Dec 112011
Authors: Jason Pohl

Everybody has one.

It may be in the kitchen or buried in the closet, but chances are that you probably have one, too. Yesterday’s junk drawer filled with potato chip clips and dead batteries has been replaced by high-tech gadgets and outdated toys that constitute our connected lives.

But as annual technology releases like Apple’s iPhone create tremendous hype, they also create an incredible amount of electronic waste –– something Brennan Zelener saw as an opportunity to truly make a difference in sustainable technology.

“I want to change the world,” said Zelener, a junior business management major. “In developing countries, these phones are incredible. In a year or two, it’s going to be kind of obsolete by American standards, but in Africa, this is an incredible piece of technology.”

Just last year, Zelener launched his own business venture, Green iPhone, while managing a full course load at CSU. He ultimately fulfills the front-end duties of phone recycling by personally communicating with and paying people to hand over their old iPhones –– in any condition. Then, he goes into the phone to unlock and wipe it, essentially giving the phone new life with no remaining personal information.

“The privacy and security of the people who sell me phones is a top priority for everything,” he said, adding that many businesses pay to have their phones destroyed. “If we could even just provide our erasing service for free, that’s gonna be huge for them.”

After working for several months reselling the wiped phones on websites, such as eBay and Craigslist, Zelener has partnered with a larger phone buyer and refurbishing company that purchases used phones in bulk as businesses upgrade their employees to the latest model.

Ultimately, his service allows for people to get rid of their old iPhones, which often still have years of life remaining, in an easy way. He said average buy-back rates are “around $100,” but are changing weekly based on demand.

“It’s just an easier process,” he said, while explaining the other options people often use, including individual sale online. Green iPhone allows people to easily get their phones somewhere that can use them.

To help the business take off in a market where so many others fail, Zelener has worked closely with the Rocky Mountain Innosphere, a local nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs further specify their goals while critiquing the viability of the new idea.

“It’s exciting, but you never know whether you’re making the right decisions or not when you’re starting,” Zelener said.

To help navigate the business world, the 20-year-old entrepreneur has taken it upon himself to make as many connections in the community as possible, including those in the business world and in the realm of academia.

Yolanda Sarason, associate professor of business management and strategic marketing, first met Zelener in her class during the spring semester, and immediately saw something unique in him.

“It was really obvious from the get-go that he just stood out,” she said. “He’s a natural entrepreneur, and that’s very unusual for our undergraduates.”

Since that time, the two have worked closely and are currently preparing for a pitch on Wednesday to the Social Advisory Group for Entrepreneurs –– a group of business leaders who critique new entrepreneurial pitches to assist in fine-tuning each resource, including funding, while building connections.

“He’s a natural networker,” Sarason said. “He already knows the entrepreneurial community pretty well. If I were betting, I would definitely bet on Brennan.”

Zelener, like many college students, has faced tough times early on in his college career. Initially, he questioned moving away from his home state of Alaska, but after realizing that a lot of what he wanted to do was business-related, he changed his major from engineering.

“It’s really important to get out of your comfort zone,” he said. “I think when you’re passionate enough about something, you end up learning it.”

That passion of his is nothing new.

Andy Holleman is a long-time family friend who has known Zelener since he was born. Holleman has worked as the technology coordinator for Zelener’s high school in Alaska for several years and served as a mentor to him.

He said that, when he wasn’t skiing off of his roof or jumping off other high places, Zelener often created small business ideas that would typically see little success before failing. What made him different was that, when one idea fell through, he always had another plan, Hollman said.

“I would put a lot of it on his own initiative,” he added. “At some point while in high school, he grasped the idea that he really could shape the way things could be.”

As a mentor during high school and through their occasional conversations since, Holleman said one thing that has always stuck out is the drive to never work for anyone else –– to always be steering his own business.

“There’s a switch somewhere that gets flipped, and that life just ceases to be an option,” Holleman said.

Zelener, like everyone else, is looking forward to winter break and a chance to catch up on things that have long been forgotten during the time-crunch of school and his business work. And though he doubts he will be able to hit the ski slopes or bike as much as he wishes, he said that he will be busy preparing for the next step for his business, which he hopes takes off even further next semester.

He added that his favorite part of the business world he has seen so far is the potential to actually make a difference –– something he hopes to do in the form of revolutionizing the way in which the recycling process operates.

“It’s like realizing that the world is a place that you can change,” he said. “It’s not that far out, and it’s not that far fetched. As long as we can teach passion and motivation, those two factors persist through all things.”

Senior Reporter Jason Pohl can be reached at

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