Climb By VSC: Episode 20

Published March 15th, 2023

Heather Clancy is an award-winning journalist specializing in transformative technology and innovation. She started her reporting career on the business news desk of United Press International, and her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Heather was the launch editor for the Fortune Data Sheet, the magazine's newsletter dedicated to the business of technology, and she co-authored the Amazon best-seller for entrepreneurs, "Niche Down, How to Become Legendary By Being Different." In her role at GreenBiz, Heather chronicles the role of business model innovation and technology in enabling corporate climate action and transitioning to a clean, inclusive and regenerative economy.

People Young and Old Have Great Advice For Each Other

Rick Liebling: Heather Clancy is an award-winning journalist specializing in transformative technology and innovation. She started her career on the business news desk of United Press International and her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune, The International Herald Tribune, and the New York Times. Heather was the launch editor for the Fortunate datasheet, the magazine's newsletter dedicated to the business of technology and she co-authored the Amazon Best Seller for entrepreneurs. Heather chronicles the role of business model innovation and technology in enabling corporate climate action and transitioning to a clean, inclusive and regenerative economy. It's my pleasure to welcome Heather Clancy to Climb. Hi, Heather. How are you today?

Heather Clancy: I'm great. I hope you are as well.

RL: We are doing well. It's a nice day out here in North Carolina. Let's start off by having you tell us a little bit about your career journey and what led you to focus on sustainability.

HC: Yes, so I got laid off. I was a career journalist focused on business and technology and voice working for a trade in the early 2000s and had started dabbling with coverage of things like electronic waste and how it pertained to the industry as well as datacenter efficiency and other green technologies. And when I was laid off, someone called me from a mainstream digital news site and said, Hey, we know you're available. What do you want to write about? And I said Green Tech. Immediately, like I just knew that that was going to be what I wanted to write about. So I started writing focused predominantly on, on how the computer industry was cleaning up itself or not as the case was, maybe and so I kind of evolved from there and to broader issues of how, you know, the clean tech movement as well. And that's how I got started. I got pushed off the cliff and just felt that this was the place where I wanted to spend my time doing research and reporting and really understanding how technology could play a role in addressing climate change.

RL: Today, there's plenty of reporters on the bench who are covering this sort of thing. When you first got into it, was it kind of new territory or was there already a well established, kind of beat for green tech?

HC: Now there really wasn't a beat, it was a very green field. You know, as I mentioned before, I came in from the information technology world from that industry point of view. And then I started looking at other industries and how they were adapting their applied technologies and so forth in order to do things like save water and reduce the energy consumption of their manufacturing operations. But there wasn't really anyone reporting on this because unless it was a money saving, you know, move, it wasn't really that interesting to the businesses The companies at the time, they weren't really buying. They got the efficiency angle, and that's kind of the way I was approaching it a lot in my early reporting days, but they weren't buying the whole notion that they should be doing this because it might have been having a broader impact on the planet.

RL: Right. So tell us now how you got to Greenbiz, what your role is and how you got there and maybe a little bit about the mission of GreenBiz.

HC: So I like to think of myself as the editor at large for GreenBiz. So I write about a lot of different things. I started as a freelancer. I've been working with the organization for about I guess it's 11 years now, and was just you know, contributing a lot of different stories. And this is something I've always liked doing, which is sort of seeing a trend early on and just kind of exploring what it means and seeing you go mainstream and seeing it evolve and kind of sticking with it. And so I reported early on the whole renewable energy procurement process and how corporations were going out and helping support solar farms and wind farms in service of their goals and in terms of, you know, trying to deal with their carbon emissions from their operations. So that's how I got involved over time as my involvement became, you know, to what it is today, which is where I'm a full time staffer. GreenBiz is a media organization that serves communities that are addressing the climate crisis, right. So there, they’re corporate sustainability professionals, of course, but there's also product designers who are making things more circular so that you can take them apart and take the components and put them back into circulation. There's the finance community that is funding and finding the money to invest in wind farms to invest in emerging markets where there might be a solution. An example, a mangrove forest that can help, you know, sequester more carbon. And then also we are really focused on the climate tech community. So the climate tech startups, the venture capitalists like you know, VSC. And so we sort of serve all those communities and we have events. So we organize these communities at events and also in pure networks. My part of the operation is focused on continuing that dialogue, the dialogue that we have at our events on the website, and also in a portfolio of newsletters. We currently have seven of them and are looking at adding more.

