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. Canary thanks FischTank PR for its support of the column.
Allison Wolff: A former Silicon Valley insider who uses technology to boost forest resiliency
Allison Wolff is chief executive officer at Vibrant Planet. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
How did you end up on this career path?
I’ve had a long career in the Silicon Valley tech space. I started at Netflix, and then I worked at eBay, Google and Facebook. Much of my career after Netflix focused on helping these big companies become forces for good in the world. I did a lot of work on sustainability and renewable energy procurement, which pulls together massive buying capacity for renewable energy by private companies, which helps green the grid.
While I was doing that, I was also working with Paul Hawken to launch Drawdown and started to get interested in regenerative agriculture and nature-based climate solutions. It felt like renewable energy was finally reaching a tipping point, so I wanted to understand some other climate solutions like removing excess carbon from the atmosphere. I learned about the huge opportunities in nature-based solutions like soil and forest management to maintain and restore carbon sinks.
Around this time, in 2018, California experienced some of the worst fires in history. Having learned about how critical nature-based solutions are for pulling carbon down, preserving water resources, and biodiversity, I had a calling to start something to help with better forest management and natural carbon sequestration. Developing a plan for land management is very slow, it’s very hard, and it’s mostly analog, so I saw this opportunity to bring that process into the cloud and dramatically improve data input so that we’re working with best-in-class data and science. So it was really bringing technology and data science into this space, and that is how Vibrant Planet came to be.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Hire people better than yourself. I’ve taken that to heart, and the team we have are the best in their field across science and product leadership, technology and land management. Instead of being a top-down CEO, I see myself at the bottom of the organization and flip the structure, so I am really focused on supporting the organization.
What is a barrier you faced, and how did you overcome it?
I think the biggest barrier in our business is building trust, especially with government agencies. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of mistrust of private companies that have been seen as capitalizing on problems like wildfires or building businesses off of publicly funded data without returning benefits to the general population. So that has been difficult, but I think we are making progress. Part of our strategy has been to bring in trusted insiders who can credibly say we share a mission of building these technology resources to move the needle faster toward a shared goal.
What do you think are some interesting, overlooked career opportunities in climatetech?
I have to say nature-based solutions, especially forests. There is also a lot happening in regenerative agriculture, though it is not at scale yet. There is not enough happening in forest management. Building resiliency in some of these fire-prone forests is very important, and there are lots of opportunities for doing it that are scientifically driven. But there are not enough people who have the expertise to do things like prescribed fire or mechanical thinning to bring the forest back to more of a natural structure that is adapted to fire.
What is your superpower?
Having a systems-thinking brain where I see a bigger picture and the connections between things, and being able to holistically approach complicated problems and see where the lo jams are. That quality has allowed me to take a systems approach to solving problems, which is very valuable.
Melanie Nakagawa will be joining Microsoft in the new year as its chief sustainability officer. Nakagawa is currently special assistant to the president and NSC senior director for climate and energy at the White House.
Chante Harris has been hired as climatetech strategist at Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative co-founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Wendy Schmidt. Harris is co-founder of Women of Color Collective in Sustainability.
For the record
In the United States, women make up only 30 percent of the workforce in the solar and wind industries, compared to 47% of the overall national workforce.
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