Global Entrepreneur Plants Seeds of Passion With Sustainable Businesses
YPO Global Impact celebrates extraordinary members doing extraordinary things to make the world a better place. Since the initiative’s founding in 2012, 27 members have been honored for their successful, impactful projects.
Strike up a chat with YPO member Dennis Overton and there is bound to be word of a new sustainable business he is honing or a social improvement project benefiting from his expertise. All his ventures share a vision: to equip disadvantaged people with the tools and know-how to tackle their own issues in a planet-friendly, sustainable way.
Overton, a YPO Global Impact honoree, was recognized for Aquascot, a pioneer in ocean farming in Europe, and his expansive work in Rwanda, particularly with Ikirezi, an organic farming business in eastern Rwanda. Aquascot helped revive the flagging Scottish Highlands economy and now is the largest, indigenous employee-owned business in Scotland. Ikirezi grows and distills organic essential oils for a global market, empowering those at the bottom of the economic ladder to break free of poverty.
Both projects helped Overton by trial and error, he says, to develop expertise in new markets and methods, lending confidence to pursue his latest love: seaweed.
Pioneers of the sea
On the northeast coast of Scotland, Shøre is in its early years, farming young plants and harvesting them for a range of healthful products sold across the United Kingdom, Ireland and other parts of Europe. With Shøre, Overton is continuing to focus on creating jobs, restoring health to the rural economy of his native Scotland and doing what he can to mitigate climate change.
“We are pioneering the farming of sea crops in Europe,” Overton says. “We are in early stage development.”
In addition to selling snack products, Shøre turns seaweed into ready-to-eat sea salads and is developing a range of seaweed-rich pesto sauces, pita breads and trail mix.
“Part of the ambition is to have seaweed be part of people’s diets and the help fuel the expansion of plant-based diets,” Overton says.
The business employs leading-edge technology developed in Asia, where ocean farming of plants is more common, he says. It allows growers to track current speeds, water temperatures and other indicators so they can react to conditions as needed. “We can even count the seeds,” Overton says.
The seaweed fields are in areas of pristine water, farmed without pesticides or fertilizers and sheltered far from offshore petroleum rigs.
And Overton sees room for rapid growth.
“Asia’s seaweed farming has doubled in 10 years,” he says. “Asia is big in this market, and there is a rising demand for a range of options. But we’re also doing it to let off pressure on land-based resources.”
Now that the company’s concept has been proven and met milestones such as repeat sales, it is ready for “the big league,” he says. Overton is leading Shøre through its third round of financing so it can scale up, add more growing capacity, co-producers, jobs and marketing.
Shøre employs 35 people directly and more indirectly through co-production agreements. It uses the same back office as Aquascot, which now employs 230 people and serves as a roadmap for the new business.
Passion drives each step
Since a trek in his youth from Scotland to the South American region of Patagonia, much of it on foot, Overton has been passionate about creating a better spread of opportunity and wealth, focusing on his love of agriculture and showing utmost respect for the earth.
When he returned home to Scotland, he noticed startups would become successful, scale up and then sell, shipping their profits outside the area and often leaving unemployment in their wakes.
“Mid-sized businesses are needed in local economies,” Overton says. “We’re providing a practical path to a more equal share of wealth, an antidote to the current trend of concentration and movement of wealth to a smaller group.”
Creating those impactful, yet sustainable businesses has become his driving force. He frequently is asked to share his knowledge with governmental officials and economic strategists interested in replicating his model in their own communities, states and nations. Overton participates in councils in Scotland, the EU and Rwanda. He advises them, “Governments can help by creating a friendly environment for entrepreneurs to innovate.”
Overton’s focus on creating businesses with impact coincides with his interests in YPO as well, from working with members of YPO Next Generation to expanding interest and investment in Africa. Overton was the first chair of YPO’s Social Impact Council and also helped launch the YPO Africa Great Lakes Chapter in 2017. In addition, he helps lead business retreats to Rwanda and the surrounding region. The popularity of those retreats has exploded.
“Ten years ago, two of us met and asked, ‘How could YPO help?’ Last year, more than 120 YPO members attended from around the world.”
He continues to work closely, as Chair of the Board, with Ikirezi in its literal and figurative grass-roots efforts.
“Rwanda hopes to be the Singapore of Africa: Its assets are its people.”