RL: Wow. So you know, it's exciting to hear how you're seeing corporate America. Let’s talk about it and how that allows you guys to do what you do over the last decade or so. I'm sure there's been a significant change in the discourse around sustainability. Can you talk to us a little bit about that and what you've seen from where it was a decade ago to where it is today?

HC: Yeah. The primary change in the discourse is that at the beginning of the movement, it was sort of these voices on the sustainability team that were shouting in the, you know, in the darkness, but they were often you know, they didn't have a lot of authority. The Chief Sustainability officers if there were any at a particular company, maybe they report it to the CEO, but maybe more often than not, they report it to some kind of communications function so that the company could talk about what it was doing over time and this is the important thing. This discourse has moved into the boardroom into the C suite. These teams are now collaborating with teams across the company. So if you're working on a circular economy solution for a company who's going to be involved that well, it’s the supply chain, it's the designers, it's the people that are sourcing the materials, the big difference is that these notions and these business practices are being embedded into the operating practices of companies. And one of the most fascinating things I see happening right now is the role of data. And you know, you would never see a company run its finance organization, our main operations or accounting systems off of estimates and so forth. But right now, a lot of companies rely on estimates about carbon emissions and water consumption and so forth. So lots of averages are used. That's important. That's an important first step but I'm really excited to see how this sort of carbon accounting accounts for all these other things. It's moving into the mainstream operations of companies. It's really becoming embedded in the systems and the operations.

RL: Most of you have seen some exciting innovations you talked about. Now you know, they're about the accounting side of things, the economic side of things, but you also mentioned supply chain, where are other areas where you're seeing sustainability starting to have more of an impact for companies?

HC: So we do see companies making processes or adopting rules, regulations that require that their partners have some kind of targets themselves. So we see that that's happening more and more often. So one great example is project gigaton at Walmart. So this is a huge initiative that they've put in place to get their supply chain partners to get the people making the products that they sell the people that provide energy to actually have their own goals. So you know, when you talk about emissions, you have one, which is what you know, your company can address, right out of the gate, scope, two being the sort of main things like energy and so forth, that are purchases and that you're dealing with as an operation. But then there's that third thing, which is the upstream and downstream impact of the products you make and where you source them. So what we see is a lot more innovation there and innovation and in traceability. That's an important part of it, and that kind of goes back to the data comment that I was having that I mentioned before. I'm also really interested in some of them when you look at climate tech at large. There's lots of different sub sectors of it. I am particularly interested in industrial climate tech and the things that really help with the actual decarbonisation of a process in the factory, right so a new material that can actually reduce the emissions of a product. A new system or robotics approach exists. As an example that can take apart a product and make it reusable in a more seamless way. Product Design, so designing in what's called digital twins, where you can sort of model the scenarios, if you will, of a product in a virtual world and then you know, decide what these decisions to make sort of change variables and see how that one packs things. So that's some of the exciting places. I'm seeing innovation right now.

RL: Yeah, it's really great to hear that, you know, there it is permeating across a wide range of verticals. It's not just as you said earlier, it's not just like, well, what can the communications department talk about? It really is starting to have a touch across the board there. Let's talk about climate change for a second. You know, here in North Carolina, it's February or it's just March. And believe it or not, we've already entered pollen season, probably four to six weeks earlier than normal here. So you know, we're seeing the effects of climate change, not just in fires or tornadoes or things like that, but in small things like pollen season, but what gives you optimism in the fight against climate change? I'm sure you're, you know, obviously seeing news that can sometimes be disheartening, but you're probably seeing optimistic news as well.

