Black History Month Profiles in Clean Energy Entrepreneurship: Kerry Bowie

This article originally appeared on the BU Institute for Sustainability website in February 2021.

To celebrate Black History Month, we’re recognizing visionary entrepreneurs of color who are harnessing the clean energy transition to lead social change. We’re fortunate to personally know Kerry Bowie, Founder, President, and Executive Director of the Msaada Partners’ jointly led Majira Project (for post-accelerator companies supporting underserved communities) and Browning the Green Space (to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in clean energy).

Q&A with Kerry Bowie

The leadership of Msaada Partners, where you’re Managing Partner, reflects an interdisciplinary approach to facilitating social change, drawing on backgrounds in STEM, entrepreneurship, and community development. It’s safe to say you’re a triple threat with an MBA, degrees in environmental engineering, and your community development initiatives. How has your fluency across disciplines better enabled you to facilitate change for communities of color?

Bowie: I have always been a connector, and most of that stems from being able to speak multiple languages. And not spoken languages like English, Spanish, or French, as I unfortunately only speak English well. However, I am as comfortable speaking with bankers, lawyers, and PhDs as I am with elected officials, clergy, and community activists. I think that speaking these multiple languages assists with relationship building through familiarity and empathy. It is easier for people to connect with me when we have some shared experiences, and it is easier for me to understand where they are coming from when there are differences of opinion. I believe that it is much easier for me to place myself in the shoes of others given my varied background and experiences.

In working with underserved populations in the Boston area and Massachusetts’ gateway cities, what are typically the biggest barriers to entrepreneurship and innovation that you see—and what’s your best advice for overcoming these hurdles?

Bowie: What we have heard from the entrepreneurs of color and women that we have worked with over the past four or five years is that entrepreneurs of color need:

  1. technical assistance that fits;
  2. access to capital; and
  3. space to collaborate and convene, especially in Roxbury, Dorchester, and/or Mattapan.

We are attempting to overcome these hurdles by providing consulting, coaching, connections, and access to capital. The space during the pandemic has shifted to more of a virtual community; however, connections to like-minded people are so very important whether they are coaches, mentors, peers, champions, sponsors, or investors. We are facilitating those connections and building that community here in Massachusetts and beyond.

You founded Browning the Green Space (BGS) in late 2019 to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in clean energy. Of course, this was shortly before COVID-19 changed the world as we know it, and communities of color were once again disproportionately affected, much like with climate change. Has this moment in history created an opportunity for BGS that didn’t previously exist?

Bowie: The problems existing were already there, but they indeed were exacerbated by the pandemic as the most vulnerable communities are typically the hardest hit during crises. COVID-19 is no different as we saw how Black and Brown communities had higher infection rates and higher mortality than other groups. Not only the pandemic but also the onslaught of racial injustice marked by cases like those of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Walter Wallace, and too many others to name here have accelerated the work that we were doing and caused many to lean in even more in recognition of how widespread and injust the disparities in our country really are. The guilt felt by many is changing to action, which is a good thing. A lot more people are “woke” now, as the young people say! Or at least they are waking up to the realities that many of us have been far too well accustomed to for many years.

Can you talk about the 5 Cs—careers, companies, capital, contracts, and communities—for moving the needle on equity?

Bowie: Browning the Green Space (BGS) was born from the realization that people of color often receive more than their fair share of “environmental bads” like brownfields, pollution, and asthma while they receive less than their fair share of “environmental goods” like cleantech jobs in energy efficiency, renewable energy, water, wasted food, and urban farming. The BGS Initiative operates at the intersection of environmental justice, economic justice, and social justice. Browning the Green Space is a voluntary coalition of leaders and organizations, primarily in the New England region, that share the passion to advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (“DEI”) in clean energy. Our goal is to increase the participation and leadership of Black and Brown people and of women (collectively, “underrepresented groups”) in the clean energy space and beyond (e.g., wasted food, water, agtech) in the Northeast. Our work falls into five connected but distinct focus areas:

  • CAREERS: Pathways to employment. Creating opportunities through networks and training for people of color and women. Mapping educational pathways from junior high school through community college, trade schools, four-year institutions, or other programs. Showcasing role models and providing access to internships and apprenticeships.
  • COMPANIES: Removing barriers to employment. Supporting Broad DEI Initiatives including hiring practices, tool kits, recognition, etc.
  • CAPITAL: Funding and supporting founders of color and women through accelerators, incubators, angel/VC funding, etc.
  • CONTRACTS: Enhancing opportunities for underrepresented groups as clean energy contractors. Providing technical assistance, support, and assisting with insurance, bonding, etc.
  • COMMUNITIES: Bringing low-cost clean energy solutions to disadvantaged communities. Our vulnerable communities need these technologies more than ever, but it is often only available to the rich, white, green, and vain. There are unfortunately disincentives and policies that make it difficult for low-to-moderate-income residents to obtain technology. For example, there are tenant-owner issues for those who do not own their homes, and for homeowners that are living check to check, rebate programs are unrealistic. We are working to make sure that we can shed some light on some of these oversights and unintended consequences of policies and regulations.
How about a shout-out to the clean energy entrepreneurs and companies who you’ve worked with through the Majira Project that are deserving of some recognition—who should we be watching?

Bowie: This list includes clean energy companies and beyond (e.g., wasted food, water, agtech, transportation, advanced manufacturing) both here in the Northeast and beyond:

  • CERO: Helps large producers divert food waste responsibly and easily by collecting inedible food waste and composting it to make rich new soil. (Boston)
  • CrimsonBikes: Operates a bike shop in Cambridge, MA, that offers the highest quality bikes and services to the Boston area for a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere. (Boston)
  • Food for All: App that allows people to buy food that restaurants would not sell by the end of the day and would otherwise be wasted at prices of 50 to 80% off. (Boston)
  • Spoiler Alert: Helps the world’s largest food businesses manage unsold inventory through its software that tracks and analyzes their products and provides a marketplace that facilitates food donations, discounted sales, and organic waste recovery opportunities. (Boston)
  • 1854 Cycling: Advance manufactured electric bicycles (Boston)
  • Agtools: Commodity pricing and data analytics tools for farmers (Orange County, CA)
  • BlocPower: Energy efficiency for multi-family homes (NYC)
  • Diaspora AI : Water banking software and technology (Virginia Beach)
  • Eden GeoTech: Geothermal technology company for oil and gas space (Boston)
  • GenOne: Design and manufacturing consulting firm and prototyping (Boston)
  • Gildform: On-demand jewelry design and 3D manufacturing (Detroit)
  • Kiverdi: Carbon sequestration and materials hybrid company (San Francisco)
  • Lab141: Fashion tech/advanced manufacturing (NYC)
  • Marauder Robotics: Underwater drones for ocean restoration (Atlanta)
  • Passenger, food, and freight delivery via motorcycles (Lagos)
  • Optimal Tech: Facilities management platform with renewable energy backbone (Atlanta)
  • Varuna: Water distribution system monitoring (Chicago)