Let’s build an apprenticeship program for climate entrepreneurs

Guest Author
Illustration of hikers in the foreground with wind turbines in the background.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

As I was learning to rock climb in my early 20’s in Auckland, New Zealand, I was taught by experienced climbers not only all the technical aspects of the sport, but also how to respect mother nature and protect myself and my fellow climbers.  

We didn’t have classes or credentials to signal our skills back then. Instead, a caring and disciplined community adopted us as apprentices and mentored the next generation, teaching us to thrive in the mountains respectfully and safely.   

My climate technology career unfolded in a similar way. I was a part of cleantech 1.0 in the early 2000s, when we had no manual or textbook to guide us, just our lived experiences and commitment to a common climate protection goal that felt important but not yet urgent.   

The early cleantech movement was powered by an informal apprenticeship model of collective skills sharing and trust formation. We recruited people with an array of skillsets, characteristics and lived experiences, then created space for them to mentor fellow team members in their areas of expertise.  

From technical skills to business skills, leadership skills to personal development, we actively learned from each other, accelerating our individual learning journeys, which in turn accelerated progress on the technologies we were developing. Care, respect, transparency and integrity were essential in building trust, which formed the basis of this unofficial apprenticeship.    

The urgency of climate change today means we no longer have the luxury of letting these apprentice-mentor relationships organically form.   

It’s time for startups to actively adopt a cleantech apprenticeship model from their inception.   

When a startup is founded, leaders should work with the company board and advisors to develop their own professional development roadmap. This map will identify the technical, business and leadership skills the entrepreneurs need to deploy their technologies and then match the entrepreneurs with mentors who have the lived experiences and expertise to guide them through each area. The innovator’s apprenticeship needs to be a strategic priority, with their development goals incorporated into the company’s roadmap.   

I’m not suggesting a single rulebook for building an apprenticeship. Instead, it should be a customized journey. The startup’s board and advisors will understand all the business units and knowledge areas that are critical for success. Existing apprenticeship programs in medical, military, industrial and construction organizations could be incorporated. A roadmap can combine theory teaching, task shadowing, applied trials and outcome reflection. Most importantly, it must cultivate relationships and trust between the teacher and student.  

This apprenticeship model will allow entrepreneurs to develop their skills and technologies rapidly enough to meet our climate protection goals while cultivating healthy teams capable of going the distance.   

My own organic apprenticeship started in 2003 when the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was around 375 parts per million (ppm) and the United Nations had yet to set the limit on Earth’s temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  

I started on the technical side with an engineering degree.  

Under the guidance of numerous mentors across many countries and technical focuses, I developed skills critical to creating technical solutions to climate change. From lab bench research to commercial-sized factories, I learned to balance technology innovation with operational, maintenance and safety needs to deliver solutions with both economic and climate value.   

Shortly into my technical journey, I also started learning about business and leadership.    

I learned how to lead operations teams on industrial sites, balance technology progress with business directives and build relationships across cultures. I learned how to ground corporate strategy in market realities, then translate it into attainable operation plans. Most importantly, I learned how to listen to and care for every team member and stand with them as we executed ambitious goals.  

Since I started working in this space, we’ve gone from important work to urgent work. Global CO2 concentration is nearing 420 ppm and Earth is at 1.15 degrees Celsius of its 1.5 degrees C temperature increase limit.    

We don’t have time to send our brightest innovators and entrepreneurs on the kind of self-guided apprenticeship I experienced. So, let’s bring the apprenticeship to them.   

To all the warriors from cleantech 1.0: Your knowledge, your experiences, your wisdom is needed. Get involved in your local climate accelerator, join an online community to share your expertise or sign up to be a Breakthrough Energy Fellows mentor.  

To the experienced operators, technicians, engineers and business professionals from industrial incumbents: Your years of mastery in sectors like mining, petrochemicals and manufacturing are desperately needed in the climate tech sector, which is bringing new job security and career opportunities.   

To capital providers and board members: Let’s re-think early-stage organizational structures so that the apprenticeship model is built into company growth strategies from the beginning.   

To first time climate entrepreneurs: Embrace the apprenticeship. Lean into humility and curiosity. You don’t need to master every skillset, but you do need to care for your team and appreciate their responsibilities.  

In the mountains of Colorado, I now mentor new rock climbers and new climate tech warriors. I’m stern with operational discipline and safety, I’m supportive in business and technology creativity, I’m honest about capital sourcing challenges and I’m present for the messy, human parts of their journeys. I show my scars, but I also show my continued passion for the climate journey. 

I’m here for their apprenticeship and I hope you will be, too. 

Editor’s Note: The Breakthrough Energy Fellows program is a part of Breakthrough Energy, which also supports Cipher.