Over the years, tech has struggled to diversify its workforce. And the cleantech sector is particularly homogenous, with a workforce that is largely white and male. In fact, compared to other small to medium enterprises in Canada, cleantech companies have less than a third of the women founders and less than half of the visible minority founders. (This is especially ironic since women and racialized communities are often the most affected by climate change.)
This isn’t just a problem from an equity perspective; it’s also about what will give us the best chance of solving this problem. “Cleantech is a space where we really need innovative ideas,” says Niyat Gebreab, a coordinator on the climate team at MaRS. “Innovation thrives in diverse environments — to achieve climate impact we need teams that are more creative, more agile and better at problem solving.”
That’s why the Mission from MaRS Climate Technology Venture Diversity Award, which is presented in collaboration with HSBC, recognizes an early-stage venture that is led by members of an underrepresented group and works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This year’s winner, Lite-1, is led by Roya Aghighi and Sarah Graham. The company offers an alternative to traditional colour production processes in the textile dye sector, an industry that’s responsible for 20 percent of global water pollution. Toxic textile dyes cause severe harm to the environment, not to mention to workers and their communities. Lite-1 replaces traditional petroleum-based chemicals in a truly revolutionary way: by using bacteria to create sustainable colours.
Judges were particularly impressed with Lite-1’s DEI strategy, especially considering how new the company is (Aghighi and Graham just launched their startup in 2021.)
“As part of HSBC’s commitment toward a just transition to a net-zero economy, we are proud to support MaRS Discovery District in its efforts to scale up climate tech ventures, accelerate cleantech innovation and help emerging climate technology founders embrace diversity as they grow,” says Kim Hallwood, who is the head of corporate sustainability at HSBC Bank Canada.
Here, co-founders Aghighi and Graham explain how they approach diversity, offer tips for building and retaining an inclusive team and how they’ll be putting their prize money to work.
Sarah Graham: We met in a very 21st century way: on the internet. I was studying and working in London, U.K. and Roya was working in the Netherlands. We had heard of each other’s work and I featured one of her projects in a blog post for the British Geological Society, where I was a design resident. Years later, I reached out to ask if there was anything going on in Canada in our space. She was like, ‘No, there’s literally nothing. But I really want to do something. Do you want to do it together?’ We knew colour pollution from the fashion industry was a huge problem. So, we decided that would be our mission. There are so many incredible bacteria and other microorganisms that make beautiful colours. It’s a really beautiful problem to work on, because you get to see pretty things every day.
Graham: We built this company on multidisciplinary collaboration, so it’s not that we were searching for specific types of diversity — ethnic, or gender, or anything like that. It was more about not counting people out. We’ve hired incredibly talented people. But we also looked past their resumés. We asked how they view the world, how they view their work, what kind of teammate they would be and how their ways of working mesh with our company goals. Those sorts of things helped us hire diverse team members, because we were looking for that variety of perspectives.
Roya Aghighi: It’s equally important to foster an environment where these diverse perspectives aren’t just acknowledged but celebrated. We strive for a space that’s judgment-free, where everyone feels empowered to push boundaries and learn, not just within their own expertise but across disciplines. It’s about creating a culture where learning from each other is second nature.
Aghighi: As an immigrant who’s traversed various countries and industries, I’ve witnessed the deep value embedded in diverse perspectives. Living and working within different cultures and countries have been invaluable experiences where I’ve learned the most from the richness of diverse viewpoints. This appreciation for diverse perspectives is reflected in our team building at Lite-1.
Diverse teams are like a mosaic of perspectives, each tile representing a unique viewpoint shaped by personal experiences and cultural backgrounds. Growing up in Iran, mosaics were a core part of my culture and always inspired me. I remember gazing at them for ages, thinking how all those different forms and unique colours came together. It’s kind of the same with diverse teams — when you bring all these different perspectives together, something pretty incredible starts to take shape.
Graham: On top of the technical expertise, having a diverse team also means you have a wide range of strengths. Some people are more confident speaking to investors. Others are more empathetic and can be the sort of person you lean on. Different leadership styles and skills will fit different problems, so having that range on your team means there’s more in your toolbox to pull from.
Aghighi: Encourage a culture of curiosity. When we approach team-building with a sense of wonder and an openness to learning from each other, the solutions that emerge are surprisingly innovative.
Graham: This award specifically is going to our employees. As a startup, your cash flow ebbs and flows, and sometimes that can be stressful. You’ve asked people to put their trust in you and come on board, so you’re now responsible for their livelihoods. This allows us to pay them for longer.
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Photos courtesy of Lite-1