“My personal motivation is to make sustainability a part of business as usual. Companies need to realize this is how they will survive.” - Karen Nassif
As a Senior Venture Builder at Mach49, Karen Nassif has helped Global 1000 corporations, including Hitachi, Schlumberger, and Schneider Electric, drive growth by building and launching disruptive new products and services with a focus on sustainability.
Before joining Mach49, Karen was a member of Shell’s internal incubation team. She played an integral role in developing and spinning out new ventures in sectors ranging from mining to renewables. With an academic background in economics and business strategy, Karen brings expertise in design thinking, user research, and behavioral psychology to the Mach49 team.
We sat down with Karen to learn more about her experience and how she works with clients to make sustainability business as usual.
How did your career in the oil and gas industry lead to sustainability work at Mach49?
My venture journey began at Shell just as the company was building out its incubation function. I fell in love with the space, and after a few years working in venture building, I looked back and saw that almost all of the projects I’d worked on were related to climate and sustainability.
What excites me about venturing is seeing an opportunity space and tapping into it, and that’s no different in sustainability. There’s an interesting psychology behind sustainability efforts: people start to attach certain attributes to these ventures and see them as passion projects instead of business opportunities. But in reality, they are ventures like any other. You see a challenge and an opportunity, but it happens to be good for everyone and offers more purpose and impact.
You saw Shell build its venture efforts from the ground up, and you’ve helped usher other large corporations into this space. How have you seen attitudes toward sustainability ventures change over the last few years?
Today, all corporations want to do something in the sustainability space and are eager to get started. They understand that sustainability is table stakes at this point.
They’re also beginning to understand and believe in a portfolio approach to growth. Even as they continue to do business as usual and pursue ventures focused on operational efficiency improvements and making more money, they understand they need to have at least one venture in the sustainability space. They see that they need to do something that’s not just greenwashing but gives them skin in the game.
More corporate leaders now understand that sustainability ventures need time to grow, flourish, and deliver returns. Increasingly, they understand the triple bottom line mindset, which values both monetary gain and the environmental, social, and governance gains that come from sustainability ventures.
You say that most companies know they need to focus on climate, but at this point, few are running effective sustainability ventures. What are the sticking points you most often see in your work?
Most companies coming into this space aren’t very mature in their mindset toward the work and haven’t fleshed out their starting point - or their endpoints! They want to operate in the sustainability space or create more sustainable products and services, but that’s it. There’s a lot of ambiguity.
Part of my work is to help companies identify their motivations and drivers and hone in on what they want to achieve through their sustainability ventures. It often takes us months to get to a clearly defined, narrowly framed set of challenges and goals.
You’ve seen corporations succeed and fail in their venture efforts. What sets apart the companies that are leading in this space?
A lot of it boils down to culture, people, and sponsorship. A home must exist for these types of ventures within the organization, with a team structure focused on innovation. You also need commitment and sponsorship from leaders. I’ve seen brilliant results when one person is waving a huge flag to keep the venture moving forward. Venturing is inherently risky, and you need someone to believe in you and champion the work.
It’s also essential to tie venture building, especially sustainability ventures, to your business agenda. It needs to be linked to what you already do. Too often, companies treat these ventures as an extra line on a to-do list and rely on volunteers rather than building out that structure. The successful ventures I’ve seen have all had a business goal behind them.
Mach49’s clients tend to be at the leading edge of the push toward sustainability ventures, but most companies aren’t there yet. What do you wish more corporations understood about climate-focused innovation?
There’s a lot of greenwashing and inaction out there. Many publicized corporate sustainability efforts are not really moving the needle. But it’s not something businesses need to pay attention to just because of the Paris Agreement or because they’re worried about what Gen Z will think. They need to pay attention to sustainability because it’s how they will survive.
I’m passionate about making sustainability ventures more real. If you improve your energy efficiency, your business operations, the way you make your products, the way you recycle them, and the way you transport them, you won’t just be more sustainable–you’ll be more efficient. You can save money, and you can make money through sustainability ventures. It’s all one holistic story.
Get in touch with the Mach49 team to learn how your corporation can get started with climate and sustainability venture building and investing.