Speaking Human-First with Mary Knox Miller
EP 1.5 Laura Zapata
Making Climate Investment Inclusive and Accessible
Original Air Date
June 22, 2023
Laura Zapata didn’t see anyone who looks, thinks, or talks like her in the renewable energy space, so she put herself there.
Co-founder and CEO of Clearloop, Laura helps small and mid-sized businesses offset their carbon footprint by investing in solar projects in American communities where the greatest economic and environmental benefits can be achieved.
Today Laura is sharing her mission to bring more people into the conversation about climate action, her journey through multiple careers, and how leaning into her unique voice, ideas and lived experience has enabled success.
Listen to the full episode to hear:
How Clearloop tackles the twofold issue of offsetting carbon emissions and bringing clean energy to underserved areas
How Clearloop determines where they build solar projects
Why renewable energy is a social justice and equity issue
How Clearloop gets communities on board and involved in their projects
How Laura’s varied career experiences shape how she builds trust and relationships as a CEO
How Laura crafts communications that meet people where they are to bring them into the conversation about climate action
Learn more about Laura Zapata:
Learn more about Mary Knox Miller:
EP 1.5 Laura Zapata
Co-founder and CEO, Clearloop
Mary Knox Miller:
Hey, it's Mary Knox Miller. Welcome back to Speaking Human-First.
Can I ask you a question? When I say solar panels, what comes to mind? Panels on top of your roof or perhaps office buildings?
Well, Laura Zapata is thinking even bigger and outside the box. Laura's not an environmental scientist or climatologist.
No, she's a former Capitol Hill intern, turned Uber manager, turned political campaign director who said, "You know what? No one who looks or thinks like me is on the forefront of conversations about renewable energy, so I'm going to put myself there."
Laura co-founded and currently serves as CEO of Clearloop, a company that helps small and mid-sized businesses offset their carbon footprint by investing in solar farms in places like Jackson, Tennessee, Panola County, Mississippi, and North Louisiana.
Not only does Laura want to increase access to clean energy, she wants to empower communities who often bear the brunt of fossil fuel emissions to become part of the solution.
The trick, of course, is to appeal to multiple types of investors. Nationwide businesses, local utility companies and governments, and of course, communities where solar farms are installed. Laura is learning that what she says and how she says it is often the difference between success and failure. Let's dive in.
Laura, thank you so much for being here. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about the environmental space that you are in, the passion that you have for improving not only our environment, but also access to clean energy. I am so excited to delve in.
Thank you so much for having me. I'm so thrilled to have this conversation.
Wonderful. All right, so there is a lot of information out there when it comes to climate change. There's also a lot of information about all the options that are out there, all the things that people can do to feel like they are playing a part and playing a role in helping us improve our environment.
You have had a very illustrious career across multiple disciplines. And at the moment, you've landed on co-founding and being the CEO of an organization called Clearloop. If you could, please describe for me how you see the current status of the environment that we are living in right now, and why Clearloop was a solution for you.
Yeah, that's a great question. Okay, so big picture, just kind of taking it from the very bare bones is we have this climate issue and we have too many greenhouse gases that are being emitted. We have different parts of our economy that are driving that activity that are leading to these wild climate patterns that we're seeing.
One of the biggest opportunities we had was two big things that the carbon footprint in the United States is driven by. One is transportation. So when we drive our cars, and trains, and all the things. And then two is electricity. So every time we turn on our lights or do any sort of electrical thing, there is more of these greenhouse gases that are being created. And that is because we make electricity from primarily fossil fuel sources, whether that's coal or natural gas.
So Clearloop, what we are focused on is trying to decarbonize the grid at scale, getting companies that want to tackle their carbon footprint, and focusing their investment in bringing brand new solar projects to life. So the way we do that is basically, we take their carbon footprint, and we use that same equivalent amount of carbon footprint and basically build a solar project that will tackle that same amount. So it's an offset. It's a way for us to bring more clean energy generation online in the parts of the country where it's not happening.
