VERGE

The 2019 VERGE Vanguard

VERGE Vanguard 2019

To combat climate change — let alone reverse it — it isn’t enough to break the rules of existing economic and social systems. We need to write entirely new ones. 

To celebrate that spirit, GreenBiz created the VERGE Vanguard report in 2018: our recognition of individuals who are flouting the status quo to create products, services and business models that are blazing a trail to a cleaner future.

The second annual VERGE Vanguard report features a diverse group of 20 individuals who are inspiring an equitable, inclusive transition to a clean power grid; drawing the roadmap for a zero-emissions transportation system; building the framework for a more circular economy; and enabling communities and companies around the world to draw down levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. 

Engineers and entrepreneurs. Evangelists and organizers. Farmers and policy makers. This year’s list celebrates individuals who are disrupting business as usual from within large organizations — such as Cummins, Ford, General Mills, IKEA, REI and VMware. It also highlights the women behind entrepreneurial ventures such as Kiverdi (turning carbon into nutrients and bioproducts), LanzaTech (converting captured carbon into fuels and chemicals), Renewlogy (transforming plastic waste into fuel) and The RealReal (the circular fashion company that pulled off an IPO that values it far above $1 billion).   

While their backgrounds are unique and diverse, the VERGE Vanguard honorees share a common conviction: to harness innovation to mitigate climate change and facilitate the clean economy transition. 

Some people are content to uphold the status quo. Others are wired to disrupt it. Now, more than ever, the warming world could use far more of the latter. In that spirit, we’re honored to introduce the 2019 VERGE Vanguard, listed alphabetically.

Priyanka Bakaya

Circular plastics champion

Priyanka Bakaya

Founder and chief executive officer, Renewlogy; Founder and director, Renew Oceans; Salt Lake City and Pune, India

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While most people are just catching on to the global plastics pollution problem, Priyanka Bakaya has been working on solutions for a decade. And she hasn't started with low-hanging fruit. 

Focusing on one of the thorniest pieces of the puzzle — the growing flow of low-value, post-consumer plastics filling landfills and waterways — the Australian-American entrepreneur founded Renewlogy as an MBA student at MIT.

An early commercial pioneer in chemical recycling, Renewlogy breaks down hard-to-recycle plastics into their basic molecular structure and converts them into higher-value liquid fuels. Renewlogy has two up-and-running facilities in Salt Lake City and Nova Scotia, partnerships with Dow's EnergyBag program and Canadian waste company Sustane Technologies, and recently was awarded a contract by the city of Phoenix to process the city's hard-to-recycle plastics. 

But Bakaya recognizes technological innovation is just one part of the solution.

Given that just 10 rivers transport more than 90 percent of river-based plastics into the oceans, Bakaya started the nonprofit Renew Oceans in 2019 to address the most significant leakage points. Starting with one of the largest contributors, the Ganges River in India, her team partners with communities on collection strategies, conversion technology and behavior change. They aim to divert 100,000 pounds of ocean-bound plastics in the first year, with early support from the Alliance to End Plastic Waste.

"It's an enormous problem that we're trying to solve, and even a decade on, I'm still optimistic and hopeful that there really are solutions out there," she says.  

— Lauren Phipps

Panama Bartholomy

Electrification evangelist

Panama Bartholomy

Founder and director, Building Decarbonization Coalition; Petaluma, California

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A meme has taken over the energy decarbonization conversation: Electrify everything. Panama Bartholomy, the charismatic founder and director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, is making that meme into a movement.

Buildings, responsible for 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, have been the Gordian Knot of the electrification movement — in large part because owners must upgrade to all-electric individually. Lack of awareness and financing upgrades make electrification an uphill battle against widespread natural gas infrastructure.

Bartholomy’s California-based coalition, launched in 2018, extols the benefits of electric appliances, including cost savings, safety and improved indoor air quality. Its message is catching on — fast. Over 50 local governments in California are considering policies to ban or restrict natural gas.

"This conversation has come out of nowhere and has vaulted to the front of the energy policy conversation," says Bartholomy, who previously served as an energy adviser in the California State Assembly and the California Energy Commission. 

