Meet the female founders building businesses whilst helping the planet
Pictured: Michelle You (Supercritical); Nohelia Rambal (Goodfind); Tessa Clarke (Olio).
Emma Young, VP Global Communications at Bulb, talks to female business leaders about de-mystifying net zero and accelerating meaningful change across the industry.
There’s no doubt everyone is grappling with the challenge of net zero.
The problem many business leaders are facing is they don’t know how to set out a climate action plan that’s actually achievable. And it’s not hard to see why: net zero and decarbonising can be confusing; people can be misled or misinformed. It’s not something business leaders were necessarily thinking about years ago when their companies were founded. However, it’s something they now must prioritise.
At Bulb, we’ve recognised that working together means we can help de-jargon net zero and make progress faster. That’s why this year, we launched the Tech Zero taskforce along with some of the UK’s most exciting tech companies. Tech Zero brings together tech companies to fight the climate crisis, accelerate progress to net zero and help consumers make greener choices.
One of the ways in which Tech Zero supports companies with their net zero plan is through the toolkit developed by the founding members. The toolkit helps to demystify climate jargon and make it simpler for companies to understand and implement a net zero plan that makes sense for their business.
Three female founders who’ve signed up to Tech Zero are here to share their advice on prioritising sustainability within business: Michelle You, co-founder Superitical, a company that’s using software to help businesses reach net zero; Nohelia Rambal, founder & CEO Goodfind, an ethical brand directory, and Tessa Clarke, co-founder and CEO at Olio, a mobile app designed for food sharing.
I asked them about the importance of listening to your community and customers; how getting to net zero isn’t something that’ll happen overnight; and building a company around a mission that embeds sustainability from the word go.
*Michelle You = MY; Nohelia Rambal = NR; Tessa Clarke = TC.
What's one of your biggest learnings in running a sustainable business?
MY: I’ve learned that educating the market is absolutely essential - but not in the way you might think. Most businesses care a lot about their climate responsibility. The challenge is helping them to channel that in the right direction.
Many firms simply don’t have the resources to take on an in-house sustainability expert. Without that, it can take months of research to understand their company’s carbon footprint, let alone design its climate strategy. Most companies do a lot of ad hoc sustainability things like recycling, minimizing food waste, no longer buying bottled water, but without measuring their carbon footprint to get a holistic view on their climate impact, these activities aren’t focused on where they can do best for the planet.
The other aspect of educating the market is explaining the crucial difference between conventional offsets that pay others not to emit vs. carbon removal. When most companies get to the point of offsetting and going “carbon neutral,” they don’t have the in-house expertise to navigate the complex world of conventional offsets. They just want the problem solved.
I believe carbon removal offsets are a gold standard way a business can get to net zero. These are technologies like biochar and direct air capture that literally remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it permanently. As these technologies mature and become more affordable, businesses should allocate an increasing amount of their budgets to these sorts of offsets. That was one of the biggest motivations for us starting Supercritical - we wanted to offer an easy way for businesses to buy into powerful, cutting-edge carbon removal technologies that actually move them towards net zero.
NR: One of the best things (and sometimes the worst) of being an entrepreneur is that, by wearing so many hats, you learn something new almost every day. Personally, my biggest lesson has been understanding that consumers don't want to feel they're being judged for their choices or constantly told they should be doing better. A lot of content around sustainability has a preachy side that I think alienates those who simply want to have a positive impact without completely changing their lifestyle.
At Goodfind, we believe in small, incremental changes, and make it easier for people to easily find and compare sustainable options for everyday needs. One little action, one swap at a time. Ultimately, that's how we open the conversation to new, more diverse groups, and break some stigma around sustainable consumption.
TC: To run a truly sustainable business, sustainability has to be baked into your company’s DNA, rather than an after-thought. This means sustainability needs to be at the heart of your company’s mission; it needs to be reflected in your North Star metric and core KPIs; and everybody who joins you has to be recruited for the sustainability mission and values fit. The other important learning is to ensure you’re 100% transparent about the journey you’re on as an organisation and not to ‘over-claim’ with regards to your sustainability creds, which leads to the cardinal sin of ‘green-washing’. You can read a bit more about how to spot and avoid greenwashing in an article I wrote here.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs/people starting their own businesses who are looking to do better?
