Creating Your Narrative with Chante Harris, Co-founder of Women of Color Collective in Sustainability

Chante Harris currently leads the investor network and corporate partnerships for Venture for ClimateTech, a climate tech venture studio and accelerator sourcing the best climate tech solutions across the globe. She also oversees the For ClimateTech Global Innovation Challenge and is spearheading the exploration of a thesis for a new financial mechanism funding early-stage climate tech alongside the 2M Capital team. Additionally, she is the co-founder of Women of Color Collective in Sustainability (WOC/CS), a digital community for women of color to build their careers, create professional success, and advance their well-being. 

Named by America on Tech as an Innovator and Disruptor in tech policy and Women Enews as a Pioneering Woman in Sustainability, Chante is passionate about urban innovation, building sustainable cities, cross-sector collaboration, and tapping into community to launch better solutions, initiatives, and technologies. She has worked to scale nationwide campaigns, technologies, and ideas for the Obama Administration, Fortune 500 companies, and startups. Most recently, she launched and grew two new practice areas at an urban and political strategy firm based dedicated to business strategy and sustainability. With deep expertise in developing go-to-market strategies for startups and established companies across the sustainability industry, she brings unique insight into building ecosystems with a shared vision for people and the planet. Chante is also a Venture Partner with Republic and Next Gen.

On episode 151 of the Bigger Than Us podcast, Chante talks about the importance of leadership and community in her day job at SecondMuse, and the WOC/CS. She also explains why she doesn’t want to normalize “being the first” for women of color, and the importance of recognizing your gifts to control your narrative.

By giving impactful ideas the support they need to succeed and helping women of color thrive in their careers and lives, Chante is having an effect that is Bigger Than Us. 

Take me to the podcast.

SecondMuse’s Venture for Climate Tech Program

Excerpts from the Bigger Than Us podcast. These quotes have been edited for brevity and readability.

I currently work for a company called SecondMuse. We are a global innovation and impact firm focused on building economies of the future that are more regenerative, resilient, and inclusive. That looks like launching innovation programming across the globe. We define innovation programming as incubators, accelerators, venture studios, and challenges. We have a capital arm that is fairly new in comparison to all the work that we were doing before and are still doing around innovation programming. Our capital arm designs, manages, fundraises, and operates various funds, funding vehicles throughout the globe.

My role is particularly helping to spearhead our climate tech initiatives. Starting with New York into the Northeast region, we’re doing some restructuring now. And so that’ll look like actually tying all of our climate tech work across the globe. We have some not only in New York but also in Canada as well as Singapore.

I sit in between our capital team and our Venture for Climate Tech program, which is a climate tech venture studio and accelerator hybrid model that is sourcing and scaling the most promising climate tech innovators across the globe. It’s a six-and-a-half month, part-time program for founders and innovators, supporting them going from the proof of concept and idea stage to prototype. And we focus on building strong teams ensuring that they understand their business model, their product-market fit, and what it means to scale.

We believe in creating great leaders as well. So we are also incorporating things like social equity into our curriculum. What does it mean to be a great leader? To think about diversity, equity inclusion, not only internally but externally as you build your product and scale it.

The way that we think about funding mechanisms is, “Let’s create what we are hearing is of need. And if it hasn’t existed before, let’s create something new.” And so the future economy lab brings together corporations, governments, investors, and foundations to explore a specific economy. And we’re seeking participants at this time.

We share all of the data and insights at the end with those who participate. And then we go out and build something great, that’s going to solve a big problem. So again, I feel like it is reiterating this idea of community and sort of bringing people together to solve big problems. So I’m excited. We’d love to talk to anyone who might be interested.

Founding a Desperately Needed Space With WOC/CS

“We are dedicated to women who are building careers in the space and ensuring that they’re amplified, supported and have the resources they need to thrive.”

I started Women of Color Collective in Sustainability (WOC/CS) alongside one of my close friends and now co-creators Jordie Vasquez. We were attending an event at Climate Week, New York — a really big week in New York City where global leaders essentially come to convene in person and talk about key areas throughout climate. I decided to go to an evening event that was an all-women event. And it was an incredible event. I appreciated the space made for women, though the reality was that the room still didn’t reflect diversity.

Jordie and I were the only women of color in the room that evening and we said hi to each other, started chatting. She became a good confidante of mine, and we started sharing resources. And we met up one day, and we’re sort of like, “Hey, this is great that we’re doing this for each other. But the reality is that we know there are more women of color out there, we know that there are more women of color that want to be more involved or maybe even transition into this space.”

We couldn’t find a community anywhere online that was focused on women of color in particular. And so she and I spoke about it for a little bit. And we were just hanging out one day, and we’re like, “Hey, we’re going to create this space for other women who looked like us who are seeking community or seeking peer mentorship and resource sharing.” And so that’s really how WOC/CS was born.

WOC/CS today is a collective. It’s one of the very few — I think at the time we launched, it might have been the only — dedicated to black indigenous and women of color and the sustainability field, supporting them through creating access to opportunities, jobs, speaking opportunities, and then creating community amongst ourselves, which I think is important.

