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Dr. Nicky Dee of Carbon13: “We need all of humankind to engage with net zero”

We need all of humankind to engage with net zero. First we are all impacted by it and second we all act in ways that effect it. Not including women will lead to design errors and solutions that do not reach all of us. But there is another opportunity. Entrepreneurs are the creative forces in the […]

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We need all of humankind to engage with net zero.

First we are all impacted by it and second we all act in ways that effect it. Not including women will lead to design errors and solutions that do not reach all of us. But there is another opportunity. Entrepreneurs are the creative forces in the economy (a reference to Schumpeter). We need female founders as they can change the rules of the game and become key players.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Nicky Dee. She is a fellow at Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership, associate of St Johns Innovation Centre and co-founder of Carbon13 — a venture builder for the climate emergency. She champions diversity in entrepreneurship globally, with a particular interest in supporting women as business leaders.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I found myself in the Philippines doing conservation diving rather than a corporate job after my undergraduate. While we spoke of conservation, the locals wanted to be more like the U.S. They’d figured out how to have a cheesy pizza without needing to refrigerate the cheese, and the beauty pageants were eerily everywhere. I realised as lovely as scuba diving the world’s oceans would be, it would mean nothing if we couldn’t reduce our negative impact at home, especially as what we did became the aspiration for so many others.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

For a long time there was a conundrum in sustainability on whether change should be driven by policy or by consumers. The challenge was that even though consumers talked a good talk, there was an intention — action gap and consumers didn’t always have the right information to hand.

When speaking to a large corporate about this, it seemed obvious to personalise the problem by referencing everyone’s own challenges in engaging with sustainability. Everyone in the room was well versed in sustainability and the need for change. I myself have not found it easy over the years, needing much time to research the options and evaluate the cost and benefit. The senior leaders, who had previously been energetic, fell silent. Slowly a couple of people put their hands up, but the examples they shared were woeful. A very uncomfortable hour was spent picking out crumbs of action they had taken.

I never got invited back to do this session again! I do hope it had an impact, but it is also a reminder that many consultants and educational institutes focus on keeping their clients and students happy. I’m not convinced this is always the right approach. If we want to transform people’s thinking it will get uncomfortable.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

At the beginning of being “working parent” part of my career I, and others, had a few adjustments. For example needing breastfeeding breaks to be included in the schedule. I was once asked what would happen if this couldn’t be accommodated. I turned with a serious face and said that my boobs would explode. They looked aghast! It did make me laugh, and yes I did inform them this was unlikely even though much discomfort and leakage could occur.

I am now much more conscious of scheduling breaks for this and many other needs, as well as embedding core and flexi hours which we have incorporated into Carbon13.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are many people. But it’s worth saying that my partner Tash has helped in immeasurable ways.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

It’s a geeky choice — The Economics of Hope by Christopher Freeman. It was so pioneering when it was written, and as well as academically compelling offered some futuristic insights, some which are only now taking centre stage like how to do remote working. His view of techno-economic paradigms has been a constant reference point for me.

Do you have a favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Occams razor — the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

I love this. It was relevant in my PhD and with so many other things. Recently during the pandemic it’s been alarming to see the proliferation of conspiracy theories and think many more people should consider this perspective. The other quote I like which is obvious from an entrepreneurship perspective is “a person who makes no mistakes makes nothing at all”.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Maybe I’m just stubborn, but before I had any successes I wanted to make the world a better place. And I actually think that is really important. We’ve seen far too many people achieve success first and then make the world a better place. So nothing has changed for me in terms of my purpose, just my means.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

It would be great if there was just one problem holding women back from founding companies, however the cruel truth is there is a melange of things — those that are obvious and you can address, and those that are institutionalised. And that’s the challenge.

We have created social norms which embed resistance and confuse the issue. We need women to be asking more questions and demanding more answers, even if it means some people think that means we are “pushy” and “annoying”. But primarily we need better representation in decision making.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

We at Carbon13 feel passionately that the best performing start-up teams have diversity baked in. We have an opportunity to do this from day one as Carbon13 is a venture builder for the climate emergency which means we bring together 50–60 founders who then create ventures and an element of this is championing diversity, not just gender but also age.

Part of our teaming process includes enabling our founders to have more complete conversations with each other while also learning more about themselves. After all some of the biggest challenges in startups come from the people. We aim to infuse our community of experts, corporates and investors with a similar mindset.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

We need all of humankind to engage with net zero.

First we are all impacted by it and second we all act in ways that effect it. Not including women will lead to design errors and solutions that do not reach all of us. But there is another opportunity. Entrepreneurs are the creative forces in the economy (a reference to Schumpeter). We need female founders as they can change the rules of the game and become key players.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Get more women making the investment decisions in venture finance, as well as more women making procurement decisions in companies. I’m currently working with WomHub and supporting their new fund (https://five35.ventures/) which is committed to unlocking capital and growth opportunities for female-focused early stage African technology startups.
  2. Remind women that they don’t need to be 100% knowledgeable before starting up. It’s OK to learn as you go. We’ve been interviewing applicants for our venture builder and a rule of thumb for us is that many men over-emphasize their role in their achievements whereas women will under-emphasize their role. If achievement was a number, you would almost add or minus 20% depending on who you are talking to.
  3. Stop inferring that startups and accelerators are in some sort of hunger games where the winner takes all. It’s aggressive and unhealthy. If you sprint a marathon you don’t make it. In the same way that presenteeism is a poor measure of performance, we need to recognize that boasting workaholism is not a good proxy for productivity in startups. At Carbon13 we are trying to give teams the tools to embed healthy practices and be smart about productivity.
  4. Cover the basics. Enable women to be safe in their homes, at work, and when out. Another organisation I support whenever possible is Protsahan (https://protsahan.co.in/) . Sonal, its founder, is incredible. They work with hard to reach vulnerable children and provide safety, healing and empowerment in Delhi, India. Many of the girls they work with re-engage with society and become micro-entrepreneurs. They have been providing critical services during COVID-19.
  5. Women need to support each other. This means not just asking how each other are, but exchanging tips, contacts, and insights so that we know what conversations we should be having, with who and when. We need to be on the inside not peering in from the outside. This also means joining men when they are conversing on things that should include us!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We need to find a way that no organisation is too big to fail. Aside from issues around power, if organisations are allowed to artificially survive we are extending life support to organisations that are losing relevance rather than redirecting resource to the most current and needed solutions. We also need to ensure that organisations are genuinely productive rather than making gains from inequality and/or strategic tax arrangements.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Jessica Meir and Christina Koch were the first all-female space walkers. They are a similar age to me, and I’d be fascinated to hear their stories on how they ended up on the International Space Station as well as how the experience has changed them. I’d love to set down for a ruddy good chat over a cuppa!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Linkedin — https://www.linkedin.com/in/nickydee/

Carbon13 https://carbonthirteen.com

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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