He credits the quick infiltration to the range of dedicated expertise of coalition members, which include 140 energy providers, builders, local government, nonprofits and utilities. That, and the coalition’s purposely positive, business-friendly message.

"That’s what I love about the coalition and the larger effort," he says. "It is full of excitement and positivity about building a brighter future by getting rid of fossil fuels and relying on clean energy."

— Sarah Golden 

Chris Cochran, ReFed

Taking a bite out of food waste

Chris Cochran

Executive director, ReFED; Berkeley, California

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Chris Cochran leads the ReFED think tank, which brings a broad range of stakeholders to the table to create an efficient, equitable food system. It quickly has become the go-to source for tools, events and actions on food waste, which amounts to 62 million tons each year in the United States alone.

Working with others is "an exponential magnifier" of what each actor can achieve alone, Cochran says. ReFED recently joined with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with manufacturers, retailers, consumer groups and academia, to develop a standard tool and methodology to build better food labels and prevent edibles from being tossed out prematurely. It is building a data and insights engine with players across sectors, using more than 50 data sources, and its accelerator for nonprofits nurtures early solutions in the space, such as creating "an Uber for food recovery," as Cochran calls it.

Cochran's systems-innovation background includes helping create Walmart's first model for reducing food waste, examining the issue "with a magnifying glass" as a sustainability manager there. His ReFED role marries his aptitude for data and analytics with a love for food and agriculture. The latter passion took root while volunteering on a farm in Honduras, between completing a bachelor's in finance and accounting and a master's in international development. Cochran even established a nine-acre cocoa farm with local partners, which he still visits annually.

— Elsa Wenzel

Kate Daly, Closed Loop Partners

Captain of circular collaboration

Kate Daly

Managing director, Closed Loop Partners; New York City

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Kate Daly might be the personification of circularity's future in the United States.

Prior to her current role leading the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, Daly spent more than a decade working for New York City, most recently heading industry initiatives for NYC's Economic Development Corporation.

In both positions, the mash-up of sustainability and innovation has been at the core of Daly's mandate. For New York, the goal was sustainable development and job creation in cleantech, smart cities and the circular economy. Since joining Closed Loop in January 2018, Daly has fostered collaboration among companies working toward an economy where materials are shared, re-used and continuously cycled.

One of the center's first initiatives was the NextGen Cup Challenge, which united Starbucks and McDonald's in search of a reusable cup. In apparel, the center partnered with EON, which provides digital identity technology, and brands, including H&M and Target, to establish a standardized system that identifies clothing for reuse, resale and repair. Another program connects Chinese companies with U.S. circular investment opportunities.

While regulations have helped fuel innovation in China and Europe, the United States doesn't have unified, top-down support for circularity; instead brands are driving innovation, Daly says, and regulation is coming from cities.

"I think the next big wave of circularity in the U.S. will be to link the municipal zero-waste efforts and the private-sector corporate efforts," she says.

— Carol J. Clouse

Lisa Dyson, Kiverdi

Creative carbon recycler

Lisa Dyson

Co-founder and chief executive officer, Kiverdi and Air Protein; Pleasanton, California

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Math geek Lisa Dyson heard her true calling in the late 1990s, after a visit to Princeton Plasma Physics Lab during her undergraduate study at Brandeis University, where the physics experiments made mathematics come alive. Now, the MIT Ph.D in physics is applying that knowledge alongside her research in bioengineering and energy to turn carbon dioxide into protein, oils and other biobased products.

Her eight-year-old company Kiverdi, co-founded with Chief Scientist John Reed, builds on an approach originally developed by NASA. Now, the company holds more than 50 related patents. Kiverdi helps companies such as Procter & Gamble work within their supply chains to break down feedstocks, including plastics or CO2 emissions, and catalyze them into materials that can be used for everything from plant nutrients to packaging. "Typically, these are transformative changes, so they are board-level at some point," Dyson says.