And then also we’re working on a campaign called This is What Sustainability Looks Like, which is kind of our tagline. Our goal there is to essentially shift and normalize that sustainability is diverse, that it is inherently made up of diverse voices and women of color. And so we were doing all those great things and then COVID hit. And so you know, in-person meetups died down. But what happened was that we saw immense growth over COVID. And I think that COVID has made evident is how important community is, especially in difficult times.

It happened quickly. We were just so grateful for the space. But I think, more importantly, it was very evident that what we were creating was needed across this industry and still is. We are dedicated to women who are building careers in the space and ensuring that they’re amplified, supported and have the resources they need to thrive.

Growing the Tent: How to Move a Movement Forward

If you look historically at how any underrepresented community has been able to obtain upward mobility, particularly upward economic mobility, it’s been from strategic planning within that community and sort of pushing the norms.

What I found as a woman of color is that if I don’t create a narrative around my abilities, my expertise, what I bring to a team, an initiative, or a company, and then that leaves space for other people to create that narrative or for there to be no narrative at all.

We’ve just gotten so many kind messages from women who are like, “I got a new job, I got a new resource, a new leadership opportunity, because of your Google group, because of your newsletter.” And for us, that’s a win because it shows that through the creation of a community committed to each other, we can open doors for one another.

On the flip side, ultimately, you know, I think corporations and companies and organizations have to commit to what it means to allow people, women of color, to be in an organization and a company and thrive and rise up the ranks. Yes, women of color need jobs, we want leadership opportunities, but we also want to be in spaces and workplaces that are healthy, that are safe, that are invested in who we are and allow us to show up as the leaders we are.

On Not Wanting to Celebrate Being the First

Sometimes I do feel like there’s this tension, particularly if you’re a person of color of paving the way or being the first which is certainly admirable and super important. But I’ve honestly been, as of late, very wary of being celebrated as the only or the first, because I don’t think that that’s something that we should be celebrating, or normalizing, to be frank.

I know that that’s how we create movement in society. Someone has to do it first. But in the next 10 years, I don’t, I don’t want to have to celebrate an Asian American woman or a, you know, Caribbean woman being the first. I don’t want to be the only young African American woman that’s invited to speak or to be at the table.

I wanted to change that, and I created WOC/CS just for that. I want people to know that there are so many other young women of color that are also doing great work in this space and committed deeply. I do feel like we have a duty to recognize that if we are the only or the first that we should be pulling other people in.

Big Visions

If you ever start feeling small where you’re at, that just means that it’s time for you to find a place that’s bigger for you.

I think sometimes we tell young people to kind of follow the path of others. So I remember being younger, and someone saying, “Go to someone else’s profile.” I don’t remember what we were using at that time. LinkedIn was not as popular then. But go read their bio, and then kind of try to replicate everything they’ve done to get where they’re at.

I look back at that now, and I honestly think it’s some of the worst advice we can give people in their various journeys because what we do is limit people by saying, “Look at someone else’s journey and follow their journey.” I think that ultimately, we each have an ability to tap into what is our fullest potential.

It makes me think of a quote. I know, it’s a probably widely shared quote, but it was said to me by someone I just truly adore and respect. And what was said to me was, you know, I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something along the lines of, “Sometimes other people’s ceilings are your floor. And that’s okay.”

There’s a duality of being able to say, I’m grateful for what I have now, and the opportunities that have been presented for me. And I have this desire to have an even bigger impact or do bigger things because I see bigger solutions and opportunities.

Don’t dim your light for other people. You know, don’t make yourself small. For other people. If you ever start feeling small where you’re at, that just means that it’s time for you to find a place that’s bigger for you. Staying humble is important. But so is recognizing your gifts and leaning into them. And wanting more when you feel like you’ve maybe outgrown your current situation is fine. It’s okay. And I think it means that we’re doing something right.

THE TRANSCRIPT: BIGGER THAN US EPISODE 151

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels  03:43

I like to start the show by asking my guests the following question. If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Chante Harris  05:15

I always tell people, “This is either the first thing I tell you, or I like to know you for two years and never mention it.” Family’s really important to me, and my sisters are really important to me. They’re all my best friends. And I say that because I am a twin. I have a twin sister. She and I do not have the same interests at all. She’s currently at medical school. I’ve always felt like I have this best friend who’s going through life with me. And then I have two older sisters who are also twins. So my parents had two sets of twins. It’s not very common, as I’m sure you would imagine. I think twins are a lot more common these days, but certainly not two sets of identical twins. So that’s a fun fact about me that I like to share. It’s meant that I’ve never had anything to myself. I’ve had to share everything in life. But yeah, it’s fun. It’s fun having three sisters who kind of all look like you. And for a long time, I just became used to people calling me another name or calling me twin. So yeah, that’s a fun story I like to share.

Host Raj Daniels  06:30

That is fun. So Chante, can you give the audience an overview of your current organization, SecondMuse, and your role at the organization?