And the impetus for this was really trying to figure out how do we connect the dots between commitments, and action, and really having it come to life in communities where maybe climate action is not the thing that everybody's talking about, but clean energy infrastructure and economic development is really a key part of any community's lifeblood. So for us, it was a venture to say you can make good business by doing good, and that's what Clearloop is trying to stand for.
Fantastic. So I love where you're going because that's where I wanted to go next. Clearloop just isn't a company that simply is helping with carbon offsets and building solar panels wherever it might be, but it goes even further than that. There is this underlying, which you've already just alluded to, but there is this sense of equity in your mind. There's this driver of making sure that everybody can have access.
Because it's wonderful when large corporations build solar panels or green roofs right where they are in their building. But I think I read 65, maybe 70% of a company's offsets have nothing to do with their physical location. It has to do with all the other things involved in that business.
So there's really two questions there. There's really helping us understand why your solution needs to exist in terms of a solution for a company. And two, why you've established and created Clearloop in a way that's very intentionally focused on equity and access to clean energy and underserved communities.
Yes, it's so much to unpack with Clearloop. But on one hand, when we started Clearloop, we looked at the world and said, "Okay, companies have a few choices when it comes to their carbon footprint." They always have the choice and should always, number one priority should be to reduce their emissions, their direct emissions however they can.
What we found though is that most companies, the majority of the companies across the world and in the United States don't have the opportunity to go purchase renewables on their own, because it's an incredibly complicated and sophisticated transaction that happens. There's many companies that have, and that's why you see they have done a really great job of driving and accelerating renewable energy uptake across the country over the past decade.
But if you look at the top companies that can purchase renewables, it is oftentimes the big, sophisticated companies like Meta and Amazon. And it's great, but what happens to the rest of the companies and to their supply chain? They're doing all this other activity, and their carbon footprint, like you said, the majority is in Scope 3, which is their value chain. And so that is very much outside of their direct control.
And so what we said was basically, let's take this Scope 3 idea that there's carbon that's coming out of something and then try to match it up to then building new solar projects that help clean up the grid.
So it's similar in concept to this idea of planting a tree. But instead of planting a tree, you're basically taking that same concept and investing in infrastructure. We need all of it. This is just one of the ways that we thought there's not a lot of opportunities for companies, especially of all sizes, to directly go and help build brand new solar projects and infrastructure in the country, especially when it's at the utility scale that we're trying to build it, where it's really grid integrated. It's accelerating building more solar projects across the country and doing it in a way that's tackling a bigger chunk of the carbon footprint, of more companies in this country.
I would like to talk a little bit more about exactly where you are building these solar panel fields. Because this is not the traditional field, upon fields, upon fields of perhaps solar panels that people have seen in stock video or whatever it might be. You are very intentionally building it in certain communities. How do you decide where to build, and why are you using this type of approach?
So I think maybe based on my own lived experience, there is an understanding of intersectionality, and this is very much at play with how we think about Clearloop. When you look at the country and see where those communities are that are most fossil fuel dependent, you start seeing that they're also layered. Those same communities are oftentimes communities that are under-resourced, or underserved, or have been under invested in for many years.
And so whether it's the demographics that you're looking at, whether it's focused on race or economic index and indicators, you start seeing that the same places where you can get the most carbon out of the grid are also the same places where you can boost... That dollar invested can go further.
And so we're very intentional at looking at three factors. One, sun, obviously. You got to have sun in order to make these projects go. The good news is the United States has lots of it. Two, we're looking at the carbon intensity of the grid. And so we've partnered with the third party called WattTime and a few others where they measure locational marginal emissions. And that's a very fancy way to say that for every megawatt hour of electricity that's generated, there's a carbon footprint associated with it.
And then three, we look at a distressed community index. And really that is to say, where are those places where that dollar invested, where the infrastructure has not been invested in many years, where climate action can actually be an economic development tool and an economic driver.
