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Swider ’88: “In Control of Your Own Destiny”

Joe Swider '88

Joseph A. Swider ’88 co-owns and is vice president and chief operating officer of Terravive, a company manufacturing products such as drinking straws, cutlery, take-out containers, bags, and film using plant-based materials.—Photo courtesy Kyle La Ferriere.

Joseph A. Swider ’88 is a longtime entrepreneur who has specialized in improving the performance of corporations involved in a range of fields, including mining and oil and gas development and in building companies that develop and bring to market what he describes as “high-value advanced technologies,” such as fiber optics, artificial intelligence, power systems, and nanotechnology.

It is somewhat surprising then that, with this extensive experience at technology’s sharp edge, Swider discovered Terravive, the company he now co-owns and serves as vice president and chief operating officer, in an old-fashioned way: A physical newspaper. Reading the Richmond Times-Dispatch one morning in 2019, Swider saw an item about an event at Lighthouse Labs, a Richmond-based organization that bills itself as “an equity-free, early-stage startup accelerator.”

One of the people profiled in the story was Julianna Keeling, who was looking to take a business that created biodegradable products and which she had begun in college to the next level. Swider remembers thinking, “That’s really interesting.” So, too, was the timing. Swider “finished a couple of consulting assignments. So, I marched down to the Lighthouse Labs building the first day of the event and said I would like to meet her.” The connection was immediate. “I fully understood and supported what she wanted to do,” Swider remembers. Undoubtedly, the connection was made easier by a shared experience: Both had attended college in Lexington; Keeling at Washington and Lee University, and Swider at VMI. “I often tell people that the story of our company is, at its heart, a Lexington story.”

Swider’s part of this Lexington story began near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he grew up. He was drawn to military service by the examples of his father, who served during the Vietnam era, and his maternal grandfather, who served in World War II. “In high school, I was extremely patriotic, and I had thoughts of enlisting, but my mother said, ‘No, you should go to college.’” Swider began the process, therefore, of applying to the U.S. Naval Academy. He was nominated and waiting on the academy’s admissions decision when he attended a college recruiting event in downtown Pittsburgh. There, he met VMI representatives who urged him to apply. He did and was almost immediately accepted. It was then, he admits, “I really started learning about VMI.”

Attending an alumni event in Pittsburgh, he discovered the strong bonds among alumni. “There were about 50-60 people there,” Swider recalled. “Part of the meeting was that everyone stood up and said what they were doing. In 1984, things were tough economically in Pittsburgh, and a lot of people had lost their jobs. So, several of the alumni announced they were unemployed, and immediately, others offered to help. I saw how tight this group was, and that told me, ‘This is a great school.’”

As a cadet, Swider majored in mechanical engineering and then served as a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer for four years. “You remember the old recruiting poster, ‘Join the Navy and See the World?’ Well, I was the poster boy for that one.” While serving on two warships, he visited 48 ports in 24 countries.

Although he enjoyed his service, when his commitment ended, Swider immediately struck out on the entrepreneurial path he had determined to follow since he was a high school senior. That determination stemmed from witnessing his father’s experience. “He worked for a large bank. These were the old days when you stayed with a company for 25 years. In my senior year in high school, the bank let him go.”

The experience drove Swider to excel academically, which resulted in him receiving a Navy ROTC scholarship during his rat year. It also caused him to resolve that he’d “never let anyone take advantage of me the way [the bank] did of my dad. To me, being an entrepreneur meant you’ll be in control of your own destiny.”

Swider enjoys being an entrepreneur for many reasons. One is the ability to get things done quickly. “I do more in a day than I could in a large company in 60 days,” he says. “You can—you must—make fast decisions. You and your team are always moving, always adapting. As you get more information, you can adjust course, but you are always moving forward, on the attack.” He contrasts that with his experience during a short detour into the corporate world. There, he recalled, “the pace is glacial.”

The entrepreneurial path also provides him with a heightened sense of fulfillment. “Whenever you work hard and see positive results, it’s fulfilling. When you own the company or have a stake in it, it’s even more so.” Entrepreneurship also allows people to see the direct results of their efforts. “If you like seeing that, then being an entrepreneur is for you.”

Entrepreneurs often encounter failure, but Swider says it can be instructive. “I highly respect people who fail, but only if they learn from it. Any highly successful entrepreneur will fail, but they’ll come back if they’re willing to study the reasons why and press on.”

"You’re going to face challenges throughout your life, and you need to figure out how to handle them. To accomplish things and conquer mountains, you must be resourceful, and VMI teaches you that.”

Joseph A. Swider ’88

Swider has never settled down long term with any of the companies with which he has worked. “I like being intellectually challenged,” he explains. “Every three to five years, therefore, I blow it up and go to something different. That helps keep me sharp and agile.”