HC: One of the things that makes me optimistic is how involved the youth of today are, how much they care, how passionate they are, and how much they want to learn about this at the college level and at high school level. The intelligence and the maturity of young people today about this issue is just astonishing to me. I get embarrassed when I think about what the things I was thinking about as a senior in high school, it's sad that the young generation has to think about this, but I am so excited that they are because it is you know, as a climate journalist, it is kind of depressing sometimes you know, you read these stories. You're thinking about your own stories. What am I writing? You're trying to make sure that you don't contribute to greenwash and it can be frustrating to figure out what stories to cover because you want to cover the law, to cover the important stories but you also don't want to overblow something that you know, isn't really all it seems. And that's really easy to do, in my view, in particular, because I'm writing about technology, but the passion of young people today and their willingness to speak out about it right and the willingness to push really makes me optimistic.

RL: You are in communications but you're looking at the world of technology as it relates to the climate. What advice would you give young entrepreneurs that want to get into the climate tech space?

HC: Yeah. So I would, I would say that look at the mistakes of your elders. See what went wrong. Don't replicate those mistakes. We don't have time for that. So I know that you have a lot of good ideas and that you should be putting them into practice as quickly as you can. But I think that we need an intergenerational conversation to happen here. I think that you should understand that there's a lot of wise people that have been around and they're not all jaded and they probably have a lot of good advice for you. And they're also hungry for advice from you like you can, you can get advice from them, but they can also get advice from you. So if they want to listen, a lot of the good people are willing to listen and want to hear what you have to say because it's going to help them do their job better. They want to. They want to do right by the next generation. So I would say that would be one thing. I would also say to be always thinking about the application of your technology. You need to understand how it's going to be applied. You need to understand how the person that you're pitching it to would use it or would interact with it. And you need to spend time understanding your audience. I think a lot of times people will just kind of pitch this great idea. And they don't really, you know, if they're pitching it to, let's just say a corporation, they need to be able to talk about how their corporation might be able to replace the process. They also need to understand the cost of doing things right. You do need to have those numbers you do need to understand the model which goes back to point A, which is talk to people that know that. I do also think that when you talk about the climate tech entrepreneurs and the startups, I know that this sort of traditional venture capital world is probably the first place that you think to start but there are a lot of corporate incubators and corporate venture funds that you know, have had the wherewithal to support your pilots and initial projects and you should look at that because they're going to be able to show you what your customers want. They're going to be able to test some of your customer premises and so they will allow you to get the practical kind of experience that will then allow you to go back out to other fundraisers and get more money. So making sure that you understand how your product is going to be used is really important and then getting the proof cases for that is vital.

RL: Great, that's really good advice. I want to talk a little bit now about GreenBiz. In the intro, you talked a little bit about what things are going on there. Love to hear some of the key events that you guys have coming up maybe that you're looking forward to.

HC: Yeah and I'm glad you didn't say favorite because that's like asking you your favorite child is you know, like who's your favorite kid? Yeah, so we just had our sell out GreenBiz 23, which is the sort of flagship event of the company, focused predominantly on a corporate sustainability profession itself. So lots of career sessions, things that are sort of core to that to that person's role. What we have coming up next in June are two conferences, one is called circularity and that is focused on all of the design and business model and Financial Innovation considerations that have to do with making a circular economy possible. So that's an event that I'm really excited about. I just love that. You know, sustainability includes a circular economy, and that sort of new way of doing things that new way of thinking about production is super important. The other event we have in June, is called Green fin and it's focused on the finance community who's, you know, helping finance this stuff, where's the money going? What is the financial services industry doing with respect to how, you know, there's gonna be a lot of focus, I think, this year on how what they shouldn't be supporting, right. So we know there's been a lot of pressure and sort of scrutiny of what is funded but you know, how do we make this transition? What kind of finance do we need to make the transition? where's that going to come from? What can we expect in terms of regulations, that's the sort of main focus of that event. And then finally, the event that we have in the fall is called The Verge. And that is the climate tech event. And that's where we really highlight the innovations that make this happen. So we have food innovations. We have innovations in the carbon removal space, we have innovations, and I believe this year one, one of the tracks we'll be focusing on is water. I'm hopefully not pre announcing anything, but I know that that's an interest that we have, of course we have energy, a very active energy track and then also transportation. How do you decarbonize transportation, so we have conferences within the conference, if you will, and then just sort of the broader issue of how technology can really accelerate the movement is what is something that we look at so those are our physical events, ones that we do in person. We also have some virtual ones. One is called electrify. So really, we're very focused on electrification of buildings and other processes. We have one called Net Zero, again, focused on the strategies around that and then something that we're starting this year called nature, so many companies are concerned about how their operations are affecting biodiversity. And so we're getting deeper into that, that space.

