3 diverse cleantech entrepreneurs: ‘Will you value other experiences?’

As Electrek previously reported, the $5 million Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) Impact Fund launched on January 15. LACI is working to eradicate monoculturalism in cleantech startups by bringing on its most diverse cohort yet in spring 2020. More than 50% of participating founders are of color, and nearly 40% are women. We hear from three of those founders in the LACI spring cohort below.

Few startups helmed by entrepreneurs of color, especially black Americans and women of color, get the resources and support they need to bring their products to market.

As Entrepreneur explains:

Black-owned firms represent only 7% of all US businesses. Hispanic-owned firms represent 10.6%, and Asian-owned firms, 4.3%.

Josh Aviv, founder and CEO of SparkCharge, Doris Sung, cofounder of TBM Designs, and Sabrina Williams, cofounder and CEO of SEED — all members of LACI’s spring 2020 cohort — had a chat with LACI just for Electrek about what inspires them and what challenges they face, how they innovate, and the support they need to succeed.

LACI: What inspired you to pursue a career in cleantech innovation?

Josh Aviv: I started SparkCharge when I was a student at Syracuse University working with Linda Hartsoc and Blackstone Launchpad. At the time, I was an economics major who took an environmental economics class and was inspired by my professor to start an electric vehicle charging company. I wanted my company to focus on removing the limitations and anxiety around charging electric vehicles; removing the where, when, and how from EV charging, allowing the electric vehicle market to grow exponentially.


Sabrina Williams: I’d always been afraid of the word “tech,” thinking it was only a certain type of person.  But after attending a few workshops with my child at a local makerspace, I learned how to make a simple, automatic watering solution to serve the gardening community where I ran a nonprofit.  After taking the system to Cuba with my future cofounder Ruby Rios, I started looking at ways to democratize IoT [Internet of Things] and take advantage of the innovation and creativity in low-income communities. At that point a light bulb went on: These communities can be huge beneficiaries in the agtech space, especially when it comes to food production, which so profoundly impacts their food security. It also helps them directly fight the deleterious effects of climate change that disproportionately impact low-income communities of color.

Doris Sung: As the vehicular industry was making huge changes in moving to electric vehicles (less fuel, less emissions), architecture did not seem to be making the same leaps in technology. I wanted to invent a product that would be low-tech and require no electricity to operate while reduce the amount of energy we use in a building, so I left the field of architecture and dove into research and building technology. By targeting the building envelope or skin, heat could be prevented from entering a building and reduce heavy loads on expensive heating/cooling systems, which are the biggest culprits for energy use and building emissions. Most solutions are super expensive and reliant on electricity to operate. And, the cheap solutions (which are everywhere!) are now deemed to be poor for human wellness. Our product uses no energy, saves energy, requires no maintenance, works endlessly, contributes to human wellness, is priced reasonably, and is elegant. It is something that is smart and embodies a deep understanding of what cleantech truly means to architecture (and not the usual lip service).

What are some of the unique challenges you have faced as a startup founder from a traditionally underrepresented community?

Josh Aviv: Being a minority founder, I often find that I am the only person of color in the room/part of the conversation, especially when it comes to conversations around cleantech. Over the years, it has gotten better, but I can only remember one or two moments when there was another minority or African-American presenting a company or doing business with me in the cleantech sector. I am excited every time I meet a new minority entrepreneur who is paving the way in cleantech and coming up with innovative ideas on how to change the world. This is something I truly believe we need more of. I really want to shine a light on the cleantech movement and the underserved communities within it.

Sabrina Williams: With no prior experience in cleantech, or tech at all for that matter, I had no access to networks. Outside of makerspaces, there was also no institution for learning at the community level — most interventions were from corporations, and were focused on the product level (“what have you built”) versus the education level (“what are you thinking about building?”).  There was also the issue of being taken seriously. What I wanted to do was not big or flashy or complex. It didn’t meet the threshold of words like “disruptive.” I kept getting told, either directly or through messaging, that the value of our product’s impactful change, versus its technical prowess, wasn’t compelling or enough.