She's also tackling the meaty challenge of sustainable food production. The mission of sister company Air Protein is to transform CO2 emissions in a matter of hours — essentially from thin air — into a substance that has the same protein profile as meat but that requires significantly less water and land to produce, according to Dyson.

"Our question was, ‘How can corporations play a role in doing things like reducing waste, combating climate change?'" she says. "Our solution was to make it profitable."

 — Heather Clancy 

Ugwem Eneyo, Shyft Power

Cleaning up energy in Nigeria

Ugwem Eneyo

Co-founder and chief executive officer, Shyft Power Solutions; Oakland, California, and Lagos, Nigeria

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Nigeria, expected to be the world's third-most-populous country by 2050, runs mostly on diesel generators. Not only is that an emissions nightmare, but each year 2 percent of GDP is lost on unreliable power, with $16 billion spent on backup generators. It's not uncommon for a bank to spend more on generators than on human resources and electric bills combined.

Ugwem Eneyo is determined to help Nigeria's energy infrastructure leapfrog into the 21st century. The CEO and co-founder of Shyft Power Solutions (formerly Solstice Energy Solutions) is building intelligent tools that manage distributed power sources. Business customers are beta-testing Shyft Base, which she likens to a "Nest for energy management for distributed energy resources."

Base replaces the "dumb" mechanical switches used by buildings to transfer to backup power. Naturally, there's an IoT-rich app that lets users analyze, control and optimize power sources to maximize efficiency and minimize costs and downtime. Eneyo is excited about the potential for eventually providing grid-level services, such as demand response and peer-to-peer resource-sharing, at scale.

Eneyo grew up in Edwardsville, Illinois — far from western Nigeria, where her extended family lives in the petro-polluted Niger Delta. Seeking to make change from within the industry, Eneyo spent several years at ExxonMobil as a risk adviser.

"If we solve some of these fundamental energy challenges, we're not just talking about the environment," she says. "We're talking about solving some of the really challenging socioeconomic situations."

— Elsa Wenzel

Marcius Extavour

Crowdsourced solutions catalyst

Marcius Extavour

Executive director, NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE; Los Angeles

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Marcius Extavour went from designing a pancake-making robot in an undergrad engineering class to leading a $20 million global contest to reverse climate change by recycling carbon dioxide.

Extavour and his classmates at the University of Toronto started with no knowledge of how to build a robot. They won the contest and the spirit of collaboratively solving a problem with scrappiness never left him.

Extavour went on to earn his masters and Ph.D degrees, later serving as director of government and corporate partnerships for the university. He worked in the private sector for Nortel and Ontario's power utility, and logged public sector time as a science and technology policy fellow in the U.S. Senate.

Now, Extavour is channeling his love of competition at the helm of NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, which aims to cultivate breakthrough technology to convert CO2 from power plants and industrial facilities into valuable products. While this is the most ambitious XPRIZE yet, Extavour is also developing a new carbon removal XPRIZE with an even bigger purse. Plus, he's rolling out the new Circular Carbon Network to connect innovators, capital providers and other key stakeholders creating value from carbon dioxide.

"As a black man from a biracial background, I didn't have a lot of role models in this work growing up," Extavour says, explaining that he hopes to be an inspiration to others in the African diaspora to pursue careers in science, technology and climate change. 

— Sara E. Murphy

Julie Furber, Cummins

Steering an engine behemoth to electric

Julie Furber

Vice president, Electrified Power, Cummins; Columbus, Indiana

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Seven out of the 10 trucks you see on U.S. roads use diesel engines made by 100-year-old Indiana-based Cummins. But the auto gear maker that has been such a major player in the era of fossil fuel trucks and buses is starting to get serious about electrification.

And the leader ushering in Cummins' development of battery-powered vehicle systems is Julie Furber, a mathematician by training and former finance exec, who says she's often the only woman in the room in the male-dominated commercial auto industry.

Furber guides a 300-person "startup" within Cummins — one that has a $500 million budget over a three-year period — that is inking partnerships and beginning to sell vehicle hardware into markets including electric school and transit buses as well as electric last-mile delivery vans. Furber says it's still early days for the market for electric heavy-duty vehicles but notes that "all signs are positive, and we are moving toward adoption."

