Zach Robinson

Executive Director of Spark-Y

Zach Robinson has more than doubled, every year, the number of youth served and the financial growth of Spark-Y since he became Executive Director in 2013.

Committed to his staff and the youth population they serve, Robinson seeds principles of entrepreneurship and empowerment into his leadership approach. As a result, hundreds of interns and student participants have gone on to start their own businesses, obtain jobs, or are inspired by sustainable business practices for their future. As an organization, this has contributed to a culture of progressive growth – students becoming interns, interns returning as leaders, leaders enterprising to staff positions, and staff collectively expanding the mission and impact of Spark-Y.

Robinson is passionate about creating win-win relationships with community, corporate and financial partners. These strategic partnerships create meaningful experiences for youth, while providing value for our partners. As a result, Spark-Y and their partners continue to launch youth-engaged innovative and sustainable projects, including the first in-restaurant aquaponics system, the greenest school campus in Minnesota, and is currently innovating one the first “credit for pay and industry recognized credential” youth sustainability courses in the region.

Robinson continues to lead Spark-Y in 2020 past the $1M annual budget marker, where it annually engages over 2,400 youth with a weekly frequency, while creating earning and learning jobs for over 50 youth per year.

(2013) Executive Director
(2010) Operations Director
(2008) Board of Directors and first Treasurer
Co-Founder: Green Circuit Solar
Co-Founder: Stophouse Music Group
Aikido Nidan with the MAAF
Graduated first in-class, Honors, Indiana University, Kelly School of Business
Finance & Commerce RYP award

Where did the idea for your career come from?

While serving as a founding board member, in the middle of driving two successful companies that I co-founded with other awesome people (Photo-voltaic solar company Green Circuit and hip hop record label Stophouse music group) I received training from a ZERI Certified Practitioner, and learned about Aquaponics from a friend. The idea of youth performing sustainable and systemic projects for interdisciplinary learning and graduation credit, while they created economic and real environmental benefits came to my mind like a bolt of lighting – and I executed the idea with a partner school’s science class and an aquaponics system in Minneapolis (the first classroom system in the state of MN). The pilot was hugely successful, the students involved had a transformation, and that was the beginning.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

The plan is M-F: Wake between 5:30 and 6:30a.m. After feeding my howling cat named Wolf, I dream journal, meditate with Qigong, then smash the 1-2 biggest needle moving professional tasks on my list. I’ll hack at key emails. Eat breakfast with my beautiful wife and son. Hit the road for mostly public and client (or staff) meetings and collaboration or continue on my own to do list. Then I will end the work day before dinner with the classic 6 things to do tomorrow list (ala the Charles Schwab/Ivy Lee story). I hit 2 major and 2 minor works out each week (right now it’s with Aikido and Battle Ropes). Then night time is flexible for work/play/family. In bed by 9:30 if possible.

To minimize wasted time and driving resources, I limit public meetings and work times to certain days with a strict schedule at 9-12 per week. To be productive with few distractions (except when called for due to joy, balance and culture) via people, I answer phone calls & texts and emails in batch fashion at certain times of day only. I am about 85-90% successful with this daily plan, and track this success and diet and other stuff on a schedule/chart.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Once they take hold in my mind, I bring them out via communication with staff, or incubation into a sketchpad. The idea usually needs to grow and form until it is vetted and ready to go into initiate mode. Usually I communicate with all sorts of folks to get feedback on the idea. I am working on letting unsuccessful ideas die, and being more selective about which ideas to follow. Also, I am learning to delegate to fruition with youth and staff rather than just powering through them myself and especially helping others to incubate and bring forth their ideas in a sustainable way. Also, once the idea is born it needs to be nurtured periodically and I spend time envisioning possible scenarios and barriers to it’s success.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Transparency and the truth movement being shared across fields of commerce, history, government, healthcare/healing, myth/stories, and human potential.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Conscious dwelling in a state of faith in myself, and having the courage to be consistent with action. Letting die the voice inside that sometimes tells you that you are worthless. From that mind state I can then take decisive action that ends in great results.

What advice would you give your younger self?

When I was younger, my future self was already constantly giving advice to my younger self, I just was not aware that it worked so well. My advice at this moment would “keep doing you bro, you got this.”

