This Digital CxO’s Leadership Insights video series presents a conversation with Helen Whiteley, the executive director of Women+ in Climate Tech and founder of Benecomms, a B2B climate communications agency. In this interview with sustainability contributor Bonnie Schneider, Helen shares insights from her extensive background in scaling and marketing successful climate tech start-ups along with her valuable tips on navigating B2B trends and pitfalls, for the benefit of leaders worldwide.
Bonnie Schneider: Hi, I’m Bonnie Schneider for Digital CxO. And joining me now is Helen Whiteley, the executive director of Women+ in Climate Tech and founder of the marketing agency Benecomms, focused on B2B climate communications and award winning advocate for sustainable and equitable climate solutions. Helen has helped scale numerous climate tech startups. Helen is a powerful voice in the critical fields of climate tech. And I’m so pleased to be speaking with her today. Helen, thanks for joining us.
Helen Whiteley: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Bonnie Schneider: Great, well, can you talk about your background and what motivated you to pursue a career in climate tech?
Helen Whiteley: Of course, yep. I started my career in Washington, DC, a couple of decades ago, working primarily in professional services, marketing and public relations; so complex, be to be working with large law firms, accounting firms. And as a result, I had some experience in sustainability from way back in the early 2000s. And it was always the work that I enjoyed the most. But in the back of my mind, this is something I wanted to do. But when I went to college, there are no degrees in that. So increasingly, over the years, I just felt more and more of a longing to be working in climate. I had no nonprofit experience, though. And that wasn’t really the field that I was, you know; my experience was B2B work. And then finally, in 2017, I thought, “This is it, I run, I’ve got to stop waiting for someone else to do this work and do it myself.” And I transitioned, formed my own agency in early 2018, and began working with some of those early climate tech startups. And we built it and grew from there.
Bonnie Schneider: That’s an incredible journey that you’ve had. Obviously, people are listening here – your accent, it’s slight, not as strong. Maybe because you’ve been in the States for a while. But you are originally from the UK.
Helen Whiteley: Now you bring it to light, it’ll get even stronger. Yes, I grew up in the UK and have lived in America for many years.
Bonnie Schneider: Great. That’s great. Well, tell me about Women+ in Climate Tech. I personally have had the chance to meet some of your members and see the diverse group of women in this great field that’s typically dominated by men, as we as we both know, but I’d love to hear a little more about the origin of Women+ in Climate Tech and what its mission is.
Helen Whiteley: Yeah, so very early on in my career, in the year 2000, I think it was, I was doing marketing for an event called First Tuesdays, and I’m not sure if many listeners will remember, but they were these technology events, pairing entrepreneurs with VCs. So the entrepreneurs would wear green bands, the VCs would read, and they’d mix and mingle. And I just remember supporting the events and on the sidelines, looking around, it was just an ocean of men. And wondering when technology funding would change. And fast forward to when I started working in climate tech, I was, it just felt very, very similar – the same paradigm. And I thought to myself, you know, we really need to change fundamentally – change the way we approach the planet, remote business, approach everything if we’re going to really have a hope of solving this problem – solving the climate crisis. And it just felt like, I don’t know, it just felt like the right thing to do was found this organization. And then, you know, on top of that, I was working with more women than I’d ever worked with before. So many women are sustainability officers, for example. And it’s interesting, primarily, because the field began as a volunteer field in many companies. It was not paid work. So a lot of times, I mean, it wasn’t until recently is that most companies have been developing positions. So there are a lot of females in the sustainability field, not necessarily climate tech, but sustainability. And I just was working with them and realizing, you know, a lot of times the climate scientists – I mean, infinitely amazingly, credentialed women – I’d bring them a presentation or speaking opportunity and they’d say, “Oh, I’m not ready, I’m not ready.” And I just realized, you know, sometimes to make change to get more women and to get more minorities involved in the field, you might have to have more practice. They might want more ability to build their confidence before going in front of, for example, in a room full of venture capitalists and mostly men. So it’s an opportunity to develop a network that would help that as well.