And so when you take those three variables together, sun, carbon, and socioeconomic factors, you start seeing that certain parts of the country really start popping up. And so we have a map that basically looks at the country, and the middle part of the country, and the southeast where we're sitting today, that those are the places where we really can do the most good.
So you are taking not only the science that we're all trying to tackle, but you are also incorporating in socioeconomic elements?
So Laura, I have to ask, where did this fire in your belly come from to change this narrative or at least shift the narrative of carbon offsets? One from just solely a financial investment, to one of social justice and equity.
Yeah, I think for me, it's very much about what is the impact and what is that we're trying to do? What is the problem we're solving for? And I think sometimes in the conversation, I didn't even see myself reflected in the conversations around climate change or climate action.
There was a stereotypical look and feel to how people talk about the environment in climate action. And so I think for us it was very much about, the problem we're solving for is how do we get more investment in our part of the country when it comes to climate, and how do we make it really accessible for people to feel like they're part of it, that it actually is a solvable problem, that all of us have something to contribute, and that the communities that have been looking for economic development could actually be the ones that could be at the forefront, not just of climate change, but really of climate action.
And so the fire in the belly is really just about, "Let's make this way less complicated," and let's make it really interesting, and like yeah, we can do this. For people just like me that are not coming from a scientific background, we're just coming from a, "Okay, we're going to roll up our sleeves and do something." And that is much more motivational than fancy-schmancy conversations that miss the point of why does it matter to everyday people.
That's just incredible optimism and energy, and you've never created a business before, yet you saw this problem and this wanting everybody to be able to participate and you created this company. And now look at you go. Did you ever think this was going to happen? If you had projected in your mind's eye your future, does this feel something familiar?
I think when anybody creates anything out of nothing, especially entrepreneurs, you got to be so blindly shameless about your beliefs, that something is going to happen, and that that vision and that the people that are investing in you are seeing something that you're seeing in yourself, that I can't allow yourself to think otherwise.
There is lots of energy around Clearloop, and companies are actually signing up. And now what we are having to contend with is how do we keep up with the supply and making sure that we're being really thoughtful about how we scale and really approach communities, and where are we citing these projects? And it's not just an academic map, it's really you then talk to different community members and try to figure out, how does it actually show up in a place? There's a spark, and we're seeing that spark start catching, and we want to keep it going and making it so much bigger. So I think the goal is to still keep growing and envision something even bigger than where we are today.
That's exciting. So exciting and amazing that you lit that spark. You did that, Laura. That's incredible.
I know. It's so crazy. It's so weird. It's so weird, because it's me and a bunch of other very helpful and dedicated people a lot. But it's also just, yesterday we had an opportunity to go to Jackson, Tennessee, which is our first community where we built a solar project, and it became operational last September. And we celebrated that and it took so much time to get that first one off the ground, and we finally did it. It was awesome.
I think we've hit over a million pounds of carbon that it's avoided, which is really exciting. But you can't really see it. But then we had, it's a bunch of kids in a neighborhood in Jackson, Tennessee that are part of this organization that worked with this woman Juanita. And Juanita just takes them on different field trips to see different things. And so we said, "How about we do a field trip at the solar project?"
And it's kids from six year olds, to 15, 17 year olds, and it was so cool to have one of our engineers show how it works. Just even having the opportunity to expose different people, and especially kids, to a solar project.
I don't know what's going to come of it. I don't know who those kids will become, but all I know is that when I was a kid, getting a chance to go to the Civil Rights Museum was meaningful for me as somebody who grew up in Memphis and my parents had never taken me there, school that took me. And I'm hoping that things like that where you expose people to maybe things they'd never seen before or experienced before, will be a lasting memory and impact in some tiny grain of salt way.
