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FedTech Innovator: Helen Whiteley from the Women+ in Climate Tech Global Network

Ben: Alright. Hey, Helen. Nice to see you. Thanks for being on the podcast today. We are really excited to have you here. Maybe talk to us a little to start off about your organization, what you are working on, and, critically, what led to you to start the Women in Climate Tech network.

Helen: Thank you so much for having me on today. I began my climate journey for those of you in climate, you know, that one of the first communities was my climate journey. I do like to reference that, but we have come a long way since then.

My climate journey really began in 2016ish. I had come from Korea in marketing for a professional services firm, so large law firms, accounting firms and the like. And I just felt the calling. You know most people in the sector have stories like mine, where they just wake up one morning and say “bugger it” you know. Maybe not saying quite like “bugger it” - that’s an English phrase. Anything else that’s more worthwhile to work on- of all the worthwhile things of which there are many.

I decided I was not going to wake for someone else just try to solve the problem any more than I could try to do something myself, whatever that was. It led me to start my own marketing agency, which officially launched February of 2018. And from there it just happened to be around the time when climate tech software was really starting to emerge. It was very nascent still.

One of my first clients had software that was mapped to the TCFD (the Taskforce Climate related Financial Disclosures). I learned everything I could about the TCFD, and that was, as a communicator, a big aha moment because it made me realize for the first time- as a B2B communicator- that this changes everything. This puts a price on climate change. This enables companies to put the risks and opportunities on their books. This makes it real.

Ben: Maybe even describe a little bit more about because I know that was a landmark moment. Maybe for folks that are newer to the whole climate space- even unpack that a little more.

Helen: Yeah, it’ a very important moment, where Carnie and Bloomberg basically were leading this leading group together. Top financial services companies around the world recognizing this coming calamity- an environmental calamity. But it’s also going to affect the market. It’s going to affect business. It’s going to affect the economy and our lives.

How do we start thinking about this in those terms as well as the environmental terms, so it’s not one or the other? How do we embed climate into risk management? How do we embed it into business? How do we embed it into risk management? How do we embed it into the markets? How do we address that question?

They came up with this framework, and its genius. It was first published in 2015 and has gone through many iterations and has gained steam and momentum. But it really is a framework that enables people in the business world to understand and project the risks that climate change will have in their portfolios and assets. It enables software providers and technology providers a framework for building and managing and communicating these risks to business- within business.

It's a big landmark moment. It’s gained a lot of momentum. It has inspired a lot of movements- including one (that got) Women in Climate Tech launched, which I can tell you about that later. That was a landmark moment for me. And as a communicator I felt “Wow, I’m a B2B communicator. I didn’t really have a non-profit background. I didn’t have a climate background. I had to take some climate change classes to get that background, but it changes everything. And this is what I want to spend my career doing.”

And I did. And from there I picked up lots of different types of climate tech companies. Everything from synthetic biology to climate risks analytics to oceans technology.

Ben: Helped pick up meaning help run the communications side, right?

Helen: Yeah, the business as a whole. It really struck me that, at the time, there were networks of people in, for example, clean energy or renewable energy. But they tended to be populated with people, who were involved in solar and wind- the first big wave. I was looking around thinking synthetic biology.

Climate tech is different. It's broader. Climate tech, basically, is the term for any technology in any industry. It's not just clean energy. It's food. It's water. It’s, you know, our clothing. How do we embed climate tech into everything that we do?

I thought we really do need a group to work to communicate working in these issues. And that was how Women in Climate Tech was born. We started our work on that in 2020, and press launched January of 2021.

Ben: I'm always struck by just how broad the tech that can fit into this idea of climate tech is. Things like the example of the meatless burgers, you know. Maybe give everybody kind of a walk around. Like, just what types of technologies do you consider climate hacks that are maybe less intuitive than something like carbon capture? What else comes to mind?

Helen: It's such a great question. Like I said, I think of climate tech in a lot broader sense than just clean energy or renewable energy. Renewable energy was the first wave, I think, of innovators and people building solar and electric vehicles. And that was really the first wave. The second wave has been even broader, which is the climate tech as a whole. So, software that plugs into financial services companies that helps them map measure and manage climate risk. That's where I first started.

And that's really kind of find crossover between fintech and climate tech, right? There's ag tech, which is everything from the food we eat to how food is grown and processed to how soil can be utilized to sequester more carbon. The synthetic biology piece and some of the other pieces I mentioned, maybe, could be thought of as a third wave.

Ben: How so?

