When Jonathan Strauss attended the University of Pennsylvania, all the most ambitious kids in his classes wanted to be investment bankers.
Then came the Googles and Facebooks of the world, with their exciting promise of changing the world and making a meaningful impact — nap rooms and free gyms included. Wall Street suddenly found itself overshadowed by Silicon Valley as the place to be for top talent.
Today it’s a different story. Big Tech is no longer the young upstart, and there’s a new kid in town luring away smart people looking for purpose and willing to take a chance on something new: climate tech.
“Always in a maturing market, the innovation is incremental,” Strauss told Protocol. He’s made his rounds through Silicon Valley, first at Yahoo and then as the co-founder of a social media analytics company that was subsequently acquired. Last year, he co-founded Climate Draft, which connects top tech talent with venture-backed climate tech startups looking to grow.
“We’re in the first chapter of climate tech. Every opportunity to innovate is much more impactful and much bigger,” he said.
He’s not alone in this belief. Justin Hardin is the co-founder and CTO of Climatebase, a talent directory for climate jobs. He left a stable career as a senior software engineer at Slack to found the startup after he saw the sky turn orange during Bay Area wildfires.
In traditional tech, “all the cool and impressive things that are happening have already happened,” Hardin told Protocol. The Facebook of yore pioneered social media. Facebook today? “You’re constantly combating fake information, spam accounts … For engineers that I know, that’s not the most exciting problem space,” he said.
Since Climatebase launched in 2020, over 500,000 people have used the site to find and apply for climate tech jobs. “There’s a huge migration happening,” Hardin said, with a lot of inbound interest from software engineers.
And it’s not just the rank and file. Even the big guys are ditching Big Tech for climate tech. Chris Sacca and Bill Gates have both started climate-geared investment initiatives. Mike Schroepfer recently made headlines for stepping down from his CTO role at Meta to pour his energies into the climate crisis. “These guys aren’t doing it for charity,” said Strauss. Climate tech also happens to be the most exciting space in tech right now.
“There’s a huge migration happening."
Malak Abu Sharkh leads supply chain and operations at Charm Industrial, a carbon-removal startup. But before joining Charm this year, she was a senior supply chain manager at Apple.
“I didn’t find that exciting. I find carbon reduction work exciting,” Abu Sharkh told Protocol. At Charm, she’s focused on scaling the company’s technology to help remove carbon dioxide via a bio-oil sequestration process.
“I think every generation has a zeitgeist … For Gen X that mission imprint for a lot of folks was the internet. I think for Gen Z that mission imprint is increasingly climate,” Strauss said.
Navigating existential dread in Silicon Valley
Strauss has talked to hundreds of people who are either considering or have made the career transition and “navigating how they reconcile this existential dread that they feel about the climate with how they’re spending their time and deploying their labor.”
When you’re working in climate tech, “you can be excited and proud of what you’re doing and not ashamed of it,” Strauss said.
The same can’t always be said for Big Tech, according to those who’ve left. Places like Meta “went from being a dream job to people thinking twice about working there based on perception,” Hardin said.
Besides the moral calculus, for some tech workers, it’s also about going where they feel they’ll have maximum impact.
Cassandra Xia quit her job as a software engineer at Google in the middle of the pandemic after realizing that while “Google will be just fine” without her, the impact she could make in climate tech is “much greater.”
At Google, where she worked on things like click-through-rate predictions, “the problems have already been picked over.” Climate, on the other hand, “is a problem that’s not figured out, and there isn’t really an iterative solution.”
About a year after quitting her job, Xia secured a position as the head of engineering at Evergrow, a climate fintech startup. She said she finds the kind of “shared urgency” that she feels now exciting and different. The company’s mission of aiding in the removal of one gigaton of carbon dioxide equivalents by 2030 is imprinted on the footer of every slide deck “just to keep us aware and accountable,” according to Xia.
It also doesn’t help that the missions of legacy tech companies are starting to feel a bit less awe-inspiring.
“You’re fed the idea that you can change the world, and then you end up working on ads,” Hardin said.
When Xia told Google that she wanted to leave to work on climate solutions, it was suggested that she stay and work on internal climate projects. But she didn’t think it was likely those projects were going to get very big, because, at the end of the day, they’re not part of Google’s core business model.
“It feels cynical to say, but it felt more like it was about boosting employee retention and morale,” she said of Google’s internal sustainability efforts.
It’s not charity work
The money is there, too. Those who’ve made the move say that the compensation at climate tech startups is on par with that at similarly staged tech companies, with valuable equity to boot. In fact, many of the jobs on Climatebase are matching FAANG salaries, according to Hardin.
Tech workers who have the risk appetite to join an early-stage climate tech startup also have the potential to one day cash in on a unicorn, advocates say. “The equity upside can be massive,” and potentially even more so than joining an early-stage startup in a more mature and saturated field like SaaS, according to Strauss.
“You’re fed the idea that you can change the world, and then you end up working on ads.”
“What I think is compelling to a lot of folks about the climate mission, in addition to it being more tangible and less contrived, is that it’s usually very much intertwined with and inextricable from the financial interests and incentives of the right climate tech company,” he said.
Abu Sharkh agrees. From her viewpoint, Apple was authentic in its climate commitments and genuine in its aspirations to decarbonize its supply chain, which was an effort she worked on in her two years at the company.
Despite its efforts, Abu Sharkh realized that “even places like Apple that are 100% doing the right things by working on reducing the carbon footprints of their own products will always have residual carbon emissions.” It was unavoidable, given the company’s business model centered on selling consumer electronics, she said.
Thankfully for Abu Sharkh, that’s not the case at Charm.
“I think Apple is doing the right thing with a lot of the environmental work, but ultimately their scorecard is ‘How many products did you sell?’" she said. "Our scorecard is ‘How much carbon dioxide did we remove?’”