The international conference SHEleader@digital 2022 outlined the models that would allow businesses and society to co-build a more sustainable future.
Crossdisciplinary efforts, development of the leadership potential, recycling in a broader sense, revealing the innovation potential through cultural initiatives, launching investment funds with an impact focus, and implementing an ESG framework—these are some of the sustainability-oriented actions outlined by the participants of the SHEleader@digital conference on the 6th of October in Sofia, Bulgaria. Under the slogan, SHE Empowers Sustainability, the Bulgarian Center for Women in Technology (BCWT), and the think-tank MOVE.BG gathered experts and leaders from various sectors to exchange visions and practises for greening.
Sustainability, green innovation, and inclusivity are no longer isolated and abstract concepts. They penetrate every level of future-proof organisations, and many studies show that women are the main drivers of these processes. “Women, I believe, will play a critical role in moving the green agenda forward in business, politics and culture. It is the female to unite, but also to work for impact-driven and environmentally friendly solutions,” said Sasha Bezuhanova, co-founder of BCWT and initiator of SHEleader@digital 2022.
LEADERS OF THE TRANSITION
Recent research suggests that female leadership is among the prerequisites for faster achievement of climate goals and carbon neutrality. Moreover, according to a study by the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, companies with more women sitting on their boards are more likely to invest in renewable power, low-carbon products, and energy efficiency. Thus, female leadership strengthens businesses, attracts the best talent (50% of Gen Zs want to work for ethical companies), and increases profitability by up to 18%.
This knowledge requires a more in-depth examination and development of the leadership potential of women. During the SHEleader@digital 2022 conference, Elina Zheleva, Director of the innovation agency LaunchLabs Sofia, conducted a short survey of the leadership types in the room and explained their role in the green transition. SHEexpert’s superpower is to define problems, SHEachiever is good at fixing things now, and SHEcatalyst has the long-term vision and the ability to help other leaders grow and achieve it.
To better understand their strengths and unlock their true leadership potential, BCWT and LaunchLabs Sofia invite conference participants and their communities to engage in a series of workshops over the coming months. This way, the partners hope to help more female leaders walk the sustainability walk and accelerate the implementation of the presented models.
STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Building a strategy based on solid values
Understanding the importance of the value of “sustainable development” in every sphere of business, social, and cultural life is the first step towards effective mindset greening. Natural disasters caused by man, disruption of ecosystems, and climate change already cost more than 300 billion dollars a year. Instead of going into development or education, these funds are being spent on the mitigation of destruction, Sasha Bezuhanova points out in her opening speech. “It is critically important now to shift our perspective and realise that the investment in sustainability is not an expense, but an investment in the future of humanity.” With this appeal, the initiator of SHEleader@digital opened the floor for a discussion.
Greening corporations and their clients’ operations
Climate change could cost the global economy 23 trillion dollars by 2050, and bad corporate practices are responsible for a significant part of the losses. Corporate giants from several sectors—IT, resource management, and telecommunication—shared their insights and concrete practices at SHEleader@digital 2022. Kim Andreoli-Pashe, Senior Director of Virtual Sales at Cisco, talked about their corporate programme that allows clients to return their old devices for recycling at no cost. The telecommunication company Yettel relies on similar practices and even has an active campaign in Bulgaria for clients who want to return their old smartphones, shared Galina Parmenter, ESG Senior Adviser. Maria Kosanova, Country Manager at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, pointed out the vital role of small everyday activities that empower employees to be part of the change. Some exciting examples came from the resource management company Veolia as well. According to Mariana Iteva, Deputy Country Director at Veolia Bulgaria, autonomy and renewable energy sources are the main focus of the company’s strategy. For instance, the wastewater treatment plant in Sofia is 85% energy self-sufficient. Veolia recycles e-vehicles and batteries so that rare metals are reused, and also helps municipalities and governments apply the circular economy principles. All panellists agreed that green transition is a process which includes the transformation of the own operations, the conscious choice of vendors, and the engagement of customers in green practices.
