When Memphis native Kalki Winter gardened with his grandparents as a child, he didn’t know it would prepare him for a career as a business owner and environmentalist. Today, that young gardener is principal and designer at eScape Landscape Designs. eScape’s isn’t a “mow and blow” lawn service, Winter said. They offer sustainable, site-specific landscape design with a focus on using native and zone-appropriate plant material and responsible water management. Last year, they served over 50 clients in the Memphis area.
Along with his wife and director of business development, Wendy Sumner-Winter, Kalki focuses on aspects of landscape design that are earth-friendly as well as artistic. They approach each project as a unique challenge and put together a plan that is specific to that space alone. Specialties for the company include water mitigation and drainage solutions, drought and shade-tolerant plants, and complete avoidance of chemicals or harmful pesticides.
Kalki Winter, principal and founder of eScape Landscape Designs.
Drainage solutions and proper water usage are big business for eScape. As a personal project, Winter took on recycling air conditioner condensation to use with laundry, and that challenge developed into a passion to conserve natural resources in creative ways.
Now, the company uses their expertise to help clients use Memphis water responsibly when setting up their outdoor spaces. “In Memphis, we think of ourselves as water-rich, but that's not completely true. Or at least it won't always be true if we can't figure out ways to be better stewards of this amazing resource," Winter said.
Another passion of Winter’s is running a sustainable and responsible small business in Memphis. He and Wendy started eScape in 2011 because they saw a local need for environmentally-friendly landscape design and maintenance. They also felt a responsibility to contribute to Memphis itself by conducting business in a way that supports the ideals that are most important to their family — “equality, economic justice and humble stewardship of our earth," he said.
Wendy and Kalki both believe that “Small businesses are representative of the communities in which they operate, and more rooted to the city than their larger counterparts.
Because we rely so heavily on our local relationships to build our businesses, we are consequently more active in cultivating those relationships. That disposition, whether it's natural or purely for marketing purposes, requires us to be active contributors to the life of the city, economically and culturally.”
Large businesses, as well as small businesses, are charged with caring for their communities, Winter said.
“As small businesses owners, we are much closer to our customers because they're our neighbors, friends, co-chairs of the school fundraisers ... Our success is tied to the city in a very different way than large corporations, which can relocate when their PILOTs [payment-in-lieu-of-tax incentives] expire.”
The eScape founders also believe that any Memphis small business has a better chance of making a real impact on the city when it is joined by other successful small businesses. They believe in success (and sustainability) in numbers and say “We're all interdependent, and the success of one woman's small storefront business creates more opportunity for the rest of us.”
Winter admits that he does face challenges. He has trouble finding staff that is not only qualified but also up for the challenge of working outdoors in the Memphis weather. In addition, that person has to have a valid driver’s license or reliable transportation, which is something Winter cites as a “real barrier to growth” for eScape as well as the Memphis economy in general. To further explain, he quoted Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a Memphis-based nonprofit that advocates for citizens that have come in contact with the criminal justice system, in saying that “not driving is not working."
Another challenge to operating a successful small business in Memphis comes down to the city’s focus on attracting and growing large corporations through mediums like tax incentives. In the future, Winter hopes that the Greater Memphis Chamber will “be more aggressive and proactive about developing programs aimed at supporting small businesses and making us aware of them.”
He cited a current Chamber program aimed at mentorship for small businesses. To qualify for this program, the business must generate a minimum of $200,000 annually.
"It took a long time before my business reached that $200,000 annual revenue mark, and I probably could have used the mentorship way before I got to that level,” Winter said. Ultimately, Kalki and Wendy are calling on the city at large “to take a good look in the mirror and decide if we are going to do what it takes to become an economically successful city.”
Despite the challenges they face, the Winters continue to aim for growth with eScape. Their philosophy so far has been slow, sustainable growth with a focus on client relationships. Robbie Weinberg, eScape client and owner of Midtown’s Eclectic Eye, can attest to their commitment to relationship building. She raves that Winter is “a great listener and visionary” and also says he is “an excellent teammate.” When asked why she chose eScape, Weinberg cites the company’s “commitment to earth-friendly designs and materials” as motivating factors.
In examining the beginnings and continued growth of eScape, it's clear that company is about much more than nice greenery. They have deep roots in making their city more economically healthy for all of its residents. It’s really just an added bonus that the Winters also have the skills to foster a beautiful Memphis landscape.