Say no, so that you can be fully present in the things that you say yes to. Saying no is tough because there’s so many things that I want to be a part of. I’ve had to skip x, y, and z to be able to say yes to a, b, and c and be fully present in those moments. The energy that I’ve been able to give to the opportunity at hand has always been worth it in the end.
Asa part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dawn Lippert the co-founder and CEO of Elemental Excelerator. She is also Emerson Collective’s Director of Innovation and Community and chairs the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative Advisory Board, a group of executives that drives Hawaii’s progress toward its clean energy goals. For her work at the nexus of policy and technology, Dawn was selected as a C3E Ambassador, an initiative led by the U.S. Department of Energy, MIT Energy Initiative, Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, and the Texas A&M Energy Institute.
Prior to Elemental, Dawn was a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. She graduated cum laude from Yale University with a B.A. in environmental studies, and holds a Master’s degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Management.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dawn! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Icome from a family of entrepreneurs — my grandparents, my mother, and me — even though none of us have started a traditional business. My grandfather and grandmother were union organizers in the Bronx in the 1930s and my mother was a civil rights worker in the 1960s. From my grandparents to my mother to myself, I see a common thread: we all worked on what we thought was the most important issue of our time.
My life’s work has been addressing climate change. It all started for me as an enthusiastic environmental entrepreneur at age 6. I came up with a scheme to charge my family members a quarter every time they left the light on when leaving a room. After using my earnings to pay our electricity bill, I wasn’t left with any profit, so I continued my education. As I was finishing my Master’s degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Management, oil prices were skyrocketing sparking an interest in alternative, cleaner sources of energy at the federal level and in jurisdictions heavily reliant on oil, like Hawaii.
I joined Booz Allen’s alternative energy practice and one of my first projects was a policy package that would flip Hawaii’s economy from being powered by oil to one powered by renewable energy. The policy package became known as the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative. It was signed into law in 2009 setting the template for other states like California’s Senate Bill 100.
Through that experience, I realized how change can be catalyzed within communities when policy, technology, and markets interface. It’s like lava crashing into the ocean; it’s organic, there’s a lot of action, and it’s a place where new land is created. That became the foundation upon which Elemental Excelerator was born. Since 2009, we have funded nearly 100 startups and more than 60 projects, and worked with government, philanthropic, and corporate partners at this nexus.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
In 2012, we hit an inflection point. I knew it was time to pivot or move on. I could feel it. We were funding projects under a traditional grant model and we weren’t seeing those projects being replicated beyond the single deployment we funded. They had the funding, but there was something else missing. So over the six months, I met with anyone and everyone who would speak to identify the ingredients to help startups grow faster and design a model to help startups hit their own inflection points. I ended up designing the first tech accelerator specifically for startups addressing climate change.
I must have met with over 100 people, and I remember one meeting very clearly. I was having decaf coffee and a croissant with an investor at Paris Baguette in Palo Alto. After describing my prototype of an idea and asking for feedback, he said, “This isn’t going to work. These companies are working on problems that are too hard, and people aren’t going to invest.” To this day, that conversation still motivates me.
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?
I’m a firm believer that making mistakes is how you build something. One moment that makes me laugh (in retrospect only!) was our very first board meeting. We hosted it in the middle of a new office built on sawhorses and unfinished plywood tables. Let’s just say that we’ve grown a lot since then.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Once you get to know us, you’ll find that Elemental is noticeably different than your typical VC, accelerator, or incubator. We fund technology deployment. These projects are much more than technology pilots because the top reason startups fail is due to lack of market demand. In order to help mission-critical technologies reach commercial scale, we fund projects that help companies test how their technology interfaces with markets and policies. We helped Zero Mass Water launch a new business model and bring drinking water to drought stricken areas in Australia; and CarbonCure deploy it’s first project with a Department of Transportation, a model they’re taking from Hawaii to cities across the world.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Each year, we select a cohort of 15–20 companies and fund them up to $1 million to deploy projects. Here are three projects we’re excited about:
- Allume — In order to transition to a clean energy future, we need solar panels blanketing as many rooftops as possible. But for the millions of households in this country that rent or live in multi-family and affordable housing, rooftop photovoltaic systems have been out of reach. Allume’s behind-the-meter SolShare system takes power from a single solar system and splits it between different units in a single building. Even better, it requires no changes to standard metering infrastructure or utility billing systems, making it a truly plug-and-play way to democratize solar energy.
