“There's no doubt that you need to find your tribe, so to speak. Get people around you who can drive it forward. And then also be very aware of what's passion and what's progress,” says Johannah, reflecting on the most valuable lessons that she has learned on her journey with her startup, IMPACTR.
“If I were to start again, I'd have more of a balance between passion and decisiveness, and of what's working and what's not,” she elaborates. “Because if you go too long trying to make something work for the values and not as a reality, then it takes time and it's tiring.”
Johannah has started IMPACTR, a global community of like-minded individuals with a vision to accelerate sustainability, about a year ago out of her home-turned-office in Copenhagen.
Over the last few months, Johannah and her team have been working hard to build their first platform that connects people around the world with“trusted sustainable solutions.”
While they have experienced many challenges along the way, Johannah believes that “there's no better feeling in the world” than finding something you believe in so much “that you just lie in bed thinking about it.”
“I wish that upon anybody. And I really was not in that way for the last few years, it was quite the opposite,” she shares.
Johannah’s career has started about 10 years ago in the Down Under, in Australia. Fascinated by the technology development in the military, she was finishing her internship in a consulting firm, doing defense force contracts. She had just come out of her Aerospace Engineering degree and did a lot of gaming.
To continue in the role in this company, she had to do her time in the Services and was presented an opportunity to join the Air Force. While filling out the paperwork, she for the first time felt like this was not the direction she wanted to go.
“I just sort of pivoted away. I've been working towards becoming the war commander with the intention to, if I can use smart technology and smart tactics, I can minimize the harm that's going on and get outcomes faster. That was my thinking.”
But then, being on the ground, it freaked her out. “It just became too real to go out of the computer games and out of the laptop into reality of it,” Johannah explains.
Fortunately, she was also DJ-ing during that time and “having a great time, as you do at that age.” So she decided to pursue her career as a DJ for a while and took a job in telecommunications infrastructure.
All until she came across an ad for Vestas. “I was like, okay, wind turbines. There's where my skills are transferable.”
Interestingly enough, despite being interviewed for a technical role, she ended up in Sales. “Somehow they said I had some sort of commercial flare. I can see me in Sales. So I got into the actual commercial area,” she explains.
Johannah got involved in financial modeling and financial engineering, presenting to the Product Development unit in Vestas what she refers to as “all my crazy ideas” and business cases of how things could be done differently on the production sites.
Eventually, they brought her to Denmark to pursue with this role at the company’s headquarters.
“I was always pushing the boundaries, but I became kind of accepted in doing that; another crazy idea from Johannah. But yeah, crazy ideas that started to work…” Johannah laughs.
Yet, as she entered the executive role, part of approving all the major decisions on product and factories and business cases as part of Vestas’ investment council, she experienced several turning points that eventually led to reconsidering her career path.
Topics such as renewable and green energy became very important to Johannah through Vestas, especially due to the company’s strong climate change agenda at the time.
But she felt that after the global financial crisis, this mission “kind of dropped” and the company became “very financially oriented.”
Hearing keynote after keynote of individuals from all over the world who shared how they had overcome their hideous experiences with earthquakes, killings, genocides, and other horrors – “all towards advancing sustainable development” –, Johannah felt like her whole world had been shaken up.
“I'd been in such a tunnel! By the end of it, at the closing ceremony, I was feeling sick almost, just from all the inputs and the things that had been revealed to me.”
She admits that initially she was hesitant to attend the conference that was being offered as part of Vestas’ talent program. “It’s just this kind of corporate tunnel attitude, like, I don't have time for that and I’m busy. But then I went and it was like the most incredible thing that I've ever seen.”
“The power in that place, too! Just clear creativity, innovation, and they're all so young. And I was like, I would walk over hot coals for that person right there,” she adds.
Feeling inspired, Johannah decided to join the sustainability committee and start various sustainability-related initiatives at her company. But she soon realized that she was coming up against many walls.
“My views on big decisions started to diverge, like where to put factories. ‘Let's move over all the manufacturing to China because it’s cheaper.’ I started to find myself going against the flow. Like, why would we do that when we're building these projects in Spain? We've already got the factory. They were shutting the factory down and then shipping everything back.”
The second turning point that made Johannah rethink her career was the energy event for women that she got invited to. Again, she was hesitant at first whether she should attend the meeting at all.
“And then I went and there were 25 women. I had this totally wrong attitude thinking like, ´well, they must be super bored´. But then they're asking all these exceptional questions! They were asking so many questions, like curiously engaged. This was the best conversation I've ever been in.”
