Career Advice: Starting a Sustainable Startup

Tell us a little about what you were doing before HBS and what brought you to HBS.

I’ve always found myself drawn to working on products and services that can have a positive impact on the world. At Ford, this led me to join a new team called City Solutions, where I helped to launch a service aimed at making transportation easier, more affordable, and more efficient for communities in cities around the world. Through this work, I was able to immerse myself in the evolving landscape of autonomous vehicles, public transportation, micromobility (like scooters), and more, and I had a blast playing my small part in the future of mobility.

Throughout this work, sustainability came up as a common thread, and I found myself consistently drawn to the intersection of sustainability and urbanization. With the creativity and vitality present in urban life, I began thinking more about how urbanization might stress our existing systems, and how technology can help make urban living more sustainable. With this lens in mind, I applied to HBS with the goal of exploring the exciting world of startups and venture capital in climate tech.

You have experience developing a startup while at HBS. Can you tell us a bit about your start up? What resources were most helpful as an entrepreneur working in climate?

I had tried starting a company a few years earlier with a small group of friends, but after we received our first rejections from VCs and accelerators, we decided we didn’t have the passion for the idea to be all-in. So, I came to HBS with the idea I wanted to try starting a company again but in a space I was passionate about. Luckily, HBS proved to be a very low risk proving grounds.

In December of RC year, I spent time brainstorming startup ideas with two of the same friends I had tried starting a company with earlier. Timing worked out well, as one of these friends had also just started business school at Sloan. To target our brainstorming, we focused specifically on how our backgrounds in robotics and AI could be used to address challenges related to climate change, a space we were all passionate about. After a few weeks and dozens of calls with experts, we landed on using robotics and AI for verification of forest carbon offsets.

Forests are an excellent carbon sink, and conservation, reforestation, and afforestation (planting trees where there were no trees previously) all play a role in taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But, it can be a challenge to efficiently and accurately measure how much carbon stock is stored in a forest. The startup I co-founded, Gaia AI, is automating and improving accuracy of measuring forest carbon stocks to foster trust in the forest carbon offset market.

At Harvard, we’ve benefited from an array of resources, like the Rock Accelerator and the Harvard Climate Entrepreneur’s Circle. Through the Rock Accelerator, we received financial resources that helped us acquire hardware for our product, and we received mentorship from both experienced entrepreneurs and fellow students. Being a part of this community helped me to see that the struggles I faced were not exclusive to me. Throughout the accelerator, we were able to support each other by giving advice, making connections, and generally empathizing with the highs and lows of building a company. The Harvard Climate Entrepreneur’s Circle also helped facilitate introductions to relevant VCs as we started to fundraise, allowing us to dramatically expand our network of climate-focused investors and operators.

Lastly, I found the career coaches (shoutout to Joe Blair and Juan Luis Leungli) and faculty (especially Jim Matheson and Stig Leschly) to be invaluable resources in thinking through the broader question of whether entrepreneurship is the right path for me at this stage of my career. Choosing entrepreneurship out of HBS means passing up on some amazing other opportunities, so I wanted to talk to people older and wiser than me to make sure I was deliberate in making that decision. Many of them had to face the same choice coming out of HBS and were incredible thought partners along the way.

Alumni are a great resource. As a current student, how did you find relevant alumni and connect with them? Were there any common threads of advice that you received?

LinkedIn and the alumni database both were instrumental in connecting with alumni. Using both of these tools, I was able to connect us to investors, potential customers, and others who were useful along the way. Once I got over the awkwardness of the cold emails and messages to alumni, I started realizing that alumni were always happy to be helpful. After building out a few initial connections, it was much more straightforward to begin connecting with alumni through warm intros.

Across the board, alumni encouraged me to continue using my time at HBS to “try on” entrepreneurship. While some of the alumni had started businesses out of HBS and failed within a year, they were all able to land on their feet in large part due to their HBS network, and they took with them valuable lessons, both about business and about themselves.

A common question from MBAs is how to decide what type of company or role to pursue. You have experience working at a variety of companies, from startups to VCs. Can you tell us about what it’s like to work in these different roles or companies? What was challenging, surprising, or enjoyable?

The venture capital and entrepreneurship paths have a surprising number of similarities. Both can be incredibly intellectually engaging. In my VC role at Fifth Wall, I spent a large part of my time distilling a huge amount of information on startups, from financial projections to customer retention metrics, to decide whether a company had a realistic pathway to hypergrowth. As an entrepreneur, my co-founders and I spent time ideating revenue models and defining an ideal beachhead market. While sometimes this required a good deal of solo work, I learned that digging into data to understand how a business operates can bring me into “flow state” at work.

Variety in each role was also a huge plus for me. At Fifth Wall, one week I would explore the atmospheric water generation market (essentially, creating potable water from the air), while another week I would dive into carbon accounting. And, as an entrepreneur, there are always new tasks popping up – hiring, legal work, building a pitch deck, defining product specs, and so on. For someone like me, who can get bored if I work on the same task for too long, this aspect was a great fit in both roles.

Storytelling is another skill that is critical to develop in both VC and the startup world. During my VC internship, I had to define the “story,” or what we needed to believe, for a company to hit our required return, and then decide if that story was realistic. As an entrepreneur, my co-founders and I pitched dozens of investors, each time refining our story to emphasize the points that resonated most.

How do plan to use your career and experience at HBS to help create a more sustainable world?

While I don’t yet know what the future holds for me, there are a lot of exciting opportunities in carbon capture technologies and the carbon markets. Just within the last six months, dozens of startups have received strong financing rounds from top-tier investors including Sequoia, the TPG Rise Fund, and Andreesen Horowitz, drawing an influx of talent into carbon accounting, carbon marketplaces, and carbon capture. My goal is to use the skillsets I’ve developed as a founder, investor, and HBS student to remain active in the world of climate tech startups. I get a lot of energy from work that I feel is deeply meaningful, and to me, it’s hard to find a space more meaningful than climate tech. I could see myself going through the “revolving door” of VC and operating roles at startups throughout my career, and it’s exciting (but sometimes anxiety-inducing!) that my path isn’t set yet.

Any last words of advice?

As my time at HBS draws to a close, I think one of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten while at HBS is to “play the student card” as much as I can. This meant I spent a lot of free time reaching out to prominent people in climate tech and learning about their paths and what’s brought them joy and fulfillment in their work. Climate tech is still a relatively small but rapidly growing space, and you never know where these connections might one day lead.