Read best-selling author Bill McKibben's take on Front Porch Forum's origins.
By Taylor Tucker
January 14, 2019
Illinois alumnus Michael Wood-Lewis (BSME ’88, MBA-MSME ’91) and his wife Valerie are the creators of the successful, private social media platform Front Porch Forum. FPF serves as a space in which neighborhood residents can easily communicate and post about anything from garage sales and clean-up projects to wild animal sightings and lost-and-found announcements.
“FPF is primarily designed to fulfill our community-building mission in the place where we live and are raising our kids,” said Wood-Lewis.
Originally intended to serve neighborhoods of their hometown of Burlington, Vermont, the platform has expanded to encompass the entire state of Vermont as well as the towns of Argyle, Cambridge, Jackson, and White Creek in New York, and Stewartstown in New Hampshire. More expansion is currently taking place.
When Wood-Lewis and Valerie first moved to Vermont, they had trouble getting to know their neighbors. After several unsuccessful attempts at communication, they decided in 2000 to create a neighborhood email list. They distributed fliers that told residents to reach out with messages and questions. Wood-Lewis would receive emails and compile them into a single bulletin that he would send to all participating addresses.
Thus began the Five Sisters Neighborhood Forum, named for the neighborhood in which the couple lived. Wood-Lewis ran the volunteer effort for the next six years, during which time the forum grew and gained popularity.
He concurrently worked for a New England trade association of drinking water and wastewater systems, where he managed a team of 25 engineers, planners, trainers, and certified operators. With Five Sisters experiencing so much activity, he eventually decided in 2006 to leave his job and turn the forum into a full-time business. The couple renamed their updated platform Front Porch Forum, and the rest is history.
By the time he created FPF, Wood-Lewis already had a history of achieving success in notable projects. During his MBA-MSME joint program at Illinois, he pursued for his thesis a recycling project that originated from an independent study he had done as an undergrad under Professor Emeritus Ty Newell. The goal was to design a robust machine that could sort various items, including glass bottles of different colors, for recycling.
Wood-Lewis constructed and tested the final machine at the former Community Recycling Center in Champaign, which at the time was nationally recognized for its innovative recycling programs.
“We called it “The Whapper” because bottles would fall down dark chutes, sensors would read the amount of light passing through each item, and hinged panels would be actuated if signals indicated a certain color of glass…WHAP!” he said.
After graduate school, Wood-Lewis went on to work at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington, DC.
“My first project was leading a team of researchers in producing a set of two dozen case studies of small, local manufacturers that used items from the waste stream to produce new products, “ he said. “We studied their technology, business models, environmental and economic impact, and more.” His final report was published and widely distributed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
He then moved to Vermont, where his career would eventually go in a completely new direction. Although his position at FPF is quite different from those of previous projects, Wood-Lewis still credits his engineering background with playing a key role in his success.
“I use the skills and lessons I learned earning my BS, MS, and MBA at Illinois every day in my work leading FPF,” said Wood-Lewis. “Establishing clear vision and goals, assembling strong teams, juggling many complex tasks simultaneously over time, aggressively researching what I need to know… all of these necessary skills have their roots in my time on campus.”