Artwork by Mina Lee
A Conversation with Vida and Devin
Can you tell us your stories and the path that brought you to where you are today?
Vida Asiegbu: I was in investment banking for about half a decade and I learned a lot about being a person of color and a woman in the financial services industry. It was really difficult to navigate the different dynamics, the fact that there isn't a critical mass of people of color and, in some cases, women. And being both was truly a journey. I call it a journey diplomatically, because there is technically no space for me. You come to realize that despite the glitzy PR campaigns saying, “We want more diversity,” it doesn't necessarily mean everyone is there for it and everyone aligns with it.
That late-stage company experience within investment banking combined with climate and diversity and inclusion in two different ways: first, in 2019, I attended IndieBio Demo Day and my mind really exploded with the different sustainability initiatives founders were pursuing to ensure a healthier planet. Then, in 2020, something happened that was incredibly triggering and brought me back to my investment banking days. I could hear and see people marching down the street every day and one day, my brain broke in half. I thought, “I’m tired of being polite. Maybe it's customary for people to say whatever they want to me as a person of color with no recourse, or they think I'm lucky to be here in these spaces – it's not right and I'm not going to stand for it.”
My current firm came with an initiative, the Elevate Future Fund, and it stood out to me for a few reasons. There are people in my company who are on board and have been spearheading this effort, which I'm so grateful for, but then we also have our investors who are committed to building an initiative that is focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in our space. So seeing that and seeing that it wasn't charity was really attractive to me and that's why I am where I am today.
Devin Hampton: I knew we had a lot of the same issues, but to hear you tell your story for the first time – it's great to hear.
I’ve had a long path. I spent a chunk of my adult life as a union baggage handler. And then I worked in bars, I worked in hotels, I delivered wine as a delivery driver. It was the political world that I’d always been interested in that woke me up, when Barack Obama was running for president. I volunteered with a local campaign and when that person won, I was put on the governor’s campaign, and I met somebody there that was working on the Obama campaign.
There was a point where I was sitting with the Energy Secretary (Steven Chu) and President Obama thinking, “Two years ago, I was serving drinks to people.” In that time, there would be these awkward moments where people would ask questions like, “What grad school did you go to?” And I’m sitting there without a college degree. I’m sitting there with a high school diploma.
Now fast-forward to the break, as Vida described it. There wasn’t a day in 2020 where I didn’t think about how the power and the economic might of the United States of America is built off the back of free labor. The impacts to this day still haven’t been fully confronted or addressed. And I'm watching our community in tech be like, "Black lives matter and we're on board. I'm marching today, I'm marching tomorrow." I thought, "Well, what are you doing at work? If you care about this stuff, what are you doing?" That was the start of my public-facing work on this issue.
You’re both passionate about making meaningful progress on diversity and equity issues – how does that come through in your work?
VA: It is my job everyday to think about who is diverse, first and foremost, that I can put real capital into. So that means finding these diverse founders, talking to them, figuring out what their needs are. Having real dollars available, I can serve this problem.There is real intention and there are real metrics and there's a real responsibility that I have to direct the dollars in a way that is going to make financial sense for our investors.
I am able to deliver that capital, but then also the other thing that diverse founders are looking for, which is revenue. All I heard from the side of the Black founders is they were tired of receiving advice – they needed an opening to receive capital and customers and be able to build their business. So it’s about the capital and the access.
You mention having actual dollars at your fingertips to support diverse investors – how rare is that in this space?
VA: The statistics – 1% (of startup investment) that is going to the African-American community, the 2% of VC dollars going to female founders – there is clearly not enough capital going to people who are diverse. And it’s getting worse. We’re finding that there’s a decline in the dollars that are available for diverse founders. If you’re talking about 2022 compared to 2021, the dollars flooded in because of the initiatives created after George Floyd’s death and that kind of wakeup call we had – there was a huge pop of capital but that just went right back down.
What happens now? Is the market ready to start thinking about how to create rigor around investment in later stage companies that are run by diverse people? My thesis is that there are a lot of questions around that readiness. I don't know if the market is ready to really carry this change into the future in a sustainable way.
Devin, does that resonate with your experience as a Black CEO?
DH: Yeah, it does. We’ve got to change the perception of when we actually make it in the room. The same reason that people aren't ready to see us in the room is the same thing that keeps us from having opportunities in the investment community. It’s the same structural issues that we have everywhere else in America.
