Dear Friends, Colleagues and Supporters:
This is my final full week at Evergreen – the end of 11 years. I am proud that things are in a place where our next leader, Michelle Carr, will be able take-over from a position of strength to lead the organization to new heights. I am excited for her and will look to support her success however I can.
Not all leaders are fortunate to exit feeling at peace with their impact and legacy. I am feeling pretty good! It would be hubristic, though, for me to ascribe the organization’s successes and impact to my leadership over the years. Evergreen is successful due to the beautiful interplay between an exceptional team, world-class board of directors, generous funders, committed partners, and inspiring entrepreneurs. I may have nudged things at the edges, but this orchestra is able to carry its own tune. For this I am awed and grateful.
I am also amazed at how the climate innovation ecosystem in the Midwest has grown and matured during my time at Evergreen. Ten years ago the ecosystem was fragmented, with little connectivity between stakeholders. There was scarce programming, infrastructure or capital to support aspiring climate entrepreneurs. I recall visiting university technology transfer offices in the early days. The general vibe was that licensing promising intellectual property to a startup was a fool’s errand – better to license it to an established company even if it would never see the commercial light of day. If you were a bright mind, you likely weren’t considering starting a climate technology company. If you were, you were probably looking to do so elsewhere.
Today, the ecosystem is much more connected, with many great local organizations – mHUB, Chain Reaction Innovations, the Polsky Center, among others – providing critical resources and support. Universities are nurturing climate entrepreneurs, with Northwestern University’s NUvention: Energy program representing a model for others to emulate. Bright minds now want to start climate technology companies. And, they want to do so here in the Midwest.
I am often asked what I consider my greatest accomplishment during my tenure. Seeing both the ecosystem mature and our portfolio companies scale and succeed rank highly. However, my unequivocal answer is navigating the organization through the COVID crisis. This was an existential time for Evergreen. So much of our work centered on events, convening, face-to-face mentoring, and other in-person interactions. So much of our funding was tied to such in-person work and programming. For our portfolio companies, most needed to access labs and physical infrastructure to do their work. YET, EVERYTHING STOPPED!
I am proud of how powerfully Evergreen’s team, its startups and its supporters rose and reacted to this unprecedented challenge. It was amazing to witness the Evergreen team mobilize to re-engineer almost everything we did to respond to the new, virtual reality. Our entrepreneurs found creative ways to persevere. Our funders acted quickly and flexibly to help meet our challenges. As a result of these collective efforts, we emerged from the COVID lockdown stronger than before, allowing for this thoughtful and graceful transition of leadership.
Michelle will be terrific as Evergreen’s next leader. She is an experienced, capable and empathetic professional. The temptation of new funding opportunities can pull an organization off of its strategy. My advice is for Evergreen to remain focused, patient and judicious in evaluating opportunities. Evergreen has built an exceptional engine of impact. Staying true to it and feeding it fuel will translate to ever greater success and impact.
What’s next for me? I intend to continue my work in decarbonization, proudly joining Evergreen’s amazing network of alumni. The climate imperative is too pressing to not warrant my continued focus and attention. I am enjoying learning about different opportunities and look forward to cementing my next steps soon.
Thank you to everybody I have met and worked with across the years. I am enormously grateful to have had this opportunity to make a contribution.
Erik G. Birkerts