“Can you tell I’m hapai in this dress?”
Dawn and I were in the rehearsal room backstage in Edinburgh, Scotland, the day before Dawn’s talk at TED Countdown. Hapai means to carry in Hawaiian and my friend was under the impression that she could somehow hide her 7-month-pregnant belly. I thought it was a beautiful, defining feature for her talk and recommended she embrace the bump on stage.
As I watched Dawn test her angles in her black dress and the stylist tame her curls just before delivering her TED talk, I found myself reflecting on the journey we’ve been on from Hawaii to Scotland and so many places in between. And what it means not just to see Dawn delivering a message tying together climate innovation and social equity, but how the Elemental organization has grown wings while keeping our roots firmly planted in place.
Being invited to give a TED talk about the Elemental way, which is about centering people and community in climate innovation, is a testament to the distinctive approach Dawn has created. TED is about “ideas worth spreading,” and that’s exactly what I think is Elemental’s greatest innovation: the idea that place-based innovation matters; that technology has half of the solution and community has the other half; that thinking on a local scale doesn’t mean thinking small; that proving how solutions can work for real people in real places translates all around the world, even from a little archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
It’s an idea that I’ve seen Dawn spread since I first met her in 2014. It was at a lunch for an industry group in Honolulu called Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE), which included everyone from the CEO of the electric company to legislators to recent college grads. It was a great way to learn about the renewable energy landscape in Hawaii and meet women creating opportunities for each other in sustainability. Dawn had helped found WiRE a few years before and as she opened the meeting I was struck by her ability to bring together such a range of great minds. It’s like people are pulled in by her optimism and belief that we’re truly better together and that’s the only way to get to the other side of the climate crisis.
Elemental’s greatest innovation: the idea that place-based innovation matters.
It was here that I learned about Elemental (though it was called Energy Excelerator back then). I couldn’t believe an organization like this existed, investing in cutting edge climate technologies, deploying them in Hawaii in partnership with communities, and creating interesting jobs for local people. Soon after WiRE, Dawn asked me to coffee. She shared her vision for Elemental then offered me a position working at the intersection of policy and business. I said yes on the spot because I wanted to make her vision real. Since then I’ve worked alongside Dawn and I haven’t stopped learning from her, laughing with her, and being driven by her vision to redesign the systems at the root of climate change.
It’s been a thrilling journey so far and having a front row seat to Elemental’s growth has also granted me some unique insights. You probably know Dawn well as the founder and CEO of Elemental. But, here are some of my favorite personal attributes you might not be familiar with, but make up the full person I think of as Dawn:
1. Dawn is always prepared — with gummy bears. I’ve never met someone who always (I mean always) has gummy bears in their purse, backpack, pocket, you name it. It’s come in clutch for us on numerous occasions, like the times when you’ve forgotten to eat breakfast and all of a sudden it’s 3pm, or when we underestimated the walking distance home from a pitch and ended up being on the road for hours. Where would we have been without those emergency bears?
2. Unlike 99% of the people I know, Dawn is 100% comfortable with silence. She will often pose a question to our team and then let it sit for however long it takes for someone to venture into sharing an answer or idea. I’ve found this both disarming and humbling. It creates a space where people feel their voice is not only invited, but also needed — because we aren’t moving on until someone besides Dawn breaks the silence.
3. What may, or may not, surprise you is that Dawn is the person at a party that will yank you onto the dance floor. I’ve seen her do it on a number of occasions (like at the end of a new colleague’s first week on the job) and it’s rooted in her big heart. We all know what it’s like to be somewhere unfamiliar and not know anyone. That’s a feeling Dawn intentionally works to avoid for everyone around her. And it extends to our events, where we always try to ensure that everyone is seen and feels welcome. Hearing people laugh and seeing fellowship with each other is one of Dawn’s favorite things.
4. Dawn is also someone grounded by her relationship with gratitude. She is adamant about writing handwritten thank-you cards to celebrate team anniversaries and donor acknowledgements. It’s not an easy practice to keep up, and it’s become a recurring team activity to compose and send notes of gratitude to people in our lives — our families, our colleagues, our collaborators.
5. After a truly hard day — like preparing for a major partner pitch or meeting with a local legislator — Dawn will often say, “Let’s go get a milkshake to celebrate!” I’d never been a milkshake person, but I now fully appreciate the sweet balm and spirit-booster they are. They’re a reminder that no matter how tough and confusing charting a new path can be, there are always sweet simple pleasures in life that can bring you back down to earth.
6. We do things in circles at Elemental. Our teams are called circles (Portfolio Circle, Comms Circle) and we think of our work as impacting and overlapping each other, like a multidimensional Venn diagram. We also start every meeting at Elemental with a check in, going “around the circle” so everyone present can contribute their voice and get engaged from the start. This idea of circles and full participation is a very Dawn thing, and something I particularly appreciate as an introvert because you don’t have to fight for airtime with more outgoing personalities. This practice of holding space for everyone to share their thoughts is foundational to how we build our team culture, and also how we become better investors and stewards guided by community wisdom.
So what is Dawn thinking as she and Elemental grow to meet the climate challenge? I hope you’ll watch her TED Talk to find out, help share the ideas that drive our mission to redesign the systems at the root of climate change, and support this work.
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