The Value Gap: How young people of color can save the Earth — and build wealth while they’re at it

United States

The Value Gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, authors, policymakers and activists on reducing racial and social inequalities.

Historically Black neighborhoods, and streets and commercial strips populated by other people of color, too often share zip codes with industrial polluters. In fact, Black communities are exposed to climate and environmental injustice at a much higher rate — 15% to 50% more — than white communities.

And in decades past, public-works projects to build out major roads and interstates displaced or disrupted many communities of color. These throughways grow more trafficked all the time, with vehicle exhaust placing the nearby residents who remain at greater risk for respiratory and other health issues.

Read: Biden nears bringing back waiver for California and other states to set tougher vehicle tailpipe standards

Climate change, and the fossil fuel-generated greenhouse gas emissions behind this generational destruction, is poised to have catastrophic effects globally if left unchecked, scientists and policymakers stress.

The impact will be even greater for the communities that are already impacted — including in a U.S. that broadly enjoys energy and technology access that far outruns that in developing nations who are in line for the worst of what climate change will deliver. The World Bank estimates that the effects of climate change could push an additional 100 million people globally below the poverty line by 2030.

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That means it’s imperative that we have Black contributors to climate solutions, says Anthony Oni, managing partner of the Elevate Future Initiative at Energy Impact Partners, an investment firm that finances global companies focused on sustainable energy and net-zero emissions.

The initiative, among its other goals, partners with technology accelerators at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other entities to cultivate talent pipelines and grow pathways for “diverse” founders bent on creating a cleaner energy transition away from reliance on oil CL00, -1.71% and gas NG00, -1.26%, Oni says.

‘I truly believe decarbonizing our world is going to create the largest economic shift we’ll experience in our lifetime — it’s going to be bigger than the internet.’

Without the participation of Black founders and funders, any climate-change solution will simply be incomplete, says Oni, a veteran in the energy space who began with two decades at the traditional gas and electric utility Southern Co. SO, -0.05%, moved to a clean-tech startup and now leads as an impact venture investor.

MarketWatch spoke with Oni in an email interview about a sustainable future for the globe in which people of color can and must play a critical role. The interview has been edited and condensed for length.

MarketWatch: In addition to your work in traditional energy, talk about where this career path has taken you and what you’ve learned.

Oni: I spent 20 years at Southern Co., working in various roles that gave me valuable exposure to the industry: the policies and regulations that govern it; customers and communities that rely on it; and ecosystems that depend on clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy to thrive. This knowledge and experience undoubtedly shaped my career and the way I personally look at energy equity.  

One of the most exciting experiences I’ve had in my career was founding Cloverly, a clean tech company that helps brands create carbon-neutral or carbon-negative experiences for their customers. This was the first-to-market sustainability-as-a-service platform, which calculates and purchases carbon reduction solutions to neutralize the environmental impact of every transaction. Working at Cloverly made me truly understand how great the need is for sustainable energy solutions, and also the plight of a Black founder in the startup and venture community. 

MarketWatch: And please talk us through the Elevate Future Fund, part of Energy Impact Partners, one of the largest clean energy investment firms globally.

Oni: I’d like to provide some backstory on why the Elevate Future Fund is needed. One, people of color, and Black people in particular, have historically been marginalized socially, economically and environmentally, and denied access to resources needed to achieve long-term, generational success.

Read: How a 141-year-old Ohio moving company became America’s oldest Black-owned business

Despite the recent outpouring of support for Black founders, today 93% of venture capital funds are controlled by white men, which has significant ramifications on capital infusions into the Black business community. But the challenge persists far beyond the investment of capital. The fact of the matter is that Black entrepreneurs and founders need access to foundational and educational support networks.

Second, the Elevate Future Fund makes direct venture investments in promising, early-stage companies. We offer credit for established minority suppliers, and selectively team with and invest in incubators, accelerators and funds with a focus on building a portfolio founded or run by diverse talent who share the goal of accelerating the clean energy transition. One of the drivers for our work is the need to address an ever-widening racial wealth gap, in addition to addressing the many factors that contribute to climate change. 

‘Despite the recent outpouring of support for Black founders, today  93% of venture capital funds are controlled by white men, which has significant ramifications on capital infusions into the Black business community.’

MarketWatch: In the media, we’re increasingly talking about justice around climate change, and may be late to do so. You may have some thoughts on climate change, health, opportunity and zoning, and please expand on that. But what I read primarily from the description of your work at Energy Impact is that you’re thinking not just of restitution but of energy opportunities that will grow communities, add jobs and create competitive economic inputs, such as energy costs.

Oni: We believe that responsible and thoughtful capital can be deployed in a way that creates substantial financial return, positively impacts the environment and addresses the socioeconomic gaps we see in communities.

This impact will be felt in these communities in three ways: 

1. Economic opportunities that will create jobs and generational wealth by providing access to capital for diverse innovators, minority suppliers and underrepresented teams working to accelerate our transition to a decarbonized economy.

2. Driving social impact by providing diverse founders with the opportunity to increase their influence and their platforms, particularly pertaining to matters of social and environmental justice through startups and solutions. 

3. Thoughtfully growing the ecosystem of support with corporate partnerships and investments in technology accelerators and universities, including HBCUs, to nurture talent and promote infrastructure and support systems.

A great example of this is our investment in a company called ChargerHelp!, a digital platform that enables on-demand repair of electric vehicle TSLA, +3.23% charging stations. One of the most unique aspects of how Kameale C. Terry and Evette Ellis, founders of ChargerHelp!, built their startup was to incorporate workforce development programs to train technicians from various backgrounds and low-income communities.

Read: There’s an easier way for rideshare and delivery drivers to get into an EV

‘The door is open to make an impact on the globe, and to build generational wealth. The climate solvers of today will be the future millionaires and billionaires of tomorrow.’

— Anthony Oni

MarketWatch: What’s something you tell young men and women of color when they express interest in exploring science or business, and in particular where science can meet business?

Oni: I truly believe decarbonizing our world is going to create the largest economic shift we’ll experience in our lifetime — it’s going to be bigger than the internet. I encourage everyone, especially people of color, to get the job training, education, advanced degrees, or just exposure in the related fields and sectors.

I encourage Black founders and diverse teams to capitalize on this moment. The door is open to make an impact on the globe and to build generational wealth. The climate solvers of today will be the future millionaires and billionaires of tomorrow.

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