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“We are not immune to systemic racism” — On empowering diversity in climate tech

July 15, 2021

· 14 min read
Ian Chipman Editorial Director

“As a clean energy leader and a black man, I often go to conferences and gatherings where I am one of a few, if not the only black person in the room … I hope that folks beyond me are beginning to see why these little things matter.”
— Devin Hampton, CEO of UtilityAPI and co-founder of EDICT.

As we work to realize an equitable, decarbonized economy and ensure healthy outcomes for all communities, Elemental Excelerator is partnering with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI) on the launch of the EDICT (Empowering Diversity in Clean Tech) Summer Internship Program. This 10-week program provides candidates from Black, Indigenous, Latinx and underrepresented backgrounds (pictured above) with a paid internship opportunity, a cohort community, and supplemental training, support, and access to networks in the clean energy and climate tech ecosystems. You can read more about the program and the first cohort of interns, who are pictured above.

Late last year we adopted EDICT and its mission under the Elemental umbrella to help support its growth and impact. We believe that the only way to address climate is equitably and this is another step in our collective journey. The launch of the internship program marks a good moment to share the origin story of EDICT, a movement to diversify our climate-tech workforce. This movement isn’t separate from the one to solve climate change; they’re one and the same. At a time when hundreds of thousands of Americans are re-thinking the next step in their careers, we have a massive opportunity to intentionally transform this workforce.

It all started with a LinkedIn post from Devin Hampton, CEO of Elemental portfolio company UtilityAPI, after George Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020.

Sharing your thoughts is a brave act. But also a leap of faith. You can’t predict the impact your words will have on the world. You hope and trust that they will inspire action and change. And sometimes, they do.

Devin’s post led to a series of conversations with Jason Michaels, CCO at Elemental portfolio company Leap. Together, they created EDICT and went on to collaborate with Sara Chandler, Elemental’s Managing Director of Equity & Access. Today, EDICT is two things:

  1. A pronouncement of values and a pledge committing signatories to uphold those values.
  2. An internship program in partnership with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute. EDICT’s internship program is as much about providing Black, Indigenous, and people of color access to meaningful careers solving climate change as it is for host companies creating environments where BIPOC people don’t feel like they have to justify their presence.

We sat down with Devin, Jason, and Sara to talk about the ideas and stories behind EDICT. Below you’ll find their raw conversation about systemic racism and designing a more equitable climate-tech ecosystem.

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Devin: As a Black man, the feeling of always being a little bit different carried through from working in politics in the Obama administration to my career in the clean tech industry. I go to conferences and man, I’m tired of people thinking I’m the staff. When the movement around social justice really gained steam in 2020, I wrote something on LinkedIn. I don’t know what my intent was beyond pointing out that we are not immune to systemic racism in clean tech and we can’t ignore it. It was a challenge to the whole sector to go out and fix it without waiting for Black and Brown people to fix it for you. To understand that by having more diversity, all of us are better. It’s actually the system that benefits not just the people coming into it. The system itself benefits. I just wanted to get that off my chest.

And then Jason got in touch and said, “That thing you wrote — whatever it is I’m doing it with you.” I was like, “I’m not doing anything.” And he said, “You need to do something here. You lit a fire.”

I think the post got like fifty thousand views or something crazy like that. There were people obviously outside of my circle who were now paying attention. And I was like, okay what should we do? It started a series of conversations between Jason and I, hard conversations around both of our experiences, some shared, some not shared, trying to come up with something.

Jason: In different parts of my life, I have been in cultures or situations that I would say value diversity a heck of a lot more than they actually had diversity. That’s true of the community that I grew up in. It’s been true in other places. And when I joined Leap, there were, frankly, four of us on the leadership team — all white guys.

We made it a strategic imperative to really improve the diversity of our team through intentional hiring, because we knew that was going to make us a much better, stronger, more effective organization. Like a lot of climate-tech businesses, what we’re doing is really, really hard. And we’re not going to be successful if we all have very similar perspectives. We need diverse voices and viewpoints.

Like a lot of people last summer, I was marching with my family at Black Lives Matter protests triggered by Mr. Floydʻs murder and having a lot of conversations with my kids about these issues. But I was also hiring people and finding that despite our really good intentions, the applicant pool just wasn’t there. There were so many people whose faces looked a lot like mine and not enough diverse candidates coming in. It was really frustrating because we really wanted to follow through on our commitment. As I was going through that frustrating process, I read Devin’s post and it really hit home, especially when I looked at the makeup of our own team at Leap. I thought, I can’t solve the executive problem, but maybe there’s something we can do to just start at the earliest stages of talented people coming into the industry and look outside of the institutions that typically feed into climate tech.

We’re not going to solve the climate problem in 10 years if we don’t start recruiting more people from diverse backgrounds into the space now. So when I reached out to Devin my initial focus was on setting up an internship program. I believed that enough of the climate-tech companies and entrepreneurs that I knew also valued diversity, and would get behind hiring interns through a program like this. If we could combine those jobs and those companies with a ready source of recruiting and programmatic support, we could start solving at least one aspect of this challenge that we have in climate tech.

Those early conversations with Devin helped me see that my focus was too narrow. He broadened my understanding of the challenges faced by mid-career professionals who may want to come into the climate space but don’t see a path. And what it might feel like to be the only person who looks like you in a room and how intimidating that must be. So that initial internship perspective got stepped up considerably and Devin did an amazing job putting together a set of principles and actions that all companies can take.

Our biggest concern was that this would be yet another well-intentioned but failed attempt at effecting some sort of change, or that it would be another organization that says this is a problem and somebody should do something about it.

