“Our work is to create a venture growth approach that both makes money and ensures the company remains relevant in 10, 20, 30, or 50 years.” - Michelle Frye
With degrees in climatology and Geographic Information Systems and a background in the resource-intensive construction industry, Mach49 Venture Builder Michelle Frye knows plenty about the environmental costs of the status quo.
Before joining Mach49, Michelle was an operating executive at Trimble, a global technology company that creates solutions for industries including construction, transportation, and agriculture. She holds seven mobile computing patents and previously co-founded a direct-to-consumer startup delivering healthy snacks to families. Michelle is an active mentor in the Boulder, Colorado startup community.
We recently sat down with Michelle to learn more about her work with Mach49 and why she thinks better business processes and sustainability go hand-in-hand.
You studied climatology and spent much of your career in the construction industry. How did those experiences inform your decision to focus on sustainability ventures?
I’ve always been drawn to climate and sustainability work. I studied climatology as the field was evolving in the ’90s, though the climate crisis was already apparent. The opportunity to connect that passion with my work is really meaningful to me personally.
Before I came to Mach49, I spent 17 years at Trimble, where I held many positions, ending in a General Manager role running profit and loss for one of their businesses. For years, I ran strategy for construction and engineering, where I also worked to build support for an energy efficiency pillar within the construction space.
You’ve had a first-hand view of how a resource-intensive industry operates. What lessons did you learn about driving sustainability in that environment?
In construction, projects are infamously always over budget and over schedule. It’s the rule, not the exception—even though it’s one of the oldest professions in the human story. Despite new technology meant to help with efficiency and improve safety, these fundamental flaws remain a major problem for the industry.
For construction tech companies, the mandate is to improve scheduling and budget management. But when you stop and think about how that relates to climate and sustainability, you see that it’s ultimately the same goal. We don’t want to waste resources and we want people to be safer, both of which translate to time and money. It’s the same outcome, but business leaders tend to focus on the financial side and don’t always see the connection.
We need to think bigger when it comes to how we can prioritize sustainability within construction. For most companies, it’s simplest to focus on sustainability within building operations, for instance, through LEED certification. These efforts are fantastic, but we need to build on them and rethink how we manage construction itself. That means considering everything from which materials we use to how we decide whether to build new or remediate an existing property. Unfortunately, those questions don’t get a lot of traction in the construction industry. Stakeholders are so focused on schedule and initial cost that they don’t do the math to identify the long-term budgetary and environmental impacts.
Traditional industries like construction are often resistant to sustainability efforts. How can we meet those companies where they are and engage them in climate and sustainability work?
We need to be bolder about identifying the sustainability impacts of corporate ventures. I recently worked on a fleet maintenance automation project with Mach49. The technology aims to reduce maintenance costs, but it will absolutely have an impact on fleets’ carbon footprints. That wasn’t the point of the project, but we should be proud that we’re doing something positive for the climate and be willing to brand our efforts that way. We can build momentum when organizations see how financial benefits and sustainability efforts go hand in hand. Identifying those opportunities and synergies is a huge area of strength for Mach49.
It’s also important to recognize that while customer pain is typically the driver behind corporate ventures, the concept of risk can be equally important when it comes to sustainability efforts. Organizations face regulatory risk and pressure from shareholders and employees who are increasingly driven by sustainability concerns. Engaging with these risks is another way to gain leadership buy-in for sustainability ventures.
Many of your roles have focused on corporate strategy. Why should corporations build sustainability efforts into their long-term strategies?
Companies see sustainability and profit as opposing one another, but that’s not true. We’re not talking about charity; we’re talking about growth (and growth that matters). Our work is to create a venture growth approach that makes money and ensures the company remains relevant in 10, 20, 30, or 50 years.
Ultimately, we need to bring more long-term thinking into a short-term world. Many corporations only see quarters ahead. As a strategist, I always had a longer horizon in mind, and leaders must maintain that perspective as they make decisions.
With a new venture creation approach, we can marry the short-term and long-term views. We can build portfolios of projects to ensure that we’re meeting those short-term, quarterly goals while also building for the future. Depending on the organization, that can mean a combination of approaches—launching new ventures, pulling old projects off the shelf, and even investing in promising startups. It’s the scientific method in action: question, hypothesize, experiment, learn, and iterate.
Get in touch with the Mach49 team to learn how your corporation can get started with climate and sustainability venture building and investing.