MY: Embedding your climate goals from day one is the easiest way to do better for the planet. Every decision you make should be considered with your climate impact in mind. When we started Supercritical, we were able to review our bank, pension, and other choices with this in mind. It’s much harder to switch to the more sustainable option after you’ve already used a bank for years. Similarly, measuring your company’s carbon footprint from the first year of life and having a credible net zero plan from day one is much easier when your team and operations are still small.
We know that climate impact is front of mind for many entrepreneurs and CEOs, but there will always be some emissions that are impossible to cut back. That’s where carbon removal comes in to close the gap. By investing in carbon removal while it’s still in its infancy, entrepreneurs can help to create a market for it and help it to scale more quickly. We need early adopters and that is where business leaders have a real opportunity to drive change.
We know that not everyone has thought about their climate impact from day one. We’re proud to work with customers who have chosen to go back to erase their historical lifetime emissions since founding. They’ve been inspired by Microsoft’s pledge to do so.
NR: Always ask your customers! My professional background is in marketing, so for me it was natural to implement a customer-centred approach from day one. But it isn't always easy and sometimes not even obvious knowing when or how to do it. Before starting Goodfind, I immersed myself in the impact industry and freelanced for organisations that now are my clients. Similarly, all of our initiatives and projects are the result of research, market trends or first-hand information from our audiences. I believe it's one of the most powerful tools for success.
TC: There are a couple of pieces of advice I’d give to any future startup founder.
First, when you’re starting a business it’s critical to have a learning mindset . Second, you can de-risk massively by starting small and building from there - if you haven’t already, do read ‘The Lean Startup’, a great business building philosophy. Lots of people want to jump straight to building an app, but I strongly encourage you to build your community or product on an existing platform such as Facebook or Instagram before investing in building something more. Third, given that more capital provides more runway, and more runway generally equates to a greater probability of success, make sure to carefully scrutinise every expenditure you make – it’s surprising how much you can achieve with how little when you get creative. And finally, although entrepreneurship can be the most fulfilling thing in the world, it is also an incredibly long, tough journey, so make sure to carve out some time for yourself to preserve your health and sanity! It’s time well spent.
As a founder, how do you make time to prioritise sustainability whilst growing your company?
MY: Supercritical’s mission is to help other businesses get to net zero by measuring their carbon footprint and providing access to high quality, permanent carbon removal offsets. We can’t do that without setting the right example ourselves. We’re our own first customer, and are dedicated to reaching net zero by the end of 2021. So for us, it’s about living our values and mission.
As part of our net zero commitment, we’ll measure all our organisation’s emissions, including scope 3, and report them publicly each year. We’ll also continue to work with partners, like banks and pension providers, that share our climate ambitions and focus.
We’re also part of Tech Zero, the climate action group for technology companies, and have signed up to the Tech Zero commitments. It’s amazing to see how many other tech businesses have already pledged to take action, and we’re proud to work with many members to develop their net zero pledge.
NR: It isn't always easy, but it is a top priority that I constantly strive to improve upon. I make time because the purpose of the business is based on it, positive impact is at the core of my KPIs. Our campaigns have always had a social or environmental impact as a goal, from supporting black founders, to reducing mindless consumption, and promoting gender equality. Sometimes they've also been commercially successful, other times not so much. It's challenging to pursue the mission of the business at the same time as growing it, your purpose can get in the way of revenue, and vice versa, it requires determination and discipline, but that's one of the aspects I love the most about my business!
TC:I think the best way to answer this question is via analogy: back in the 1990s we were asking business leaders a similar sort of question, but instead it was along the lines of “How do you balance treating your employees well whilst growing your company?” Fast forward to today and we’re no longer asking this question because we know that in order to grow your business you have to treat your employees well. The same now applies with sustainability and growth – in my view they’re mutually reinforcing: if you do sustainability well, the growth will follow.