In the two years since The Collider burst onto the Asheville scene to incubate the city’s nascent climate-related business sector, events in its sleek modern space overlooking Pritchard Park have ranged from an appearance by Chelsea Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign to movie nights to wonky scientific presentations.
The Collider’s biggest splash yet is just on the horizon. ClimateCon, North Carolina’s first conference dedicated to the business of climate, could convince one or more of the 150 expected attendees to locate their businesses in Asheville, joining over 70 climate-related companies that already call the area home, according to Collider Executive Director Megan Robinson.
But the 10-day program — which runs March 16-25 — will do more than just attract new businesses: It will bolster Asheville’s growing reputation as a center for the climate industry, Robinson predicts. That’s a role the city is well-situated to play. Since the National Weather Record Center moved here from New Orleans in the 1950s, she says, Asheville has been an important National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration location. Today, the city holds the largest repository of weather and climate data in the world.
Faith in the future
John Frey will arrive at ClimateCon fresh from an appearance at this year’s SXSW tech conference in Austin, Texas. While Frey, senior technologist and sustainability strategist for Hewlett-Packard, hasn’t been to Asheville before, he’s already got plenty in common with the town. An avid homebrewer, he says he’s looking forward to the event kickoff — Cheers to Climate City — on Friday, March 16, at Highland Brewing Co.
The polymathic Frey is also an ordained minister. His connection to Western North Carolina sprang from his friendship with Scott Hardin-Nieri of the local nonprofit Creation Care Alliance, which focuses on faith-based approaches to environmental activism, Robinson explains. While in town, Frey will be participating in a breakfast discussion with faith leaders at the First Baptist Church at 5 Oak St.
A well-traveled speaker, Frey briefed the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations on sustainability. In 2009, he addressed both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
At his keynote address on Monday, March 19, at The Orange Peel, Frey says he’ll focus on the value of collaboration in solving the big challenges posed by climate change.
“What I’ve heard of Asheville and the area is there’s a great diversity of passionate people with a whole lot of background in a very small area,” he says. “I really think we’re going to make some breakthroughs. I hope that some folks will be catalysts, and we’ll have exponential opportunities coming out of what happens at the event itself.”
Frey’s talk is part of the main event, The Business of Climate Forum, which runs March 19-21 and is focused on professionals working in the climate industry.
Presenters at the conference include a mix of national leaders and experts with local ties. “We are trying to make it ‘Asheville,’ which is pretty diverse,” explains Kathi Petersen, The Collider’s communications director. About half those speaking are from WNC, she says.
A Wednesday, March 21, panel titled Optimizing Business for a Changing Climate includes two hometown climate leaders, Anne Waple and Tom Barr.
Waple came to Asheville to work at NOAA in 2001. “Without the work that NOAA does, understanding when our climate crosses important thresholds or is likely to cause significant impacts would be much more difficult to determine,” she says.
Now the leader of Studio 30K, which is located in The Collider, Waple says ClimateCon “will bring together local, regional and national participants and continue to connect and elevate good ideas, working solutions and networks of professionals and problem solvers.”
Barr heads two companies, Infrastructure Services Group and Climate Optimize. The former Texas oil and gas man says the disruption caused by climate change can also create opportunities. Companies, he notes, can “change the way they deliver the product or buy the products, or change the demographics of their employees.”
While Waple and Barr came to Asheville from other cities, Liza Schillo’s path has taken her in the opposite direction. The A.C. Reynolds High School graduate grew up here, going on to attend UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University.
As product sustainability manager at Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco, Schillo says, “Business is the critical unlock to climate mitigation and resilience.” Environmentalism is no longer seen as antithetical to big business, she continues. “It is about how can we think more broadly, beyond short-term profit, to the health and well-being of the communities of which we are a part. And there’s an element of creativity to it, too, that business is beginning to embrace. Constraint breeds innovation, and sustainable practices provide a wonderful constraint that leads to more resiliency, more efficiency, instead of simply reducing harm.”
