Evolving together: Dena Prastos

May 07, 2023

Founder of Indigo River (Nyack, NY), a certified Women-Owned Business Enterprise committed to helping our society evolve together with our environment.

By Liisa Andreassen

Born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, Prastos has a deep appreciation for nature and mankind’s ability to design, build, and create resilient sustainable infrastructure in some of the toughest conditions. With transdisciplinary and progressive views, she’s inspired by the overlapping of design, technology, and nature. Indigo River is committed to helping society evolve together with the environment and its work often takes place at the water’s edge.

“Transdisciplinary design involves breaking down traditional disciplinary boundaries and working collaboratively to develop integrated and sustainable solutions,” Prastos says. “This may involve engaging stakeholders and local communities to ensure that solutions are context-specific and meet their needs.”

A conversation with Dena Prastos.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

DP: We encourage parents – especially fathers – to take parental leave. Partners must share equal responsibility in the workplace and the home to effect meaningful, systemic change. Our team has several new fathers, all of whom we encourage to take the space they need to be meaningful partners in caregiving; this includes giving 12 weeks of job-protected paid time off at full salary.

We also promote deserving women into leadership positions and transparently acknowledge and recognize the value they contribute to the organization.

The Zweig Letter: Your firm’s mission statement says, “A single idea can have a butterfly effect – that each project can create global impact.” What does this mean to you?

Dena Prastos: A single idea can have a butterfly effect in terms of climate adaptation architecture, engineering, and planning projects by inspiring and catalyzing a chain reaction of actions and initiatives that collectively create a global impact. Here are some ways in which this can happen:

  • Spreading awareness. A single idea that captures the imagination and inspires people can quickly spread through social media, traditional media, and word-of-mouth, raising awareness about the need for climate adaptation and the potential solutions.
  • Encouraging innovation. A compelling idea can encourage engineers, architects, and planners to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions that can make a real difference. This could involve designing buildings and infrastructure that are more resilient to extreme weather and climate, developing new technologies that help communities adapt to changing climate conditions or creating new urban planning strategies that prioritize sustainability.
  • Mobilizing resources. Once an idea gains traction, it can attract the attention of investors, philanthropists, and governments who are willing to provide funding and support for climate adaptation projects. This can help to scale up projects and make them more impactful.
  • Creating a domino effect. A single project that demonstrates the effectiveness of a particular approach to climate adaptation can serve as a model for other projects around the world. This can create a domino effect, as other cities and communities adopt similar strategies and technologies, leading to a global impact.

Overall, a single idea can have a butterfly effect in climate adaptation architecture, engineering, and planning by inspiring, encouraging, mobilizing, and catalyzing action on a global scale.

TZL: When did you first launch Indigo River and where do you hope to be in terms of growth – say five years down the road? How do you plan to get there?

DP: We launched in 2018, and originally planned to be at $2 million to $2.5 million with 10-12 employees. We’ve surpassed that, hitting $3.7 million with 15 employees within our first five years. We took some calculated risks during the pandemic, and expanded our service offerings and took on new markets that have proved to be successful. One of those initiatives included the joint venture TMI Waterfront Solutions, which launched in 2020, to establish the first GWO Certified Maritime and Offshore Wind Training School in New York City, with a particular focus on mentoring and training diverse populations. We recognized and believed in the goals of the state with regard to renewable energy, specifically offshore wind, and recognized the need and opportunity to develop a diverse workforce in this sector.

TZL: What about focusing on projects at “the water’s edge” do you feel will most help to combat climate change?

DP: We’re working in one of the world’s most vulnerable zones. Sea level rise, storm surge, and unprecedented events are a daily occurrence. Because we are at the fore of experiencing sea level rise and storm surge, designing with and for nature is engrained in our process. One15 Marina, Brooklyn Bridge Park is an interesting project because it’s addressing both climate challenges (wave attenuation) and urbanization (pier installation over active tunnels).

TZL: How would you define transdisciplinary design?

DP: Transdisciplinary design is an approach to climate adaptation work that brings together professionals from different fields, such as architects, engineers, planners, and scientists, to collaborate on solving complex problems related to climate change.

In the context of climate adaptation, transdisciplinary design involves designing and implementing solutions that address the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of climate change. It involves a holistic approach that recognizes that climate change is not just an environmental problem but also a social and economic one that requires multidisciplinary solutions.

Transdisciplinary design involves breaking down traditional disciplinary boundaries and working collaboratively to develop integrated and sustainable solutions. This may involve engaging stakeholders and local communities to ensure that solutions are context-specific and meet their needs.

For example, a transdisciplinary design team may work on developing a climate-resilient community that integrates green infrastructure, such as bioswales and green roofs, with traditional engineered infrastructure, such as drainage systems and wastewater treatment plants.

The team may also work on creating public spaces that serve as both recreational areas and flood protection zones.

TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?

DP: We pay full healthcare and offer flexible remote work time. We involve the team in decisions that affect them and we all work hard, including the principals – all of whom are productive principals. We roll up our sleeves and support whenever and wherever needed. In polling our team this year at our annual meeting, some of the words they used to describe the company culture were supportive, inventive, fun-loving, free flowing, and kind.

TZL: To date, what’s been your firm’s greatest challenge? How have you addressed it?

DP: We’ve faced several challenges when trying to scale our growth. It’s been difficult for a few reasons that include:

  • Labor-intensive services. Professional service firms typically provide services that require a high level of expertise and personal attention. This has limited our ability to scale because we cannot simply hire more people to provide the same level of service without compromising quality.
  • Limited scalability of revenue streams. Professional service firms often rely on billable hours as their primary revenue stream, which is limited by the number of hours in a day and the number of professionals available to bill those hours. This can make it difficult to achieve significant revenue growth without expanding the business or developing additional revenue streams.
  • Client acquisition and retention. We often rely on reputation and referrals to attract new clients, which can be a slow and unpredictable process. We are grateful to have retained existing clients, but even still, we have experienced that clients have experienced changing needs, budgets, or priorities, especially throughout the pandemic.
  • Management challenges. As we’ve grown, we’ve faced management challenges such as coordinating teams, maintaining quality control, and managing finances. These challenges can be difficult to overcome without investing in systems, processes, and leadership development.

Overall, scaling growth has required a balance between maintaining the quality of our services while expanding our client base and developing new revenue streams. It also requires a strong focus on managing the challenges associated with growth, such as labor-intensive services, limited scalability of revenue streams, client acquisition and retention, geographic limitations, and management challenges. We operate in a transparent and communicative manner within our team and have been gracious to the individuals within our team who rise to meet challenges, unforeseen or otherwise.

TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?

DP: Age is just a number. We have elevated partners into ownership in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. We incubate M/WBEs in the space.

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

DP: In short, we treat them the way we wished we were treated when we worked at other firms in the industry – with respect and empathy. We also spend quite a bit of time upfront before making offers and onboarding to ensure that our mission and values are aligned. 

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