(These remarks are solely my own. Not representative of my employer or any other affiliated institution or organization)
Some have said the artistic, social, and cultural dynamism known as the Roaring Twenties would not have happened without World War I and the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. I am hoping we experience a similar creative explosion that touches all aspects of our lives, including the way we do business. The pandemic and protests in 2020 prompted many businesses to alter their engagement with their employees, customers, and communities to make unprecedented commitments to fight systemic racism. At the same time, awareness and commitment to the climate crises has pushed many companies and cities to look for ways to drastically curb carbon emissions. I will focus on companies at the intersection of climate change and racial equity and roles investors can play.
The stimulus bill, passed by Congress in December, includes over $35 billion for new energy initiatives. This is the most substantial federal investment in clean energy since 2009 and includes key efforts to fight climate change. It includes provisions to greatly reduce HFCs in refrigerants, support for new solar, storage, nuclear, and wind technologies, and funding for federal energy programs (find more detailed information here, here, and here). This bill should be celebrated for moving the country towards a cleaner future and laying some groundwork for the new administrations’ energy policy. However, this bill will not provide the kind of cultural and structural change we need to truly address our climate and societal crises. The change we seek will only be possible through the concerted effort of diverse visionary business leaders, investors, and policymakers working with communities of color.
Jessica O. Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Power, is undoubtedly one of these leaders. Jessica founded Uncharted Power on the belief that universal access to smart, sustainable infrastructure is a human right. Uncharted Power recently launched its first sustainable infrastructure pilot in Poughkeepsie, NY, of the Uncharted System, a modular serviceable paver that converts city sidewalks and roads into an industrial IoT platform that streamlines the integrated deployment and management of critical infrastructure, from power grids and broadband to sidewalks and water pipes. The company’s proprietary suite of technology creates a platform which can easily interconnect decentralized power applications (residential solar, electric vehicle charging stations, IoT sensors, etc.) into one sustainable network, bridging the gap between standalone smart products and a fully-integrated smart city.
Another such founder is Donnel Baird, CEO of BlocPower. Donnel believes there is no path forward to fight climate change without communities of color. BlocPower provides products and services to communities of color to combat health disparities and climate change, and create economic opportunities. BlocPower makes buildings healthier by replacing fuel and natural gas systems with energy-efficient and renewable technologies. The company has partnered with financial institutions to finance and install these systems in cities such as Oakland and Brooklyn. These projects create jobs in the community, reduce operating costs in the buildings, and provide cleaner air for building occupants.
(To learn more about other minority-led clean energy companies, check out this article by Marilyn Waite at Greenbiz).
Those most likely to launch companies addressing climate justice tend to have firsthand experience of the pain and struggle within communities of color. Unfortunately, these founders also have to overcome disproportional barriers during this journey. After a year that has clearly revealed deep divisions and inequalities in our society, we need to carefully consider the outcomes of our investments. All investments have impacts. If we want to create a more inclusive society, we need to learn about companies that are focused on marginalized or underserved communities, which may require changing the structure of early-stage equity investments, developing new risk models (where race is not implicitly or explicitly a proxy), and creating new opportunities to build connections outside of personal networks. It will also require anti-racist efforts to learn about the struggle of communities of color.
Like many people, I was happy to see witness the end of 2020. In a year that provided an excess of heartache and pain, I also witnessed incredible resilience that was driven by love and compassion for our neighbors, both on our block and around the world, with a collective resolve to build a more equitable society. As Nipsey Hussle said, “sometimes you have to take two steps back to take ten forward.” I hope we move forward together in 2021.