Chante Harris  06:42

As you mentioned, I currently work for a company called SecondMuse. We are a global innovation and impact firm focused on building economies of the future that are more regenerative, resilient, and inclusive. That looks like launching innovation programming across the globe. We define innovation programming as incubators, accelerators, venture studios, and challenges. Some examples of our work include the Space Apps Challenge, which we’ve been running for, I believe, around 10 years for NASA. We recently launched and ran that the food vision prize through Rockefeller Foundation. We have a couple of various incubators and accelerators throughout the country and the globe, where we support entrepreneurs, new technologies, and scaling. And one other really exciting example that I know I’ve already spoken to you about, Raj, is Melinda Gates’s Pivotal Ventures GET Cities Initiative, which is focused on supporting women entering technology but also being able to thrive, and leadership throughout the technology sector. Those are some examples of our work. We have a capital arm that is fairly new in comparison to all the work that we were doing before and are still doing around innovation programming. Our capital arm designs, manages, fundraises, and operates various funds, funding vehicles throughout the globe. An example of that is Circulate Capitals, a $100 million fund focused on removing plastic from the ocean:  solutions, technologies, and projects that do that. We support that effort and cooperate that fund through the incubation network. So that’s an overview of the work. My role is particularly helping to spearhead our climate tech initiatives. Starting with New York into the Northeast region, we’re doing some restructuring now. And so that’ll look like actually tying all of our climate tech work across the globe. We have some not only in New York but also in Canada as well as Singapore. So I’m excited about that. I sit in between our capital team and our Venture for Climate Tech program, which is a climate tech venture studio and accelerator hybrid model that is sourcing and scaling the most promising climate tech innovators across the globe. It’s a six-and-a-half month, part-time program for founders and innovators, supporting them going from the proof of concept and idea stage to prototype. And we focus on building strong teams ensuring that they understand their business model, their product-market fit, and what it means to scale. We believe in creating great leaders as well. So we are also incorporating things like social equity into our curriculum. What does it mean to be a great leader? To think about diversity, equity inclusion, not only internally but externally as you build your product and scale it. We offer up to $125k in non-dilutive funding, through our funder NYSERDA the New York State Energy Research Development Agency. So that’s an overview of the program. My role specifically is spearheading our investor network and partnerships. I’m thinking about the larger climate tech ecosystem, thinking about how we can bring together various stakeholders and ensure that our founders are getting supported, but also that we are supporting other founders across the globe. We had over 600 unique applications this year for our inaugural program. As you can imagine, that was a really big number. And so we want to ensure that our 11 companies get supported, but that also all of those companies that didn’t make it into our program are able to receive the resources and the support they need to scale because climate is a big problem. And we need everyone. So that’s an overview of the work that I’m doing and spearheading as well as the work that SecondMuse does.

Host Raj Daniels  11:00

I’ve never heard the term venture studio. Can you share what that is?

Chante Harris  11:03

Sure. Venture studio. I want to say it’s a newer model. It sort of builds off of what a traditional venture capital firm has been. The idea is that a team does a lot of market research into an opportunity, builds out the growth strategy for that company, funds it, and helps launch it. Helps at the very early stage of getting it set up. And that oftentimes looks like bringing on the right leadership. So a C suite, CEO, a CTO, CFO, whatever personnel are needed to scale the venture. The actual venture starts with a certain amount of funding that comes from a fund associated with the venture studio. And then it also oftentimes means that that core team that’s doing the market research and helping kick off the company takes a backseat once everything is established. The leadership they bring on board––which you’ll see oftentimes if you look at venture studios––they’re typically hiring for an entrepreneur in residence, maybe someone who sold the company or who has had success in the technology space to come in-house and then take over a company once they’ve formed and funded it. What it demonstrates is this shift in venture capital that we’re seeing around founders desiring and also meeting not only traditional investors that invest in walks away and maybe supports here or there, but investors that are more hands-on, have a bit more overall dedication to the company and want to see returns stronger returns across the capital that they’re dispersing to various companies. That’s how I would define a venture studio. And I think it’s still a newer model, but also a model that is just popping up everywhere these days.

Host Raj Daniels  13:12

Sounds very interesting. Earlier, you mentioned, you know, the climate tech initiative. Are there any technologies you’ve seen recently come through the program that you’ve been very interested in?