Furber, a British citizen, says her diverse background helps her think differently, which is required as Cummins looks to embrace a variety of commercial vehicle power options — ones that are cleaner, increasingly use batteries and ultimately move away from fossil fuels.

— Katie Fehrenbacher

Jennifer Holmgren, LanzaTech

Making every carbon molecule matter

Jennifer Holmgren

Chief executive officer, LanzaTech; Chicago

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Jennifer Holmgren developed the world's first low-carbon, drop-in replacement aviation fuels at UOP, a Honeywell company. Until the fuels — made from animal fats and greases — withstood successful flight demonstrations with existing fleets from Virgin Atlantic and other major airlines, Holmgren says, nobody thought it was possible to fly with anything other than fossil fuels.

As CEO of LanzaTech, Holmgren is commercially proving a novel process technology that recycles waste carbon emissions into ethanol, then turns that ethanol into jet fuel. "We need to turn carbon from a liability into an opportunity," she says. "You can reduce your carbon problem and make money."

Founded in New Zealand in 2005, LanzaTech licenses its intellectual property and sells engineering services to customers such as steel mills and other industrial facilities. A 2018 partnership with Virgin Atlantic aims to hasten the commercial viability of sustainable aviation fuel.

Holmgren's original passion was energy democracy, the idea that every person should have access to the energy that drives social advancement. The Colombia native, once dubbed the world's "most compassionate businesswoman," realized access wouldn't do much good if the production process destroyed the planet and human health.

Holmgren believes the planet's looming problems have technological solutions that don't require massive sacrifice, and she is working to drive more investment in process technologies. "We need to view every carbon molecule as precious," she says.

— Sara E. Murphy

Angela Hultberg, Inkga Group

Electrifying deliveries

Angela Hultberg

Head of sustainable mobility, Inkga Group; Hollviken, Sweden

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When Angela Hultberg returned to work at IKEA after maternity leave, she knew it was time to focus on sustainability.

Nurturing a newborn life during Sweden's mandated year-long parental leave engendered soul searching for the corporate tax lawyer-turned sustainability leader who describes her background as "not a straight arrow."

Hultberg already had been working on IKEA's transportation programs and had a background at Swedish truck maker Scania. Naturally, she started looking at how to address the 10,000 diesel-burning vehicles that move IKEA's products around the world.

The result is one of the retail industry's most aggressive and innovative plans to lower greenhouse gas emissions from goods delivery. Last year, the Inkga Group, parent company of IKEA, committed to having electric vehicles deliver the last-mile portion of all of its product shipments to customers by 2025. By next year, IKEA wants that to happen in Shanghai, Paris, Los Angeles, New York and Amsterdam.

The policy is already in practice in Shanghai, where IKEA's partners created an electric truck sharing platform that makes EV delivery economical and scalable. "I'm super proud of what we've done in Shanghai," Hultberg says. "We've moved past making commitments, and we're in deployment mode." 

— Katie Fehrenbacher

Michelle Moore, Groundswell

Community solar champion

Michelle Moore

Chief executive officer, Groundswell; Washington, D.C

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Michelle Moore got her first taste of sustainability in the mid-1990s, when she got a job at carpet manufacturer Interface in her rural hometown of LaGrange, Georgia.

Seeing up close how a large company could turn around its environmental footprint and inspire others to do the same was invigorating, and Moore was hooked. She continued her sustainability work at The U.S. Green Building Council and at the White House during the Obama Administration.

Moore is now CEO of Groundswell, a nonprofit community solar developer in Washington, D.C., that helps neighborhoods and towns install community-owned solar projects and establish energy-efficiency programs that help low-income neighbors reduce their bills. The goal is to help more people, especially moderate and low-income families, gain access to clean energy and save money.

"Regardless of where you live in America, the people who have the least means pay the most for electricity," Moore says. "Being able to provide relief through affordable solar energy, and through pairing that solar energy with energy efficiency, goes straight to families' bottom lines."