Back to the office that afternoon, she had to join a video-conference with 20 men, as usual. “I felt kind of nervous for the first time. Maybe they're thinking like that? Yeah, I just had all these thoughts, it was kind of crumbling.”
“I realized that, after looking back on it, I had also developed unconscious biases towards women because I was in the environment where I was the only woman in every meeting. Even in the meetings with customers. And I had just kind of developed these sorts of judgments.”
But soon Johannah felt like she had hit yet another wall. It was when she began to push for a stronger diversity agenda at her company and received very little support at the time.
The growing mismatch of Johannah pushing hard for the sustainability agenda across many areas eventually led to her role being removed from the organization.
She remembers this time period as being quite tough for her:
“It was quite traumatic, but it was also the best thing that happened because I was kind of set free. Now I'm able to work on the things that I believe will create the impact that we need. So it's been very liberating, but there was a time when I was like, okay, what am I going to do?”
At first, Johannah thought that she would continue her work in the energy sector by joining the next big corporate. “But then I had all these conversations going and I just didn't want to go into more of the same. I was like, well, where's my point, where’s my passion?”
She started going to various events, like Women in Tech, where the magnitude of the problems such as diversity inequality “started to reveal itself to me, even reflecting on my own experience.”
Then one day, it just kind of occurred to her: “I can't find a company that I want to work for. Workplaces that have equality and sustainability and it's a great place to work. So I was like, I can google it, or I can make a platform where people can find that and I can buy it or build one myself.”
“See, right over there,” she gets reminded of her ‘aha’ moment in October last year, pointing to the other side of the room where her desk with a computer is standing. “And I'll never forget how I felt. Like a rush, oh my God.”
“It was just this moment where instead of trying to find what I'm looking for, I was like, create it. Yeah, that was it. Stop looking for something that may not even exist. You might need to be the first one to make it.”
Soon after, Johannah called her good friend, who had been through a similar experience and had also been dealing with a gender inequality situation.
Her friend flew from London the next day to hear more about Johannah’s “crazy idea”. What followed was the ideating phase for several months.
Every single day.
Brainstorming on the idea, Johannah saw the potential of social media where she noticed a large emergence of sustainability-related content. But she knew that her solution needed to be more than just social media; she wanted to build a place where people could connect with each other and advance things.
The idea? “Let's redirect all that potential and make it action-oriented and give it some kind of outcome. So that was where I guess the social platform came about.”
Johannah and her team decided to use the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework for sustainable actions on their platform.
While it “made sense to use a framework that is already there, and amongst the noise, quite visible,” Johannah admits that she sometimes struggles withs ome of the SDGs very fundamentals.
“I often worry about our own image using the SDGs as a frame. But I believe it's because of its visual recognition that people can associate with it. So as a hook, I think it's good. But there needs to be another step beyond that which is more action-oriented. There's a gap between individual actions, even sort of business level, and the hard course of science.”
According to Johannah, there is another problem with the SDGs, namely the fact that in the underdeveloped or emerging countries the SDGs are “trying to replicate the same development that we've been through in the developed world.”
She believes that we cannot continue to use the same amount of resources in the same way: “We're screwed. So there needs to be a different approach. I'm just not sure if the SDGs are really entirely reflecting that.”
Still, she hopes that, building on the SDGs, IMPACTR could provide people with the opportunity “to take another step to actually have some sort of collective impact.”
Despite all the frustration and anxiety there is, especially concerning climate change, Johannah believes that there are a lot of individuals who want to change the course and act.
“Those actions are occurring anyway. Why not just use that potential to create some sort of outcome rather than a passive nothingness?”
In her words, it’s all about making the solutions accessible and specific. Fast access to relevant information to be able to make an impact is the first thing that Johannah thinks is needed.
This is where the social platform infrastructure of IMPACTR comes in.
The second thing is what she refers to as the “impact universe” – a place “where people can engage in more depth with different solutions, and experts can connect with each other and interact.”
“So that there's that whole sort of ecosystem connectivity that we want to foster,” she adds.
In this sense, technology serves only as an enabler of the solution. “IMPACTR is not an app, the app is kind of one part of our overall. The solution is on the community side.”
But how much can we, as individuals, actually do about issues such as climate change?, I ask Johannah, hinting to the understanding that a lot of responsibility also lies in the hands of the governments around the world.
