Greentech, cleantech, wind, solar, biofuels…sustainability. Not so long ago, these were practically dirty words to climate change deniers and opponents of President Obama’s controversial renewable energy policies. Investors were reeling from a series of heavily-publicized and politicized bankruptcies by companies such as Solyndra, Range Fuels and Fisker Automotive, and plunging natural gas prices were leading skeptics to question the economic underpinnings of practically every form of alternative energy.
As an executive recruiter who has worked exclusively with sustainability companies since 2007, I won’t dispute that some bad investments were made, technologies were half-baked and companies were undercapitalized. But that’s only part of the story. In fact, for those willing to look past the graveyard of untimely company casualties, there’s new life and liquidity left in the sustainability sector.
Yes, the industry has been tumultuous. But it’s moving from nascent to mainstream. Climate change is real, solar works, you can drive an electric car that is cool and fast, and soon you won’t even have to drive yourself.
From abyss to thriving
So let’s agree … the sustainability industry is not dead. But thriving? Actually, yes. And this is just the beginning.
First, the successes. The most obvious is Tesla Motors. Almost a month after the announcement, and I still haven’t been able to scroll two pages in my Twitter feed without seeing #ModelX mentioned. Tesla has created a bridge for consumers to viscerally understand and appreciate sustainable energy. They have created a vision – so exciting and appealing we can almost see it – of the day when nearly every car on the road will be electric. (Commute from San Francisco to Silicon Valley these days and you literally can already see it).
The lesson is that we don’t have to compromise. Consumers don’t have to choose. Clean or sexy? Renewable or affordable? Purpose or profit? We can now have both. And we increasingly demand it. Not just of our cars but also of our homes. Several markets have already reached the tipping point where residential solar is more affordable than traditional utilities.
First Solar, Sungevity, Sunrun, SunPower and others are taking advantage of solar panels that cost 60 percent less than three years ago, smarter manufacturing practices, easier installation and drastically improved financing options, while paving the way towards a cleaner, brighter, more efficient and healthy future.
Energy efficiency has become a growth category all its own, with the most notable leader being Nest Labs, acquired by Google for $3.2 billion and now acquiring its own companies.
Beyond the successes, we are seeing incredible startups, with business models largely driven by consumer demand for something better without compromise. One of the most visionary examples I know is Patrick Brown and his team at Impossible Foods, who are disrupting the food ecosystem by challenging the technology we use to create meats and cheese. Mark my words, that man is the Steve Jobs of food.
Where there are good ideas and healthy business models, investment dollars will surely follow. I have had the pleasure of working with investors and startups who are integrating sustainability into cars, homes, food, energy, waste, water and even healthcare. The resulting diversification of my sustainability practice has presented its own challenges, but I have never been more proud to work in this industry.
People, purpose AND profits
This isn’t an exclusive party. Thought leaders across every industry – technology, manufacturing, services, software – are exploring opportunities in this burgeoning industry. And so should you. Why?
1. Do something that matters. I know this is obvious … we all want to save the world, right? But when your alarm rings in the morning, I promise your day will be different. Better.
2. Work with the most incredible people. When you build a company around a disruptive, purpose-driven mission, you’re going to attract some of the most inspiring people. And there’s nothing more beneficial to a company’s culture than a business that everyone believes in.
3. Real returns. Veteran sustainability investors such as John Doerr, Vinod Khosla and Elon Musk have learned over the years that sustainability companies tend to be longer-cycle businesses that require significant patience and capital to sustain them to maturity and profitability. Profitability being the key word. These are investments, not charities, and players in this space are being commensurately rewarded.
This business isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s for those with the passion, drive, intellect and fortitude to be bold. You can play it safe in a traditional career. Or you can build your legacy.
Go for broke, change the world!