Chante Harris  13:23

We have an incredible group of companies. I encourage everyone to check out the companies that we recently announced, which you can do through our innovators’ page on forclimatetech.org. I’m excited about all of our companies. I think a few that that stand out to me include Clean Ocean Coatings. They’re a German company since we support global companies. This is a really big defining characteristic of our program: being able to take what has been historically more of a New York solely focused program and make it global. So Clean Ocean Coatings focuses on anti-fouling solutions. So toxin-free coating for ships. At a high level, it makes me think about the importance of what many would describe as low-tech solutions. So while of course, they’re doing a bunch of r&d and research and have been in a lab, ultimately, what they’re building is a new and better product that has existed in the past. And the coatings that they provide are two years more durable than conventional coatings. They’re a lot easier to clean and also have a uniquely smooth surface. So that’s one example. I think another example of a great company that we have in our portfolio includes Alchemr. Laureen, the founder, is incredible. They are building a solution in the green hydrogen space that allows for the reduction of the cost of water electrolyzers by more than 300%. I’m excited about that solution, particularly as hydrogen continues to raise its profile as an energy source that most people in this space are recognizing needs to be prioritized, but also has a lot of promising outcomes for climate. So those are a couple there are a few others just because of my city’s background, or thinking about the future of cities and my previous roles, Voltpost, which is turning lampposts into electric vehicle charging stations. So a lot around the built environment, infrastructure; how can we use existing infrastructure in cities to make them more sustainable but also create alternative mobility options for residents?

Host Raj Daniels  15:54

Sounds like fascinating companies. And yes, I will share the link in the show notes, just for my curiosity too. The toxin-free one caught my curiosity because, again, as you mentioned, there are these unsexy industries, if you will, and there’s so much change that is required. There’s so much opportunity there. You know, in the digital world, you almost think about taking companies from analog to digital, and there’s a lot of analog companies out there. But the toxin-free coating for ships definitely piqued my interest.

Chante Harris  16:22

Yeah, same here. They applied to our global challenge that we ran as part of our recruitment process. We wouldn’t have otherwise probably seen their application because they didn’t apply to the actual program, just the challenge. And all of our judges that were involved across multiple industries and sectors were excited by this solution––the ability to see and be able to measure in the short term, its impact, just from application alone is something that excited. Not only my team but then all of the amazing and incredible individuals involved in the process.

Host Raj Daniels  17:04

So it sounds like you have your hands full with your day job. And we’ll switch gears here and talk about another project you’re working on, which is the Women of Color Collective in Sustainability. Can you talk to us about that organization?

Chante Harris  17:18

Yeah. Thanks, Raj, I appreciate you, highlighting that. My team jokes that I’ll forget to mention this, even though it is near and dear to my heart. And honestly, a passion project that has just taken off, which is both exciting and shows the need for intentional discussion and action around diversity, equity, and inclusion in the sustainability space. So WOC/CS––that’s what we call it, for short––was born out of solving my own problem in this space. And that was recognizing earlier on, prior to the work that I do now was scaling various companies across urban and climate tech solving big problems for cities. And that meant building out go-to-market strategies and social impact strategies and thinking through things like pilot projects, and demos and strategic partnerships. And I just found that I was oftentimes the only woman, the only woman of color, the only black woman, and many times as well, the youngest person in the room. And I saw the opportunity in that. But I also saw, or was able to take a step back, and really analyze what that meant for the future of an industry where we’re solving big problems. And I mentioned this earlier, but we truly do need all hands on deck for us to solve the climate crisis, particularly when we think about who it disproportionately impacts which includes communities of color. So black, indigenous, and people of color. And I started WOC/CS alongside one of my close friends and now co-creators Jordie Vasquez; she was a bright power at the time. I was at my previous company. And we were attending an event at Climate Week, New York. For those who aren’t familiar with Climate Week, it’s a really big week in New York City where global leaders essentially come to convene in person and talk about key areas throughout climate, a lot of industry folks, but then also discussions around policy and impact. I decided to go to an evening event that was an all-women event. And it was an incredible event. I appreciated the space made for women, though the reality was that the room still didn’t reflect diversity. And so Jordie and I were the only women of color in the room that evening and we said hi to each other, started chatting. She became a good confidante of mine, and we started sharing resources. And my old firm would host a lot of private dinners. And I would invite her to all of the events we held. And she did the same with me. She had a really neat newsletter called Urban On Site at the time. And she’s really sort of a creative: into the arts, into public placemaking and what that means for sustainability in cities. And we met up one day, and we’re sort of like, “Hey, this is great that we’re doing this for each other. But the reality is that we know there are more women of color out there, we know that there are more women of color that want to be more involved or maybe even transition into this space.” And we couldn’t find a community anywhere online that was focused on women of color in particular. And so she and I spoke about it for a little bit. And we were just hanging out one day, and we’re like, “Hey, we’re going to create this space for other women who looked like us who are seeking community or seeking peer mentorship and resource sharing.” And so that’s really how WOC/CS was born, I think it was a Friday, we were in South Street Seaport, and we were like, “Let’s just do this thing. Let’s create it.” And so I am still blown away, to be honest with the amount of traction, support, but also enthusiasm from other women of color, even other corporations and organizations to support our mission. And so WOC/CS today is a collective. It’s one of the very few––I think at the time we launched, it might have been the only––dedicated to black indigenous and women of color and the sustainability field, supporting them through creating access to opportunities, jobs, speaking opportunities, and then creating community amongst ourselves, which I think is important. So the resource sharing the peer mentorship. Prior to COVID, we had done only a few meetups. And then also we’re working on a campaign called This is What Sustainability Looks Like, which is kind of our tagline. Our goal there is to essentially shift and normalize that sustainability is diverse, that it is inherently made up of diverse voices and women of color. And so we were doing all those great things and then COVID hit. And so you know, in-person meetups died down. But what happened was that we saw immense growth over COVID. And I think that COVID has made evident is how important community is, especially in difficult times. And so our Google group, our LinkedIn group, which is dedicated to women of color, our monthly newsletter actually grew by 5,000% over the course of five months. We held our first summit and I planned it all in about two and a half weeks back in July of 2020. Honestly, Jordie and I thought we’d have maybe, tops, 40 people attend virtually, we ended up having over 400 Global participants, over 40 speakers, all black, indigenous, people of color, speaking on various parts of sustainability. And we had over 20 partners and sponsors. So it happened quickly, we were just so grateful for the space. But I think, more importantly, it was very evident that what we were creating was needed across this industry and still is. And so we are dedicated to women who are building careers in the space and ensuring that they’re amplified, supported, and have the resources they need to thrive. And so that’s the story behind WOC/CS and why we formed and what we do, we recently launched a job board for corporations and organizations to list their jobs on our site. We require transparency and the pay. So we do if you decide to post on our website, we do require that you provide a range. And that’s because we want to be a part of solving the problem around things like pay inequity in this space. And we felt that it was our duty to make sure that whatever opportunities and jobs and resources were providing women of color have a level of transparency that we want to see be the standard across the industry. So yeah, that’s a little bit, or a lot, about WOC/CS and the story behind it and what we’re doing and building.

