Women in Cleantech

Nicola McCheyne

By Nicola McCheyne
Head of Ideas Lab at Centrica Innovations

Our Head of Ideas Lab for Centrica Innovations, Nicola McCheyne, talks about her passion for creating greater diversity in the cleantech start-ups of tomorrow. 

Last week, I was proud to speak at the launch of the London Sustainable Development Commission’s (LSDC) report into Women in Cleantech, which aims to power women forward to play a significant role in delivering on the ambitions of the cleantech sector. 

The report is the culmination of many months of research explore the barriers women face in entering the industry.
I was asked to participate in one of several workshops earlier this year, and as I began to think about my own experiences, I found myself annoyed, angry even that I was able to recall so many examples of occasions when I’ve experienced discrimination in the workplace. On one occasion, early in my career, I was advised to ensure ‘I go home and put make-up on’ before an evening work event. I was put on notice of redundancy on my first day of maternity leave and lost key projects to male colleagues when announcing my first pregnancy. 
These anecdotes, thankfully, are few and far between, but I have frequently observed just how difficult it can be for women to progress in the sector. 

Of course, there have also been many positives. I’m proud to say that over the last ten years I have been at the forefront of disruption in the energy sector – and that has been largely down to the support of some exceptional colleagues, both male and female.
Over the course of my career, I have raised over £45m for projects, ideas and businesses that reduce the impact of climate change and reduce the prevalence of fuel poverty. My mission today at Centrica is much the same – finding ideas from across the business, incubating them, accelerating the very best of those ideas, and securing the investment needed to make them a reality.

The clean tech sector is evolving, but the name is misleading. When we focus on the term ‘cleantech’ we focus only on the output – the technology.  However, what really matters isn’t who can come up with the most technically advanced product to date. It’s who can crack the problem we are trying to solve.

In a world that is becoming more and more crowded by technology, our objective at Centrica Innovations is to find real life solutions to real life problems, getting to the core of future challenges around how we live, work and move. 

There is of course no gender bias in coming up with answers to these challenges but, as someone who has worked with a range of businesses, I would argue that what sets teams and entrepreneurs apart is rarely their technological prowess. More often than not, it’s the skills often dismissed as the ‘softer’ side of business - marketing, communications and product development; empathy, the ability to understand what is driving people’s behaviour, decision-making – all skills that women typically excel at. 

The energy sector has historically been focussed on male-heavy primary jobs – oil and gas exploration, power generation as just two examples.  Today we are seeing a great deal more spin-offs in the sector with opportunities in services, investment, policy and mobility offering huge potential for women without the hangover of gender imbalance.
What’s missing is a huge lack of awareness in how the sector is developing and the range of roles and opportunities available – and we need to do more to get that message out. 
At Centrica, we’re on a mission to invest £100m into new technology and ideas, we’re collaborating with change-makers around the globe and making investments in global cleantech start-ups
I am incredibly proud to say that 60% of our venture investments in 2018 have female founders but the story is not the same across the venturing community. A report by The Entrepreneurs Network and Beauhurst highlighted the issue of many women starting businesses at pace but failing to secure the financing required to grow. Just one in ten of growing companies with revenues between £1m and £250m are run by women. 
According to the Boston Consulting Group, when women entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to investors for early-stage capital, they receive significantly less than men – a disparity that averages more than $1m. Yet businesses founded by women ultimately deliver higher revenue than those founded by men, driving twice as much per dollar invested. Quite simply, companies owned by women make for better investments.

So, what can we do about it? As a member of the inaugural Better Futures, Women in Cleantech Steering Group set up by the London Sustainable Development Commission, I am delighted to be leading the workstream that will explore the potential to establish a venture capital fund that will exclusively invest in cleantech start-ups with female founders, boards and management teams.

The idea is simple – by creating a fund that positively discriminates in favour of female founders we can achieve two things:
Greater diversity in the cleantech start-ups of tomorrow, and a better return on investment.
We will use our contacts and networks to find the very best people, but we want this ultimately to be owned by the industry. We invite incubators, accelerators, venture investors and anyone working in this field to get involved and collaborate on this endeavour, and work together to remove the barriers to women in cleantech.


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