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

I think a large contingent of people agree with the below, but in my day to day dealings I often see few that agree with the following truth. Change, growth and achievement happen through individual choice – there is no collective silver bullet solution for justice beyond that. If everyone actually chose out of understanding as individuals to not litter, we would have no trash strewn about our communities. When each person makes this type of choice from within, humanity will blossom in unforeseen ways. Or as Teddy (Theodore Roosevelt) put it: “There never has been devised, and there never will be devised, any law which will enable a (person) to succeed save by the exercise of those qualities which have always been the prerequisites of success – the qualities of hard work, of keen intelligence, of unflinching will.”

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Manage organizational cash flow with an iron fist. More needs to come in, than goes out. That simple. In this way, with very little capital you can grow something step by step until you arrive at your vision.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Painting an aligned and authentic vision of achievement with all stakeholders, and going above and beyond that vision while providing value until all stakeholders are as satisfied as possible. Even in the face of dissatisfaction, disrespect, ignorance – follow through on your promises – any dissatisfaction will likely be the result of this other party’s own issues. Demonstrating continuous consciousness of the goal/achievement needed. This has led to results and joy within our organizations work that attracts other resources to help us.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Yoda says “Failure is the greatest teacher”. Failure is when you give up, or even just a step on the path that eventually leads to success. I do however have a TON of temporary defeats. I think my semi-recurring biggest temporary defeat is when I am scared to risk having a failure and choose not to “jump”. I often do not attempt bigger ventures or things due to risks, or fear of what I or others will think of myself if I fail. One specific temporary defeat moment that comes to mind, is that I once gave too much power, autonomy and responsibility to a young employee that showed much potential. It eventually blew up and was a bit messy. At the end of the day, it taught me a valuable lesson about forgiveness and the need for structure and seeing a demonstration of emotional ability and maturity before too much is given too quickly to promising talent. Finally this taught me to temper professional compassion with specific and guiding personnel policies.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

The waste economy will eventually be a foundation of the 21st century economy. Humanity is beginning to redesign our air, energy, food, and water infrastructure globally to honor mother earth. Find an abundant waste stream locally that a business is paying to dispose of, find an innovative or even standard use for it, and have them pay you to take it and turn it into a product. Specific and low hanging fruit would be coffee grounds and spent grains into a micro economy culinary mushroom farm.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I spent over $100 personally on a gift for a former employees wedding who now lives in Santa Fe. A custom, Benchmade folding pocket knife, G10 handle and s90v blade steel with colors reflecting the great North Woods, the Spark-Y logo, and assisted open action. The value of a solid reliable tool cannot be underestimated for everyday life, no matter what your background. Why did I spend this $100? Giving is one of the greatest joys of abundance.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I use Google Drive to consolidate and organize my to do list (just a drive doc) and to collaborate on document creation. I think the simplest tools are the best. Often when I try some new flashy tool or an app it is actually a bigger distraction than a productivity boost. I think one of the gifts of being a millennial is that we often can keep up with all the new tech advancements, but do not get caught in the useless ones. We still had landlines growing up for the most part and know the work and processes behind automation shortcuts.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, hands down. Contrary to popular belief at the moment, this book is not an arch criminal conservative treatise.  . It is an invaluable introspection on the philosophy of survival, being alive, and being self sufficient. I do not agree with even close to everything espoused in the book, but it changed my life. I believe many of today’s minor mental health issues could start to be more honestly addressed with just some of the concepts applied from an individual lens.

What is your favorite quote?

“Never tell me the odds” – Han Solo

Key Learnings:

  • Humanity and the earth needs you at your best, right now. No matter who you are, or where you come from – you can be something great. Greatness is not what the media tells you it is, it is not popularity or money – though these can be helpful to achieve your goals. Greatness resides inside you as a spark breaking through real and perceived barriers of your mind – and then into your outer circumstances. When you alone witness the greatness you can exercise by proving it to yourself the entire universe also witnesses it.
  • Being an entrepreneur, remember that money is just your energy stream to create real value. Money is congealed energy that is a tool to create movement. It cannot fully define the character of anyone rich or poor, and is a creation of our social agreements. Achieve your goals, through the means of our current societal institutions, by tapping into the energy of the universe 1st. Your idea will grow when nurtured – just like an acorn becomes the mighty oak.
  • Above all else, have faith in your ability to achieve your desire. Start with one simple goal, track it daily, and realize “failure” is a step to achievement. Strike a balance between punitive and permissive discipline, COACHING yourself on the journey. And remember – the best goal/desire to follow helps you AND your fellow human beings.