Bonnie Schneider: That is so great. And I’m sure and even since the short time that you’ve done it, you’ve seen more women getting involved in this field, that seems to be a trend, once some, you know, are successful then others will participate and follow, and it’s an ongoing effort with women and climate tech, which is wonderful. Want to talk a little bit about your marketing experience? You’re working with climate tech startups and helping to scale them. And that’s kind of the dream of any startup founder. How are we going to scale? And you’ve really had an inside seat into how that all comes about from the marketing angle. Can you talk about what you’ve been working on? And your experience with that?
Helen Whiteley: Yeah, well, very early on, we were fortunate to start working with a group called the Climate Service. And we scaled them really from zero to 1000. Very short period of time, it just coincided with with the climate tech boom, and they were successfully sold to S&P at the end of 2001. And we’ve had a couple of other stories like that, too. And I think I do, I do want to say, a life changing moment for me was learning about the TCFD, the task force for climate related financial disclosures. It is a framework used by some of the largest investors in the world to understand their climate risk. And for me, when I first started learning about this, when I first started my agency, I thought, wow, essentially, what we’re doing is putting a price tag on climate change – this changes everything. This means that climate impacts can be embedded in company books. For example, I knew I wanted to spend my career on that. So the concept of thinking about climate risks and climate opportunities – a lot of that stems back to the TCFD. And that’s been a useful framework from a communication standpoint, as well. So a lot of my work is influenced by that. And I think that’s why it resonates with the business community.
Bonnie Schneider: That is so fascinating. And it’s an ongoing conversation that I see all the time, you know, on LinkedIn, or people talking about, you know, how can they become more sustainable? What are their requirements, per se. So that’s a great framework to reference. Moving on to a little bit more about the challenges that women face in the climate tech industry – we covered a little bit about pitching to venture capital, and going forward with Women+ in Climate Tech, in particular, what what are you working on to help bridge that gap even further?
Helen Whiteley: Yeah, thank you for asking. So we have programs for women in early careers – very specifically growing a program targeting girls in high school, because I believe you cannot be what you cannot see. And, you know, the field of climate tech is so nice. And many people, especially in the wider population outside of the business community just don’t know it exists. And it’s really going to be part of everybody’s jobs. So preparing the next generation is so important. And then we have mentorship programs for women in mid career roles. And then we do a lot of thought leadership survey work, for example, for to build data that can be helpful to women. And in later careers. We have networking events, informational sessions. During COVID, it was all online, but now it’s starting to be in person, which is lovely.
Bonnie Schneider: That’s great. And did you say that it’s global – you have people from other parts of the world? That’s terrific. Going back to the B2B climate communications, do you think that aspect of it will help to grow the entire sector of climate tech having more of that marketing happening within the industry?
Helen Whiteley: Yeah, I mean, we have so fundamentally comes down to communications. And in fact, when I was reading some of the early work from the TCFD, it was, you know, this was authored by, Mark Carney and Mike Bloomberg. And it was, in my respect, it was, I thought it was all about communications. It really is, how do you think about this? How do you communicate between departments? How is it important for departments to work together because this is such a complex topic – you need your accounting team, you need your finance team, you need marketing, you need everybody to come to the table. And so I think B2B communications plays a critical role and has played a critical role. And it’s actually been I’m very thankful to be in this field. I love the work and I feel it’s very meaningful. And so, yeah, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.
Bonnie Schneider: That’s really interesting. And I agree, you know, a lot of the people that are watching maybe work in IT fields, and that’s another aspect of a company that has to all come together when coming up with their plan. And for sustainability. So I think that communication that you mentioned is crucial. And having people like yourself that understand that messaging also is very valuable. Talking about some of the voices, we talked about women and climate tech. But another issue that needs to develop further is having more diversity in the climate tech space, especially in the women and climate tech space. So tell me about the initiatives you’ve done to have a more diverse community in climate tech.