Host Raj Daniels  24:16

want to tease out a phrase he said there, he said, This is what sustainability looks like. And I think sustainability climate looks very different on the ground, especially from the people it’s affecting, to leadership in sustainability and climate. How are some of the ways––you mentioned mentoring, etc.––how do we grow the size of this table, size of the tent, and get more people of color and women also involved in this movement?

Chante Harris  24:44

Yeah, you know, we started with community because if you look historically at how any underrepresented community has been able to obtain upward mobility, particularly upward economic mobility, it’s been from strategic planning within that community and sort of pushing the norms. But I think also when it comes to industry, and I’m certainly still wrapping my head around all of this, and I think WOC/CS is as well, in terms of how we plan to continue to push the needle on these matters. A large part of it is there are certain pieces of knowledge and industry, I want to say secrets, for lack of a better phrase, that are imperative to people’s ability to move within an organization and a company, but also, I think, to be seen as a leader in any industry. And so a lot of what we’re doing is amplifying the expertise that we have because what I found as a woman of color is that if I don’t create a narrative around my abilities, my expertise, what I bring to a team, an initiative, or a company, and then that leaves space for other people to create that narrative or for there to be no narrative at all. And I think we see this not only in sustainability, and I was mentioning technology to you earlier since I sit at the center of climate, sustainability, and technology. The reality is, is that we oftentimes go unseen and unheard. And I think it’s really about us being able to maneuver and better understand ways that we can have access within this industry. But ultimately, it does come down in my opinion to the organizations and the corporations. And so again, we’re only one piece of the puzzle. But I will say that Jordie and I’ve been talking a lot about what it is that we want to continue to pursue through WOC/CS. And we are a community for women of color first because we think that is critical to have the support you need to especially these days. In light of COVID-19, we’ve just gotten so many kind messages from women who are like, I got a new job, I got a new resource, a new leadership opportunity, because of your Google group, because of your newsletter. And I think you know, for us, that’s a win because it shows that through the creation of a community committed to each other, we can open doors for one another. On the flip side, ultimately, you know, I think corporations and companies and organizations have to commit to what it means to allow people, women of color, to be in an organization and a company and thrive and rise up the ranks. To your point around leadership. We know when we started WOC/CS the numbers were dismal. They still are, to be frank. But the reality to me is that our job board is the first step in that we’re working on the summit, trying to connect women of color to corporations and organizations. And I think making it clear that it needs to be a reciprocal relationship. Yes, women of color need jobs, we want leadership opportunities, but we also want to be in spaces and workplaces that are healthy, that are safe, that are invested in who we are and allow us to show up as the leaders we are. And so I think there is this balance of saying we want more women of color in leadership. I think the question that I think a lot about and that we pose to corporations and organizations and companies that reach out to us is, are you creating a culture and an environment where if we did match you with a great woman of color for an initiative, that they’d feel that they’d have the resources and what they in just overall what they need to thrive as a leader? And so, yeah, I’ll stop there. I won’t pretend to have all the answers. But I do think there’s one in such a critical aspect to creating a community for women of color to learn from each other and feel like they have a space for them. But too, you know, it does come down to: can companies and how can companies commit to hiring and elevating women of color and providing them with the resources that they need in the workplace? That’s what comes to mind for me.

