When people think of climate activists and leaders, they often imagine protestors and political activists. But real change also takes experts in technology, finance and management. That’s where climate hero Rachel Sheinbein — an exceptionally talented female innovator and investor — comes in. She holds a Chemical Engineering degree with a concentration in Environmental Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. She was also a sponsored fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she received an MBA and a Masters in Civil and Environmental Engineering, with a focus on operations and supply chain. She has a real knack at understanding how things can really succeed.
Rachel started her career working on environmental issues at an Intel development factory. Then she went into the Corporate Headquarters for Environmental, Health and Safety. After graduate school, she went back to Intel and worked on supply-chain issues. One of her mentors from grad school said to her “remember that environmental work you did that you loved? Now you can have a whole career in it” That is how she ended up investing in “Cleantech” or what is now referred to as the Climate space.
Today Rachel is an angel investor and advisor in companies such as Cnote, Social Imprints, Aspiration, Anchorage Digital, Electriphi (acquired), Streamlit (acquired), Solar Cycle, Thrive Natural Care, Ketos, Picnic Health, Scan (acquired) and PV Evolution Labs (acquired). She invests independently and through Very Serious Ventures, Broadway Angels and has co-led 2 Portfolia funds, encouraging more women to angel invest.
Previously, Rachel was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Makeda Capital which focused on investing in public companies with female CEOs. Before Makeda, Rachel was a Partner at CMEA Capital, a venture capital firm with more than $1.2 billion under management, investing in Clean Technology. She was formerly a board member for Arcadia Biosciences (public) and Solaria. Before CMEA, Rachel was a consultant for start-ups in the areas of bio-plastics, solar and water. Rachel is also on the board of Techbridge Girls.
I had a chance to interview Rachel and know you will find her story interesting and inspiring.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: How did you get interested in working on climate issues?
Rachel Sheinbein: My family was in the recycling business. So, you could say that thinking about the environment was infused in my upbringing. As a family, we collected our cans and newspapers, and I started a classroom recycling program at my high school. I studied chemical engineering with an environmental focus in college and worked most of my career in the environmental space; climate/global-warming-gases were a subset of this overall issue, but not THE issue. Now the climate piece is the most pressing issue.
Is this connected to your Jewish involvement and identity? If so, in what way?
Yes, in many ways. First, my grandparents were immigrants to the US, a typical Jewish story. One of my grandfathers got into the recycling business because he could ‘peddle’ scrap. And, then more so that my family was always involved Jewishly, supporting the community and thinking beyond ourselves. It doesn’t surprise me that 2 of my siblings are doctors, and 2 of us are in the environmental world connected to the idea of Tikkun Olam.
Once you knew you wanted to do something on climate issues, where did you go for resources, mentoring or involvement?
Luckily, I could look to my family for starters. Then, my boss at Intel, Tim Mohin, always believed in me and helped me advance in my career. My mentor at MIT pointed out that I could have a career and be in a space that I felt passionate about. I ended up at a venture capital firm and it was really about learning by doing (and seeing which investments grow or fold).
What did you find helpful/successful?
One of the important aspects in all that I do is the community. I learned from my peers as we were all navigating investing in the space together. There was not a huge group of collaborators yet, but we leaned on each other.
There are so many ways to help. How did you pick your “lane” and what is it?
Part of why I ended up in venture capital and eventually angel investing was purely geographics. I lived in San Francisco and there are incredible universities with important research and a group of entrepreneurs willing to take the leap and start companies. As these leaders built companies, many became friends, and then they came back with a 2nd or 3rd company and I continued to invest in them. So, it just made sense from my education and network to play in the early-stage tech space. I don’t think that’s necessarily the most impactful, but it was the place where I could contribute best.
How do you go about doing this? What is your role now?
Most of my climate work is as an investor and advisor. I meet with entrepreneurs to better understand the technology and business they’d like to build and what the problem is that they are trying to solve. For these companies to work, they typically require some initial capital to get started and get to market. I collaborate with other investors to put in the initial dollars so that these companies can get started and de-risk some of their ideas and get to the next level of funding. Mostly, I write a relatively small check and then try to help by sharing connections, my prior experiences etc. to get them some support as they grow. Some of these companies don’t succeed and some might become household names, or they might become an important component of a larger company that exists today. And, I so love being a cheerleader for their journey.
I assume there have been some times when you felt you hit a brick wall. Can you give us an example of that and how you pivoted to do something that worked better?
I’ll never forget a moment in 2010. My now husband had just had one of his companies sell to Facebook, and it was an excellent financial exit. One of my investments in the wind space had just lost its biggest customer, and we had to shut the company down. It was pretty demoralizing. I took a few years break from the space, honestly. But, then I started to see the momentum again and the learning and all the progress that was happening and I was motivated again.
What is your advice for other people who are just getting their start on climate issues? Where should folks begin?
There are so many groups to join now to start your journey. For example, if your interest is in policy, check out Climate Changemakers and Rewiring America. If your interest is in technology, follow Climate Tech VC. I could name so many, but I’d look internally first by thinking about your particular passion and skill set and then pick a match; I’m sure you can find a group that would love some help in that space. And, I definitely suggest people read all your blogs!