Moore's philanthropic supporters and corporate sponsors include Bank of America Charitable Foundation, Citi Foundation's Community Progress Makers Fund and flooring manufacturer Mohawk Group, which partnered with Groundswell to install solar systems at community centers with green workforce development programs and schools with STEM programs.

A recent win that resonates personally: Groundswell helped install a solar project that serves the local housing authority in LaGrange.

— Cassandra Sweet

Mary Nichols, CARB

California's clean air protector

Mary Nichols

Chairwoman, California Clean Air Resources Board; Los Angeles and Sacramento, California

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Los Angeles-based attorney and advocate Mary Nichols has made a long career of fighting for environmental justice, especially in protecting clean air through California's innovative cap-and-trade program, which she oversees.

During her latest term as chair of the California Air Resources Board, Nichols has been a steadfast champion for emissions standards, opposed by the Trump administration. Her battle for a cleaner California has led to public health measures including banning toxic chemicals. But perhaps Nichols' greatest contribution was in championing California's sweeping climate action plan, one of the most aggressive in North America, which currently calls for emissions to be reduced by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

Nichols' legendary 45-plus-year career includes suing the federal government over air pollution in Los Angeles — the first suit under the Clean Air Act — and fighting acid rain with a cap-and-trade program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton. She served as Secretary of Natural Resources for California Gov. Gray Davis, and on CARB since 1975; her current term as chair (her second) will end after 2020. Nichols also teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

"In California, we see the impacts of climate change all around us, but our efforts to curb its worst impacts are on track. ... This is great news for the health of Californians, the state's environment and its economy, even as we face the failure of our national leadership to address climate change," Nichols said in a statement last year.

— Casey O'Brien

Nicola Peill-Moelter

Renewable energy dealmaker

Nicola Peill-Moelter

Director of sustainability innovation, VMware; San Diego

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Nicola Peill-Moelter was a driving force behind last year's groundbreaking joint corporate renewable power purchase agreement by Apple, Etsy, Swiss Re and Akamai Technologies, where Peill-Moelter was senior director of environmental sustainability at the time.

Through her work as a Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance board member, Peill-Moelter has built a network of sustainability professionals, which helped when Akamai was looking to buy renewables in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland energy market.

Teaming up with other companies to buy and divide the output from a wind or solar farm made more sense for Akamai, a company with relatively small electricity usage, than trying to negotiate a deal on its own. The result of this collaboration: two wind and solar energy farms in Illinois and Virginia that together will generate 290 megawatts, enough to power the equivalent of 74,000 homes.

Using sustainability as the catalyst for innovation drives Peill-Moelter's new role at VMware, where she is working on exploratory projects, including a demand-flexibility demonstration leveraging VMware's campus solar-powered microgrid.

Peill-Moelter, who holds degrees in chemical engineering and environmental engineering science, says she is driven by the belief that sustainability is good for business and that business can help scale sustainability solutions.

"People don't respond to doomsday messaging about climate change," she says. "We've got to inspire action by painting a vision of a brighter future where people see an opportunity for themselves."

— Cassandra Sweet

Ryan Russo, Oakland

Pothole paving as social justice

Ryan Russo

Director, Department of Transportation; Oakland, California

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San Francisco's knee-jerk approach to the arrival of shared e-scooters on its streets led to limited availability and a lack of low-income riders. Across the San Francisco Bay, though, it has been another story entirely: Oakland has been widely applauded for thoughtfully baking equity into its now-thriving scooter program.

The win is just one of several this year for the city's three-year-old Department of Transportation — dubbed OakDOT — and its head, Ryan Russo. Recruited from New York City's DOT leadership, Russo and his team have creatively and aggressively infused equity into OakDOT's signature new programs, such as its street paving plan and its unanimously approved bike plan.

The unique paving project uses income data and demographics to direct a big chunk of $100 million to fix potholes in historically underserved neighborhoods. While some of Oakland's wealthier and whiter homeowners in the hills might complain, Russo — who has two decades of transportation planning experience  — is comfortable with the controversy. "It's one piece of the puzzle that can be used to fight historical injustice," Russo told the Marketplace radio program.

