Elemental Excelerator endeavors to expand climate tech diversity
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Good news: career opportunities in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — are more accessible than ever in Hawaii. Bad news: people to fill those jobs are hard to find, and their opportunities are not evenly distributed.
The Elemental Excelerator, which is currently evaluating applicants for its 11th cohort of climate tech companies, is meanwhile working to address this skills gap through greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the climate technology space.
The program is called EDICT: Empowering Diverse Climate Talent. It simultaneously tackles two areas of need: social equity and climate resiliency.
The plan and the pledge
EDICT is an internship program run by the Elemental Excelerator, the Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI), and FutureMap. And this year, the program's second, the number of participants has doubled to 72 students who were placed at 54 companies across the country.
These are paid, full-time, 10-week internships, the effort supported by participating companies and funding from LinkedIn and the Schmidt Family Foundation. EDICT interns participate in a wide variety of roles, including business development, engineering, marketing, policy, research, and more.
EDICT is designed to benefit traditionally excluded groups: Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual (LGBTQIA+) community, people who have disabilities, people from low-income backgrounds, people who identify as nonbinary, and women — all of whom are underrepresented in the climate sector, let alone the overall business community.
Sparked by the May 2020 killing of George Floyd and two Elemental portfolio company founders, the vision for EDICT is expansive.
"EDICT can have the same level of impact on employment that the STEM push we’ve had over the last decade-plus has had on the education system," said Elemental Excelerator managing director Sara Chandler.
Antoinette West, Career Pathways Manager, added: "We want to shift the collective thinking to the point where it’s not a radical thing to have a diverse workforce — it’s just expected."
In fact, any employer is encouraged to evaluate and take the "EDICT Pledge," whether or not they participate in the internship program:
To build a more diverse, more inclusive, and stronger clean tech sector, we commit to:
Pushing for the inclusion of diverse voices at all conferences and industry events
Interviewing diverse candidates for every job opening. Once hired, we will mentor, promote and sponsor them on a path to success
Having the uncomfortable conversations needed to support the careers of the diverse people we hire in our organizations
Searching out diverse mid-career and senior hires from other industries
Hiring paid interns from diverse backgrounds whenever we host internships
Using data to hold ourselves accountable; we commit to transparency, so we can blaze a trail others can follow
The local numbers
According to Elemental, Hawaii will need 16,000 additional workers with STEM skills each year. Yet, the state also ranks 47th in the nation in the number of STEM-related degrees awarded per capita.
Six of the 72 EDICT interns have been placed in four Hawaii companies — including the Elemental Excelerator, which is co-headquartered in Honolulu.
The three other Hawaii companies participating in EDICT are, not surprisingly, frequent collaborators with Elemental and other sustainability-minded organizations in the island: the Blue Planet Foundation, Hawaii Ulu Cooperative, and Shifted Energy.
One additional intern from Hawaii secured an internship at Starbucks in Seattle, a spokesperson tells me.
Only two other cities are hosting more interns: San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The rest are in 14 other states: Alaska, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
The Shifted Energy experience
"I think it comes down to representation," says Forest Frizzell, CEO and co-founder of Shifted Energy. "Representation matters."
Shifted Energy, a Hawaii-based Elemental Excelerator portfolio company, was founded in 2015, coming out of a productive partnership between local nonprofit volunteer organization Kanu Hawaii and ratepayer-funded utility efficiency program Hawaii Energy.
The fundamental innovation of the startup? Using electric hot water heaters as batteries that can be collectively managed to address shifting power demands, stabilize power grids, and benefitting homeowners and local companies in the process.
Shifted Energy signed the EDICT Pledge, and this summer is working with an intern from the sustainability graduate degree program at Hawaii Pacific University. Frizzell says he is fully on-board with the EDICT mission.
"If everybody in your employee pool or your board room looks exactly the same, if they've come from really similar economic backgrounds and education backgrounds, as a company it will be really difficult for you to build for or respond to everybody within your ecosystem," he explains. "Having diverse voices throughout multiple levels of the organization absolutely helps to inform whatever it is that you're building."
Frizzell acknowledges that the disparities are different in Hawaii than they are in most other U.S. states, where ethnic diversity is high.