It's great that EIP has committed real money to addressing the first issue of just getting people to make a bet on you with their money. But it goes beyond initial investment. Who's going to be on your board? Who are you working with moving forward, post-investing? And are those people understanding what it's like to be a Black leader of a company? An investor who cares about this stuff and knows what it's like, sitting with that leader helping grow that company side by side with them as a board member – you can't replace that. It is a powerful partnership that I think can grow out of those investments.
We talked about the spike and drop off in funding and heightened attention on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the climate and energy world. Have you noticed any signs of sustained improvement?
DH: From my point of view in the climate tech space, I get to see a lot of positives. I helped kick off EDICT, Empowering Diverse Climate Talent. Over the past three years, hundreds of people have entered our space, have been given paid opportunities to learn climate tech, and then have been offered jobs at – I think at least 70 companies, if not more, have participated to date. And some companies have a long way to go, but what I'm hearing less of now is, “Oh, it's nice to do,” or "Once I have time I'll focus on that." Now, they have to figure it out because their teams demand it of them, their customers demand it of them, or their bottom line is demanding it of them.
In the same way, hiring diverse teams and having different perspectives and voices in the boardroom or on the shop floor actually leads to stronger products or stronger results. And I don't feel people are refuting that now. So there has been progress, but I don't think there's been enough. I've seen the shift in hearts and minds, but I've not seen the shift in action yet.
Vida, do you agree or disagree generally with Devin’s assessment?
VA: Unfortunately, I have to, because what we're seeing is that some of the changes we know are necessary, that we know society and the market have the capacity to make, it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to keep doing it.
Devin, you bring up a great point that it was good to see the art of the possible, but there hasn't been enough, enough longstanding change. And then when you see the layoffs happening in the tech world and the fact that you still have the 37% increase in the wage gap for Black tech workers that is projected by 2030. Plus, the fact that Black jobs are at risk for automation, because some of these jobs are lower level jobs – so, we’re getting people who are diverse in the door, but we're not keeping them. I mean, it is laughable.
What has to happen next? Or are we just that desensitized as a society that we're not going to really push the needle forward when it comes to making certain things commonplace, because they should have been all along?
DH: I hear you on that. At least for me, I don’t have the option not to hope we can do better. I really believe that this is actually how we create a stronger ecosystem, and a community of companies that is literally trying to keep the planet from doing what it's doing right now. And I think that's also a path to creating stronger companies with stronger returns for ourselves, our investors and the communities that we serve.
Do you think climate tech startups have an obligation to serve these communities that are often left out of the energy transition or are last to benefit?
VA: To be honest, it has been really great to see the value-plus that is created by founders coming from diverse backgrounds. You look at ChargerHelp! which has the technology as its first priority, but then they have the workforce development in order to make sure the communities of people they know and the communities they are coming from are represented in the energy transition. I do want to make clear, though, that I don’t think it should be the onus of the Devins, the Kameale Terrys of ChargerHelp!, the Gary Coopers of Rheaply to create and hire all of the diversity that needs to exist in our space.
DH: I don't think every company has to have the obligation. I don't judge them if they don't want to do it. For us, it’s a big piece of how we fight climate change in our business model. We see our services as helping provide an equitable energy transition. And the reason is UtilityAPI, by being in the market and creating the platform we've created, is trying to make every type of energy service that much more affordable, that much more automatable, that much more scalable. It's the opposite of trying to build something for rich people that then is going to filter down to the market. It's actually starting from the ground up. How do we put this everywhere so that as the energy transition happens, as this market grows, everybody can participate from the beginning?
Obviously, we will never fix these systemic inequalities if it’s only people of color who are doing the work. What would you like to see more of from other leaders in this space, particularly white allies?
DH: I’ll know we've succeeded when it's two white dudes at a panel on diversity and inclusion and why it’s important for business. And they're talking about how they do it and how they've been able to be successful. I don't know how to force that besides showing people how to do it, which is why I spent so much time on this within the company and externally.
VA: I echo what you're saying, Devin, and I appreciate the perspective you have because you're right, there's an education element that does exist and more education needs to happen. If people don't know how to have the conversations, it's not okay to not have them. Let's give you the tools you need and the space and the forum to have the conversations. We need to start a healing process. And it starts by unlocking good conversations that can help us move forward.
The Ad Hoc Group is grateful to Devin Hampton and Vida Asiegbu for their time, insights, and leadership in our space. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.