Pothole paving kicked off in earnest this summer. Next stop is a program to redesign a major Oakland corridor to make biking safer and to highlight local artists. As Oakland continues to transform and grow in ways more and more influenced by Big Tech, the city can rest assured that its transportation future is being designed with empathy.

— Katie Fehrenbacher

Jurriaan Ruys, Land Life Company

Tree planter for profit

Jurriaan Ruys

Co-founder and chief executive officer, Land Life Company; Amsterdam, Netherlands

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Jurriaan Ruys is a pioneer in making tree-planting profitable. The CEO of the Land Life Company seeks to plant trees on land equivalent in size to the United States plus China. The company is an early mover in the emerging "restoration economy," which Ruys likens to the renewable energy industry a decade or two ago.

Land Life's robots can plant 120 trees at a time, and this year's goal is to plant 1.1 million trees. With geolocation, real-time tracking, drones and artificial intelligence, Land Life tracks the health of every tree. It's also working on a public tree monitoring app, which will feed into a database that Ruys believe will "crack the code" of optimizing reforestation in a handful of years.

Land Life's revenues exceed more than $4.5 million, with profitability anticipated in 2020. Its customers include NGOs and governments, along with corporate clients — including ABN AMRO, McKinsey, LeasePlan and Shell — seeking to meet CO2 offset goals. One marquee project is the "Great Green Wall" of China, which aims to fight desertification by planting trees across roughly a million square miles of China — a quarter of the country.

Ruys, a trained chemist and former McKinsey partner, says he enjoys bending in the dust "among rattlesnakes and volunteers" as much as plotting reforestation strategies, partnerships and technologies. Among his pet projects is the Cocoon, a recycled-paper device that shelters seedlings, boosting their survival in deserts.

— Elsa Wenzel

Shauna Sadowski
The regenerator

Shauna Sadowski

Head of sustainability, natural and organic unit, General Mills; Berkeley, California

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The potential of regenerative agriculture to reverse climate change has become a major part of the climate conversation. A major driving force of this newly mainstream discussion: Shauna Sadowski.

Sadowski heads sustainability for the natural and organic operations at General Mills, where she's working to take regenerative agriculture from talk to action. That means leveraging the power of the multinational to incentivize growers to use farming and grazing practices that build healthy soils, preserve ecosystem diversity, sequester carbon and maintain numerous other benefits.

For Sadowski, this commitment is both personal and professional. Having grown up in a farm family in a rural prairie community in Saskatchewan, Canada, she knows firsthand the economic and environmental difficulties that farmers face. She's dedicated her career to tackling the multifaceted problem of the global food system. From roles at CLIF Bar and Annie's Organics, she's been an early mover in pushing companies, growers and the public forward on sustainability. Now, she works cross-functionally at General Mills to push even further: The company recently committed to advancing regenerative agriculture practices such as no-till and cover cropping on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030 — the largest commitment of its kind.

"Farming has an inherent connection to natural resources and living systems — soil, water, biodiversity — and they are being degraded at a global level," Sadowski says. "But just as agriculture is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution."

— Holly Secon

Jigar Shah, Generate Capital

The Forrest Gump of clean energy

Jigar Shah

Co-founder, Generate Capital; Bethesda, Maryland

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Jigar Shah was in the room where it happened.

From founding SunEdison in 2003, where he pioneered the first no-money-down contract model for procuring clean energy, which helped catapult solar into the mainstream, to heading up Richard Branson's think tank Carbon War Room, Jigar Shah has been involved with developing or scaling just about every financial innovation in the clean energy sector. At Generate Capital, he finds and empowers entrepreneurs with creative ideas to scale clean energy globally.

Shah credits his Forrest Gump-esque omnipresence to his role as a problem solver. His real superpower could be enabling others to achieve their vision.

"I love to find someone that is super inspirational who has been working their butt off on something, and to the extent that I can, provided a little bit of support to get their best ideas unlocked," he says. "That brings me great joy."

