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 protected]canarymedia.com. Canary thanks FischTank PR for its support of the column.
Lauren Flanagan: A self-taught serial entrepreneur who is always learning
Lauren Flanagan is the co-founder and CEO of Sesame Solar, which makes solar-powered mobile nanogrids. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
How did you end up on this career path?
I’ve always loved science and technology. I was the kind of kid who asked my parents for microscopes, chemistry sets and telescopes for presents. My stepfather was an engineer who built audio amplifiers and model airplanes, and I loved all of that. It was so fun to learn when I was a kid.
I studied philosophy in college but also took some programming classes, and I taught myself a lot too. I’ve always loved looking at technology to solve problems. I’ve started five tech companies. But after Hurricane Katrina, I was so shocked by how unprepared we were, and I felt like we should all be doing something about climate change. I thought about what I was good at — starting tech companies — and decided to look at how I could help solve some of the problems that happen after these disasters. We are currently doing the worst possible thing [after disasters], which is sending diesel generators everywhere to provide power, so on top of massive environmental damage from a hurricane or flood or wildfire, we’re further polluting the ecosystem with particulates in the air and water and with noise and carbon emissions. I thought if we could make renewable power easy to use and fast to deploy, that could solve this problem, and that is how Sesame Solar was formed a little over five years ago.
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What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My grandmother grew up very poor, but she went on to become a successful real estate investor in California — she was completely self-taught. She taught me the value of a good education but also the skill of being able to teach yourself. “Always be learning,” or ABL, has become my motto.
The other piece of advice I would share is to seek new experiences and take risks. It’s not a mistake unless you repeat it; you can figure out how to do better. So maybe that motto can be “you only live once,” or YOLO. Be bold and live big.
What is a barrier you faced, and how did you overcome it?
All women, people of color and other underestimated founders probably face similar challenges when it comes to fundraising, which is that we don’t match the patterns that most investors are looking for. A way I have overcome that is to focus on profitability from the start to be financially independent. That gives you a lot of power over decision-making for your business, and it’s also a way to get the best investors and [to be able to] partner with people who really get you and what you are trying to do.
What do you think are some interesting, overlooked career opportunities in climatetech?
There are so many. The market is paying a lot of attention to carbon extraction, but probably the biggest impact is going to be around reducing consumption and circularity. That means repairing things instead of throwing them away and making new ones, but also how businesses can optimize processes for less energy consumption. Not everything has to be completely new or revolutionary. For young people getting started, I would say try to work in companies where you can get experience and gain domain expertise to really understand the problems, and then pick a narrow piece where you want to focus.
What is your superpower?
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