Helen: We had solar and wind. I'm talking very broad terms just for people to wrap their heads around. The first wave was really the renewable energy infrastructure, renewable energy companies, battery, and whatnot. The second wave was really more climate tech software, right? And there's a huge number of different people in the market. Now, the third wave, I think, is really deep tech. That is where we're going even deeper into the biology and the chemistry of how things are made. And trying to make changes to the very kind of chemical makeups of plastics, of foods, and the clothes we wear. Of everything- to try to be less reliant on fossil fuels and chemicals that are problematic for the environment. And look for ways to build from scratch. Rebuild our products and services and markets from scratch in better ways. I'm doing a lot of work in deep tech now, which is why I mention it and got some fascinating examples there.

Ben: Wow, okay. Tell us more. At FedTech, we love deep tech.

Helen: Are you sure? Are you ready for this?

Ben: Yeah, of course. Just share this.

Helen: I wish your listeners could see this on camera.

Ben: I got an actual sample. Okay, holding up.

Helen: Yeah. What you're looking at - maybe I should describe it?

Ben: Sure.

Helen: It's a two-by-two centimeter almost looks like a microchip. It's shiny and metallic. And on this microchip is printed in approximately 2 million novel chemical combinations. They use nanotechnology to nano print different combinations from the periodic table in order to find replacements for rare metals that are critical to climate tech.

I'll give you an example. A radium is a metal that is very, very rare. It's, I think, .000003% of the Earth's crust. There's a lot of zeros but it is critical, critical, critical in green hydrogen catalysis. It enables electrification- production of green hydrogen. Hydrogen is going to be a huge part of our economy. It is going to replace a lot of fossil fuels. But you can't do it without iridium. Right now, we need to find a replacement of iridium because there's not enough already on the planet.

Ben: Sure.

Helen: Copper is another great example. You probably hear about the metals and the challenges there. There's no end of examples of how we are running out of precious metals and minerals that are critical to the energy transition. What the scientists are doing is printing novel combinations and then testing them on chips in a massively parallel way. So, testing 2 million materials an hour to stress test them to see which ones they can scale up to try to replace some of these precious metals.

Ben: Oh, interesting. Where was that invented?

Helen: Well, this is actually out of the Northwestern Institute of Nanotechnology. A company in Chicago called Metic.

Ben: Okay, fascinating. So, the idea would be that it's essentially enabling a more rapid development of replacements that may be more abundant.

Helen: You're absolutely right. You’re 100%. That's a rapid iteration development- traditional development techniques, right? Much more linear. You're testing. You find novel material. You, maybe, test 1000 a week - if you're lucky.

Ben: Okay.

Helen: This is truly digitizing the periodic table and testing as fast as we can to try to keep up with the demands of the climate economy.

Ben: Wow. So cool. And I'm sure that that could have a lot of interesting applications across many fields. Well, going back to your story, again. What led you to be the type of person that's holding a chip that is made for chemical experimentation at your home in North Carolina? What was the journey?

Helen: I continue to do marketing work for climate tech companies as a fractional CMO. And I take on just a small handful of companies and help them scale in the way that I've helped several companies. My first climate tech company scaled successfully and was sold to S&P at the end of 2021. A similarly placed company called Global Weather Corporation was sold to Google a couple months later. And a lot of these climate tech companies out there have the expertise and technology that can be utilized by larger businesses to scale their efforts. Helping to marry small businesses with large businesses is a big part of scaling climate tech as fast as we can.

Ben: I think you're, through the current initiative- Women in Climate Tech, in some ways attacking multiple really important issues, right? There's obviously climate, but also inequity within the technical fields that would support climate innovation. Maybe talk more about specifically what the organization does and what are kind of the outcomes that you're hoping for- if the organization is successful?

Helen: Yeah, thank you for asking. Well, back in 2018/2019, it did look very familiar. The landscape looked very familiar to me having lived through the .com boom. I was seeing a lot of the same types of people getting funding and getting support. And it didn't sit well with me because I thought, “Well, we are facing the most cataclysmic problem we've ever faced. How do we think that tackling it in the same way with the same people with the same structures that got us here is going to lead to fundamentally, profoundly..?” And maybe this is getting a little philosophical, but it didn't feel right.

So, climate tech. What is climate tech? Well, it's a machine. You can roll out and suck carbon out of the air, quite literally. They're doing that. I mean- it's fascinating, and it's wonderful. But more than that, climate tech needs to represent fundamental change in how we approach and how we set these things up- including who we elevate in order to come to solutions.

Women are traditionally very underrepresented in technology, as we know, and specifically in climate tech. Recently there's some data out that women owned companies got about 6% of venture capital funding in climate tech. And that's down from 8% the year before. So, we really are seeing the same patterns and the same challenges play out that have plagued other industries, and I would argue, have held back the industries.

We need diversity of thought at the table. We need diversity of thought and in action in implementing these technologies. Otherwise, we're not going to make it. That's the perspective that we strive to bring.