Helen Whiteley: Yeah, well, I think what I, what I’d like to do is talk like primarily about why it’s important. And, you know, I mean, there’s so many reasons. But I think there’s two two main buckets. And when it comes to gender equity, which is kind of our main focus. Estimates are that gender equity, as defined as family planning and access to education around the world, is almost a 70 billion drawdown opportunity. That’s carbon drawn down out of the atmosphere between now and 2018. And that’s the equivalent of taking all the world’s cars of all the world’s roads for five years, it’s one of the biggest, it’s one of the top 10 drawdown opportunities. And that’s something that is not talked about very much. And there’s a lot of complex reasons for why that is. But women are central to, you know, to the size of families, for example, for every child we have, that’s one of the biggest ways to increase our carbon footprint for use of clean cooking stoves. For example, agriculture, the majority of small farms and very small family farms in the world are worked and owned and operated by women. So women play a huge role in that. And as we know, throughout the world, women have far less access to insurance products; to financing. So they’re critical to keep fighting climate change and adaptation, helping their communities. But they’re at a significant disadvantage in terms of being able to do so. So this is an issue. It’s low hanging fruit that we can work on. But then separately, it’s a business issue – equity, that goes for gender equity, but also diversity, all leads to better decision making in business, because diverse teams are not constrained by myopic thinking. And this leads to higher profitability. So it’s not just the right thing to do. It is good business as well.
Bonnie Schneider: That’s a great point that it really does transcend to different areas of business. When it comes to the women and climate tech, you’ve talked about working with lots of different women and seeing their careers grow. I was wondering if anything, any examples stand out to you, where you’ve seen someone come into the community and really shine through the networking and the opportunities of discussing what it’s like to be a woman in climate tech? Have you had any, any particular people that really stood out to you?
Helen Whiteley: We have. Oh, it’s so interesting. And I’m sorry about the train going by in the background. Yeah, you know, I think that I love seeing the younger women entering the field. So we have relationships and conversations with colleges around the world. And the women coming into this field from graduate students, you know, from graduate degrees and whatnot. And the impact to see the mentoring and the networking can have on their careers. Is is incredible. I think what’s interesting is encouraging those younger women. I do hear a lot. I used to hear a lot from business owners. We don’t know where the women are. And engineers are, we don’t know where the women technologists are, we can’t find any. And that’s just not true. There may be fewer, but there are still many, many, many women and many women going into this field. And so matching those graduates and those young women with roles are helping them facilitate their careers. That’s a huge win. And we hear stories all the time, and it makes me so happy.
Bonnie Schneider: That is so nice. And I didn’t even realize that there were so many. I mean, it makes sense that there’s as time goes on, we’ll get more coming up, and then they can move into that role in climate tech, which kind of leads me to my last question, which is – what advice do you have or motivational tips do you have for people that are saying, “Well, I’m a woman and I want to move into climate tech, but it is overwhelming.” Any motivation that you can leave us with?
Helen Whiteley: Yeah, I would say the most important thing is to build your network. I saw a study recently, but it was done by LinkedIn. And I think the stat is that women in the US are 28% less likely than men to have a strong, professional network. There’s a lot of reasons for that. But if you think about that, that puts women right right away at a disadvantage. So building and nurturing your network is the most important thing that you can do. And apart from anything else, it gives you windows into opportunities you might not have ordinarily known existed. So yeah, joining groups like Women+ in Climate Tech. It’s free to join and we welcome all members from around the world.
Bonnie Schneider: That’s great. And if anyone wants to reach out to you for marketing, how would you recommend that they start – go to your website?
Helen Whiteley: Um, yes, it’s: www.benecomms.io. And you can also reach me through Women+ in Climate Tech as well.
Bonnie Schneider: That’s wonderful. This was such an informative conversation. Helen, thank you so much for joining us on Digital CxO. It was very inspiring and a real pleasure to speak with you.
Helen Whiteley: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it.
Bonnie Schneider: Thank you. All right. Well, stay with us. We’ll be right back.