Okay. So Laura, fantastic. You're clearly well on your way. I want to shift gears for a little bit and focus in on more of your personal journey of how you've kind of come here, and all the different barriers you have overcome. But before we get there, I want to do a quick lightning round of questions to just shake things off, take a breath, and relax. Sound good?
Okay, great. Laura, who is someone, past or present, and from any discipline, who is inspiring you right now?
Good question. And this may be super cheesy, but I'm very inspired by our interns, and I think that their drive, and enthusiasm, and excitement to just figure things out is really inspiring. And I know people are like, "Oh my God, Gen Z, they're so wild."
But it's actually really interesting to see these young people at work who are dedicating their summers or their semesters to come figure something out with us, and help us, and really bring their ideas, and not be shy about that. I used to be the young person. I'm no longer, and so it's kind of cool to see that there is a whole generation behind that is really engaged and eager to get to work.
That's incredible. All that youthful energy, we wish we all could always have it.
Time marches on, whether we like it or not
Exactly, but it's this energy where it's not just about them. It's a very mature energy, is what it feels like to me, that it's not just the me, me, me situation that happens to all of us as young people. But it's really thinking about how is this affecting other people, and what can I do about it? It's really cool to see.
And that bodes well... I mean, it's a reflection on you, and the company that you've built, and the mission that you have, and the intentionality that you have behind your mission. So kudos to you, because that's what you're attracting. Right?
So for all the things that we're doing, all the time, all the days, building companies, watching what's going on in the world, watching the science and all the things, you can't always be thinking. So what is your go-to activity to relax and not think.
Great question. I need to get creative and do nothing, but it's very hard for me to just sit and do nothing. So I've gone to yoga quite a bit, just because early morning, I'm driving to it. And actually, in the drive there and back, I feel like I get more of my thinking and creativity than I do maybe doing The Exorcist, because it's still tough to do all those movements. But I think that has allowed me, and it's the realization that I need that space and time and making it an intentional space and time early in the morning, is really important to me.
Yeah, absolutely. It's like the idea of getting your best ideas in the shower. It's like you're already doing an activity, a rote activity physically, that your mind can just kind of relax and wander. Ms. Laura, what do you wish someone had told you before you became a public figure?
Well, I'm not sure if I'm a public figure quite yet, but I'm out there. I think taking care of where's the separation between what I'm trying to accomplish and who I am. I feel like I want to throw myself at whatever problem, just go try to fix it. And sometimes, it's good to just be able to take a step back and not feel bad about turning off your computer and not doing work, that the success of a company, of a thing, or an enterprise is not going to be based on whether or not you push yourself those extra 30 minutes or that extra weekend.
Yeah, absolutely. It's very blurry. Where do we begin and end, versus our business, versus our ideas, versus our public persona? So let's keep going on that thread because there's so much to unpack.
So you are a Latina immigrant from Colombia. You immigrated when you were 10 years old. You are now a CEO of a company on the forefront of what many consider to be one of the most pressing challenges that our world is facing.
On this road to recognition and on this road to finding your voice, what has that been like? Has there been any wonderful, delightful surprises? Are there any landmines that you wish you had known before stepping into the spotlight? Talk to me about the journey.
Yeah, the journey has been very interesting. Because if you look at just my resume, I've sort of bopped around to a bunch of different places, and I packed a lot in.
I think what I'm learning now is to appreciate those moments and that journey a little bit more. It was all the of those lived experiences that have helped me shape my worldview, and see how I am approaching Clearloop, how I think about whether it's our interns or the people we're hiring, how I would've wanted somebody to treat me.
So even in the very intense, stressful moments, taking a step back and trying to be true and authentic to who I very early thought this should look like, and who I should be, how I should show up as a CEO. And somebody building something from scratch, that's helped me kind of think about how do you build trust? How do you build relationships that are long-lasting? How do you show up authentically, and how you don't just buy your own hype? Because when things get tough, you need to make sure that the person who you thought you were continues to be true, even when things seem a little unsteady.