"The companies I've worked with are normally all Hawaii-based companies, and so I think maybe you have a little bit of a less of an issue with that," he says. "I think depending on the industry, where where we fall short oftentimes is more on gender diversity."
That view is validated by his career in the tech and energy space.
"Because in Hawaii, you might have at least the ethnic diversity built in, I think that across the board — in Hawaii and abroad — there's been a push to try and be more gender diverse in the sectors that I'm working in especially," he says.
"Outside of Hawaii, then it's the opposite, I think you definitely have an issue with lack of representation both racially and for LGBT as well," he adds. "I haven't seen as much of a push for LGBT in Hawaii, actually but that's starting to change."
Even with Hawaii's strengths, Frizzell says he has never seen a local company declare that it doesn't have a problem with diversity.
"I think it'd be rare where people would publicly go on record and say, 'We've got no problem with this,'" he says. "I think you have to look at who says that they're going to put diversity inclusion programs together, and then you have to see change in the organization."
That change will necessarily take time, Frizzell notes.
"The proof is in the action," he says. "Have you actually taken the action to make a more diverse workforce?"
Taking action can be scary, he admits.
"There needs to be a commitment to enter spaces that that historically you might not have spent time with, and that might be uncomfortable," he says. "That's okay, there should be some uncomfortableness to it, because it's been overlooked."
On the plus side, Frizzell says that attention to diversity has been instructive in the evolution of his company.
"Historically, energy solutions have gone to wealthy people, someone that owns a single family home, someone that can put solar on their roof and has a garage to park an EV and place a battery in," he says. "But if you're a renter, if you're lower on the socio economic scale, if you live in a multifamily building, historically, there hasn't been a lot of opportunity for you."
Frizzell credits the makeup of his company for the recent push to be more inclusive and work with different communities.
"That goes back to why I say representation matters," he says. You don’t hear that voice if everybody looks the same and comes from the same economic background."
Even in the focused space where Shifted Energy operates, there are historic trust issues, Frizzell notes.
"Frontline communities are where the transfer stations are, it's where the power plants go, because there's less agency — you don't see a power plant in a wealthy neighborhood," he explains. "If you haven't been included in the planning, in designing what the future looks like, then you don't see yourself as part of it, and you're most likely not going to contribute to it."
The intern experience
"When I was little I always wanted to be saving animals," says Emily VanGorden. "But now I realize my true calling is environmental justice."
VanGorden has just begun her internship with Frizzell and Shifted Energy. And she admits that the energy sector wasn't originally on her radar.
"Energy and the grid was a very confusing thing for me six months ago, and it wasn't really something I considered, career-wise," VanGorden says. "It's definitely taking me down a path I didn't think I would, and it has given me a lot more respect for energy management in the energy sector."
Her internship with Shifted Energy is not limited to a desk in an office.
"I handle customer service, I take a lot of calls, I schedule people, and I do some outreach on why people should be a part of the program," she says. "But I'm also installing water heaters that are better for the grid in lower income type neighborhoods for the indigenous people who are living there."
VanGorden also does installation in urban Honolulu, introducing smart timers into different condominiums and multifamily households.
"I’m that first step into the company, which is kind of cool," she says.
VanGorden grew up in the outskirts of Orange County, and says that if you asked her if diversity was an issue ten years ago, she would have said no.
"I grew up for 18 years in a very white-dominant town, so I didn't really have a lot of friends who weren't white growing up," she recalls. "Once I left the town, and then I left the state and then even moved out of the country for a little bit, I really saw a lot of issues with diversity and the truth that I was sheltered growing up.
"This last six years has just been a full journey of learning what diversity really means and how it really does have impact," she adds.
A month and a half into the internship program, and VanGorden is thriving.
"It has exceeded my expectations tremendously, which is really exciting," she says. "I'm learning the energy sector and learning how energy management works, but I feel like I learned a lot more about what it means to be a woman in the business world, in general."
Even better, her bosses share her passion for environmental justice.
"The reason they started the entire company was because there's a lot of issues with environmental justice," she says. "Just the conversations I've had with my bosses... it feels really cool to be a part of something bigger than what I thought it was gonna be."
Wayne Akiyama contributed to this report. Header image courtesy Laszlo Podor/Moment via Getty Images.