Why the 'cult of the entrepreneur' is leaving out climate entrepreneurs

Ahead of COP28, Smart Green Shipping founder and CEO Diane Gilpin examines how and why the motivating factors that drive climate entrepreneurs often exclude them from traditional investment opportunities
Why the 'cult of the entrepreneur' is leaving out climate entrepreneurs

We’ve been led to believe that the best entrepreneurs are those that bleed to show they're trying hard enough. That what matters most is making money and making it fast. But there are entrepreneurs that uphold different values. Climate entrepreneurs are deeply concerned by the climate emergency and realise the urgent need for solutions. Our motivation comes from protecting people and the planet as well as making a significant profit, but this purpose-driven position comes at a big cost — exclusion from traditional investment opportunities. 

The all too common argument from investors is that climate entrepreneurs are naive. I would argue the opposite - climate entrepreneurs in fact understand the whole risk. If the Panama canal hasn’t got enough water in it due to climate crisis induced drought then ships simply can’t reach their destination to deliver cargo. There’s a real financial and environmental cost to that. Ships go the long way round, using more fuel and generating more emissions, exacerbating the problem. The examples of real-world impacts are endless. We can’t afford to continue ignoring the climate crisis.

I’ve experienced exclusion from investment opportunities first hand over the last decade, often stuck in the middle between governments that aren’t doing enough and investors who don’t have the patience - or patient capital - to invest in the technologies that will create a greener future. There are countless other founders who have faced the same fate. The question is, how do we break this cycle and reconsider what it means to be an entrepreneur?

Breaking the entrepreneurial mould

When I attend events with other founders I am still struck by how competitive, combative, and, frankly, male dominated it can all be. This ‘Dragon’s Den’ type of approach resonates — and is even celebrated — by investors. Significant amounts of capital are raised by the extrovert and, all too often, the more introverted and cerebral are sidelined. A male friend pioneering a new shipping business was told by an investor he wasn’t enough of an “a-hole”. Aspiring entrepreneurs are being pre-conditioned to fit this combative mould and believe that these traits are what is required to succeed in growing a business. In my view the last thing we need is more clones of Elon Musk. 

What’s even more disappointing is that this entrepreneurial model has been adopted by government agencies that hold the purse strings for other sources of societal funding such as grants and awards to help address thorny challenges. But still, profit above all is the determining factor and other considerations are just paid lip service. 

Questions on diversity and social and sustainability impact are included, and rightly so, in applications for government funded grants. But the reality is that when it comes to measuring it, there’s not much weight given to those elements of your application. I once applied (successfully) for grant funding where I was asked to detail how I would ensure diversity in my business and the measures in place to promote equality and inclusion. When I went before the panel making the final decision, I was confronted by an exclusively white, male lineup. What kind of message are we sending to the next generation of entrepreneurs?

To break the mould we need to shift our focus away from hyper growth and hyper masculine traits as signs of the successful entrepreneur. 

The rise of the climate entrepreneur

For myself and many others in this space, the planet is our primary stakeholder, so every business decision that’s made has to align with this agenda. But the challenge lies in the fact that climate innovations often take longer to develop and scale up. This, understandably, goes against the grain of investors who usually want fast returns with low financial risk and that’s a challenging landscape for entrepreneurs to navigate. 

What sets the majority of climate entrepreneurs apart from their peers are the values that we hold on to and embed into our businesses. Essentially it comes down to doing the right thing for the right reasons. We put purpose above profit, but addressing the climate mega-challenges offers massive financial returns.

As COP once again shines a light on the progress — or lack of — on environmental issues, there is no better time to reflect on where the breakthroughs will come from that will help us avert the climate crisis. Climate entrepreneurs will be key to this but without a change to investment models, which assess whole-risk, the businesses, innovations and entrepreneurs that have solutions to the climate and nature crises will continue to be sidelined when we need to help scale quicker than ever before. This is the greatest race we’ve ever had to face and we need everyone on the team. 

Lead image: pvproductions

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