And I'll go a little further- just to kind of pique your imagination, right? And say, fundamentally, the power structures that got us here have negatively impacted many different types of people through the ages. We know this. Women are one group. Fundamentally, why are we here? One of the reasons, not the only reason, is our population is gargantuan. It’s growing so fast. We are using resources on the planet because our population is growing.

So many, many, many women around the world- millions of women- do not have control over their own bodies to determine population, to help reduce population, and to help get a handle on it. And we know that when women have better access to healthcare, they're healthier, and their children are healthier. Often that leads to smaller, healthier families.

Now, how does that relate to climate tech? That's a good question, right? If we're going to tackle climate change, you know, this should be thought of as part of that work. It's not the only solution. But if you're not thinking broadly about the systemic issues that got us here, and trying to think about how to tackle them, you're not going to be as effective.

One of the things we think about as climate technologies that can empower women is clean cooking stoves in places, where people and families don't have access to electricity. They can make massive carbon reductions. If you implement clean cooking stoves, you can save millions of tons of carbon dioxide a year. Who uses them? It’s primarily women. If you switch out to a clean cooking stove, it's got immense value for families and for children. Dirty wood burning stoves create pollution that gives children asthma and on and on and on. So, you empower women and communities to make better decisions in their everyday lives- you can make a significant impact.

So how do we think about implementing gender equity throughout climate tech? We know that elevating women to positions of power in companies, specifically board positions, has a better outcome for that business's sustainability efforts. We know that female consumers are more likely to buy products that have a sustainability angle- more likely than male consumers.

If you look at the use agenda as one lens to look at this whole scenario, you can make improvements across the board. It can 2X 3X whatever climate technology work you're doing. And we tried to talk about this as well. How do you hire more women? How do you train more women in apprenticeship programs through the ranks? How do you think about testing your climate technology so that they appeal to women?

Women tend to travel- walk two to three times further than men across the across the world. They have to travel further than men. Now we look around in America and we don't see this. But it's true- certainly around the world. If you're not thinking about transportation solutions, keep women in mind. Are you really thinking about climate tech transportation solutions? It’s not the only lens to look through, but it's one that we have to look through.

And if you don't have any women making these decisions in your company, they're going to miss these important market opportunities. We try to talk about this as well, and we also try to help the women owned businesses and our network get financing and be successful.

Ben: Yeah really glad to hear that, and I guess even examine the problem more and think about that. I know there's a lot of exciting work, especially in the area that FedTech works most often is kind of this intersection of government R&D and entrepreneurship. We see a lot that is kind of spurred from the Biden administration. And I think there’s a really positive, renewed emphasis around the democratization of innovation and opportunity to parts of the country that normally don't have access to the same networks and people who don't have access to the same opportunities.

What would you like to see? What's kind of the path forward in the next 10 years to things you mentioned such as female founders being less likely to receive venture investment? That's like a such a multipronged problem. You know, there's inequity in the large organization and the promotion processes that would allow a female founder to gain their requisite experience to start a company. There’re issues around percentage of women in STEM.

What’s the way forward? What would you like to see just as a society? And then even, maybe, as the government in terms of how they support the reduction of those inequities?

Helen: Well, I'm glad you asked. I'd like to address Mr. Biden directly in case he happens to be listening. Number one, I'd love to meet you in person. But number two, if you look at the Inflation Reduction Act, if you read it, it has done incredible work for embedding equity in it. It requires these climate tech companies to start thinking about equity. To start thinking about regions that have been underserved and start trying to think about how to engage them, and how to wrap that into business.

And it’s fantastic because we do need all minds at the table and climate is going to affect all of us in every region. We have to pull together. Nowhere does the legislation mention gender and that would be a step further that, I think, is very important for the federal government to recognize the important critical connection and incentivize it. Because we know the importance of incentives in this work and how they can provide rocket fuel to work.

Are we going…? Is Elon Musk going to invent a gender equity machine that we can roll out? And suck all the inequity out of the air, right? No, that's not going to happen. However, we could think about it like distributed computing. Think about how to embed equity throughout the ecosystem. That's something that can be done.

And gender equity is going to look different for different climate tech startups- just like racial equity looks. And, you know, I want us as a society as well to start thinking about that because I think we'll be so much more successful if we do.

Ben: Yeah, I agree. So, I'm the operator of a pretty large venture accelerator now. What advice would you give me- especially an MBA and a middle-aged white guy. I need all the advice I can get. Like, how do we help as an accelerator bridge the gaps?

Helen: I think that's a great question. And I think asking questions like that is the first step, right? The second question is: how do we look at the systemic issues that are resulting in women getting only 6% of venture capital financing? I mean, fundamentally, we're crippling ourselves. If that’s true- all those ideas, all that talent, all that potential is being lost.

