Cool Planet’s Vicky Brown on her career in social impact

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Vicky Brown has been working to address social issues for most of her career. Her current job as CEO of Cool Planet Experience is to engage young people with conversations around the climate crisis.

Here, she discusses the balance between being a team leader and an agent of change for sustainability, and how her company has reacted to the challenges posed by Covid-19.

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‘We want to bring hope, not fear, into the climate conversation’
– VICKY BROWN

Did you always want to work in this industry?

I have worked on social issues for most of my career. My interest was sparked when I lived in New York, where I was working in advertising. We developed a campaign for March of Dimes, a not-for-profit, with Salma Hayek and it was the first time that I felt really passionate about the message we were trying to deliver.

After moving back to Ireland, I was a bit lost in terms of my career and where I could go next. A pivotal conversation with the late Niamh Cleary, former CEO of JC Decaux, led me to social impact where I’ve worked on a variety of areas, from children’s rights to youth mental health and now climate change.

I am really interested in how climate breakdown, economic insecurity and political extremism are interlinked and the opportunity we have to ‘recreate’ a better, more harmonious future with the planet.

You’ve had a really varied career path. Do you think this has impacted your work positively?

Yes, I have. But honestly, I was never someone who had a five-year plan of where I wanted to get to. I believe I have been fortunate in that I have worked with some great and influential people all the way through my career.

And when I say influential, I mean to me; people who have acted like mentors to me. What I find interesting is that it’s people skills that are nearly the most important aspect of a role. The technical stuff can be learned or acquired, but being able to work with others, lead a team, negotiate and find solutions – that’s golden.

What’s your favourite part of your current role?

I love when we have a new big idea or challenge and we have to figure out how to make it happen. I know that may sound a bit odd, but I love getting my head into the problem, looking at and understanding all the different angles, testing our hypothesis and adapting and refining our plan.

I don’t think I do well if each day starts to feel the same. An example of this was about a month after we closed in March due to Covid-19. The big question was, ‘what can we do?’. This led us and, frankly, everyone into the online space. However, we did not want to jump in and offer something just to have a presence. We spent the time researching and reviewing what was on offer for young people in the climate space.

This has led us to creating Rewrite Climate, a programme that we have just launched to Transition-Year students for this third term, with a more expansive version that will be ready for September 2021.

I am immensely proud of this. It’s fresh, beautiful and the response both from students and teachers has surpassed our expectations. We want to bring hope, not fear, into the climate conversation, and enable young people to have a role and feel empowered to be part of the thinking and solutions that are required.

What’s the most important part of your job, do you think?

The ability to be empathetic and lead at the same time. I try to be mindful of my team; of what is going on in their lives outside of the day to day. I am fortunate in that we’re a small team, so it’s possible to have that personal relationship within the work context. However, as we grow, maintaining that culture will be a challenge.

Has the pandemic impacted your role?

In January 2020, the plan for Cool Planet Experience was big. We were to develop a Cool Planet with Eden in Cornwall. We had significant corporate and school bookings and, more importantly, a strong, committed team to deliver on our business plan.

By March, all those plans were shelved. However, it gave us the opportunity to evaluate our strategy and to review our purpose and how we wanted to achieve it. I don’t think we would have had that time without the pandemic.

As a result, while our purpose remains the same, how we will achieve it is different and fundamentally better. Because of our new programme Rewrite Climate, we will be able to reach more people with our message and story in a very creative and engaging way.

For me, this is a first venture into the edtech space, which is hugely crowded. I have had to learn about this whole space, researching different learning management systems, content providers, funding and more. It has been a good learning curve that is most definitely not over yet. Luckily, we have good supporters who have invested in us and a wider group of like-minded organisations that have made this all possible.

And in our offline world, our priority – when it makes sense from a commercial perspective – will be to get support to reopen the Cool Planet Experience at Powerscourt. After the past 12 months, I believe that people will want to come back to Cool Planet again.

What’s the biggest challenge you’re currently facing in promoting sustainable living?

I think the sustainable industry has come a long way in a short time in terms of offering options for individuals. But we need to do more and better. We can’t offer sub-standard sustainable options; they need to be as good as what we are used to or, ideally, better.

For example, electric cars have been around for quite a long time, but what was on offer was sub-standard and thus take-up was low.

Now, with the advent of better options in this space, excluding price, they are often better in terms of performance, maintenance and even style.

Food is another example. Vegetarian options used to be awful, did you ever try a veggie burger from Tesco? Now the options have massively improved, making the switch to a plant-based diet easier.

Do you think companies should be taking more action towards sustainability?

For sure, although there is so much greenwashing in this space companies need to tread carefully. As a consumer, you do need to do your own due diligence and check to see if the company that says it’s ‘green’ really is.

I think the reporting of what is considered ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ needs to be more standardised, so that those who do greenwash cannot get away with it. There are plenty of companies out there trying to shout their green credentials, and it’s really annoying.

There are so many companies and governments signing up to pledges that are so far in the future, it feels almost meaningless. It’s now in vogue to have your ‘net-zero 2050 pledge’, but with a limited pathway to get there.

Technology is the key inflection point that is going to change this dynamic. Those companies will continue to innovate and move us in the right direction.

Personally, I would empathise more with a company that is honest with their trajectory and explains that while they aren’t getting it all right, they are moving in the right direction and have clear, measurable milestones on how they will get there.

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