Host Raj Daniels  29:26

So it’s not easy, but easier to enroll people that are perhaps knowledgable about climate or sustainability, into you know, our tribe. But how do you convey the message to those that perhaps don’t realize some of the effects of climate or sustainability on their everyday lives and say, “Look, these are other opportunities that perhaps you should be exploring or considering?”

Chante Harris  29:51

It makes me think about conversations I’ve had with my family. I’m the climate person and my family. The sustainability person. I think if you ask my parents what I do, they probably can’t tell you to be honest. But the reason why I mentioned that is that for me, it’s been about meeting people where they are, not expecting them to already be at a level that you’re at. And that’s important because I think when you look at industry language and conversation, there’s something to be said about the language and the words we use. Language can remove people from a conversation. And when it comes to sustainability and climate, all of us who are professionals in the space, who are doing this work, have a duty to ourselves, to people, and to the planet, to make this work accessible. Because people want to be a part of it. People want to do better, but they may not know how if we show up and immediately start talking about carbon modeling. And all of these phrases feel like common knowledge to us, but aren’t to the everyday person, especially to those who are oftentimes experiencing it firsthand. I do think that that’s one of the biggest ways that we can continue to knock down the barriers to people feeling a part of the solution, or feeling like they can engage in a meaningful way. And then going back to what I just said, meeting them where they are. So I think a good example of this is the public health conversation. One of my first deep dives into environment was working with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on a public health initiative. We were doing a deep dive into what KPIs can we use to understand how to create a healthier East Harlem. A lot of it came down to food quality and access to food. So the realization that food deserts and lack of farm-to-table options prevent people from being healthier. Recognizing that a large number of bus depots and highways are over-concentrated in communities of color, and thus, you see higher rates of asthma and other health effects. And so I think, ultimately, we have to talk about climate and sustainability holistically. And all of the other issues that tie into it, because a lot of times, maybe someone won’t understand fully sustainability or climate, but they will understand that, you know, their child has asthma because of the air quality in their neighborhood. They will understand that they don’t have access to local food, because there aren’t adequate supply chains to provide that. And so it’s up to us to not sit in our like climate bubbles and talk about all of the science and all of the technologies, which are great. But ultimately, these technologies have to be deployed, they have to be adopted, and that adoption, that deployment, has to be done by everyday people. And so the way that we build and ultimately deploy these technologies has to be accessible if we’re going to have the type of impact we want. There are some great case studies as of the past year where you’re seeing that with technology, you’re seeing the value of making it accessible, creating bite-sized ways for people to understand from their perspective, why this solution matters, or how they can engage with it.

Host Raj Daniels  33:33

I love the idea of meeting people where they’re at and so much of what you said, specifically around the vocabulary in the language that’s used. I think it can be very intimidating. And so the idea of perhaps introducing people, as you said, bite-sized moments in their life, or how some of these issues intersect in their lives. You mentioned the bus patient example. I think it’s very important, especially from a time perspective, meaning that people are already extremely overwhelmed with everyday life. And then we have this additional issue of COVID currently going on, and we have health issues. So finding those bite-size opportunities to introduce them to this subject, I think, is a great way to do it.

Chante Harris  34:09

Yeah, 100%. I know that there are people who’ve been doing this way, way longer than I have, and I appreciate other women in this space who paved the way for me. So I just want to mention that briefly. I think Peggy from WeAct and Majora Carter are two women that I look up to and have been a part of thinking through what it means to advance big solutions, but do it through a local perspective. So yeah, ultimately, all of these really big visions have to be broken down into actual ways to write, deploy, and build them.

Host Raj Daniels  34:51

Absolutely. You said something earlier, which is leading to my next question, and I liked the way you said it about creating a narrative for ourselves. Rather than there being no narrative or waiting for someone else to create one for us. Next question is, you’ve been on this journey, like you said, for a while as an African American woman, in tech. Now cleantech. What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about yourself on your journey?

