Today was the Stoel Rives Cleantech Forum, I saw it advertised in a recent PSBJ issue. As a private equity investor I was aware of the event, but I already had plans – I attended some events for local community leaders to hear Van Jones speak about the Green For All movement. The irony is that these two disconnected events – one focused on investors and business leaders, the other focused on nonprofit, community and philanthropic leaders, are actually both about our transition to a “green” economy. We are in a long term mega-trend of shifting from operating in a world where resources seem infinite and wilds are untamed, to a world where we’ve summited the highest peaks, mapped the bottoms of oceans and we now need to learn to respectfully manage the environmental resources we’ve mastered. Carbon trading, energy efficiency improvements, and new ways of doing things are where economic growth will come in the future, and where the good jobs will be.
The Cleantech Forum met to discuss investment possibilities to fund and grow the companies that will develop these new, more efficient ways of doing things. These new opportunities are entirely new industries and their next challenge down the road will be the lack of a trained workforce: workers who know how to work with solar panels, mechanics who understand alternative fuel vehicles, mariners who understand how to place a tidal turbine.
Van Jones’s particular genius is to recognize this period of structural economic shift as a new level playing field for workers – a genuine opportunity to bring in folks who have been left off the economic ladder by securing government funding for training and particularly targeting these left-behind groups. A targeted effort to retrain workers can help us strengthen our economy in the face of uncertainty, provide real opportunity and support these fledgling industries as well as their investors.
My interest in socially responsible investing is about bringing these two perspectives together and recognizing that the system is connected all the way through – the troubles low-income folks have getting good jobs are related to the troubles startup companies have securing the resources they need. These two events, in the same city at the same time, should really be in the same room rather than two different buildings and two different audiences.
I have heard Van speak before, but this time I heard an additional message – it’s not just about job training. We’ve got to work to bridge the class divide. In California they did a pilot project where they trained solar engineers. 21 made it through the strict program, zero got jobs, ultimately because of an inability of the largely white-middle class companies in the biz to relate to the working class folks of color enough to use their newly polished skills. Are there enough downsized college grads to fill these green-collar roles that we middle-class whites can shrug this off as “their problem”? There probably will be enough demand for workers that I can make a business case for learning to be better leaders and managers for working class folks. As I write it now, it’s apparent to me that “making a business case” simply means finding economic leverage. No wonder poverty has long been referred to as a cycle, if you have to have economic leverage to get economic access, how do you get out? I’m putting my leverage behind Green For All.