Skip to main content

In the summer of 2023, New York City was shrouded in smoke. Staring out the window of my office in the Financial District, I could barely see the East River. I dreaded going outside. The haze, which partially obscured not-so-distant Brooklyn from view, came from a series of devastating Canadian wildfires unlike anything on record, with air quality indexes in NYC reaching 800% above what is considered “safe.” It was also very hot—here, and in so many other cities around the world. A relatively recent phenomenon, the effects of human-induced climate change are staring us in the face. Meanwhile, most experts agree that all of this, and so much more, is only going to get worse.

I’m fascinated by the idea of “climate awakenings”—the moment when the climate crisis goes from an abstract notion to a real and present danger for a person. Why does it occur for some people as children after hearing a story about deforestation of the Amazon, while for others it takes a Category 3 hurricane barrelling toward their doorstep to finally acknowledge it might be real? 

Motivating climate awakenings is what Taylor Francis, Avi Itskovich and Christian Anderson hope to do with Watershed, the company they co-founded. “The world needs to decarbonize between 5 to 10% per year,” says Francis. “We wanted to build something that could be a really big contributor to that.” Rather than targeting individuals, Watershed aims to awaken companies, inspiring them to minimize their carbon footprint and transition to clean power sources.

For Francis, 31, the aha moment came via a former Vice President the summer before eighth grade. He remembers seeing Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” in the theater with his mother and being “pretty shaken.” With no real summer plans to speak of, and with newfound existential dread, Francis took it upon himself to cold-email Al Gore’s office to see how he could lend a hand in saving the planet. To his surprise, he got a response just a few days later: an invitation to Nashville for the following month to attend the Climate Reality Project, a mini-climate advocacy bootcamp.

Over the course of three harrowing days, climate experts walked Francis and a couple hundred activists (all then-13-year-old Francis’s elders by at least 15 years, and one of whom, John Doerr, would later join the board of Watershed) through every slide of the “An Inconvenient Truth” PowerPoint. 

Francis walked away inspired, but also overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge ahead. Determined to do something, he started giving hyper-localized, high school-friendly versions of the “Inconvenient Truth” talks in schools and libraries and community centers around the Bay Area. “I talked about the California droughts and wildfires, and I had little handouts to bring home to their parents that said things like ‘switch lightbulbs, buy a Prius, vote,’” he remembers, “and I think kids went home and yelled at their parents in a pretty big way.”

He kept at it in college, studying public policy and nursing a dream of working on climate legislation. But after graduating from Princeton in 2014 (and helping to convince Al Gore to be his “Class Day” speaker), that passion was hard to maintain in the face of the government’s seeming apathy on the issue, especially after the Cap and Trade Bill had died in Congress that year. “It was a bit of a ‘what’s next?’ moment for climate policy,” he says—and realizing he didn’t yet know the answer, Francis decided to pivot careers. 

“If I can’t work on climate policy,” he remembers thinking, “I might as well work in an amazing company and learn as much as I can about how to build a company of my own. And that kind of led me back to the Bay Area, into Stripe.” 

Itskovich, 31, never saw “An Inconvenient Truth” as a teenhis attentions in middle school were elsewhere. “My family kind of hopped around a lot,” Itskovich remembers. “I was born in the former USSR, when I was two I moved to Israel and then when I was about 10 I moved to Canada. I think we were preoccupied with, like, other things than climate.” 

One of those things was academic excellence; when Itskovich brought home a 97% on a middle school report card, he was admonished by his dad, who had been schooled in the Soviet system where “anything less than a perfect score meant you weren’t great,” remembers Itskovich. As a high schooler, Itskovich steered this work ethic toward software engineering. After finishing his school’s computer science curriculum, he built an entirely new internal grading system for the school from scratch. By then, CS didn’t feel forced; it felt more like a calling—not just because of what it enabled Itskovich to do, but because of what it enabled others to do. “The power of being able to program is not like, ‘cool, I created the thing,’” says Itskovich. “It’s watching someone else use it, and in ways you might not even have expected.”

After graduating from the University of Waterloo with a degree in computer science and four tech internships in San Francisco under his belt, Itskovich knew he wanted to be at the center of the world’s greatest coding ecosystem, building tools that could empower millions. He returned to the Bay, where he’d landed an engineering gig at Stripe. There, he would meet a couple of key friends who would pull him away from his computer and into the outdoors—and in the process, help him find his life’s next major calling. 

For Anderson, 32, more than either of his co-founders, his climate awakening was something of a foregone conclusion—his father is an environmental policy lawyer who largely worked from home. “He always gave me a solid glimpse into the work he was doing,” remembers Anderson. A passion for climate action felt inevitable. 

At 10, Anderson made his first foray into early climate tech: He made a website. By then a consummate lover of backpacking and forests, Anderson couldn’t stand the idea of losing the world’s largest one. “It’s the kind of thing that’s so visual when you’re a kid, right?” says Anderson. “Imagine these forests in the Amazon getting chopped to death.” With his dad’s help, he built a web page titled “Foundation for our Future” to educate about conservation and accept donations to protect the Amazon rainforest.  