Chante Harris  35:17

Such a good question. So one thing that comes to mind is just this idea that our journeys are our own. And sometimes I do feel like there’s this tension, particularly if you’re a person of color of paving the way or being the first which is certainly admirable and super important. But I’ve honestly been, as of late, very wary of being celebrated as the only or the first, because I don’t think that that’s something that we should be celebrating, or normalizing, to be frank. And so I think that’s one thing that I would say, one big thing that I’ve learned in this journey that, particularly as an African American woman, I am not, honestly, I can’t think of a better word at the moment, but I’m not impressed or interested in being the only or the first, I think it’s not only on me but all of the people who are acknowledging that I’m the first or I’m the only to be committed to making sure that that’s not what we celebrate. In the next 10 years, I don’t, I don’t want to have to celebrate an Asian American woman or a, you know, Caribbean woman being the first. I know that that’s how we create movement in society. Someone has to do it first. But it makes me think about it. I was talking to my friend recently, when I realized, hey, I am oftentimes, the only or the first, particularly in my various demographic groups. I wanted to change that and I created WOC/CS, just for that. I don’t want to be the only young African American woman that’s invited to speak or to be at the table. I want people to know that there are so many other young women of color that are also doing great work in this space and committed deeply. So I think that’s one learning that I think is huge, I do feel like we have a duty to recognize that if we are the only or the first that we should be pulling other people in. And you know, I am where I’m at now, because of the women I named earlier, and so many other countless women who I probably don’t know the names of, but should. For me, that’s important. And then the other thing I’ll say is––I was having a discussion recently around this as well––is that I think sometimes we tell young people to kind of follow the path of others. So I remember being younger, and someone saying, “Go to someone else’s profile.” I don’t remember what we were using at that time. LinkedIn was not as popular then. But go read their bio, and then kind of try to replicate everything they’ve done to get where they’re at. And I look back at that now. And I honestly think it’s some of the worst advice we can give people in their various journeys because what we do is limit people by saying, “Look at someone else’s journey and follow their journey.” I think that ultimately, we each have an ability to tap into what is our fullest potential. And, you know, while I think exploring things are healthy, right, and being able to know your options, and figure out which one is best for you, ultimately, we all have to choose our own paths. And I would love it if we started talking about our journeys, our career paths as something for us to explore solely as an individual interested in figuring out, “What am I great at? What do I love to do? And where’s that kind of nice intersection where I can do the great things that I’m good at, in a place where I am excited to do them?” Versus, you know, go follow this other person and see if you might like it, once you’ve achieved all of the things that they’ve done. So yeah, I think those are, those are two highlights. I’m sure there’s lots more that I’ve learned. But I think, yeah, ultimately acknowledging that your path is your own, and you can certainly learn things from other people, but that you don’t have to follow exactly in their footsteps to do great things. And that our duty is to create more access for people and more opportunities and not just stop at being the first or the only.

Host Raj Daniels  39:31

Reminds me of a blog post that I wrote a long time ago titled One Size Fits One.

Chante Harris  39:36

I love that. Exactly. You just said everything I was trying to say in three words. So thank you.

Host Raj Daniels  39:45

So the crux of our conversation is the why behind what you do. You’re obviously very driven. There are some obvious reasons, but what drives you? What motivates you? What keeps you going?

Chante Harris  39:55

Yeah, I think just honestly, I learned this at a really young age: I mentioned how important family was to me. But I tell people, I come from a family of public servants. My dad was a firefighter. He also DJed on the side. So a little spunky and creative, which was always fun. My mom was in the medical space, and my grandmother was a nurse and a civil rights activist. Until this day, she will still, now in her 80s, march around the community and make sure people are registered to vote. And I grew up hearing stories about how courageous she was at an age younger than what I am now. And I think it just really inspired me to do the things that scare me, to be brave, to be courageous, to push the norm. I think a lot about how we were normalized to stay within boxes and the lines. And we’re told, well, that’s just kind of what everyone does. It’s status quo, the norm. And I’ve never known that as my default, because I didn’t grow up in a space or in a home where, you know, accepting kind of what the norm was, was just what people did, it was the exact opposite for me. My grandmother, again, it’s played a huge role. And me seeing that kind of drawing outside the lines is an exciting way that to live life and also a way that works for me. So I think all that to say that what drives me is this idea that if I don’t like a norm, or if I think there’s a better way to do something, or if I want to see change, that I have everything that I need to be a part of that solution. And then I think the second part to that is just valuing community, I recognize that the work that my grandmother did, she didn’t do alone. The work that I do now, I don’t do alone. I have an incredible team through Venture for Climate Tech, and SecondMuse, WOC/CS. I feel like it’s just very evident of this value of community, that we can’t go it alone in this lifetime. I mean, we can try. But I don’t see that working out for most people. And so yeah, for me, it’s really like being a part of something bigger than yourself, and not being scared to dive into the unique value and gifts that you bring to this world, and bringing other people into the community to also actualize that on their end.

Host Raj Daniels  42:18

I love the idea of pushing norms and growing community. Also sounds like I should be interviewing your grandmother.

Chante Harris  42:24

Yes, you should. She’s incredible.

Host Raj Daniels  42:27

You know, you mentioned SecondMuse again and WOC/CS. But you also mentioned the better way to do something. Can you tell me a little bit about the future economy lab you’re working on?

