Rebekah Emanuel (MBA 2015), Director of Social Entrepreneurship for the Harvard Innovation Labs (i-Lab) and host of the third season of the BEI’s Climate Rising podcast, reflects on the role of entrepreneurship in confronting climate change and what she learned as this season’s host of Climate Rising.

Elise Clarkson: You’ve had a broad career, ranging from Yale to McKinsey to the City of Boston. Can you tell me about how you ended up as the Director of Social Entrepreneurship for the Harvard i-Lab? Did you always want to work with entrepreneurs?

Rebekah Emanuel: I like figuring out how to mobilize a team and create a vision to tackle issues that are chronically unaddressed but deeply important. They are the neglected but pivotal issues. Typically when you decide to address one of these issues, it ends up in one of two ways. One, you're already working inside an existing institution and forming a new program or initiative and you need to set up a system that can run on its own. Or, number two, you end up starting up a new organization. Both are skills that require entrepreneurship.

There are a lot of issues in our world that we want to resolve and oftentimes the best solution comes from looking at one sector and finding something analogous that's applicable to another sector. The more I work in different places and with different people, the more I see that cross-pollinating between industries ends up being extremely helpful in finding innovative solutions.

That's where my whole career has been…no matter what type of institution I’ve been inside: Whether it's public sector, private sector, or social sector, it’s critical to make sure that the goal and the revenue model are aligned. That is the key, foundational principle for me. Then, the question is how do we solve these problems that we really need to solve? Whenever someone is trying to solve a societal problem, I find there's often several analogous ways to think about it. One great pleasure of mine is helping other people solve problems that they have a vision for and helping folks build the solution faster, better, and smarter.

Elise Clarkson: This season of Climate Rising you speak with entrepreneurs leading innovations in the fight against climate change. What role do you see for entrepreneurs in confronting climate change?

Rebekah Emanuel: I think entrepreneurs are particularly good at helping us change our daily routines. As a society, we have assumptions about how our systems work- transportation infrastructure, communication infrastructure, ordering groceries, heating, cooling- any of these things are just basic assumptions when I go about my day and I don't think twice about them. One thing that entrepreneurs are talented at is thinking carefully about how people live their lives. They think of tweaks that make people's total assumptions change. Take Uber and Lyft. Everyone knew how to hail a taxi the old way, but no one does that now. That's in part because entrepreneurs have taken a very simple set of decisions that you made and changed them.

One of the things we have to do with climate is take all this infrastructure that we already have and begin to think about where are the tweaks where you can take solutions and piece them together and end up with a completely different behavioral set of responses. One of the interesting things about carbon emissions is that it crosses all of the domains of our lives. We all need a host of behavioral changes that become routine and so basic you don’t think about them. And how do you get people to change their behavior? You want to be attracted to the new option. What would “seduction” look like to change our daily choices and be carbon neutral or negative? I think as a society we're getting there more and more. The entrepreneurs I talked with in this season repeatedly took on the challenge of “attraction” to make it compelling for people to change their behavior—no matter if it was in cemeteries or energy procurement or luxury clothing. And underpinning all of that was carbon.

Elise Clarkson: There were a number of topics addressed in this season of Climate Rising, covering innovations in both technologies and business models. Through your work, what types of emerging trends are you seeing – where is there a lot of new, entrepreneurial thinking and innovation?

Rebekah Emanuel: If you take the climate lens to any sector there are all kinds of opportunities that are blossoming at this moment. One thing that stood out for me from the podcast is that the places where climate innovation is possible can be extremely unexpected. Whether it’s in paying forestry to not cut down trees or drawing carbon out of the air or high end sound equipment, it’s often in places that were not on your list of areas to look.

One striking thing is the level to which new business models become possible once we price carbon. A lot of the most fascinating models that came up through the podcast have a core piece of the model that works, right now, when there's some amount of priced carbon, even if the current price is not a particularly commanding one. Then I noticed this pattern—many guests began outlining businesses that will come online when there's a commanding price for carbon. The sheer volume of creativity that a higher price unlocks became ever more apparent.

Another thing that's been interesting has been the thinking about how to take a solution and work within the systems that currently exist in order to get to scale. That could be existing technology or existing infrastructure or even the existing patterns of consumer preferences. By working with the status quo many of these entrepreneurs are able to chart a path to scale that would not be possible otherwise.

Elise Clarkson: As the Director of Social Entrepreneurship and host of Climate Rising, you work with entrepreneurs every day. The Harvard Innovation Labs (iLab) also recently announced the Harvard Climate Entrepreneurs Circle, an incubation program for ventures working to address climate change, which you Chair. How do you support climate entrepreneurs in your current role?

Rebekah Emanuel: We have a group of 16 Harvard ventures, the Harvard Climate Entrepreneur’s Circle, who are making serious tracks on tackling climate change. The energy is infectious, and the topics range all the way from climate education to grid scale battery storage to 3D printing. One of the core issues is that our carbon utilization is all over every system that we interact with and so there's untold business opportunities no matter where you look. I’ve been incredibly impressed by our founders’ ability to use tools that exist and apply them in a completely new way to create a business that works, makes a profit, and has this carbon impact in a way that simply wasn't possible before.

