“Up and Coming”
Caroline Howe, Environmental Entrepreneur
Anyone who knows Caroline Howe will tell you that they have been inspired by her passion. Anyone who meets her will immediately catch her enthusiasm, as well as her cause: climate change. Caroline has approached climate change solutions from many angles since graduating college a few years ago, from making rap songs about energy use, travelling cross-country in solar solution caravans, leading international workshops for youth, speaking at major conferences, and now, starting a company. Here she reflects on her first foray into the entrepreneurial sphere.
What drove you to start a new company?
Over the past three years in India, I saw that there are lots of innovative products and technologies out there to solve environmental problems, but they’re not reaching the people who need them. There’s not a consistent distribution channel for these products, and an environmental product on the shelf compared with a traditional product – for example, a kerosene lantern on a shelf versus a solar lantern – is much more expensive.
Example: a solar lantern has a longer lifespan and no operational costs, so it will pay for itself within 3-6 months, but consumers need education about these benefits, physical access to these products and finance, that just don’t exist in the current pure retail context. So we’re looking at alternative distribution models for products that would integrate that education component into sales.
Why not come up with new products?
We’re not manufacturing anything. There’s been lots of research and investment in the last ten years around designing products that fill a need, and are affordable: in the solar space, in water purification, and in waste management. The problem is the common assumption that if you made a great technology, everyone would both have access to it, and suddenly adopt it. But there are amazing low-cost solar lanterns on the market that have been on the market for years that people won’t consider because they don’t understand the benefits, and they can’t evaluate all of the options to decide what’s right for them. That’s not something a single technology company is designed to do.
How did you identify this need that could be filled?
I’d been in India for two years, essentially trying to fill that gap, working for various organizations and trying to promote innovative solutions by educating consumers and companies. However, we realized that education is not all that’s needed – getting products to the consumers who need it requires strong distribution, in both traditional and innovative ways. We brought together a team of young people as well as those traditional business backgrounds to develop the idea further.
What helped you get started?
We’ve had superb mentors with a lot of experience in the business world, a few mentors coming from the social entrepreneurship space, and people coming from a more NGO-type background. All of us believe there’s a different way to do business that can serve the base of the pyramid with socially and environmentally relevant services while being profitable. At the same time, there’s also this sense that the traditional model under which NGOs have operated isn’t meeting the need. It’s been a very interesting experience to bring those voices together. We met investors who provided the seed capital needed to get things off the ground. Early on, we considered the possibility of operating as consultants for other environmental businesses in India, but we realized it was very inefficient for each manufacturer to try to independently market their product. Everyone recognizes that their product meets one certain need, not everybody’s needs, so we’re trying to create a diverse product portfolio.
What has surprised you in the last year?
When I was working with other organizations, I had this perception that I had to volunteer all of my time for the things I loved and find some other job on the side to make my living. It created a split personality, and also made me feel less good about the environmental work I was doing – like no one saw a value in it that was worth paying for. I also had to spend more time writing grants than doing the work I loved. So, now, it’s really affirming for me to earn my living by doing what we love and what I do best. It’s also really exciting to see how it is allowing more people to get involved who couldn’t invest themselves in environmental work as volunteers.
The other thing that really surprised me was in the opposite direction – just how scared people can be of companies and the private sector. A lot of young people, myself included, before starting a company, are really distrustful of the private sector, thinking that any company must be out there to exploit people and make as much money as possible. A company where even part of the goal is to make money to grow – to be financially sustainable – seems to some young people like it can’t really be providing valuable service to the community as a whole. That an organization has to be for itself or for others – that you can’t be both. It’s been difficult to deal with people’s fears around that.
For a long time, you’ve been passionate about climate change. What paths would you recommend for young people discovering their passions and starting to get their feet wet?
I think one of the mistakes I made when I first set out to make change was feeling like there was only one way to do it and so looking for the one best way for me to make change. To some extent it’s true, you do have to figure out your skills and your passions and see how those can help make change, but at that point I thought there was one and only objective best. And now I don’t think that at all. There are so many ways any person can make change. Finding the right vehicle to be impactful sometimes takes different forms than you’d expect. I would have never expected to start a company, but doing the work that I’m doing right now is very similar to what I had imagined. I also think that, while I was in college, I imagined that the best way to make change was in the biggest, most established organization. A startup was scary, or maybe it had never even crossed my mind, and I’m glad that I worked in large organizations before I tried to start my own – that I understand more about institutional practices. However, I’m amazed at how easy it’s been, and how many young people and people working independently have a new way of doing things that is important and different and that will never be within the framework in which an existing organization operates.
I also think that when young people are figuring out whether to be part of an NGO or a company to make social change, it’s important to know that change comes in very surprising packages. I had this understanding that a for-profit company was for profit and not for change. Even the best companies like Google and Apple are companies where the expectation is profit. But I’ve met investors for whom for-profit business is just the beginning, that their true motivation is social impact.
The ultimate piece of advice, then, to young people who want to make change, is to find the right team. No change can happen alone, and we’re all so quick to burn out when we’re working completely independently. However you go about making change, find people that you enjoy working with, even if they’re committed to doing what you do for very different reasons. My driver is climate change; I see our work as a really good way to drive down emissions. My business partner, though, sees this as an opportunity to create jobs, and thinks that’s what’s needed to solve some of the other social problems that drive and motivate her. It is very different, but we have enormous overlap of what we want to see happen around distribution, as well as the way that we work together and the kind of company we wanted to create. Of course, the absolutely most important think that has allowed us to work together is that we love each other’s company; we have fun and we trust each other. No matter how good the goals are, if you can’t work together with your team, nothing is actually going to happen. Plus, if you don’t enjoy working with your team – you won’t enjoy the work itself!