grateful to his wife, Laura, who cofounded General Biodiesel and currently serves as its vice president.
“One reason that General Biodiesel has done well over the past five years is because my wife is my partner,” said Wong. “I picked the right partner in life and the right partner in business.”
“I told myself when I was younger, ‘If I have a real strong woman behind me, I can go anywhere,’ ” he said, smiling.
Laura Wong agrees that the husband and wife team works well for them.
“I think our skills complement each other. Yale is the visionary, I’m the doer,” she said.
With a strong team of employees, investors, and supportive family and friends in place, Wong feels optimistic about his company’s future.
“Our big project right now is putting in some really big equipment into our plant to quadruple our biodiesel production. Before the year’s over, we probably will have produced roughly one million gallons of biodiesel this year, and we may be able to produce four to five million gallons as soon as next year,” he said.
Other goals include creating a line of car maintenance products such as lubricants, parts cleaners, and additives, for vehicles that use biodiesel, as well as personal products such as soap from the byproduct glycerin.
If all goes well, Wong also plans to one day take the company public.
“We hope to eventually launch an initial public offering (IPO), and use that money to open more biodiesel plants across the West Coast,” said Wong. “I can’t say when that’ll happen, but it’s my goal,” he said.
Until then, the fearless entrepreneur who grew up in Seattle’s Beacon Hill will continue to impress those around him.
“Yale is his own little idea factory. It seems like his mind never rests,” added Jeff Haas, chief operating officer (COO) at General Biodiesel. “Yale is successful due to his uncompromising desire to make a difference,” he said.
“In our industry, there are not many Asian Americans in corporate leadership positions,” added Clarence Pascua, childhood friend and General Biodiesel manager.
Echoing the advice that his Aunt Judy gave more than 30 years ago, Wong encourages other striving entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams.
“If you have an idea, you’ve got to follow your passion,” said Wong. “You’ve got to go out there and try. Don’t be scared.”
Yale Wong is one of Northwest Asian Weekly’s Pioneers in Social Entrepreneurship. He and other social entrepreneurs will be honored at an awards ceremony on Oct. 15 at China Harbor Restaurant. (end)
Northwest Asian Weekly’s Pioneer Awards is an annual event that celebrates the achievements of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans who have served as trailblazers in their local community. Visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org for more information.
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