As an executive search consultant focusing on cleantech and purpose-driven leadership, I have learned that my role is not to change the world, but to find leaders who do. Since starting an informal Women in cleantech networking group five years ago, I have also learned that some of our most inspirational leaders in this space are women – and it keeps getting better.

Our first event was held in a mother-and-daughter-run café space that was happy to swap from fair-trade coffee to organic Prosecco for an evening. With two weeks’ notice for a December event, we invited all the women in leadership roles I had met to date in cleantech – a grand total of about 30. About 24 turned up, and anyone who organizes events will know this is an astonishing ratio. A large number of these women were CFOs; others led large teams of engineers or ran human resources or communications departments. None of them seemed to know each other. I asked why. There had been no specific group like this before, they told me. They worked hard, then wanted to get home to their kids. They didn’t realize there were other amazing women in cleantech for them to meet. But now they do, and they have been reconvening ever since.

There is no LinkedIn group or Facebook page. We bring purpose-driven, like-minded women together, face to face in the real world, in an informal, non-corporate environment after work, three or four times a year. Since those early days, we have evolved to invite women from across the entire cleantech ecosystem, including environmental non-profits, educators, board members, government and think tanks. Some are established C-suite executives or board directors; others are next-generation leaders. We have got so much positive feedback on the strong sense of camaraderie and atmosphere of warm welcome, the sense of shared purpose and values, the eagerness to help each other and the absence of conspicuous egos in action (no offence, guys).

Success is defined in different ways by the women I’ve come to know through our cleantech group. Some are or aspire to be CEOs – and these are all inspiring change-makers. Others prefer other kinds of leadership. Take Sabina Russell, for example. She was the director of product engineering at Ballard Power Systems, managing more than 90 engineers and scientists. This is one of the highest cleantech engineering roles in Vancouver. Russell chose to leave this senior leadership role to co-found a boutique engineering consultancy, Zen Clean Energy Solutions. She was drawn to the idea of playing a bigger role in deploying clean energy technologies, helping to shape policy and working with a broader range of impactful technology solutions. She didn’t need the title or the big team to do what she wanted to do. Others in our groups are powerhouse CFOs who love what they do. For many talented and ambitious women in cleantech, there are other paths to power and influence than being a CEO.

Outside of our informal gatherings, recognition of women in cleantech has made great strides in the past few years, and this helps bring profile to this exciting, vital and high-growth sector. The BCBusiness Most Influential Women 2018 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) list features six cleantech leaders – five of whom attend our group. With a national mandate, MaRS Discovery District in Ontario organized the first national Women in Cleantech Challenge in 2018, selecting six startup CEO finalists for funding and support. One of them – Julie Angus – is from B.C.

We are entering an exciting time for women in cleantech, reported to be the fastest-growing sector in B.C. Innovative cleantech companies need engineers and scientists but also leaders and professionals in finance, communications, project management and human resources. They need to diversify their boards, which have been traditionally male in cleantech, and like it or not, they know this has to change. Increasingly, government and investor funding requires it. Yes, they need domain expertise, but they also need specialist skills in commercialization, raising capital, legal areas, etc. We have all of these roles and many more represented in our Women in Cleantech group. Not only is the work interesting, but it is helping to save the planet.

One of B.C.’s very few female cleantech CEOs – and a regular guest at our get-togethers – is Grace Quan of Hydrogen in Motion. Quan believes that “women in cleantech, female entrepreneurs and women in STEM need co-op or internship opportunities, networking and development forums, mentorship and social groups to develop and learn from others.” We agree. 

This article was originally published on page 30 in the Spring 2019 Issue of Business in Vancouver.

Elaine Grotefeld

Elaine Grotefeld is a Partner in the Vancouver office of Odgers Berndtson, focused on the recruitment of technology business leaders with a special interest in clean tech, green tech, and sustainab...

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