Go Big: How Stifled Travel Plans Inspired Romance and an Environmental Nonprofit

Even when stuck at home, some people took the bold step to start something new: Today, discover the story behind Ecopreneur Evolution and its founders, Grant Kendzior and Maria Daniela Velasco

The truth is, trivago couldn’t help everyone go someplace new in 2020. So instead, we’re celebrating the people that turned challenge into opportunity by starting new businesses, pursuits, and passions. When they couldn’t go far, they chose to go big.

Grant and Maria never met in person before deciding to travel together. Their trip through the Croatian coast to Norway’s Northern Lights was supposed to start in Berlin in mid-March. But as soon as Maria got there, the pandemic shut down the world. As she was stranded in Germany, away from her family in Venezuela for nine months, Grant was home in Florida battling a nasty bout of COVID. Thousands of miles apart, they stayed there for each other. What emerged was not only a romantic connection but the seeds of a new sustainability venture that empowers small businesses across the globe to become more environmentally conscious. Friends turned more-than-friends turned co-founders—and Ecopreneur Evolution was born.

The Interviewees

A Florida native, Grant Kendzior founded Sustainable Breakthroughs, a consulting outfit that helps businesses improve their eco-footprint, and has spoken at the United Nations. Maria Daniela Velasco grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, and founded an environmental NGO called Ökospiri. The two hit it off online and created Ecopreneur Evolution.
Discover Ecopreneur Evolution

Connecting From Afar

A fellow upcycling (a term for recycling discarded products for artistic and environmental value) aficionado, Grant came across the mural on Instagram and was thoroughly impressed by Maria’s level of care in her project. “You could see her aura and her light shining through. She’s someone who really loves what she does,” he says. Grant gathered his courage before sending Maria an earnest DM, complimenting her on her fantastic work. They quickly realized how much they had in common.

Countless video calls and WhatsApp messages later, they decided they wanted to meet. While the pandemic threw a wrench in their travel plans, it gave them plenty of time to think about how they could mesh their skills and interests into a new project. Grant’s big-picture knowledge of environmental entrepreneurship combined with Maria’s on-the-ground work with small businesses paved the way for their new venture.

Finding Love and Purpose in Dark Times

Grant and Maria in Costa Rica

By March 2020, they knew they had a special connection but still hadn’t met. Maria flew into Berlin on the 13th. Grant was held up with a meeting but planned to meet her on the 15th. On the 14th, nearly all international travel shut down. While Maria was isolated in a foreign country, Grant got COVID in Florida. “I was the picture of health: six-pack abs, drinking green juice every day,” he says, “and I got rocked by it.” He was bedridden for three months and endured seven different co-infections from pneumonia. For two people so used to being on the move all the time, being so stuck was a tough pill to swallow.

But through hours-long video chats, sending books, and swapping motivational quotes, they formed an even deeper connection. While they were dreaming up Ecopreneur Evolution, they were also falling in love.

“He was a mirror of me, and I was a mirror for him,” Maria says. “We had this shared vision that was a big part of our connection.” Since finally meeting in Costa Rica, 11 months after Grant’s fateful DM, they’ve barely spent a minute apart.

“I’m grateful for all this craziness,” Maria says, laughing. “And now we’re able to have this common dream and goal to serve others and not build it alone, but as a team. I think that’s what we need now.”

“Every day we had this practice of showing gratitude to each other, to the life that we have, to our love, to our passion, to our ambition, to our health. It was actually a ritual that kept us going, diving deeper into our connection that actually is a connection that builds and wants to serve others.”

Inspired by Grant and Maria’s story? Keep an eye on our channels for other interviews in our Go Big series!