Libra x Net Zero: Underrepresented founders in climate tech 

Julie Martin, March 8, 2022 5 min read

The Tech Nation Libra programme has been specifically designed to support underrepresented Black founders overcome challenges linked to bias, disadvantage, and poor representation. 

In addition to systemic barriers faced by minority groups in tech, climate tech companies have their own specific challenges, in part due to the fact that the lack of diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) education has a knock-on effect on these companies where science, research, and development is core to product and business development.

But representation matters. Take Lugano Kapembwa, the founder of Loopcycle, for example; although he had an excellent academic career, studied environmental science, and worked within several roles in the energy and sustainability sectors, he never saw himself as the “entrepreneur type”, instead enjoying corporate life and the idea of progressing within that career structure. 

He explains that a cultural dynamic may have been involved in this attitude: “I never really saw people who looked like me take this kind of career risk – giving up a corporate career to follow a path where, let’s face it, the odds of success are very limited for anyone, regardless of race or background.”  

Unlike Lugano, Julian Mensah, the founder of Voltric, had an entrepreneur in his family – his father back in Ghana, who ran several businesses at once. Although his father’s entrepreneurial journey may have influenced him in his own career, Julian says his decision to become a founder was more about “building something that would not only put bread on the table but also support the generation to come.” Interested in both technology and cars, and having encountered some difficulties trying to find a car for his aunt, Julian came up with the idea for Voltric and wrote his initial business plan as part of his Master’s degree at UWE Bristol. 

The importance of education, access to STEM studies, and representation across the board can not be overstated. In fact, it is thanks to Samantha Kidjo’s brilliant academic career within STEM that she had the idea to create ICI Care. Through ICI Care, Samantha has developed 100% custom-made, plastic-free haircare products made from raw ingredients. 

Samantha always knew she would start a business someday, but didn’t think it would happen so soon. Her idea stemmed from 20 years of struggling to find the right hair products for her hair-type, from guilt over the amount of plastic she had to throw away when her hair products were finished, and from her personal research into cosmetic innovations and future trends. 

She wanted to use her background to create a climate-positive solution: “As a true material science engineer, I applied problem solving to a personal pain point. I combined the opportunities of new technologies with ancestral beauty rituals from my Beninese and Ukrainian roots to create unique products for every customer.” 

Just like diversity and representation matters within the education system, and – more specifically for climate tech – within the STEM sector, it also matters greatly in the financial world. Extend Ventures has found a possible link between the underrepresentation of Black and mixed heritage venture capital partners and the underfunding of Black businesses through venture capital; only 38 Black entrepreneurs have received venture capital funding in the last 10 years, which represents 0.24% of total venture capital funding during that period.

Julian, like all founders, has faced challenges while building his company – at times, he’s discovered at a later stage that the colour of his skin played a role. 

“In those situations, I’ve just simply moved on and knocked on another door,” he says. “For me, it’s been mostly to do with my level of knowledge and experiences, and it’s important to me that I make that clear. No one is going to invest in you if you don’t have clear knowledge or understanding of what you are doing, and it’s your job to convince them you are worth the risk. Everything else after that has nothing to do with you, and has more to do with them.”

As a Black founder, Lugano believes he faces certain unique challenges. The statistics on VC-backed Black founders don’t paint a great picture at all – even more so for Black female founders,” Lugano says. “I’d be lying if I said that this didn’t cross my mind!” 

Although it adds extra pressure to the founder journey, being part of the Tech Nation Libra programme has given him the opportunity to connect with other Black founders in the same position and with these same challenges.

Despite a recent general push towards Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) within all businesses, gender and ethnicity clearly still remain obstacles for many founders. Marked gender differences, combined with the lack of diversity within the tech ecosystem, create cumulative barriers for Black female entrepreneurs – As Extend Ventures highlights in their study, there has been just one early-stage (series A or B) venture capital investment recorded for a Black female in the past 10 years, compared to 194 early stage investments in white female entrepreneurs.

The tech sector, like many, many others, has systemic problems that can lead to it becoming an echo chamber. According to Diversity VC, 30% of overall VC firm staff were women in 2019 but only 20% of investment teams within these VCs were female. Although the numbers of women in junior investment roles has increased in the last few years nearly two-thirds of firms have no senior women in their investment teams; and 83% of VC firms report that they have no women on their investment committees.

The lack of data on ethnic diversity within the VC industry is troubling. Diversity VC provides us with some, however. They found that, out of a survey of 223 UK venture capitalists, only 24% of the venture workforce is non-white. 

As a female founder in the beauty industry, Samantha has often had to prove her legitimacy as a business woman: “A woman selling beauty products is often seen as a hobby,” she says. 

As a Black female founder selling products specifically designed for afro hair, she says she is often put into a box and isn’t seen as the founder of a business that could one day be valued as a multi-million dollar company, despite the fact that the haircare market is worth £168M in the UK alone. The double standards are quite striking; Samantha points out that most haircare companies today are owned by white men. “I doubt that they got stereotyped as ‘getting into a hobby business’ when they first started,” she comments.

So what do underrepresented founders think of all these D&I talks? Both Samantha and Lugano agree that it is too early to tell whether the general push for D&I is a genuinely transformative one. For Samantha, proof of its success will be when she finally sees more diverse representation in senior executive positions. Indeed, according to the Tech Talent Charter, only 9% of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) IT Specialists are directors.

For Lugano, a genuine transformation will be reached only “with a systemic shift where D&I moves from being a ‘thing’ to becoming engrained in how business and society works.” 

He underlines the size of the task ahead; although recent discourse around the importance of D&I is encouraging, it has also brought about some big debates and shone a light on society’s divisiveness, and evoked strong feelings amongst those who are resistant to this change, he adds.

Julian says the change he’s seeing in society is positive. However, he warns: “These changes have to be for the right intention, and not simply to tick a box. Tokenism isn’t true diversity. It’s tax evasion.” 

Because the climate crisis already impacts and will continue to impact us all, it is crucial to ensure the solutions we create are built by and for us all as well. Underrepresented communities are actually disproportionately impacted by climate change – the personal knowledge of specific challenges experienced by such underrepresented communities should be honed as crucial catalysts for change and as motivations for entrepreneurship.

diversity, Libra 1.0, Net Zero 2.0