Greene started working in the family’s Charleston-based environmental engineering business when he was in the fourth grade. His first job: cleaning toilets.
Responsibilities grew as he did, to running a floor buffer and eventually working on the field team, involved with things like drilling wells and taking samples and then working in the lab. When it was time to think about college, his dad told him that if he wanted to come back and be a part of the firm, he needed to get a degree in chemical engineering.
So Greene came to Clemson and earned his degree in chemical engineering. But along the way, the family business took a turn.
In 1998, as Greene recalls, his parents, George III and Molly, had a kind of midlife crisis. They had been extremely successful with their business, employing around 350 people. But then Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, resulting in more than 7,000 fatalities in Honduras.
“My dad tells a story that he really felt he needed to do something,” Greene says. “But if you have looked at a map recently, you’ll know that Charleston and Honduras are not real close.”
His father sent an email to a missionary their church had supported for years, offering to help. He didn’t expect a response.
“What was bad about Mitch was that the storm stalled over the country of Honduras and dropped over 75 inches of rain,” Greene says. “Massive flooding. Basically, the whole country was underwater, and so the thought was, ‘They’re not going to have power. Even if they have power, they’re not going to have internet. Even if they have internet, they won’t have computers to check email.’”
Less than 24 hours later, his father was surprised to receive an email response — asking for help with drinking water for six communities.
“It was a tangible request as opposed to, ‘Pray for us; send us money,’” Greene says.
As an engineer, his father could work with that. So he got started.
His initial thought was to purchase water purification systems that could be shipped. What he found out was that there were small systems — think about what you’d pack on a camping trip in your backpack — and there were large, military-grade reverse-osmosis systems with equally large price tags.
Ever an engineer, Greene III drew up his own design, purchased supplies at local hardware stores and built six systems in the parking lot of his business. Within 12 days (with the help of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and access to a C-5 transport), Greene III, Molly Greene, and 17 other volunteers were on the ground in Honduras installing water purification systems.
They had solved the immediate problem but realized it wasn’t a permanent solution. Supplies would run out; equipment would break down; and the communities would be back dealing with unsafe water.
In 2001, the Greenes sold their for-profit business to finance Water Mission and started with two full-time staff, one of whom was Greene, freshly graduated from Clemson.