Meet Rebekah Emanuel – she’s the senior advisor for social impact at the Harvard Innovation Labs (i-lab). A McKinsey alum and HBS grad, Rebekah served as executive director of Imagine Boston, the first long-term plan for the City of Boston in 50 years. Rebekah has also hosted Climate Rising, HBS’s climate podcast, and founded the Harvard Climate Circle.

She designed “How to Create a Climate Venture”, an offering for aspiring climate entrepreneurs who do not yet have an idea. The program provides training for climate entrepreneurs in five key areas: unpacking climate solutions, coming up with your idea, leveraging tools to test the viability of your idea, connecting with fellow climate entrepreneurs to hear their stories, and building your network.

What inspired you to create this?

I was meeting with students and alumni during office hours – medical students, computer scientists, people from the oil and gas industry, former lawyers – and kept hearing the same thing: “I wish I had an idea for a startup to tackle climate change, because if I did, I’d throw myself all in. But I don’t. What should I do?” As I had more and more of these meetings, I realized that their collectively diverse skill set is just what we need to address climate change.They just needed an entry point.

So I decided to create “How to Create a Climate Venture.” I have a firm belief that the skills of innovation and entrepreneurship are taught, they are not innate. From the beginning, my goal has been to be inclusive and bring together diverse people from widely different backgrounds. I was surprised by how much traction it’s gotten: We had 300 registrants in the first semester the class was offered. There were 18-year-old undergraduates from Harvard College side by side with folks in their 80s who were embarking on their second encore career. There were entomologists and investment bankers and fashion designers. It was the most diverse group I’d taught in a while.

I have an underlying thesis in teaching “How to Create a Climate Venture”. To quote others, what we need now in climate is “more shots on goal.” I hope this class inspires more people to take a shot.

Were you worried about anything?

Yes, the first worry I had was about engagement. I first offered this in spring 2023 as a non-credit-bearing offering, fully virtual, and for 10 weeks. Week after week, would people show up? Or would the pressure of work or classes get in the way?

I needn’t have worried. People were fired up. When I asked participants to write down what their priorities were, I could see the notebooks and pencils moving, with pauses to think. And at the end of every session we had optional mini-connects in small breakout rooms based on the theme of the day. Conversations were so robust that I often could not shut the sessions down on time. For several weeks running I gave participants a warning that I was going to close the breakout rooms, five minutes past their scheduled end. Then when the breakout rooms closed, the conversation continued in the main Zoom room, and then folks exchanged phone numbers with one another to keep chatting.

I also feared that participants might not generate ideas. While we focus five weeks on hands-on techniques for ideation, you can’t command an idea to pop into your head in the shower. You can only provide the scaffolding. And I wanted each person’s idea to be born of their passions and skills, not from some template. To raise the stakes, the second half of the semester is structured around idea evaluation. These techniques work better if you have a nugget of an idea you are interested in and want to vet. Of course, you can learn the vetting techniques in the live session and use them later, but I really wanted people to do it hands-on.

Any good fear should motivate some new thinking. So I paired concrete innovation techniques with the opportunity to meet people like them – Harvard students and graduates who used these very techniques to create successful climate startups. To help them along in the ideation process, I also provided idea banks, lists of pre-vetted, money-netting solutions, and, my personal favorite, a list of climate solutions that teams at Harvard Law School have vetted and written 70-page briefs on. Each of these ideas is meant to be picked up and implemented. We also created a database of participants' inspiration areas and new ideas, so participants with similar interests could find each other and start chatting.

What have been the coolest moments so far?

What has been so cool is that the sessions are just the beginning. The first set of trainings finished in April. Three months later, in July, everyone was immersed in their summer plans and baking in the heat. But the students’ self-formed WhatsApp group is still binging. Within one week students posted messages about direct air capture, emissions monitoring, and synthetic biology. Three days later one student asked “How are you all doing with your ventures? A couple of us have talked about a zoom call to catch up, if anyone is interested” I got three screens worth of replies from people saying “I am in.” For a fully virtual, fully optional offering, I was impressed. Somehow a robust sense of community had formed. Students created concrete ideas and are tenaciously working on them. And they’re finding support, even funding, from each other. Earlier in the semester, in the same WhatsApp group, one student shared that he had just gotten his license to farm seaweed. Another replied that they were at the US government body ARPA-E and had funding in this area and to reach out.

Were there any last-minute surprises?

I had my tenth and final wrap-up class fully outlined. But right around launching “How to Create a Climate Venture”, ChatGPT went mainstream. One afternoon my husband said, “What if you used ChatGPT in your sessions?” The next day I took a quiet moment and played around with how ChatGPT might be used as a co-ideation buddy in creating climate startups.

I took one student’s interest area, modular homes in rural Texas, as my jumping-off point.

The class took off from there. We started by asking about the biggest climate impacts of modular homes and got back a great list, progressed through the major industries in rural Texas where the benefits of modular homes might be applicable, did some payback period calculations, and ended by identifying a list of possible customers and asking ChatGPT to write outreach emails to them. We even ran into classic ChatGPT problems – ChatGPT gave both 325,000 and 1.3 million as the number of farm workers in Texas – and this was a great opening for practical guidelines for how to use ChatGPT responsibly.

What I like about this session was the sense – along with many other resources – of having enormous support, not just in building the venture once you have the idea, but in coming up with the idea in the first place.

What’s up next?

I’ve been a little flabbergasted by the demand for “How to Create a Climate Venture” at Harvard and beyond. In spring 2023, I taught this at Harvard. Just a few months later, in fall 2023, I will teach it again to 42 universities. Yes, at Harvard, but now registration is also open to MIT, Stanford, Dartmouth, and five universities in the Greentown Labs TEX-E program and the remainder via ClimateCAP. I also will teach a one-month version to alumni from eight different business schools. I’m looking forward to everyone’s ideas!