Panel discussion “Green Transformed Businesses: Corporate Practices for Greening,” from right to the left: Elina Zheleva, Director of LaunchLabs Sofia and moderator of the panel, Galina Parmenter, ESG Senior Adviser, Mariana Iteva, Deputy Country Director at Veolia Bulgaria, and Maria Kosanova, Country Manager at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
Supporting green startups as a means of catalysing sustainable models
Through being fast and agile, startups play a vital role in helping bigger and slower-paced corporate and governmental structures in their digital and green transformation. Thus, startups catalyse innovation. That is the thesis Gergana Stanceva, co-founder of biodegradable laminating foil startup LAM’ON, Kremena Dervenkova, Executive Director of the Association of the Bulgarian Leaders and Entrepreneurs (ABLE), and Husein Yemendzhiev, co-founder of water monitoring startup ENOVA H2O, share. The concept of sustainability and impact is increasingly often part of the business ideas Derveknova sees at the ABLE accelerator. However, a clear definition of green startups and businesses is required because this is the only way to put in place the necessary support mechanisms and structures, explained Yemendzhiev. According to Gergana Stancheva, there are many places a first-time founder could gather knowledge and mentorship, but there s a gap when it comes to funding. She identified a need for a new seed-stage funding vehicle that finances companies between the initial prototype and the scaling phase.
Panel discussion “Green Born Businesses: Innovative Green Businesses,” from right to the left: Irina Obushtarova, co-founder of The Recursive and moderator of the panel, Kremena Dervenkova, Executive Director of ABLE, Husein Yemendzhiev, co-founder of ENOVA H2O, Gergana Stanceva, co-founder of biodegradable laminating foil startup LAM’ON.
Reaching a broader audience through cultural innovation
“As a society our greatest challenge today is to learn to speak to each other again. Art, being a platform for discussion and a conversation starter, has an important role in overcoming our enclosed bubbles. The biggest challenge in terms of sustainability is to enlarge the circle so we can scale up our efforts,” explained Margarita Dorovska, Director at the Humorhouse Gabrovo. A gaming festival dedicated to green causes is just an example of how popular culture could play a role in greening the mindset of new comunities, shared Claudia Jeriko, COO of the newly designated Culture & Creativity division of the European Institute for Innovation and Technology EIT. Moreover, according to her, culture and creative industries are important economic factors as they employ more people than the automotive industry and this is a hidden innovation potential. The Creative Director of the artists’ platform Evedo Anton Aladzhov pinpointed the NFT model as a means for opening the door for more artists, but also new investors and, not least, audiences. According to him, this democratisation of art bears the potential for a big mindset shift. He also explained that blockchain technology, the basis for NFT, has been upgraded and cut its electricity consumption by 99%, so it’s bad image as a huge energy consumer is already in the past.
Panel discussion “Inspired by Nature: Sustainability in the Arts and the Creative Industries,” from right to the left: Ralitsa Gerasimova, director of ReBonkers, chair of the Talayana Foundation and moderator of the panel, Margarita Dorovska, Director at the Humorhouse Gabrovo, Anton Aladzhov, creative director of Evedo, Claudia Jeriko, COO of Culture & Creativity division of EIT.
Creating technologies in harmony with nature
Nature has its own recovery mechanisms, and the best we can do is to strengthen them. This is the principle of the so-called nature-based solutions and technologies. Diana Dimitrova, Conservation Director at WWF Bulgaria, and Sergey Petrov, founder of the beekeeping startup Pollenity, gave examples of such in an honest conversation about the natural order and the balance-destroying practices of many companies. One of the projects of the environmental organisation in Bulgaria is the design and creation of a forest along the Maritsa River. The forest was developed carefully after a thorough study of the species typical for the area, and aimed at fostering biodiversity. WWF’s working principle is very different from the mechanical planting of trees, which is one of the standard CSR practices of many companies. Pollenity’s technologies help beekeepers to better understand and care for their bees. The company also tries to create and support communities through its hive adoption initiative.
1:1 fireside chat “Harmonized with Nature,” from right to the left: Diana Dimitrova, Conservation Director at WWF Bulgaria, Sergey Petrov, founder of Pollenity.