And, she notes, “Today’s customer is also much more likely to like you if you’re doing good things for the planet.”
Schillo will participate in a panel on climate change’s impact on reputation, branding and perception on March 21. She says she’s looking forward to the return to her roots. “My office calls me the one-woman Asheville Chamber of Commerce,” she says, “but I am exceptionally proud of where I’m from, and I see this as a huge opportunity for us to put our stake in the ground.”
From access to understanding
Edward Kearns, NOAA’s chief data officer and a presenter at the conference, says technological change has shifted some aspects of his organization’s role. Through collaborations with companies like Amazon and Google, much of the agency’s massive collection of climate data is now available online, eliminating the need for researchers and businesses to visit Asheville solely to access climate information.
“Now, access isn’t the problem: understanding is,” Kearns explains. “And Asheville has a critical mass of NOAA experts that understand these data better than anyone else. For industry and the public to make the most of this treasure trove of data, they also need to take advantage of the most valuable resource that NOAA has to offer — its scientists and data experts that are right here in town.”
Amanda Rycerz of London-based Acclimatise (which has a local office at The Collider) agrees. “The production of information is not necessarily tied to its application,” she says. “Someone may have access to an abundance of information but not know how to use it.”
Rycerz says many companies and individuals don’t fully appreciate their climate risks. “They may recognize that they have a problem but don’t know the right questions to ask to fix it,” she says. “Or they may recognize one aspect of the problem but not another. Climate change is interdisciplinary and complex — if you can’t formulate your question, you are going to have trouble finding the answer.”
In Rycerz’s view, the promise of ClimateCon lies in bringing different parts of the climate industry together in one place. “To the extent that ClimateCon brings together federal data providers, service providers and folks who need to have their questions answered, this has the potential to be a very fruitful conference,” she says.
Newcomers to the climate industry will also get a chance to learn more about opportunities in the growing field at the Summit for Emerging Leaders on March 19. Targeted at college students and new graduates, the summit will include information sessions, networking and even a pitch competition for new business ideas.
Local universities, Robinson says, are excited about the summit’s promise for connecting students with jobs in the industry. It’s all part of The Collider’s efforts to “continue to build that pipeline and have students make some connections with industries that are here or events that are happening,” she says.
Robinson relates the career trajectory of Aaron Mackey, who will be a panelist at the summit, as an example of The Collider’s potential to boost the prospects of those hoping to work in climate-related occupations. After graduating from UNC Greensboro in 2016, she says, Mackey volunteered to staff the nonprofit’s front desk two days a week. The connections he made in that humble role eventually led to a job at NASA, where he’s leading one climate-related project in the Arctic and one in California.
Based on his own success in breaking into the climate industry, Mackey says, “Whenever new people come in, I preach the gospel of networking. Talk to everyone, get to know them. They might seem like they don’t have anything to offer you, but you don’t know.”
On a lighter note
In addition to business-focused talks, ClimateCon will also include the Climate City Experience, a series of community events designed to highlight the best of Asheville. Through art, food, music, film, free public lectures and — naturally — beer, the diverse lineup means there’s something for just about everyone in the conference’s schedule.
On Feb. 27, Asheville City Council declared March 19-25 Climate Week in the city of Asheville in recognition of ClimateCon.
“It’s great for folks in Asheville to know that this is taking place in their city,” says Josh Dorfman, who leads the efforts of the Economic Development Coalition of Asheville-Buncombe County to promote high-growth entrepreneurship. “It’s exciting. It’s seeped in that we are Beer City, and it can seep in that we are Climate City, too. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”
And attendees can have a beer while talking about climate. “What,” Dorfman asks, “can be better than that?”
Editors note: This article was updated at 10 a.m. on March 19 to reflect that Liza Schillo is a graduate of A.C. Reynolds High School.