In my role at the i-lab, many, many different people come to me at all stages of idea formation. I work with people anywhere from the ‘I just ran out of the shower this morning with a new idea’, all the way to ‘I’m running a $20 million dollar company’. I see my job as helping innovators with what they are facing now—listening to the next three challenges that are coming up and helping them find the actionable steps that pull on the best of what the innovation sector knows at the moment. The goal is to give them tools in their pocket that they didn't have before. For entrepreneurs at the early stage, I help them think about who their user is and how to run practical tests to know that this is in fact something that would be useful. For entrepreneurs who are further on, the conversations can be about how you build an effective board, how you make sure that the right doors are being unlocked, or what good partnerships look like. There's a multitude of choices that come up at different stages for entrepreneurs, so one of the great pleasures of my job is that people come to me with the thing that's confronting them right now and we get to work through that.

I also love watching people help each other. That’s begun happening a bunch in the Harvard Climate Entrepreneur’s Circle where innovators are in a space where the industries are different but many of the structural components that they're looking at are quite similar, and so the amount of mutual aid that just appears out of the woodwork is dramatic. Sometimes it’s as simple as connecting with people who have specialized knowledge or networks which can be useful that can make all the difference to an entrepreneur. That's one of the great pleasures of Harvard as well.

Elise Clarkson: Did anything from the podcast experience change your thinking or change how you approach your support for entrepreneurs in your current role?

Rebekah Emanuel: One interesting commonality that kept coming up during the Climate Rising podcast was the role of institutional investment and the assumptions and motivations of those large scale, long time horizon investors that made all the difference in the ability to bring a solution to scale or not. That was one of the topics that emerged as an extremely potent theme: it just kept on surfacing as transformative for leaders in wildly different sectors – both unlocking opportunities and sometimes blocking them. Aligning incentives over the long term is critical for all of this, and no matter which sector you look at, funding and aligning incentives matter.

Elise Clarkson: This was your first time hosting a podcast. What were some surprising things that you learned while taking on this new role as the host of Climate Rising?

Rebekah Emanuel: I spent a lot of time in my role as the Executive Director of the long-term plan for the City of Boston being on the other side of the table—being interviewed for radio and news stories. As host, sitting down to record any interview, I had an outline in my head of some of the fascinating things that this particular CEO or leader was doing. Figuring out both how to elicit that, learn more on the fly, determine what might be interesting to listeners, and then weave that into a story is a wonderfully creative process. It's both a highly informal conversation, and something where, in fact, you know that there are three or four big themes that could be neat to uncover but you want them to come out in a way that allows someone to be listening in on this conversation and enjoying it for themselves.

Elise Clarkson: Can you tell us about what you learned- the surprises, the challenges, the successes?

Rebekah Emanuel: It’s always interesting to work with people who know their industry so deeply and thoroughly, so much better than you ever could as a host. You're also charged with providing a sense of balance and perspective and, in some ways, pushing them further and asking the hard questions in an area that they are truly the expert in. Helping uncover the areas of complexity is sort of a mix between facilitator, compassionate listener, and gadfly, which is a particularly interesting social role.

One description that I really like which comes from NPR is that the host is the advocate for the listener. You're asking the questions that the listener wishes someone would ask and that's very much how I thought of my role as asking that next obvious question, even if it's not always the one that the person being interviewed wishes you were going to ask.. It’s often those everyday-listener questions that get you into fascinating territory.

Elise Clarkson: What are some ways the Harvard network can support people inspired by the podcast?

Rebekah Emanuel: I would say that if listeners are trying to work on climate, whether it's through entrepreneurship, or any of the other many roles, Harvard has incredible resources to give. Sometimes it takes stepping into that first set of connections that allows you to uncover those things. The thing that I love about the podcast is that, through listening to these relatively short segments there are incredible places of unexpected potential, both from a business standpoint and from a climate impact standpoint, that emerged. That element of surprise areas of leverage are incredibly potent. None of the areas of highest impact are the ones that get commonly talked about over dinner tables.

There's all of these new entrepreneurs coming together through the Harvard Climate Entrepreneur’s Circle using Harvard’s resources to take their ventures further faster and I’m excited about figuring out how Harvard can become a place that anyone who's working on climate can find likeminded people.

I would love in 10 years to look back and say ‘wow all these people who have made this remarkable impact were in dialogue with each other, at the same time.’ I think of the Impressionist movement. The same way we think back to how the Impressionist painters all painted different ways and in their own styles, but in fact they were in the same cafes talking with each other in a very narrow point in time. I’d love for us as a society to look back in 10 years and think ‘oh wow all these people were in fact in dialogue with each other, talking with each other, helping each other, exchanging ideas’. I think that's what we're trying to build with the Harvard Climate Entrepreneur’s Circle and the Climate Rising podcast where people who are already leaders in this field are sharing their expertise and folks who are building the next generation of solutions are helping each other out.