It was only in high school that the concept of man-made climate change really clicked for Anderson. He remembers learning about it in his classes and feeling moved intellectually. He switched to vegetarianism and became a stickler for recycling, but felt mostly powerless otherwise. Like Francis, he says he couldn’t “connect with it as a problem that I could solve the way you might solve local environmental issues. I saw it as too huge a problem to affect.” 

So instead, he followed other, more “accessible” passions, earning dual undergraduate degrees in physics and math at Harvard before being accepted into a physics PhD program at MIT for quantum informatics. But before fully “veering into a deep science direction” and committing to another six or seven years in Boston, Anderson decided he needed a gap year on the other side of the country. 

What he found in the Bay Area’s tech scene reawakened a years-dormant urgency in Anderson. “There were a lot of people in San Francisco working to try to make the world better in an immediate way,” says Anderson. In this crucial juncture, as he was considering the impact he wanted to make in his life and work, that immediacy resonated. “For me it was, do we try to make the world better in a somewhat long-running roundabout way through science or, you know, could I try to build something with my own two hands that makes the world better?” says Anderson. 

Anderson decided to delay his PhD, and within weeks he had secured an engineering role at a promising young payments startup.

“For me it was, do we try to make the world better in a somewhat long-running roundabout way through science or could I try to build something with my own two hands that makes the world better?”

Christian Anderson

Once their lives converged at Stripe, so did most of the trio’s weekends. Anderson had started organizing small backpacking and camping trips for fellow Stripe outdoors enthusiasts, and while there weren’t many takers, in Itskovich and Francis he found kindred spirits, who were equally intense about outdoor activities. The three would calculate exactly how much outdoor time they could compress into the window between signing off on Friday and logging back in on Monday morning. They would go backcountry skiing in Tahoe, belaying up Mount Diablo and sprint-hiking a Lost Coast route in a day when it was meant to be done in two. “We bonded over this outdoor stuff where it’s all about pushing yourself, taking a risk, taking a challenge, kind of trusting somebody else,” says Anderson. “When something goes wrong and it becomes an adventure—that’s when that bond truly forms,” adds Itskovich with a laugh. 

Their weekends away also reawakened something that Francis and Anderson, for one reason or another, had placed on the back burner: climate urgency. Back in the office, much like their backpacking intensity, their collective interest in climate-focused work compounded as they worked together. In 2019, Christian started pitching in with Stripe’s early climate efforts, wrangling funds from the company to buy carbon offsets. Eventually, Francis and Itskovich joined him, encouraging other corporations to do the same. 

By 2018, their dedication to climate action would be put to the test. In October of that year, an intergovernmental panel on climate change published a report that became known colloquially as the 1.5 degree report. Its main claim was that if humanity can limit global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celcius, we can avoid many of the more extreme, damaging impacts of climate change. But that doing so would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” 

Anderson read the report while visiting a friend on a wooded island off the coast of Vancouver, Canada. Surrounded by water and trees, he remembers thinking, “They did such a good job in that report, balancing the message of, ‘We are not past the point of no return, but the window for action really is closing.’” Just a few months later, Francis and Itskovich felt the same sentiment at an event hosted by the nonprofit Protect Our Winters (POW). One of the speakers presented the reality of climate change in stark terms: “We are the first generation to see the effects of climate change and the last generation to have an impact on it,” Itskovich remembers hearing. “It’s the kind of sentence that gets lodged in your brain and drives urgency. It means oh, maybe I shouldn’t wait five or 10 years to work on climate change. Maybe the time is now.” 

Unlike so many people who hear the alarm bells but find ways to quiet them and carry on with business as usual, the ringing remained deafening for the trio. They started mulling over, first individually, then collectively, what they could do—and how they could do it, fast. Francis and Itskovich left Stripe shortly thereafter, in mid-2019, to focus on climate action full-time, with the understanding that Anderson would join them soon. A few months later, after finalizing his work with Stripe’s climate initiative and handing off his teams, he did.

Avi Itskovich, Christian Anderson and Taylor Francis
Avi Itskovich, Christian Anderson and Taylor Francis

In late fall 2019, the three ex-Stripes gathered around a whiteboard in Anderson’s apartment near Buena Vista Park. They knew only two things for certain: They wanted to work together on something, and that something would be climate-related. What exactly it would be, well, that’s where the whiteboard came in. 

Over the next two weeks, they workshopped a different idea every day, sketching out the pros and cons of each on the board. The ideas drew upon each of their respective areas of expertise, and ranged from altering public consciousness (starting a climate-focused media company), to tracking personal emissions (like Strava, but counting carbon instead of kilometers), to structural changes (political advocacy to mobilize bipartisan support for climate legislation), to more consumer-oriented fare (a slickly branded site that enabled consumers to buy clean power with the click of a button). 

They evaluated each idea on its ability to remove or reduce 500 million tons of CO2 every year (“We thought it would be pretty awesome to build something that could be driving 10 to 20% of global decarbonization, which needs to be 5 gigatons of CO2 per year,” says Francis), and their ability to make an impact without relying on external societal or technological changes. At the end of two weeks, they concluded that changing hearts and minds wasn’t enough, that creating low-carbon materials like cement and concrete was just one piece of the puzzle (albeit an essential one), and that a consumer focus couldn’t scale. What they needed was to harness the enormous scale of corporate spending and direct it toward renewable energy—a mass corporate climate awakening.