How can you tackle it? Does that mean changing the terms and changing the way you assess women? Is it because they're being assessed unfairly in these investment decisions? Is it because they don't have access to the investors? Is it because investors don't have confidence in them? Like, what is it? I don't know.

But I'm here fighting. I'm here fighting because we have amazing talent in our network. So many women reach out to me every day, and they can't find finance. They can't find support. And I'm just one person. I mean, you're looking at women in climate tech. We don't have funding either. I'm funding this by doing work on the side, quite literally. That's what we do.

So, it's digging deep and asking those questions. Am I willing to take a risk on somebody who looks different and is different than me? We know from microfinance, right? They've known this for decades that women tend to be a really good bet. They tend to pay back their loans- at a much greater rate than then than men do. I don't have the answer to unpack your question in detail but only to say it's the right question to ask. And, maybe, it means looking at risk a little differently for people like you.

Ben: Yeah, sure. One of our partners, Robin, Brazil, has done really, really good work in terms of thinking about this. And even when we run the numbers around the entrepreneurs who participate in our programs, we're looking for quantitative improvements in terms of having participants from a range of different backgrounds. And having large increases in diversity as the programs grow and mature. I wish she could be here to show. She would have a more eloquent perspective on this. But incredible.

Helen: I love talking to women. I talk to women all the time, and we have webinars for women. And I've actually got a wonderful recording. We had a webinar last week on how to embed equity in climate tech on this very question. And it wasn't just gender equity- equity as a whole. We were mapping it to the incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act saying, “If you're a climate tech company and you want these incentives, you have to think about this. It's not a nice to have anyway- you've got to think about it.”

I'll send that recording over to you. But it's wonderful to speak to men. I wouldn't shy away from this kind of conversation. There're so many things. None of us can know all. None of us can have all the lived experience. But the point is to have to build these bridges and in doing so that's what will become more effective.

Ben: Yeah. Totally agree. Well, tell us, for folks that are interested in getting involved in your organization- how can people get involved? How can they help? I'm sure we're going to have a lot of folks that would be interested.

Helen: Yeah. The easiest thing is just to subscribe for our email newsletter on our website, which is . And it's free to subscribe. We have a LinkedIn group, and we have regular events.

We're actually on center stage in London. This just came through. We got a wonderful space in the UK at the XL Center, during London Climate Action Week, at the end of June. We'll be having a big event in Raleigh, in the fall, in the North Carolina area. Love to do something in DC sometime soon, too. If you guys are up for that, let's do it.

And we have a regular newsletter. We partner with different organizations, where we hear about different opportunities that we think can benefit our network. And we’re here fighting the good fight. If I could give a gift to anybody who’s worried about climate- it’s just joining networks like this, where you hear all these wonderful ideas and can work with all these amazing innovators. And it just makes you feel hope because there’s a lot of great stuff happening.

Ben: Yeah. Definitely. Please keep us posted. We’re doing more and more at FedTech around this topic. We’re running program that’s about to kick off with NASA- inventions at NASA development centers that would be climate relevant. You did a great job of sharing how broad the tech things that can affect climate positively are. So we are excited about that. And you’re always welcome in our home at DC. We have a large office and events space.

Helen: Be careful what you wish for because I’m going to be there. We are going to bring some women out.

Ben: Of course. Open invitation to our folks. We would be happy to set that up anytime. Yeah, really grateful for the work you are doing and for the time we get to spend together.

I usually finish just asking our guests- what advice would you give entrepreneurs that are looking. We do meet an immense number of really talented people, who want to start companies that can help solve the climate crisis. How would you advise them if you just had a few minutes with them?

Helen: I guess my words would just be words of encouragement. I took the leap. I quit my job. I felt like I had no choice but to work on the climate crisis in 2018. And it was terrifying. There was really not nowhere near the type of resources (as of now). We could not even use the term “climate” in our social media. We had to use “climate risk.” Because climate change was so fraught a term. It was very hidden -very difficult to find people to connect with and like-minded. But we have come a long way. I would just say if someone like me can do it- anybody can do it.

I knew that there was something I could give. I am not a scientist. I am not necessarily a technologist. I am a communicator. I knew this was what I wanted to do. Where there is a will, there is a way. And I just would encourage. We need all hands on deck. All ideas. And if Women in Climate Tech can help anybody that’s a win. Every day I wake up thinking that. So, there we go.

Ben: Thank you, Helen. Wonderful to have you on the podcast here. Looking forward to staying connected as you grow your organization.

Helen: Thank you.

Ben: It’s definitely something we care about a lot. We will leave it there and thanks so much.

Helen: Yeah. Awesome. Thank you so much.

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