Canary Media’s Charging Up column chronicles gender diversity in the climatetech sector. Part one is a short Q&A with an industry role model about their career path. Part two features updates on career transitions. Please send feedback and tips to email@example.com.
Alison Berman: An intersectional thinker with an eye to the future
Alison Berman is senior manager of research and marketing operations at Valo Ventures. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
How did you end up on this career path?
Early in my career, I had an important wake-up call when I was asked to work on an advertising campaign for a large pesticide manufacturer. Eventually, I built up the courage to leave that job to forge a more purpose-oriented career. I moved from New York across the country to San Francisco to work as a staff writer at Singularity University, a think tank founded by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis to educate leaders on how to leverage exponential technologies to solve complex global problems.
It was an incredible position that exposed me to many visionary thinkers at the intersection of technology and social impact. Meanwhile, my former colleague Nicholas Haan recommended I read The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. That and the fact that the backcountry is where I feel most alive made me decide to dedicate my career to climate change.
My first climate-related job was at RMI’s climatetech accelerator Third Derivative, where I learned about taking an ecosystem approach to accelerating startup development within climate innovation. I witnessed how central venture capitalists were — of all the ecosystem players in our network — in deciding which solutions would get the funding needed to scale. This led me to where I am today at Valo Ventures, a VC firm investing across three megatrends: climate change, the circular economy and empowered people. [Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.]
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My mentor Pascal Finette once gave me advice on how to execute and lead amid uncertainty at work, and to this day it’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received. Learning to navigate fast-moving environments was historically a skill required for startup employees and entrepreneurs, but today, anyone working within the field of climate change or with emerging technologies must possess this. An executive coach I admire, Jerry Colonna, also phrases this well: He calls it the skill of standing still while your hair is on fire.
I’ll add my own piece of advice here too, which is that career journeys are nonlinear. At any given moment, you can only see the tip of the iceberg of someone else’s journey. It’s why we can never compare ourselves to others — truly.
What is a barrier you faced, and how did you overcome it?
I went to Sarah Lawrence College for my undergraduate degree and studied a mix of creative writing, philosophy and economics. While I learned to be a critical and intersectional thinker, not having a technical background is something I have had to overcome repeatedly to push through barriers imposed on us “nontechnical” folks. Navigating a nontraditional career path has its upsides, however, and it has helped me develop intrinsic motivation and grit — which luckily are traits that Silicon Valley hinges on.
What do you think are some interesting, overlooked career opportunities in climatetech?
There’s a lot of opportunity for Ph.D. students to support VCs with technical due diligence. Unless you’re a massive firm, you can’t have full-time deep technical experts across every area of technology you’re investing in, which means that firms sometimes leverage Ph.D. and postdoc students to collaborate on the due-diligence process. This is a win-win, as many Ph.D.s are seeking opportunities to bridge from academia and build commercial understanding — and the climate VC world is a fantastic space for them to begin. [Early-stage VC firm] Fifty Years has a Ph.D. to VC program to help scientists get into venture capital, and at Valo we love partnering with these communities as well.
What is your superpower?
A combination of working with futurists early in my career, voraciously reading science fiction and being born a contrarian has helped shape how I think and approach the world. I’m able to hold a lot of competing ideas, truths and trends at once, and this has helped me embark on some fascinating projects involving strategic foresight and futures thinking.
Dawn James is now managing director for environmental, social and governance strategy, sustainability and digital transformation at business consultancy Deloitte. James was previously a sustainability leader at Microsoft and currently serves as a member of the board of directors at climatetech incubator Greentown Labs.
Christy Martell has joined community solar and energy software provider Arcadia as senior VP of sales, enterprise. Martell previously held several leadership roles at Stem, which specializes in AI-driven clean energy solutions and services.
Hilary Vogelbaum has been promoted to senior investment analyst at S2G Ventures, an investment firm focused on food, agriculture, oceans and clean-energy markets. Vogelbaum joined the venture firm from Avangrid Renewables, the U.S. competitive-generation arm of global renewables major Iberdrola.
Audrey Copeland is now head of development at Mission Clean Energy, a developer of utility-scale renewable energy and storage projects. Copeland was previously with Spearmint Energy, an energy trading company.
For the record
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics, women make up less than 30 percent of researchers around the world. The institute also notes that women in STEM fields publish less, are paid less for their research and do not progress as far as men in their careers.
Check it out
A reader recently shared with Canary Media a database of jobs and salaries in the environmental field. Originally inspired by the Women in Tech Salary Transparency Project, its purpose is to encourage transparency around inequities in pay and provide concrete data that anyone can use in salary negotiations. You can find the database here, and if you would like to submit your own salary anonymously, you can do so here.