“Whye” it Matters

Great Dames, Inc. founder and CEO Sharon Hake (left) and Delaware’s First Lady Carla Markell (right) present alumna Tanya Whye her award from the Great Dames Inc. Remarkable Ideas Competition.
Great Dames, Inc. founder and CEO Sharon Hake (left) and Delaware’s First Lady Carla Markell (right) present alumna Tanya Whye her award from the Great Dames Inc. Remarkable Ideas Competition. (Photo Credit: Paul Pruitt)

Tanya came up with a solution. It was a triple bottom-line approach; making money while benefiting society and helping others to succeed. She is literally putting into action the lessons she learned at Wilmington University.        —Sharon Hake

Tanya N. Whye was in her 40s and the single mother of a young son when she decided to get her master’s degree in business administration.

At Wilmington University, she expected to develop the business acumen and critical thinking skills that would help her to succeed in her career. But Whye got much more. A paper she wrote for an environmental stewardship course became the springboard for an award-winning business model and launched Whye on the road to becoming her own boss.

Whye’s proposal for Delaware Green Mattress Disassembling & Recycling LLC —  a company that will recycle mattresses and box springs while creating jobs for first-time offenders — garnered her more than $35,000 in cash and services as the winner of Great Dames Inc.’s Remarkable Ideas Competition, a contest centered on helping women entrepreneurs to make their business dreams a reality.

“The research for my class helped to push me forward, opening my eyes to the need for a business that recycles mattress components and keeps them out of the landfill, where they release harmful chemicals,” says Whye, 47. “It made me realize that unless we find a better way to dispose of mattresses our children and grandchildren will suffer the environmental consequences.”

Erich Poch, the WilmU professor who taught the course that inspired Whye, says she was an enthusiastic student and innovative thinker. “Tanya was always energetic, creative and engaged,” he says. “She demonstrated a passion for high-level concepts concerning sustainability. She is hitting the issue of recycling mattresses from multiple points that give her early momentum.”

Whye’s research indicates that individuals replace mattresses every nine years. Hospitality venues and institutions buy new mattresses every seven years.

“Mattresses are everywhere; everyone sleeps on one,” she says. “Hotels, motels, dorms, nursing homes, hospitals, the military.”

According to the Mattress Recycling Council, 95 percent of mattress components can be recycled into such products as fabric for oil filters, steel for machinery and tools and foam underlayment for carpeting. Yet the majority of mattresses wind up in the landfill where they release toxic chemicals, including boric acid and formaldehyde.

“Instead of throwing them in the landfill,” says Whye, “those recyclable components can be reclaimed and sold.”

Currently, there are no mattress recycling operations in Delaware, according to the International Sleep Products Association. Whye says that opportunity is heightened by the passage of Bill 234, the state recycling law that set a goal of diverting 80 percent of solid waste from landfills by 2020. Three states — California, Connecticut and Rhode Island — already have mandatory mattress recycling.

Whye’s proposal was chosen from 41 entrepreneurial models in the competition sponsored by Great Dames, a regional philanthropic group dedicated to helping women through personal branding and community building. Carla Markell, Delaware’s first lady, announced Whye as the winner on Nov. 10, 2014.

Sharon Hake, Great Dames founder and CEO, says Whye demonstrates exceptional insight in her business model, which would provide her with income, while protecting the environment and creating jobs for a population that faces significant challenges in finding work.

“What is so exciting about Tanya is that she saw both a problem and an opportunity — and came up with a solution,” Hake says. “It was a triple bottom-line approach; making money while benefiting society and helping others to succeed. She is literally putting into action the lessons she learned at Wilmington University.”

Whye, of Wilmington, learned responsibility at a young age, helping to care for her mother, who was disabled by a back injury. The first in her family to go to college, she earned a bachelor’s degree at Cheyney University while she was working for
the school.

Achieving her goal was challenging because she could only take classes offered during her lunch hour. It took her six years of taking courses year-round to get her degree.

In the summer of 2012, when Whye decided to get her master’s degree, she was an assistant bursar at Widener University. She enrolled in WilmU’s MBA program because the university offered a specialized MBA program in environmental stewardship.

WilmU provides other significant advantages that are attractive to students with busy lives. Evening and online courses offered her the flexibility she needed as a single parent and as a working adult.

Soon after she started her studies, Whye’s job at Widener was eliminated. Getting laid off was painful, but her passion for learning helped to soften the blow.

“I felt sad about losing my job, but with my schedule at Wilmington University, I could look for work without having to give up my education,” she says. “I felt as though the Lord was saying He had something else for me to do and continuing my education was part of that.”

Whye completed her MBA in May 2014. Through Great Dames, she worked with two mentors who helped her to fine tune her business plan: Frederick J. Dawson of Bassett, Dawson & Foy; and Anne Shehab of Golden Seed Investment Co.

Dawson encouraged her to drill down deeper into the numbers to strengthen her spreadsheet. He suggested she network with professionals in waste management in order to get a better understanding of the business landscape.

“Tanya asks great questions and she’s very coachable,” says Dawson. “She also has an MBA from Wilmington University under her belt, which is a big plus.”

Claudia White, principal of Wilmington-based Germaine Training and Development and a longtime supporter, says Whye’s entrepreneurial spirit shines through in her plan to employ people emerging from the criminal justice system and other disenfranchised workers.

“She is growing and creating opportunities for others in terms of employment,” says White. “She’s a very determined businesswoman and a strong role model for her young son.”

Whye is currently working with Del. State Sen. Robert Marshall to identify a location in Wilmington to set up shop. She expects to get her business up and running within the next two years. She already has obtained certification from the Office of Supplier Diversity and as a Woman-Owned Small Business. She’s also focused on obtaining a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification so she can serve as a consultant to other green businesses.

“Writing that paper at Wilmington University changed my life,” she says. “I am proof that getting a good education is the key to success.”WU