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Qualities Needed in a Cleantech Entrepreneur


Does an entrepreneur venturing into cleantech / sustainability need to have qualities for success that are different from those required for other industries?

If yes, why? And what indeed are the differentiating qualities

Without taking you through too long a story, the short answer to the first question is: Yes, the qualities needed for success in cleantech are different from those required for many conventional domains.

Why are these different? The answer to this question has to do with the nature of sustainability / cleantech sector

1. Sustainability is about fundamentals – Food, water, environment, energy

2. Sustainability / cleantech is about multiple stakeholders – end user, society, government, financial institutions, technology providers

3. Most times, cleantech is about physical, engineering and stuff on the ground

With the above nature of the sustainability sector in mind, the following are what I would reckon are qualities required in a cleantech entrepreneur:

1. Patience

Dealing with just one stakeholder could be time consuming, just imagine dealing with five, and which includes the government! Cleantech sector is not certainly for those who wish to zoom to overnight success. If you are someone who is more innovative than persevering, you still can have a go at cleantech opportunities, but make sure you get a partner who has patience as one of her/his virtues.

An example is Tesla Motors. Elon Musk, who founded Tesla had earlier founded super-successful dot com startups such as PayPal. But while the duration between starting and cashing out of PayPal might have been just a few years, for Tesla Motors, it has been ten years since he started and only now the car is kind of coming into the mainstream. Ten years must have seemed like forever to any other dot com superstar, but that is perhaps why Musk is different (and he is now testing the limits of his perseverance further with his SpaceX project).

2. Keen on making a difference

The desire to make a difference to the world around him/her and not just a difference to himself or herself is important. When you are doing something about fundamental stuff like energy and food, an entrepreneur also needs to wear the hat of a social worker at times.

Harish Hande of Selco Solar is a case in point. A graduate of IIT and educated further in the US, he could have chosen from among many attractive jobs. But he has been slogging it out in the Indian offgrid solar market for over 15 years now (SELCO was founded in 1995). Has he made much money? I doubt. But has he made biggest impact and difference from among his batchmates? Most likely – how much further can one get than winning the Magsaysay Award, considered Asia’s Nobel Prize.

3. Ability to integrate the state of art with the humdrum

Ultimately, the core essence of a cleantech entrepreneur is the same: ability to identify painpoints and provide innovative solutions to solve these. But when you are dealing with such “commodity” pain points, it is easy for entrepreneurs to think there is nothing new possible here. Far from truth. Rather, exciting stuff is being done by entrepreneurs from around the world where they are able to marry innovative (technologies, business models…) to the mundane. It is not an easy quality to have, but is a must if you want to be a successful cleantrepreneur.

I was recently at the Global Cleantech Open at San Jose, California. It was an eye opener. Here I was, in the intersection of cleantech and Silicon Valley. And it showed. The number of innovations that companies are trying out in cleantech is quite amazing. Not surprisingly, there is a BIG tech component to many of these ideas – the ultimate winner of the competition, PowWow Energy, is in fact using technology in a cool way to do something fairly mundane – identify water leaks in agricultural water pipes.

So, there it is: To be a successful cleantech entrepreneur, IMHO, it is not enough to be just innovative and hard working. You got to have two important Ps as part of your (or your extended) DNA: Patience and Perspective.

Hope I made some sense :-)

And by the way, should you be interested in knowing more about under the radar, emerging, attractive opportunities in cleantech and sustainability, you might want to be a part of CleanBoot, a boot camp EAI is organizing on Jan 18 at Chennai for all those interested in being cleantech entrepreneurs. More about Clean Boot from here.

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Narasimhan Santhanam

Thank you for reading this post – hope it was helpful. You can connect with me at narsi@solarmango.com . My detailed profile here and my LinkedIn profile here

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