Irina Fedorenko is bringing greentech innovators together with Beta Earth and launching Earthbanc to enable green investment.
|Marianne Lehnis||May 19|
From launching an award-winning environmental movement to co-founding a start-up for tree-planting drones, Irina Fedorenko is a green techpreneur with a knack for both innovation and galvanising change.
Above all else, she says she’s driven by a principle of always following “what you believe in” and putting her values first.
Growing up in the port city of Vladivostock in Russia’s remote Far East, for as long as she could remember, she had a love for the vast taiga and boreal forest ecoregion. When extensive deforestation and poaching endangered local populations of the Siberian tiger and leopard, Irina - then just 14 years old - took action.
“I was involved in tiger and leopard protection. As I was growing up, I remember the tiger always being endangered, but the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) did an excellent job.”
She watched in wonder as the efforts of the WWF and local protestors paid off - the tiger and leopard population made a comeback. It fuelled her with a sense of optimism for what could be achieved.
Later, as a student of marketing in Vladivostock, Irina poured her time and energy into creating an environmental movement, Greenlight: “The timing was just so right, the city was going through a lot of transformation and we could influence urban planning decisions, waste collection and recycling policies. We rolled out a huge environmental education campaign for students and teenagers. There was this huge window of opportunity.”
Greenlight impacted around 5,000 people and in 2010, won a WHO award for being the Best Youth Environmental Education Project in Europe.
“That changed the direction of my life. I felt like, I'm doing it and I love it, it gives me so much energy and it’s way more interesting than what I’m studying.”
Irina was awarded an Oxford scholarship to study Environmental Governance, and it was there that her journey into green techpreneurship began. She joined forces with a team of co-founders and a former NASA scientist to launch Biocarbon, a startup that uses drones to plant trees and grass.
After 6 years with Biocarbon, she’s gone on to build not one, but two greentech startups: Beta Earth, an innovative venture studio for new greentech solutions and Earthbanc, a green digital bank with high yield accounts for eco-investment.
When she’s not busy with greentech enterprise, (in pre-lockdown times), you’ll find her catching up with friends in Nottinghill’s casual cafes, or enjoying London’s West End theatre.
What do the Beta Earth and Earthbanc startups do?
Earthbanc provides a scalable digital green banking and investment platform, including a data-driven one-stop shop for carbon markets, directly connecting investors and project participants globally. In 2019, investments via Earthbanc delivered a 6% yield whilst monetising the carbon from 750,000 trees. We’re now partnering with local banks in India to give out loans to farmers; at the same time, we’re enabling consumers to invest and use the current and savings accounts to generate returns.
Beta Earth is an innovative venture lab for building and scaling greentech companies: we’ll be helping others to scale up their ventures and also creating our own tech-driven solutions. We’re focused on ecosystem data and on developing innovative technologies to turn waste fibres from the palm oil or paper industry into useful products.
As a serial entrepreneur, how do you decide which idea to pursue?
For me, it’s always been about people and the team. Ideas are multiple and ideas are born every day and die every day.
It’s about the people who are conjugated around the idea, and whether or not it gives me energy: so if I like working with the people and if I can spend a day working on the idea and I'm not tired.
I call it the ultimate Netflix test: it's 9:00 pm, would you rather do Netflix or a team call? If it's the second option, then it's the right idea.
Describe your startup journey in three words
Unpredictable, surprising, fun.
What does it take to succeed as a green techpreneur?
Communication is everything
It’s crucial that people are rewarded for being open and never feel judged or punished. I’ve learned from experience that 99% of conflicts in a team come from lack of communication and could have easily been prevented. The earlier issues are addressed the better. I know it sounds super obvious, but it is actually really hard to implement in practice. This is why I prefer to set the rules from the very beginning and encourage open dialogue and very hard discussions without delay. It requires courage from everyone involved.
Trust is everything
It's not just about being open and honest with your own team, but also being open and communicating with investors and partners because that’s how you build trust. Without trust you won’t get investment, you can't implement projects, especially if you're talking about bringing something new to very different environments. You need real trust from local authorities, communities, NGOs, and partners.
Your team is everything
Really take care of your team. It's a misplaced narrative, that there’s this Steve Jobs-like superhero who’s going to save the world. There’s not going to be one person, or one organisation, or one company, that's going to save the world. It's going to be the effort of networks, many people, and many communities, and the faster we understand that, the better. So if you want to succeed its team, communication, trust.
Do you have practical advice on how to build greentech networks?
Think about people as your future friends
Don’t think about your network as a network. Think about people you meet as your future friends and start building relationships based on trust and mutual interests. After all, if you don't like someone, have no common interests or points for discussion, they wouldn’t be your friend and they’d also be useless as part of your network. I believe only genuine connections, even if they are brief, matter and can lead to future partnerships.
Cast a wide net
If there is trust between people, their interests align, and they’re willing to put in a lot of work to build a project, a good partnership will certainly happen. It's about casting the net wide enough and then pursuing leads to see if there’s enough interest and enthusiasm for building collaboration. Don't be afraid to ask for help. You’ll be surprised to see how many people will be willing to help you with advice and connections.
How do you build trust in a local community/with local governments and get them to engage with the innovation you are bringing?
As entrepreneurs, we all learn to study market needs and respond to demand. I prefer working with governments and municipalities who want to meet us halfway or who reach out to us first. You can and should cold-call governmental offices and pitch your idea or innovative solution, but if they are not interested at all, you will only lose time pursuing someone who doesn't care.
Ideally, you want agencies who are actively looking for innovation to come to you. If this isn’t happening you can go to specialised forums to present your solutions to governments and community leaders. Now is the perfect time to do this.
What draws you to greentech?
I come from an NGO background and I've seen the complexity of the problems, there are no silver bullet solutions. If the landscape is depleted it’s not just a biological problem, it’s always also a security liability: people could start fighting for resources or grazing rights. But I’ve seen that technology can help scale up and empower restoration - and by bringing in technology we can also help maintain and restore peace.
…………If Irina had a magic wand she’d “measure economic growth in terms of how many tons of carbon we drawdown, and how many hectares of land we restore, instead of how many pounds of crude we extract.
“I’d have clean, carbon-neutral planes because I love travelling but I feel very guilty when I do.”
Her dream house is fully self-sufficient with climate-neutral solar energy, aquaponics, and land “where you can grow your own food, have forestry, and sustainable grazing.”
Irina’s book recommendations:
War and Peace and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy - the Russian classics give an understanding of human nature that’s still universally valid.
A networking event you should go to:
This year it will take place online and everyone can participate and present their initiatives. It’ll be a great place to network with real practitioners and community representatives who are searching for solutions to climate change and social issues.