Mahdi Eghbali held a small bottle in his hands, similar in size to a travel shampoo you might pick up in a hotel. Inside it held a mostly clear, slightly yellowish liquid. The simple white label on the outside had a long, scientific-looking word, a bar-code, and then hand-written in ballpoint ink: the words “Wood Vinegar”.
He unscrewed the cap and offered it to me. “Smell it.”
Okay. Why not? It’s not like this was one of my nephews holding something up for me to sniff. He seemed nice enough.
I took a whiff and thought, Barbecue!
I had never heard of wood vinegar before, but apparently it’s a product that’s been around for centuries, maybe even millennia. It wasn’t until Mahdi arrived in Nebraska as a student from Iran, however, that farmers in the American Midwest started considering its uses as an organic fertilizer, pesticide, and soil additive.
Mahdi first discovered and began experimenting with wood vinegar shortly after graduating from Yazd University—in his hometown of Yazd, Iran—with a B.A. in Economics. He got the idea while working to market a related by-product. Nobody around him really knew what to do with wood vinegar other than throw it out.
A curious entrepreneur at heart, Mahdi started researching how to turn this waste into something useful. He quickly discovered that farmers in Asia have been putting wood vinegar to use for some time as an alternative to expensive petroleum-based chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Wood vinegar was interesting, but only one of the many projects Mahdi dabbled in after college. Iran being mostly desert, it did not have an agriculture sector developed enough to adopt new products systematically.
Eventually, Mahdi decided to continue pursuing his education and applied to graduate programs in the United States. He was accepted at five universities, but the University of Nebraska, Omaha offered him the best scholarships. In 2014 he began his Master of Economics coursework. Nebraska, to say the least, was quite different than Yazd.
Starting Life in a New World
In spite of the challenges of moving halfway around the world, Mahdi was not one to waste time. As I sat in the University of Iowa’s Founder’s Club, listening to him tell his story, I began to sense just how driven and intelligent he is.
Mahdi finished his Master of Economics degree in one year, focusing mainly on improving his English and doing well in school. “I was so busy the first year just trying to get good grades and dealing with the language barrier,” Mahdi says. (He did pretty well, receiving all As and A+s.)
He didn’t have time to pursue many other interests that first year. But then, “after that first year,” he says, “I talked to some farmers. It was Omaha, so everyone was from a farmer’s family, or at least they had one family member who was dealing with farming.” Having captured the interest of some farmers, he also presented to the Nebraska Forestry Service and received a grant for lab testing.
As Mahdi took steps to develop and test wood vinegar as a viable farm product in the fall of 2015, he also entered into a second master’s program at Nebraska to attain his Master of Mathematics degree. While studying mathematics and working as a student instructor, he officially founded VerdiLife, LLC.
Photo provided by VerdiLife.
In the spring of 2016, he finished his second master’s degree and applied to the University of Iowa for a Ph.D in Economics. He is now in his third year of the program at UI’s Tippie College of Business. He studies the “efficiency of federal grants”, examining how federal funds are distributed to help entrepreneurs start businesses.
Mahdi’s long-term goal is to be a professor who teaches entrepreneurs how to successfully raise money and create businesses that improve the world. Mahdi has been passionate about sustainable development since his undergraduate days. (In fact, he wrote a 285-page book about it as a student, but unless you can read Farsi, you’ll have to take his word for it.)
Practicing Sustainable Development
He describes sustainable development as activities that improve the economy, society, and the environment at the same time. “You can improve the economy, for example, while damaging society and the environment,” he says. His goal is to help businesses always keep that bigger picture in focus.
Before he can really teach it, Mahdi knows he has to gain the experience of actually creating a sustainable business. That’s where VerdiLife comes in. While wood vinegar is not a new product, it hasn’t been developed enough to have the kind of positive impact it could on large-scale farming in the U.S. or most parts of the world. Unlike conventional petroleum-based chemical pesticides and fertilizers, wood vinegar is 100% organic, doesn’t contribute to nitrate run-off, and leaves the soil healthier in the long run. It’s also made from wood waste: an abundant, natural, renewable resource.
As talented and hard-working as Mahdi is, he knew he couldn’t do it alone. “I want to have a successful background in building this kind of startup from zero to one hundred percent. But, I am not a businessman. That is why I started a management team.”
Mahdi has received invaluable training and guidance from the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. He learned there how to pitch his business in competitions and present to investors (he’s won $68,000 in seed funding so far), how to build a team that will complement his strengths and help grow the business, and what kinds of steps are most likely to lead to long-term success. They’ve assisted him with VerdiLife’s marketing and even helped Mahdi find a CEO, Bill Dunn, to run the business so Mahdi can continue to focus on the product’s science and development. (Mahdi remains owner of the company.)
People like Mahdi and all the gifts they bring to our community and wider world are the reason I created Corridor Characters. We’re very good at getting stuck in a kind of tunnel vision that focuses on our own concerns while overlooking all the wonderfully unique people contributing to life around us. It’s also way too easy today for us to create negative generalizations about whole groups of people we don’t know anything about.
How We See
Toward the end of our interview, Mahdi expressed some hesitation for me to mention that he is from Iran. Because of our two nations’ political history and current animosity, he is well aware of how negatively most Americans perceive Iran. He doesn’t want that to get in the way of how they perceive his efforts to develop a business that might help heal American farmland.
I suggested to Mahdi that if Americans saw a positive story about an intelligent, caring person from Iran working hard to do good things for their community, it might be a great way to influence their view of Iranian people.
“That sounds like a good idea,” he said.
Story and photos by Courtney Ball.