Devin: We knew that we were going to do something even if it fails. We weren’t going to sit around and talk about this to death. We had this late-night back and forth trying to figure out a name, texting back and forth. I was getting frustrated and literally thought: I just need to make an edict. I need a proclamation here. We just need to come up with it and stick with it because we’re arguing over the name and not doing the work.

But EDICT wouldn’t have happened if Jason hadn’t kept pushing. He was like, “We could have the same hard conversations we’re having here, but out in the world.” So I would ask white founders and CEOs, “How many guys that look like me have you ever worked with? How many of them have been your boss?”

Sara: One thing that came up for me as y’all were talking was the individual experience you’re sharing. It’s sadly such a common experience to justify yourself and also being mistaken for, you know, not the CEO of a company. That was my experience too. I’m a lawyer and have been asked if I’m a custodian, and been told that I’m an intern when I’m on the Government Affairs team.

There’s all these assumptions that people make because they’re comfortable doing it. And one of my fears at all times in this work is bringing folks into toxic environments where they have to face those harmful questions, where they aren’t actually seen or set up for success. It’s a haunting feeling of wondering whether we’re setting people up to fly or getting them stuck somewhere that they’re not able to take flight.

Part of the work that we’ll be doing is having hard conversations in a community of practice. What does it mean to make people feel comfortable, to have an inclusive environment where very capable people don’t feel like they have to justify themselves for no reason at all. The way that we’re organizing it with CELI and trying to be intentional about that safe space for the students will help us do that.

Jason: Sara, that’s such a powerful insight. It’s not just a question of widening the talent funnel and getting more folks from diverse backgrounds, it’s also making sure they’re going into cultures where they can thrive and do well. That recognition, frankly, is not something that I brought to the table at first, but it quickly became evident how critical it was. And I’ve been looking at all the work that Elemental’s already done in thinking through a lot of these things, it gives me so much more confidence that this can really be a successful and enduring program.

Talking to a lot of other leaders in different companies in the climate-tech space, I think most of them want to have those cultures where everyone feels comfortable in their position to excel and thrive. But a lot of them don’t know the path or don’t take the time to figure it out. It was one of the problems that we had early on at Leap on the recruiting front — it can feel hard to invest in the outreach you need to bring in more diverse candidates when you’re under-resourced and struggling to get your day-to-day stuff done right. I think that providing that programmatic support is going to add a lot of value to this industry.

One of my biggest concerns was that we wouldn’t get the response that we expected even though there are all these like-minded companies that thought this was important. What would that mean for this industry, which I love and really believe in its mission? If we talked to a lot of people I respected and they said that it’d be nice, but not important — frankly, I’d have been crushed. But it’s gratifying to see that it was the opposite. We started with a goal of getting 20 companies to take the Edict pledge, and there was this tipping point where we started having companies sign up on their own. We didn’t even know them, which is exciting and nice validation.

Devin: You know, I forgot about that, hoping that people wanted to do this. There was also the flip side. There are some folks that said they couldn’t do it because they didn’t want to upset their customers. I’m not going to name any names, but they felt that it would be bad for business. And that was hard.

It’s not all rainbows and cherries and things. We got some interesting hate mail at UtilityAPI from people who don’t like this. It’s really interesting, some customers will write these nastygrams and then keep on using our service. They’re going to boycott us and then they realize that we’re so instrumental to what they do that they just keep on using us.

Iʻll tell a quick story. One person who didn’t know that I was a Black man running the company wrote a note saying, “If you love Black people so much and you think they’re so great, you should step down as a founder of your company and find a Black man and appoint him as CEO.” Which is exactly what Daniel [Roesler] had done. He stepped down as founder and CEO, and appointed me CEO.

There were a couple of times where I was like, do we need to worry about any kind of physical violence? Then I realized most of these folks just like to tap on their keyboard and yell. They don’t even know who we are. We’re just a company that they use and they didn’t like that we were putting these things on our website. I mean, we’re talking just a handful of folks. We put a giant banner on our website saying Black Lives Matter, white supremacy is a stain on our country, and we’re going to do something about it. And, you know, some people didn’t like that. It says something about them if they feel threatened by that language.

Sara: It’s an interesting point about being explicit, like you did with your website, Devin. That just feels like the minimum now after the year we had. Whereas before you may have questioned yourself or had that feeling in your stomach of like, oh gosh, should I say it?

That’s gone, at least for me. Everyone’s on their own journey, and with EDICT I want to be explicit in talking about these things. It allows us to pattern map and pull ourselves out of whatever that feeling is to make sure it doesn’t happen to someone else. If an interaction with someone upsets me, why am I mad? What led up to it and how can I make it better? Because someone else probably feels the same way. It’s a practice of saying what you need, and has led to amazing growth and new life skills.

Racism is such a problem and we all are impacted by it. It really cannot be just us, over here providing all of the programming and drawing the road map. We have to strike a balance. I want to change the way that we talk about this work so that people feel ready to pull themselves up and help each other, without relying on any one person to provide the answer or inspiration.

Devin: The system has to change.

Sara: Yeah, exactly.

Devin: I think it’s great that we’re all in this together. And Jason, thanks for dragging me along in the beginning. It wouldn’t have happened without that.

Jason: And if it wasn’t for the Elemental event where you and I first met, like a month or two before that, I never would have followed up and reached out to you. I would have read your LinkedIn post and I probably would have given it a thumbs up or whatever. It’s funny how life works.

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More on EDICT and the companies that have pledged to build a more diverse, more inclusive, and stronger sector can be found here