I love that. And speaking of authenticity, being true to your message, embodying your message, one of I feel like the most powerful tools is communication.
Communication has been a through line in your career in all the different positions that you have had. And now that you are trying to communicate out on behalf of a company, but also you as a person invested in improving the environment, there's no clear cut formula, right? Because every idea and everybody who shares them is different. So how has your craft of communication and the way that you speak and show up changed over the years to be more effective?
Being pithy and having clarity of message in what you're trying to accomplish is the hardest thing, but that is the most effective thing you can do. Really distilling a big idea into its parts and understanding where your audience is coming from is incredibly important.
Early on when we were starting with Clearloop, it was all about how do we make it really easy for people to get excited about, help build more solar projects because we can tackle our carbon footprint. What is the pithy way to say that, but then not have to go into this long explanation about the challenges of doing more renewables, or the challenges of working with companies of all sizes?
So I think for me, communications has been about how do we make it really easy to explain to anybody whatever you're doing, so that they're like, "Okay, I can get behind that."
So whether it's in campaigns, or in the corporate world, or in government, for me it's been really about if I showed up anywhere and explained what it is that we're trying to accomplish, are people going to be at least curious enough to want to find out more? And I think that's the hard thing, because it's sort of meeting people where they are, and sometimes people are coming from very different perspectives.
We're talking about climate and we're talking about building solar projects in parts of the country where maybe, climate change is not the topic of conversation. It's not the thing that's on top of everybody's mind.
And I think if we were honest as a society, it's probably not top of mind for most of us. I think it's about, how do you make things really relatable to people? How do you make it so that it sticks and people are more serious? You want to kind of dig in a little bit more and don't make it so complicated.
But also, how you deliver it. Who is delivering that particular message is also really important. How people come across that information is also really important, and I think that that's what we're seeing right now is, how do you build trust? Who's the messenger, and who's the best, most effective person, or tool delivering that message?
And sometimes is it not you?
And sometimes it's not me. I've learned that sometimes it's not me. I don't have to be out front, and I think it's important. As anybody who started something, it's been important to say Clearloop is not just the Laura show. Clearloop is a much bigger enterprise, and idea, and vision that has lots of other people behind it. Silicon Ranch has been incredibly instrumental in ensuring that Clearloop, this idea, this vision really came to life.
And so I think it's more about how do you make it so that people are buying into the idea and not just buying into you as an individual, because it's not about you, the individual. It's not a personality contest or a popularity contest. It's really about how do you drive an idea in its many different forms and deliver it appropriately to all the various audiences, whether it's consumers, or corporates, or communities. And that messenger may look different, and it's not always me.
Helping people feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves. That it's not just an exchange of commerce or money, but it's also in support of a mission bigger than them. Have you found that there are any levers that have had the greatest impact in helping your ideas scale deep? Everybody is comfortable in different mediums, whether that's video, or photo, or writing, or whatever it might be. Based off of who you are and how you show up in the world, what levers have been most effective for you?
I think any opportunity I have to talk about Clearloop and where it's mostly video led or talking to people in person, actually, I think much more effective than necessarily writing or putting out a graphic. So I think that the storytelling of why, and how, and how cool, it is much more impactful.
Going beyond the facts and the figures and into the story?
Woo. Good stuff. Good stuff, Laura. Okay, last question, and it's your turn, in case there's anything that I have not covered or anything else that you want to add.
There's a key theme throughout this podcast series. Yes, we're talking about communication levers, tools and tactics, and figuring out ways that we can show up best in the world. But there's also something greater, which is trying to serve a purpose greater than ourselves.
If you're willing, and given your expertise in life experience, how would you answer this question? Why is it so difficult for human beings to see each other as equals?
Man, that's a great question. Mary Knox, my goodness. I think there is quite a bit of skepticism that the person that is showing up in front of me sometimes or in my screen is not who I assume them to be, and I think I have this saying that people are people. And I think it's just about how do you unmask instead of dig in a little bit more, and try to see that the other person is just as much of a person as you? That they may have different things that have informed how their opinion came out about that is different from you. Chiseling away at that is all based on trust.