Chante Harris  42:36

Yeah. Thanks so much for asking. Yeah, to this point, I think this is exactly what we are trying to do in the capital space at the moment. So I mentioned SecondMuse’s capital arm. It’s been around for a few years now. We have a blended capital model. And essentially, the way that we think about funding mechanisms is, “Let’s create what we are hearing is of need. And if it hasn’t existed before, let’s create something new.” And so the future economy lab brings together corporations, governments, investors, and foundations to explore a specific economy. I’m focused on climate tech, as I mentioned, so we’ll be diving into the climate space. And we’re seeking participants at this time. So having a bunch of conversations with various venture groups, as well as government entities, academic institutions, really anyone or any entity that is either in this space interested in entering more into this space and being a part of exploring, “What is an economy, a climate economy, in need of, particularly in the New York and Northeast region? And then how can we create something that solves for whatever that need is?” So at the end of the actual process, we’ll be pulling together a report, we’ve done this before. And then having a recommendation for what that funding mechanism should be. And then we go out and build it. We bring a team on or add to a team if we have an existing team and then actually fundraise around this. So yeah, I’m currently seeking people who would be interested in learning more, potentially participating. It’s a low lift commitment, you show up to a couple of workshops and design sessions. They’ll all be virtual in light of COVID. But it’s a really, really exciting process. We share all of the data and insights at the end with those who participate. And then we go out and build something great, that’s going to solve a big problem. So again, I feel like it is reiterating this idea of community and sort of bringing people together to solve big problems. So I’m excited. We’d love to talk to anyone who might be interested. We are looking for funders for this work, and we’ve worked with previous entities like the Gates Foundation and others to help fund this work. So I’m excited. And yeah, I’ll be focusing on that over the next few months.

Host Raj Daniels  45:04

So let’s stay on the topic of the future for a moment. And since you’re doing so much I want to focus directly on you. Let’s imagine it’s 2030, you’re looking back almost like a legacy view. Where do you see yourself? Or what kinds of progress or effect do you see yourself making in this movement over the next 10 years?

Chante Harris  45:23

Yeah, that’s such a great question. I mean, I immediately go to my cohort companies, and honestly, just projects and ideas that are bringing together the right stakeholders. But hopefully, in 10 years, we will have some great use cases for the companies in our portfolio, through Venture for Climate Tech. So really hoping that we support these founders, and that they’re able to scale great solutions, and that we are seeing a huge impact when it comes to GHG emissions across not only New York State, but other areas as well, where they can apply their technology. I think on a higher level, I’d love to be working across cities and exploring, what does it look like to share data insights, and how we build and deploy technologies, and how we think about not only their go to market strategy, but embedding, again, this idea of equity and community and impact into building those solutions. And hoping that as well, WOC/CS is this global. It is a global collective, but that it expands to reach hundreds of 1000s, if not millions of women of color across the globe, we’ve gotten some inquiry from people in Africa and the Caribbean recently. So just really excited about what that can be. But ultimately, I want to see the best solutions, ideas, projects, being funded and deployed. And so I think being a part of making sure that there’s the right community, funding, and resources for all of that and being at the center of it would be ideal for me. So a lot of that I think I’m doing but being able to do it on a massive scale. So having a capital arm, maybe even a research and data and insights institute, and embedding equity––so that means women of color, BIPOC communities––across all of it. And so, yeah, that’s what I think about in 10 years, and who knows, that might change. But those are the things that come to mind.

Host Raj Daniels  47:23

Which sounds like a beautiful vision. Going to my last question here. Again, I think the standout comment from this conversation has been the idea of narrative. But if you could specifically share some words of advice, and it could be personal, it could be professional words of advice or wisdom with the audience, what would it be?

Chante Harris  47:40

Yeah, it makes me think of a quote. I know, it’s a probably widely shared quote, but it was said to me by someone I just truly adore and respect. And what was said to me was, you know, I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something along the lines of, “Sometimes other people’s ceilings are your floor. And that’s okay.” And I think that’s, for me, been important. Because a lot of times, I feel that as a young African American woman, I’ve found myself in places and rooms that are doing really big things where I have decision-making power, and I’m able to move the needle on such important conversations and topics. And recognizing that I’m both grateful and excited. And that me wanting to dream bigger, or do bigger things is okay as well. So there’s a duality of being able to say, I’m grateful for what I have now, and the opportunities that have been presented for me. And I have this desire to have an even bigger impact or do bigger things because I see bigger solutions and opportunities. And that’s been important to me, because one quote that my grandmother, if I’m not mistaken, introduced to me at an early age, it was just, you know, “Don’t dim your light for other people. You know, don’t make yourself small. For other people. If you ever start feeling small where you’re at, that just means that it’s time for you to find a place that’s bigger for you.” But you know, not feeling like you have to be smaller, for the sake of making others comfortable. And so that would be advice I give people you know, I’ve ended up in amazing places and opportunities. And I think, you know, staying humble is important. But also recognizing your gifts and leaning into them. And wanting more when you feel like you’ve maybe outgrown your current situation is, it’s fine. It’s okay. And I think it means that we’re doing something right.

Host Raj Daniels  49:46

I love the idea of not dimming your light for other people. I think it’s a great place to end. I’m so excited about the work you’re doing. And I’m also excited to explore opportunities to collaborate with you in the future.

Chante Harris  49:56

Amazing. Yeah. Thank you so much, Raj. I really appreciate it. All of your questions. Yeah, and just how incredibly committed you are to all of the work that you’re doing. I know you’re also juggling a lot. So just happy that I was able to be a guest on this episode and I’m looking forward to finding meaningful ways to collaborate in the future as well.

Host Raj Daniels  50:15

Thank you, Chante, and I look forward to catching up with you again soon.

Chante Harris  50:18

Same here. Thanks, Raj.

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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Raj Daniels

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