To energy geeks, Shah's voice and bombastic opinions are familiar as a co-host of the Energy Gang podcast. He never pulls punches and is a passionate evangelist for the wealth opportunities available in the clean energy transition.

"I think it's important for folks to hear plainly what is promotional speak and what is aspirational speak and what is reality," Shah says. "Being clear about what is possible matters."

— Sarah Golden

Ken Washington, Ford

Driving disruption

Ken Washington

Chief technology officer, Ford Motor; Dearborn, Michigan

Twitter | LinkedIn

Ken Washington's experience in information technology has served him well as chief technology officer at Ford, which he joined in 2014 after a decade in space-related research and development at Lockheed Martin.

The automaker's sustainability-first growth plan relies heavily on data-driven innovation, a central focus for Washington for more than three decades. His deep engineering knowledge will be integral to helping Ford launch more than 40 electric vehicle models by 2022 and a robo-taxi service in 2021. Washington's team is also working with Agility Robotics to pair Ford autonomous vehicle technology with a two-legged, upright robot called "Digit," which soon could be able to deliver packages.

Disruptive innovation is central to the future of all automakers but presents deep challenges such as how to handle privacy — an issue with which this former chief privacy officer is intimately familiar.

In the case of Digit, not only does technology need to deliver as expected, safely and securely, it must with evolving cultural expectations. That's one reason Washington, who earned doctorates in philosophy and nuclear engineering, has prioritized human-centric design principles. 

As he told GreenBiz earlier this year, "When you're dealing with a world that's changing, you have to change with it."

— Casey O'Brien

Julie Wainwright
Circular fashion trendsetter

Julie Wainwright

Founder and chief executive officer, The RealReal; San Francisco

Twitter

Julie Wainwright is steering the circular economy's first unicorn. That is to say, the startup that Wainwright founded, online luxury consigner The RealReal, was valued at $1 billion earlier this year.

Under Wainwright's strong leadership, The RealReal been able to achieve a newfound level of success for a company that sits firmly within circular economy principles. The company buys used designer clothing, footwear and accessories, then sells them to new customers at lower price points — avoiding the extraction of virgin materials, extending product life and averting the landfill.

But it's not Wainwright's first experiment with innovative business models that leverage the power of technology to connect with clientele. She's an e-commerce veteran, having previously served as CEO at software company Berkeley Systems, Reel.com and Pets.com, the latter of dot-com bubble-bursting notoriety.

Her deep experience in the disruptive tech world has fostered a risk-taking and tenacity that have paid off for The RealReal. With the e-recommerce company, Wainwright is working to disrupt the apparel industry, the infamously unsustainable sector, by showing businesses the commercial viability of reuse and resale models in the face of fast fashion.

With consumers buying in at record rates, Wainwright is fostering an accessible and profitable circular economy.

— Holly Secon

Peter Whitcomb, REI
Circular marketplace mastermind

Peter Whitcomb

Director of new business development and circular economy, REI Coop; Seattle

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Peter Whitcomb wants to help us clean out our garages and get outside.

The retail expert has spent the last year and half heading up the development of a circular marketplace at REI Coop, the outdoor gear and apparel retailer.    

The three-pronged initiative, which comprises re-commerce, rentals and activity centers, is based on the company's philosophy of "creating access to the outdoors, not just selling stuff." And with it, REI is making circularity a key part of its business plan.

"We're really responding to evolving customer expectations," says Whitcomb, who joined REI in 2016 from Amazon, where he managed the vendor relationship team specializing in cycling and other outdoor action sports. "These are more environmentally friendly ways of consuming, and people are starting to recognize this."

With a new online re-commerce business expected to launch in the fourth quarter, REI will buy back and resell equipment and apparel made by the brands it carries in exchange for store credit.

REI's new rental system will allow customers to reserve equipment online, then pick it up at stores and other locations, using these items for a short-term basis rather than buying them outright. A pilot program kicked off in August and will expand in 2020. 

The company also has opened seven water-side activity centers around the United States, which offer hourly rentals of kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. It plans to open an additional four to eight new sites next year.

— Carol J. Clouse

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