“Yes, they have a role. But what nudges them to act?” she responds.
In her mind, voting can be powerful but also problematic since we cannot vote every single year.
“You cannot get every citizen to change their way, but you can reach tipping points. So I keep using the example of flight reductions in bookings in Sweden. In the first half of this year, it was down a significant percent. That's enough to get a shitload of attention and to change an industry.”
When thinking about any type of transformation in the society, she likes to refer to their advisory board member and professor at the Copenhagen University, Katherine Richardson, and her research.
“So four layers: Citizens, Government, Business, Science & Technology,” Johannah explains. “You're not going to get the transformation if any one of those four pieces is missing.”
So is the role of tech overrated in this sense? “I think hype is good. It is part of the consciousness and positive mindset shift, but it can also be our barrier,” Johannah says.
She believes that the problem is in the financial constraints limiting or even blocking a lot of progress.
Then there is also the perception within organizations that problem-solving takes a long time. “A lot of what is slowing us down is actually our own mental barriers, because when I came back from the One Young World, I learned that you can have an eighteen-year-old solve all of these problems in three days.”
She elaborates further:
“To be blunt here, I think age is a bit of a problem because people have done things in a certain way for a very long time. And kind of deconstructing the way of thinking and reversing it, stepping outside the box, looking at it differently, it's difficult because it also threatens them. What if everything's different? What's my role?”
“Isn't that funny, like also the way we look at the younger age groups and generations in terms of their progression into the world. It's like we have to wait many years until they qualify to play an actual influential role. That's a paradigm we created. That is something we constructed. You go through primary school, high school, you go to university and start out as an analyst … It's kind of this linear progression and people have to wait 30 years until they're in any sort of position to contribute change. That makes no sense. Because there are young people out there who can think differently, create solutions, who are just as big or better leaders as the existing leadership.”
“When people have space to do what they're motivated by, and you can kind of put that together and create one big solution, it's really an unstoppable force,” Johannah adds.
Such thinking resembles well where her company is currently at and where she wants it to be going forward.
The priority for Johannah and her team right now is to grow the community of IMPACTRs. She also hopes that they can soon find investors who would be willing to back up her ambitious plans for the future.
As far as the funding goes, Johannah admits that finding financial support can be quite a challenge for startups like hers:
“There's an acceptance issue, to be perfectly blunt. Like I'm not Danish and I get out there on the stage and people are like, yeah, that's a bit much for me to ask. That's maybe because we are in the Danish context and it's more reserved.”
They were obviously good reasons to start her company in Denmark: the SDGs are visible, there is a very high level of trust in the society, various funding opportunities.
But given her experience seeking investment so far, Johannah remains open to whether she is “going to bring all my eggs in the Danish basket in terms of funding”, or seeking lead investors in places like the UK or USA.
“You know, it's been a year. You can't keep doing this forever without it moving to the next stage, like having the product and having the funding. And so when that really started to kind of hit home, I was looking at the people I'd started the company with initially and whether or not the approach with them was the right setup to get us to this immediate goal, which is finish the proof of concept and the funding.”
This eventually led to changes in the founding team, with two of her original co-founders stepping back.
“That’s been really difficult, just emotionally. It was kind of like weighing a lot of just trying to make it work and how can we organize. So it’s became very tiring because I just wanted it to work so badly,” she thinks back on this challenging situation.
“It's really difficult because you've got these amazing people who want to create something that is really meaningful and it's the right thing. But life happens, you know, they have to get paid work or they're in a full-time job and trying to do it on the side and it's just not effective. And they maybe have views on doing things in a certain way which differs to your own.”
Despite the challenges, Johannah remains optimistic and motivated to continue following her passion and bringing IMPACTR to the next level.
As we are about to close our conversation, she gets reminded of the lady who put up a hand after Johannah’s speech at the C40 event in October, asking Johannah what to do about the harsh circumstances she has found herself in and wanting to get involved in addressing sustainability issues as well.
“Just leave. Yeah, just change it,” was Johannah’s response.
“So I guess my advice is make those changes or try to force something uphill,” she concludes.
Johannah Maher is the CEO and Co-Founder of IMPACTR, a Copenhagen-based global community that aims to accelerate growth and adoption of sustainability. Prior to becoming an impact entrepreneur, Johannah worked in the renewable energy industry as a senior executive at Vestas. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from RMIT University, Australia.
Photo: Markus Spiske on Unsplash