Investing in sustainability as a way to save
The term “ESG” is enjoying increasing popularity in business circles. The environmental, social, and corporate governance framework is a long journey that modern business has to take, and requires stamina and dedication. Lubomila Jordanova, the founder of the ESG monitoring startup PlanA, urged business leaders to start seeing investment in sustainability not as an expense, but as a way to save. According to her, following the right parameters related to reducing the carbon footprint lowers many costs associated with inefficient management of resources. A 2019 study shows that only 10% of Bulgarian companies monitor such parameters, and 1% use a technological solution. For Bulgarian businesses, ESG is a complex and abstract concept that requires additional effort and expense, shares her observation Radoslava Maslarska, Chair of the Board of Directors of Elana Trading. One solution from her point of view is more assertive and understandable communication. Georgi Kudrev, Executive Director of Imagga Technologies and Kelvin Health, gave an example of the optimisation of resources and discipline in the operations that came with adopting an ESG monitoring mechanism. Gergana Papadopoulou, Executive Director of Financial Market Services at the Bulgarian Stock Exchange (BSE), shared information about Oxygen, a solution introduced by the BSE. Through the Oxygen platform, all Bulgarian companies can assess the impact of their business on the environment by entering data and processing it quickly in a few easy steps. The platform would facilitate companies’ access to external capital as more and more investors are considering compliance with ESG indicators in their investment decisions.
Panel discussion “Return on Sustainability: Investment Impact of ESG Tracking and Reporting,” from right to the left: Chief Assist. Prof. Marina Stefanova, head of Sofia University master’s program “Responsible and Sustainable Governance” and moderator of the panel, Georgi Kudrev, Executive Director of Imagga Technologies and Kelvin Health, Gergana Papadopoulou, Executive Director of Financial Market Services at the Bulgarian Stock Exchange (BSE), and Radoslava Maslarska, chair of the Board of Directors of Elana Trading.
Facilitating access to green-stamped funding
The ESG framework is already an integral part of financial institutions’ evaluation toolkit. Thanks to that, no company can go away without taking actions to comply, stated Desislava Simeonova, Sustainable Finance Program Leader and Executive Director of SME Banking at United Bulgarian Bank (UBB). To support the greening of its clients, the bank has established a team that helps them apply green practices. To be able to finance innovative companies that are usually seen as riskier and non-bankable, UBB is taking advantage of different European guarantees. The general trend to invest in sustainability ventures may facilitate access to financing for more women-led companies. Research shows that female-led businesses are more likely to lower their carbon footprint faster. At the same time, female entrepreneurs and business leaders receive less funding, e.g. 1% of the global venture capital funding. A positive development in this direction is the new obligation for EU-co-funded investment vehicles to have their own ESG policies, shared Zlatolina Mukova, the Managing Partner at New Vision 3. In the case of her VC fund, this led to 25% green companies in the portfolio. According to Mukova, there are many exciting solutions in the green space—circular economy, energy efficiency, and air pollution monitoring, but traditionally funds are judging based on standard business principles. For her, the establishment of a dedicated fund, where impact is part of the evaluation matrix, is what may really move the needle.
Panel discussion “Green Stamped Funding: Sustainability Factors for Funding,” from right to the left: Raya Yunkova, VC investor at LAUNCHub Ventures and moderator of the panel, Desislava Simeonova, Sustainable Finance Program Leader and Executive Director of SME Banking at United Bulgarian Bank (UBB), and Zlatolina Mukova, the Managing Partner of New Vision 3.
A common mission beyond sectors and titles
Despite being topically different, all the discussions and speeches during SHEleader@digital were based on the mutual understanding that it is crucial to look beyond one’s own bubble and that only joined efforts could lead business and society through the turbulent times of climate change and green transition. In this sense, it was not a coincidence that the conference combined the intellectual stimuli with installations created by contemporary Bulgarian artists, such as Albena Baeva’s short movie The Quest, Elena Dimova’s CyberBulka, and an installation by the 100 Chairs crew.
SHEleader@digital 2022 took place under the patronage of Maria Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, and with the support of the Bulgarian Small and Medium Enterprises Promotion Agency (BSMEPA), Schwarz It, MasterCard, United Bulgarian Bank (OBB), HPE operated by Selectium, Bulgarian Stock Exchange, Cisco, Evedo, SuperHosting.
In this spirit of inclusivity and continuity, the organisers announced an upcoming initiative aimed at growing the next sustainability leaders, and the next date for SHEleader@digital. The forum dedicated to co-building a better tomorrow will take place on the 5th of October, 2023.