Doris Sung: The worst experience was when an unnamed manufacturer asked to speak to my boss. When I told him I was a cofounder of the company, he asked to speak to my business partner. He was clearly annoyed to find that the other partner was a female. These experiences are unfortunately commonplace enough in my life that I don’t get upset anymore. I just get annoyed that he wasted my time. I also think that many people are surprised to find that I am the inventor of the product. Because it is highly engineered to perform in a very calculated way, they don’t expect a woman to have designed something that can be scaled so large.

How are you continuing to innovate and grow your business during the economic slowdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? Or if you’re struggling, what is your plan to get through this?

Josh Aviv: We almost immediately saw a spike in interest in our product. I truly think consumers saw what the world could be like with less pollution in the air (with less ICE vehicles on the road). Mountains that haven’t been seen in years were visible, the world was quieter. EVs have the potential to continue this environmental revolution. When COVID hit, we were faced with a lot of tough situations. We saw the massive layoffs that other companies were doing. That’s far from our core belief that our team is our family. Throughout the worst of the pandemic we did not lay off one single employee. Instead, we kept our team and our family together and worked through the pandemic to make sure that our company would not only survive but thrive in spite of the challenges before us. This is something that we are extremely proud of and is something that we will look back on when the next challenge arrives. Was it difficult ? Absolutely, but we always believed as a team to bet on ourselves to pull through, which we did.

Sabrina Williams: We were just completing a full consumer test of our initial product when COVID-19 hit. Those test kits are still in the field, and we haven’t been able to collect necessary data and iterate. But, people are growing more food… and that is our wheelhouse. So we didn’t so much as “pivot” but return to our action-oriented, community-level roots. We are producing the original, starter version of our kit so folks can take part in our Home(in)Stead gardening campaign. It has fewer bells and whistles, but the interest and goodwill we’ve created with the campaign has boosted our profile and has proven invaluable in pushing the brand forward faster than we thought.

Doris Sung: Like any company, we have had to put many things on hold for our company. Because we are very lean in size and entering the piloting stage, the reduction in business capacity has not been crippling. As things are opening up, we are starting to ramp up. Our pilot projects have been delayed a few months, but they are all still happening, and we are hopeful and optimistic. As long as our suppliers and manufacturers are able to operate, we should be okay. We pride ourselves in being resilient.

How could elected leaders, communities, and the private sector better support entrepreneurs of color?

Josh Aviv: One of the biggest areas where they could help is awareness and access to opportunity. Oftentimes one of the biggest struggles for minority entrepreneurs is just getting recognized for the work that we do. In most circumstances minority companies are often overlooked and were not considered for opportunities where their companies can lend a hand. It’s interesting when you think about how much harder we as people of color have to work to be recognized, that drive that is in us to change the world, it’s a beautiful thing.

Sabrina Williams: If they are asking the question, then they must acknowledge (or must start believing) that there are many, many entrepreneurs of color they can support.  In other words, you know people of color are out there doing the work you usually support, so find them and make direct appeals if you’re really serious about changing structural inequality. Next, when you start the listening work that you are now vowing to do, give credence to the stories entrepreneurs of color are telling. To what extent will you value other experiences and innovative viewpoints? If I say it’s hot, I don’t want to be offered a sweater because you happen to be a little chilly! Then, look internally. How are you willing to move toward a diverse business landscape? Elected leaders can refuse to commit funds/subsidies until corporations meet environmental and social impact goals. And conversely, the private sector can refuse to bring big contracts to jurisdictions where those impact goals are not supported. Finally, support the small businesses that already exist.

Doris Sung: This is a great question. Just like all equity or diversity issues, it is important to find ways to level the playing field. Trained as an architect, my career has always been dominated by white males. Only 19% of licensed architects are women (only 15% Asian) and 11% of engineers are women. Those numbers get even smaller in building-product manufacturing and construction industries, especially at management or executive levels. As an entrepreneur in this industry, it seems to be just as bad, if not worse. Elected leaders, communities, and the private sector need to make a bigger effort to make these changes and support female-owned or minority-owned businesses in funding, investment, marketing, networking, purchasing, promoting and contracting. Otherwise, things will never change.

Photo: Megan Thomas/Unsplash

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in White River Junction, Vermont. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at michelle@9to5mac.com. Check out her personal blog.