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Angel Rojas: Building a Circular Economy at 19 Years Old

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Angel Rojas

Angel Rojas, a Burke County native, likes video games, working on cars, and hanging out with his three dogs, Kissi, Alvin, and Sammy. However, not many teens can say they are already a manager at a start-up company. At just 19-year old, he is the Site Manager at Material Return (MR), an enterprise of The Industrial Commons (TIC) and is part of an innovative team that is pioneering a new way to do business that is environmentally friendly with a focus on work-life balance, fair wages, creating new jobs and rooting wealth locally - a circular economy. His boss, Bob Carswell said, "Angel was an amazing find for this startup. He is one of the most self-motivated and smartest people that I could have hoped for when looking for potential managers. We are proud to have him managing and improving our business and making a greener impact in this region. Angel has shown us that our young people need more opportunities in management positions and need the respect of industry leaders in our region."

From Work in Burke and STRIVE to Material Return at The Industrial Commons

Angel is a graduate of East Burke High School and a STRIVE graduate (Students Taking an Interest in the Value of their Education), a mentorship and motivational scholarship program for high school seniors in partnership with East Burke Kiwanis. They meet monthly with mentors from the community and the student that raises their GPA the most gets a scholarship. STRIVE was initially started at Freedom High School by the Rotary Club of Burke-Sunrise. Buddy Armour, a longtime STRIVE mentor, said that over the course of 14 years, they have served over 170 students and awarded over $28,000 in scholarship money at Freedom High School. In 2017 Work in Burke provided some scholarships and assistance to help launch STRIVE at other Burke County high schools. Mentors, like Buddy, often take current STRIVE students on field trips to learn about local job opportunities. Recently Buddy brought a group to tour at MR where they learned about the circular economy from Angel.

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STRIVE Industry Tour

In 2019, Angel met Sara Chester at a Work in Burke presentation she was giving to his STRIVE group. The two connected quickly over careers and what he wanted to do. "I knew from Angel's counselors and his interaction with me during a STRIVE presentation that he had a lot of initiative and drive. He was, at 18, already being trained for a management position at his current job so I knew he must have been very smart and very responsible", she said. Sara went on to become the Co-Executive Director of TIC and brought Angel on board the MR team. "It's been great seeing Angel grow and learn. He dove right in and has thoughtfully approached every situation he's encountered with a lot of determination. He's already moved up to be the Site Manager for Material Return. I can't wait to see what's in store for him next. The sky's the limit for Angel,” she continued.

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Angel at MR.

We sat down with Angel at MR to have a chat.

Work in Burke: Hello! We’re excited to highlight you and the amazing work you all are doing here at Material Return! Tell us how you got started here.

Angel: Sara and I really connected after her presentation and spoke for a good while. In the summer of 2019, she called me and asked if I’d be interested in a job opening at a new start-up enterprise of The Industrial Commons called Material Return. I was working at Taco Bell and had plans to go to college to be an auto mechanic. I just wanted a better paying job so I said yes. However, I’ve learned so many things about business finances and how to conduct business effectively. I thought it was just another manufacturing job but it’s not at all. We're really making a difference here.

Work in Burke: What’s it like to be so young and already be a success story? Luck or opportunity?

Angel: Definitely opportunity. Growing up, I’ve always been a shy person but this organization has helped me get out of my shell and I’ve learned how to be more comfortable and sociable.

Work in Burke: Tell us about your work family.

Angel: Everyone works really hard and we’re a tight crew. At first, I wasn’t comfortable because I was so shy. Now, I interact with my colleagues on a daily basis. My boss, Bobby Carswell, is just a really good person. He’s really understanding and makes you feel like you’re part of the team. He’s all about sharing knowledge.

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Angel with colleagues Pick-up Lead Patrick McClure (center), and CEO Bobby Carswell (right).

Work in Burke: What’s been the most meaningful thing about your job?

Angel: I’m just happy to be a part of this - this is not just a regular manufacturing job. We truly have a voice and a say-so not only in our processes but in our overall work-life. We understand what’s important to us - which is ultimately our loved ones and the quality of our lives. I have a lot of responsibilities but they make sure I have the resources and tools to get the job done. Our organization stresses not overworking yourself, self-care, and mental health - which is really important in order to run a company.

Work in Burke: Are you an entrepreneur?

Angel: Yes, I got to see MR at its very early stages when the business was just starting out and now we’ve expanded, hired others, and I’ve had a lot of growth in this company. Being an entrepreneur is much more than just starting your own business - it's also about being innovative and thinking outside of the box.

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The bailing process.

The Circular Economy

Work in Burke: Tell us about the circular economy and what MR does.

Angel: We pick up textile waste from local manufacturers and surrounding counties, and we process and aggregate it. Once we have about 40 or 50 bales, we send them out to Leigh Fibers in South Carolina, a reclamation facility. They grind up the fabric and turn it into shoddy or fiber to be used for insulation, cushion for cars, and carpet backing. The higher quality fibers are sent back to the Manufacturing Solutions Center and Textile Technology Center at Gaston College for research and development to be turned into a marketable yarn that can then go back into production. The whole point of this is to be as environmentally-friendly as we can. We prevent the textile waste from going into the landfills by upcycling and recycling it.

Work in Burke: What does that mean for the environment?

Angel: We’re keeping thousands of pounds of textile waste out of the landfill while creating jobs doing it. We saw a need in our community and we’re working hard to fill this need.

Work in Burke: How are manufacturers impacted by the work you all are doing at MR?

Angel: Our region has a rich history of textile manufacturers; however, it also generates a lot of waste that is sent to the landfill. By paying us to pick up their waste, they’re making sure it doesn’t end up harming the environment and helps us to create more jobs through this process. In the near future, we hope to be able to turn the waste into a yarn that can then be put back into the production process - that’s the idea of a circular economy.

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Bails ready to be sent out.

Work in Burke: What’s it been like to pass on the knowledge about the circular economy when middle and high school students come here for an Industry Tours and what’s the one thing you want students to take away?

Angel: Most kids want to move away but giving these tours shows that there are opportunities right here in Burke County. Burke County is thriving because the industries here are paying attention to the changes in the workforce, the skills gap they need to fill, and the partnerships they are building in order to provide these jobs.

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MR Industry Tour with North Liberty Middle School.

Work in Burke: Did you have intentions to stay here after high school and what would you tell young people who want to stay in Burke County?

Angel: I like comfort and being familiar with my surroundings so I didn’t (and I wouldn’t) want to move away from this area! For those who want to stay, my advice would be to reach out and connect with the right people. Build a network in order to learn about opportunities here. If I had not met Sara through Work in Burke and connected with her, I don’t think I would be working here at MR and doing all of this great work.

Work in Burke: Where do you hope Material Return will be in the next 5 - 10 years?

Angel: Hopefully we’ll be in a bigger facility, hire more people and acquire more clients. As we continue to track our carbon footprint and our clients’, I also hope there will be a continuous push to be environmentally friendly.

Work in Burke: You all stay busy and dedicated so what do you like to do when you’re not at work?

Angel: I’ve always been a homebody so I love spending time at home. If my friends manage to drag me out (laughs), we like to go to parks and play basketball.

Watch the boys at work here.

Visit Material Return to learn even more about the circular economy and follow them on Instagram.

Visit The Industrial Commons for more information about other circular enterprises.


Last Updated: March 2, 2020