In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, Kareem Dale was working in Houston as a project manager for a construction company. It was a good job, but he sometimes wondered if there was something else out there—something more gratifying.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit. News reports about the devastation in New Orleans struck him deeply, and he knew he needed to do something to help. So he packed his bags, quit his job, and headed to Louisiana to see what he could do.
“My first reaction was, ‘what can I do?’” he says. “Then I got there. I saw the level of destruction.”
In the wreckage of New Orleans, he discovered a huge demand for people like him, who knew the construction business and could help as residents rebuilt their homes. He quickly realized that he could not only do good by helping survivors of the disaster—he could also do well by working as a project manager in a buzzing market.
It was a turning point that eventually led him to where he is today—at the helm of a thriving business that is helping both people and the planet. After leaving New Orleans, Dale, now 32 years old, founded The Gaia Group, Inc., a company that provides energy efficiency and weatherization services. Under his leadership, The Gaia Group has helped thousands of low-income Houston residents upgrade their homes and save on their energy bills.
He initially became interested in the industry, he said, because of its tremendous economic potential. “I was looking at the construction market, and I saw things trending toward green building. That eventually led me to energy efficiency.”
While he was in New Orleans, a friend of his suggested he start using his building crews to do weatherization work—which was in high demand. So he dove into the field, learning everything he could about how to build and fix homes to make them save energy. And then he decided to bring his idea back home.
He spent nine months working with a partner on a feasibility study to see how well a full-time energy efficiency business might do in Houston. “We picked apart everything. And we realized ‘We’ve got something here.’”
Just as they were finishing their business plan, the Recovery Act was signed into law. The result? The City of Houston had funds to make much-needed upgrades to low-income homes—upgrades that would slash carbon pollution from wasted energy, and help struggling residents save on their utility bills.
It also meant that the fledgling Gaia Group was inundated with business right from the start. Since then, the company has partnered with the City of Houston, non-profits and local public utilities to perform energy audits for vulnerable residents, like senior citizens and low-income families.
And it’s made a difference. Dale says one of the best feelings is when an elderly or low-income resident calls back after upgrades are finished to thank him and let him know how much they’re saving on their energy bills. The Gaia Group aims for a 30 percent reduction in kilowatt hours for each household they work on—and that translates into lower energy bills. For someone on a fixed income, it can mean the difference between buying groceries and going without.
The savings also have a ripple effect on the local economy, Dale points out. “Once the work is done, it pays back so quickly, it’s ridiculous. That money goes right back into the economy,” he explains. “If you’re suddenly paying $60 instead of $100 on your energy bill, you can spend that extra $40 on food or clothing. You can use it to buy something you couldn’t buy before.”
But it’s not just about saving on utility bills. In Houston’s climate, poor insulation and wasted energy can create unhealthy and uncomfortable living conditions. The Gaia Group’s employees will often find elderly residents draping blankets over the windows in an attempt to keep the heat out. Proper weatherization helps keep them cool—and safe from heat-related illness, as well as pollen and air pollution.
For Dale, who studied biology and public health at Morehouse College, making people’s homes healthier is deeply rewarding. That’s also why he places so much emphasis on treating customers well. In addition to facing poor living conditions, he says, low-income folks often don’t receive the service and professionalism they deserve. He’s out to change that. “I want my company’s legacy to be in the homes and hearts of the people we serve.”
Now, Dale is working to expand the benefits of energy efficiency even more. He’s started a pilot program that brings weatherization and upgrades to faith-based organizations. So far, The Gaia Group has worked on three Houston churches, with plans to do more. Dale uses the partnership as an opportunity to educate congregations about energy savings—and as a way to bring more workers into the field. His vision is to recruit church members who show an interest in weatherization, and connect them with job training programs that will help them get the skills they need to find an energy efficiency job.
Dale loves what he does—and he hasn’t stopped looking ahead. His next goal is to help serve as a champion for the industry, by advocating for more city programs and public-private partnerships that will bring energy savings to even more people—and help fight climate change in the process.
“It’s an amazing time to be in this industry,” he says.