O-Town Interview: Chris Castro

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A good place to catch Chris Castro would be during one of Fleet Farming’s swarm rides, which happen the second Sunday each month. The rides are open to all and offer an opportunity to learn about urban agriculture. (Photo courtesy of Chris Castro)

In getting to know Chris Castro, the City of Orlando’s director of sustainability, you can start with his time as a student at the University of Central Florida. While there, Chris and some friends recognized that UCF needed to get better at environmental impact planning. To say they took action is an understatement.

 First, they approached then President John Hitt and asked him to sign the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment to help the campus become carbon neutral. He did.

 Chris and his friends began an interdisciplinary student group called IDEAS For Us that helped UCF achieve those commitments and created solutions to make UCF more sustainable. Among other accomplishments, a dorm room competition called “Kill-A-Watt” challenged students to see who could conserve the most electricity. The first year, they saved UCF $50,000 in two and a half months on an initial $5,000 investment.

 Following graduation, Chris and close colleagues, including Clayton Louis Ferrara, turned this student group into a full-fledged environmental nonprofit that is recognized by the UN and has implemented sustainability solutions in over 200 communities all over the world. You might also recognize IDEAS by their local programs in the community, including The Hive Orlando and Fleet Farming.

 Chris hasn’t stopped since.

You’re from South Florida originally. What made you decide on UCF?

A big part was the scholarship I received. That was a big factor, but not the only one. In looking at different schools, I saw Orlando as this up-and-coming city where you didn’t need to be established to connect and make a difference.

You had the proximity to the city, but then there was also the proximity to the beach. As a junior and senior in high school, I was driving up with my closest friends to Sebastian Inlet, Satellite Beach, and New Smyrna as often as possible to go surfing. I was basically in Central Florida already.

Even before you graduated, you started a consulting company to help businesses and organizations become more energy efficient. Where does your entrepreneurial drive come from?

From my family. My grandparents are Cuban, and they started one of the largest import/export businesses on the island back in the day.

Needing to work is part of my nature, and that was also passed down from my stepdad and mom. They owned a palm tree nursery business, and I worked there. When I was in high school, my stepdad was diagnosed with cancer and had to go through chemotherapy. My brother and I would get out of school and go straight to the farm to keep everything going.

That really affected me, and I still have that level of drive today.

Drive is right. Following you on social media, it always seems like you’re in motion. You’re chasing after your daughter. You’re working on green initiatives. You’re keynote speaker at a conference in Curaçao. And all of that is when you’re not on your bike for a Fleet Farming swarm ride. How do you keep up?

I’ve become really good at time management. I prioritize, and I figure out what to let go. There’s no secret system or magical app. If it’s not on my calendar, it doesn’t happen.

You have to be diligent at it. I have a full-time job at the City, I own my own small-business, I have my family, and I’m on the boards of 10 nonprofits. There’s no way to be successful at that many things without hard work, effective organizing, and focus.

Now, when I see some empty time on my calendar, am I pretty happy about it? For sure! My daughter is 17 months old, so there’s not much sleeping in, but a day I can spend with the family with nothing scheduled is very much appreciated.

No secrets or shortcuts?

I just got back from a conference in Denver, and the plane is usually the place I’m working on the presentation that was due the day before. I’m getting that ready, answering emails, making the most of my time. What helps me get in a zone is music. I’m listening to a band called PALO! right now, with sort of an Afro-Cuban funk sound from Miami.

I’m a musician, so a good beat helps get me going.

You’re a freshman, heading into President Hitt’s office to tell him UCF needed to get better. What was that like?

Really intimidating. Here I am, an undeclared student, going to speak with the president of the second largest university in the U.S. I didn’t feel like I had the knowledge and acumen, but there was this message I had to convey.

Now, talking about sustainability 12 hours a day, thinking about it all night, I realize it’s become who I am, not what I do. It’s my passion. It’s what makes me happy, and I feel it’s my purpose.

There are quite a few you could pick, but what’s one recent accomplishment that you’re proud of?

Orlando recently came in at 28 on the list of Greenest Cities in America. That’s a huge jump, and we have a momentum with the people working at city hall to get even higher on that list.

It also makes us the greenest city in the southeast, rising above Atlanta, a city we’ve historically been behind.

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