RL: Well, that's a great list of different ways that people can find out more and get involved and participate. So that was terrific. Thank you. We touched on the idea of, you know, climate, but there's other kinds of environmental disasters. We saw one recently in East Palestine. And you know, you mentioned the younger generation. I have an 18 year old son, and he's mentioned that, you know, basically every day since it happened so I do hear what you're saying about the younger generation being more attuned maybe, to these sorts of things. But I wonder, you know, some of your thoughts regarding the derailment therapies, Palestine, and what can individuals do to prevent future disasters such as that one? Are there things that can be done?

HC: Yeah, so you see individuals I'm not sure what individuals can do, except to actually you know, what they can demand now to know, right? So that horrible event has a lot of attention partly because certain news outlets have really made it their point of making it have a lot of attention, and I'm really actually very happy about that. But I'm also a bit I'm not happy about the fact that there are hundreds of derailments like that a year. It just happens way more than we do that the general public and we're talking specific lists specifically talking about the United States because I can't really know about others. I don't know about other countries, but it happens a lot here. We have the right to know about that. We should know much more about that. So individuals can demand to know more and they can. I think that probably will come at the state level or the municipality level but if you have a train and you know, a train system running through your town, you should know what's on those traits. You should understand it and your community should have the right to know that. I also think that the safety laws need to be much more scrutinized. A lot more. And you know, I don't want to get too political here. But it's interesting how the Environmental Agency and the transportation safety agencies suddenly now need to do more. When generally it's been cut. It's kind of ping pong, right? It's like here we have these regulations. Oh, no, no, we're gonna get rid of all these things. And it ping pongs back and forth. Well, we need some sort of stability, right? So we need what we need. We need thoughtful safety regulations that are supportive of humans and not companies, right with humans need to be served. And then the other thing I will say is that the, you know, the thing that I go back to is that the stuff on that train was largely Petrich. There were a lot of petrochemicals there. So it also speaks to our need to get out of the petrochemical industry to get rid of those materials and to find climate technologies that can replace biomaterials with, you know, safer alternatives that are not as toxic to humans or the environment or animals or, or everything. So it's kind of this multifaceted way. So there's a lot of calls to action in that one.

RL: How reactive are you to your audience, you know if hundreds of people are writing emails saying hey, we want to see more coverage, whether it's about the derailment in East Palestine or anything else. Does that shape how you guys look at editorial content?

HC: I would love to have that kind of guidance. Yeah, I mean, like, absolutely. We look at our analytics on a regular basis. We see we know what people are reading, you know, till we do look at that. But we absolutely have a small staff, right? We're not staff like the Washington Post or the New York Times or Bloomberg, great like we just don't have that many people. So we do need to focus and I know that in my mind I would like to do more on this particular incident that you're speaking about, but the way that I need to look at it is how this shows us a way of moving forward with another sort. Yes. I mean, if we had hundreds of people asking us to write something we sure would be.

RL: You mentioned analytics as something that you guys look at. And, you know, 30 years ago, analytics in the media, probably, if it existed at all, was very rudimentary, but looking forward into the future. What are some changes consumers will be saying as well in the media industry?