I think it's the hard work that we have to do now that has been a lot harder now, because we' all have our digital shields up and have our little corners of the world that we all hang out with. Being conditioned to hear exactly what we think, and how we should be thinking, and how we should be opining on things.
If I have a certain political party, then I must think this way, and it must mean that I experience life this way. As opposed to thinking about, there are lots of issues and things in this world, and there are definitely things that we can all agree on. Even if it's just the taste of certain foods, or those bad smells that we don't like. Just very basic things that we can all start putting down the shields, but it's very easy to have these very fortified, we fortified the shields with all of our different digital tools and ways that we can present ourselves to the world, and how we're listening to ideas, and who we're listening to, and what we're supposed to think.
The people conversation, the way that we've tried to approach Clearloop is trying to figure out, how do we have a conversation that is really about the stuff that is meaningful to the people that we're talking to? And I think when we're talking to different communities, the things that are more important to them is just making sure that people continue to live, and work, and enjoy their little piece of the world, and that it's a thriving place where people want to grow up.
And when we're talking to corporates, it's that they've made these very fancy, big commitments, and that there's a way for them to do it, and that there's a way for them to actually reach that goal. And that there's something in common between those two, what feel like different worlds, these corporate folks, and different communities, and how we can bring them together and say there's actually a connection, and there's a way for it to be mutually beneficial without just being a transaction.
Absolutely beautiful, Laura. Here is to all of us trying to put down that digital shield and that fortified shield, in hopes of connecting as human beings with one another, because great things can come from that.
Laura, it has been an absolute joy to speak with you. Is there anything that you would like to add or anything else you would like to say that I have not asked?
Yeah. Well, I appreciate this conversation. I always like to be able to have these things where we get to pause and actually talk about what's happened, what's transpired. Because in the day-to-day motion of life, you don't really get to think about, "Yes, we did do that. That has been a long time coming. "
The one thing that for me has been true that I want to make sure that people listening or where to give their little piece to the world is that this was not designed, that I did not have this trajectory that clearly led me this way, and that there's still many things for me to learn. Like I said, this is very early.
So I think we all have a lot to contribute, particularly around these big, massive issues facing our world like climate change. And so whatever that lived experience is that you have, that perspective is actually incredibly helpful. And if we had had all the right people in the room already, we would've figured this out and solved it, but we clearly have not had all the right people in the room. There's quite a bit of excitement that people should have about what their contribution can be and how they may be able, whether it's climate related or otherwise, that we all have something to contribute.
Yes, everybody has a perspective and a voice that needs to be heard. I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to yours, Laura. Thank you again so much for this time, for your message, for all the work that you are doing, and all the intention that you put behind everything that you're doing.
Thank you so much, Mary Knox. I'm so happy that you've provided the space, and I hope we get to catch up again in a year from now. And maybe it will be different.
Oh yeah. We're going to just keep breaking all those ceilings, breaking all those doors open. It's going to be amazing.
All right. You heard her. Your voice, your ideas, and your lived experience could be the key to solving intractable problems. So speak up, get into more rooms, and take a seat at the table. And when you step into conversation, as Laura said, speak in clear, easy to understand words that pique curiosity. Help people see how they can be part of the solution. Yes, you'll need to adjust your message depending on who you're talking to, but you already have everything you need to contribute in a meaningful way. Like I always say, all you got to do is show up as a human being. Simple, but not so easy. But we've got this, right? Thanks for listening.
Speaking Human-First is a production of Thought Leader Media, a visual communications agency helping socially impact driven leaders better connect with their audience. It's produced by the amazing team at Yellow House Media and is recorded on the ancestral lands of the Nipmuc Nation. Many indigenous peoples continue to thrive in this place, alive and strong.