- Kando — Most wastewater technologies are concentrated in water treatment facilities, where they help manage the downstream symptoms of pollution. Kando’s technology expands real-time visibility into where pollution is coming from at a granular level, which is in and of itself a big step forward. But it also opens up a whole new world of solutions and can upend the conventional wisdom that wastewater technologies need to be confined to treatment facilities. We believe this Israel-born technology can be especially impactful in frontline communities where much of the industrial pollution occurs or ends up.
- Remix — Remix’s software platform, which empowers cities to build the best possible transportation systems, features tools designed for transit, street design, and mobility management. Together, we will focus on ways to improve cities’ ability to plan and design for mobility equity. Take, for instance, a city that is looking for a COVID-19 contact tracing solution that can also produce data showing low-income areas are absorbing higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions and is left asking, “What do we do about it?” With Remix’s tools at hand, cities will be empowered to prioritize and design the best projects in response.
And there’s more where this came from as we announce our ninth cohort in the fall.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
As an entrepreneur leading a mission-driven company, when I look around all I see are opportunities to change the status quo. I think that’s the world entrepreneurs all live in. We have made some progress with women in tech and in executive positions at startups and businesses, but there is more to be done. Increased data availability has helped us benchmark our progress. In 2019, only 20% of global startups raising their first funding round had a female founder and only 2.7% of all venture funding went to startups founded by females (Crunchbase). At Elemental, most of our companies have already raised their first round of funding. In 2019, we funded 17 companies and 35% had a female founder.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a LeaderWoman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- When you think about Hawaii, you don’t immediately think about its business culture. But this place has a lot to teach the business world. One is the lesson of going slow to go fast. It means that the time you take getting to know the people, customers, partners you work with will be well worth it in the end. My mentor, Maurice Kaya, taught me this and I think about his advice at least once a week.
- Say no, so that you can be fully present in the things that you say yes to. Saying no is tough because there’s so many things that I want to be a part of. I’ve had to skip x, y, and z to be able to say yes to a, b, and c and be fully present in those moments. The energy that I’ve been able to give to the opportunity at hand has always been worth it in the end.
- Change is the only constant. Embrace it. Another mentor of mine once told me: “I know there is risk in any type of change. But, serendipity is so important in building a successful business and serendipity never happens if you keep doing the same thing over and over.” Working hard and trying lots of things increases our chances of finding moments of truly impactful serendipity.
- Seek to understand before being understood. In a fast-paced work culture where change is our only constant, pausing to listen to your stakeholders can be difficult. I’ve heard that if I were a superhero, I’d be Flash. I’m always trying to get to my destination as quickly as possible. So I have to build in structures to help me be a better listener. One example is that at Elemental, we’ve formalized our listening practice setting anchors within our company selection process for community feedback to take place. We call it Community Marketplaces where we seek feedback on projects and startups from community organizations, local businesses, and government agencies before making our final selections.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be clear about your mission and what you’re doing. Clarity unlocks creativity, and creativity is a key ingredient for the right kind of growth.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Be diligent about managing your time. Your calendar should reflect your priorities and if it doesn’t, it’s time to recalibrate and reschedule.
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?
I’m grateful for our team. No one person grows an organization alone. Running a startup is a team sport and being a CEO is more like being a coach than a star player.
It’s been an incredible evolution from Day 1 of Elemental Excelerator to today. In the early days, I was the CEO, workshop designer and facilitator, website builder, company coach, slide creator, and project manager. Fast forward to today, we have scaled our impact significantly and that is only because of my amazing team. The first time something happened without me being involved at all was a beautiful day.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
To me, success is bringing goodness to the world. What is good for the world? That’s a question that deserves a dynamic answer. Right now, for me, it’s addressing climate change, and Elemental is about doing this urgently and in the most just way possible.
I guess one indicator of our success is the amount of catalytic funding we’ve been able to raise for Elemental and our mission. To date, we’ve brought in more than $85 million from corporates, governments, and philanthropists and are looking at bringing in additional resources to fuel new growth. This funding is catalytic because our companies have gone on to raise more than $790 million in follow-on funding after joining our portfolio.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If we could get all 2nd and 3rd graders to come up with their own schemes to charge their family members a quarter every time they left the light on, I think we could significantly curb emissions. It’s less about the lights and more about getting two generations, youth and their parents, thinking creatively about addressing climate change and starting the conversation of learning and listening.
“Don’t ever make decisions based on fear. Make decisions based on hope and possibility. Make decisions based on what should happen, not what shouldn’t.” — Michelle Obama
I started Elemental Excelerator not in fear of climate change, but because of the hope I felt in entrepreneurs scaling solutions to address it.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂
Michele Obama. I mean, come on. Who wouldn’t want to share a meal with Michelle Obama?