Fostering innovative companies developing technologies is a thread that runs through his career. Asked what makes a company one he wants to help, he replied he first looks at their founders’ character. “They must be focused and committed, ready to put everything on the line. The employees and the company leadership must all be in it together. Ninety percent of new companies will fail without that level of commitment.”

Another important trait Swider looks for is an openness to learn—and not just from mistakes. He often has worked with companies that have developed a certain technology but not yet transformed it for commercial use. “There is a time and place for R&D,” he says, “but to grow, you need a quality product to sell at the right price point.” This often happens, he explains, when dealing with purely technically focused people. “They might be brilliant inventors, but they don’t understand the process of getting a product or service to market.”

The need to change or mentor personnel is another important aspect of running a business. “The team that gets you to 20 employees often won’t get you to 200, and those who get you to 200 usually won’t get you to 2,000.”

So, what was it about Terravive that made him commit to it in 2019? The first thing was the founder’s sense of mission. “A mission is a lot more than a goal; it indicates people are more passionate, more driven to do whatever it takes to succeed. When I met Julianna, she told me that, ever since she started the company in 2015, her mission was to reduce the use of single-use plastics globally and produce American jobs.”

Both elements appealed immediately to Swider. “When I was in the Navy, we’d encounter mini-islands of plastic waste at sea, and when I am hiking, I find it all over the place.” Furthermore, plastic remains in the environment for hundreds and thousands of years. “I visited my parents’ house not too long ago, and in the woods behind it, I found a plastic sand pail that I had used as a boy.”

While plastics (polystyrene) don’t deteriorate in the environment as, say, paper does, they do break into ever-smaller pieces. Known as microplastics, they are easily ingested by animals and humans. In fact, according to Swider, on average, people will eat, drink, or breathe in 44 pounds of microplastics in their lifetimes.

Recycling is not a viable solution for numerous reasons, according to Swider, and maybe it never was. “It was a sham that worked as long as China was buying our trash.” In mid-2018, however, China declared it would no longer accept recyclable trash from the United States—up to 4,000 shipping containers daily. Some of the waste has been diverted to other countries, but the United States lacks the infrastructure to recycle the remainder, meaning a lot of it ends up in landfills.

Terravive offers something of a solution by manufacturing such products as drinking straws, cutlery, take-out containers, bags, and film using plant-based materials. They all degrade in the environment within three to six months and are compostable. According to Swider, one customer recently ordered 12 truckloads of products, diverting 600 tons of plastic waste from the environment. “That’s very satisfying.”

All the company’s products are domestically made. This reflects what its website declares as “a core pillar of our company”—and Keeling’s founding vision. “A strong country can exist only with a commitment to a strong manufacturing sector,” said Swider. “Unfortunately, a lot of people were happy to ship our industrial capacity—and jobs—to China. That’s not good for our economy because it skews the entire system,” he continued, “and it’s not good for national security because, in case of conflict, our supplies of critical items will stop immediately.” The raw materials used in Terravive’s products are grown or produced domestically, and all products are made in the United States. “That means we can assure our clients we have very secure supply lines.”

Although Terravive now supports about 1,000 American workers and has steadily rising sales, Swider admits it still has its challenges. He pointed out that, regardless of the growing knowledge of plastics’ environmental impact, they have been so prevalent for so long that people and companies don’t give them much thought. Swider and his colleagues, therefore, must educate people on why a commitment to plastics reduction is important. But education will be worthless if their replacements aren’t cost-competitive. “A lot depends on the sophistication of procurement professionals,” explains Swider. “If they believe it is the right thing to do, they tell us they’ll make up additional cost on the margins or over the products’ lifecycle.”

Asked what might surprise people about Terravive, Swider said that even though the company’s business is technology-driven, it is also relationship-driven. “We like to meet people, be they clients or suppliers. We want to build a sense of trust and mutual respect, and the best way to do that is to visit in person.” For this reason, Swider and Keeling spend roughly 60% of their time on the road.

Throughout his career, Swider has drawn upon the lessons he learned as a cadet. “Resiliency is something you develop as a cadet, especially as a rat. You’re going to face challenges throughout your life, and you need to figure out how to handle them. To accomplish things and conquer mountains, you must be resourceful, and VMI teaches you that, too.”

“Business is a game of ‘3-D chess.’ You need to think ahead, to consider all contingencies. In short, you need to plan, and the demands of cadet life teach you to do that.”

Finally, Swider says he always keeps in mind the words in the main arch, “You may be whatever you resolve to be.”

“That applies to your cadetship and your life after barracks because you swiftly learn that it is up to you and only you to focus, lean into the future, and to resolve to be successful in life, in whatever form you define success.”

  • Scott Belliveau

    Scott Belliveau '83 Communications Officer - Executive Projects

    The communications officer supports the strategy for all communications, including web content, public relations messages and collateral pieces in order to articulate and promote the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies and promote philanthropy among varied constituencies.