HC: Wow. I'm not a media analyst. So what changes? I think you're gonna see honestly, a bit of a return to the basics. I think that the sort of flap over greenwashing and this sort of the fact that these things keep happening, and that the journalists have not been as accountable as they should have been with some of these climate things. I think you're gonna see a return to good old fashioned reporting and accountability and focus on you know what, what really matters so I do believe that that the pendulum is swinging back. I think that local coverage is super important. That's not something I can personally be handling but that does speak to how each journalist has their own brand so I'm in the process of trying to think what is my brand, you know, and how, how do I keep that dialogue going with my audience, regardless of whether I'm writing something or if I'm doing a podcast, or maybe I'm putting up a quick Tik Tok? I think that you'll see journalists stepping into their own brands, more with all of the different platforms that we have and again, as I said, I'm trying to sort that out for myself, right now actually, in the process of doing that for myself, but you know, there's no way I can write every story that I want to, however, I can be working on along for a piece and then I can pop onto LinkedIn or somewhere to make a comment about another thing. And then I can tweet out all the things that are related to that. And then I can maybe do a quick Tik Tok at the end of the week. And then oh, by the way, if I visited a site, I can put a lot of photos up on my Instagram account. So I think that journalists, you know, are perpetuating the dialogue in different ways. And that's one thing I think that will be changing and I have no idea how to watch it and hopefully I'll participate in that.

RL: Yeah, but I think what I'm hearing is more touch points which I think ultimately is a good thing. Journalists like yourself having that ability to get immediate feedback or to engage with readers. I think that's a positive trend.

HC: You know, but that's just one thing. That being said, I don't think that journalists should only rely on that. I mean, there's a lot to say about gut. If you think something is a story, then it probably is a story, even if you haven't heard it from anyone else yet. And I think that journalists also should trust their gut more. If something stinks there's probably a reason it's rotting. It is probably rotting. And you need to be checking it out.

RL: Let's wrap it up. I want to go back one more time with GreenBiz. And talk a little bit about what I just noticed on your Twitter account, the nominations for the 2023 GreenBiz 30 under 30 list. I wonder if you could tell our listeners a little bit about that particular project and maybe what you're looking for in candidates for the award.

HC: Very happy you asked about that. And I hope this goes up quickly enough so that we have nominations based on this interaction. We're having. So this is the eighth annual list. And what we're looking for is, as it sounds, rising professionals in the fields that I spoke about before in sustainability, climate tech and environmental justice in circular economy design, things that have to do with the climate tech and the Climate Action Movement, if you will, the corporate Climate Action Movement, and these individuals are are under 30. So we're looking for people who are, you know, early in their career, but who have made some sort of notable achievement that is worth celebrating, and we really try to emphasize a cross section of diversity and in all its forms, including regional diversity, like from outside the United States. usually have a pretty good, maybe about 30 to 40% are from the outside of the United States. But you know, our idea is to celebrate these rising professionals who we can learn from, and who all our readers should be learning from and I am really excited to name the next 30 and the nominations are open until the 31st of March. So we usually have hundreds of them. I was thinking the other day and I know that we were well over 100. It's gonna be fun to go through them but I still engage regularly with the individuals from our past list. It is wonderful to see where they go from their careers and they've wound up at some pretty amazing places. And, you know, it's a gratifying process.

RL: And I think you know, that's a great way to wrap it up because we hit on a theme here, I think over the course of the conversation about the younger generations and their engagement. And I think that award is a perfect example of how you guys can salute and celebrate those types of people. Heather, thank you so much for your time today. I really enjoyed our conversations. It's great to hear from somebody on the media side and their perspective on things. So thank you for taking your time today.

HC: Thank you for the invitation. It's been my pleasure.

Thank you so much for reading our latest update from VSC Ventures Fund I. We're in the early days of our long and healthy partnership with all of you, so please reach out to us with additional questions on anything above. Thank you again for your support for our vision and our fund!

Vijay Chattha & Jay Kapoor

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