“We thought it would be pretty awesome to build something that could be driving 10 to 20% of global decarbonization.”

Taylor Francis

“We wanted to enable companies to take the geyser of money that they currently point at dirty technologies and redirect as much of that as possible toward the clean stuff,” says Francis. “If we could pull that off, we could enable not just one low-carbon cement company, but dozens of low-carbon cement companies and also low-carbon agriculture companies and low-carbon transportation companies and more demand for all the sustainable aviation fuel innovators. We could be this kind of leverage point.” As a bonus, it would give corporations a productive means of responding to any pressure they might face from investors, regulators and customers to take action on climate change.

In Anderson’s living room, the co-founders drafted the first slide of the deck they’d use for sales calls and pitches to investors, putting their value prop in plain terms: They would enable companies to measure their carbon footprint, meaningfully reduce it and report on their progress to employees, customers and investors. “The first slide of the sales deck that we made in 2019 is the same first slide of the sales deck today,” says Francis.

They added a title slide for their still-nameless company. It read: “Powering Carbon Reductions for _____.” Now, in order to catalyze the change they were hoping to accomplish, they just needed to fill in that blank a few thousand times over. 

Two days before Christmas 2019, Francis hopped on a flight for an unexpected trip down to Los Angeles. The founders had received an early holiday gift: an email from Sweetgreen’s then head of supply chain and sustainability—a customer they’d been courting for weeks—saying he was free for a last-minute meeting. With Anderson and Itskovich away with their respective families for the holidays, Francis went to take the team’s first major meeting on his own. 

Francis walked into Sweetgreen’s Culver City office with their pitch deck and an early version of the Watershed platform that Itskovich and Anderson had built in the previous months (they’d settled on their name a month earlier for its dual ecological and idiomatic significance). The product wasn’t pretty—regarding its design, an early advisor had noted, “Whenever I’m in your product, I want to not be in your product.”—but it was functional, and showed how their dashboard could help companies measure and interpret their various sources of carbon emissions. 

Francis walked through the pitch deck, highlighting the existential nature of their mission and reinforcing their belief in the crucial role companies can play in reducing global carbon emissions. An hour later, he drove home, pleased with the presentation, but unsure how Sweetgreen would respond. “We were so early on doing enterprise sales, I had no idea how it went,” he remembers. 

Within a matter of weeks, Sweetgreen got back to Francis: the restaurant brand had been moved by their vision and was eager to act. And thanks to Watershed’s platform, they could do so in a way that didn’t compromise profits, something instrumental to Watershed’s pitch. They’d officially landed their first major customer. “The key thing here is we’re not pitching ‘climate action at the expense of the corporation.’ We’re helping the corporation put climate into its core and treat it like a business priority,” says Itskovich.

“The key thing here is we’re not pitching ‘climate action at the expense of the corporation.’ We’re helping the corporation put climate into its core and treat it like a business priority.”

Avi Itskovich

Over the following months, the founders onboarded Sweetgreen onto a considerably more beautiful (and functional) version of their platform, plugging in the restaurant chain’s food suppliers, farmers and transportation teams in order to understand where they could use the most carbon-friendly adjustments. All the data pointed to two key areas for carbon emission reduction: “Chicken and cheese,” says Itskovich. “You gotta solve your chicken and cheese emissions.”

With that in mind, Watershed helped Sweetgreen develop methodologies for engaging their poultry and dairy suppliers in ways that would increase awareness of their carbon emissions, and foster best practices for reducing them. First, they asked suppliers to fill out a survey. “The key question on the survey that you had to answer was, do you have a methane digester for your manure? For cheese creameries, it’s all about what you do with the manure,” says Francis. Using survey results, Watershed then offered recommendations for Sweetgreen’s suppliers to lower their carbon footprint, and encouraged Sweetgreen to seek out new suppliers if their original ones were unwilling to change. 

Using insights from Watershed’s platform, Sweetgreen has changed its menu to reflect more carbon-conscious ingredients and deploy clean power in every store. With Watershed’s help, the restaurant chain is aiming for complete carbon neutrality by 2027. “The partnership with Sweetgreen has paved the way for what is possible for sustainability in a food system and supply chain like theirs,” says Francis. 

Anderson hung up the phone, exhausted. It was early 2020, and in the wake of their Sweetgreen success, Watershed had managed to secure partnerships with Airbnb, Segment, Square and Shopify, all of whom were eager to make climate-friendly changes. 

The team got to work on Watershed Marketplace, a hub where customers could access vetted carbon credits, nascent carbon removal technologies, and, in theory, clean energy sources. But the latter was proving difficult to secure. “I legitimately called every major clean power developer in the United States to try to find one who would be willing to do business with a small tech startup,” says Anderson. This was a not-so-short list of 14 or so companies, who without fail would make their opinion of Watershed known. “We were small fries!” remembers Anderson. “It’s this big, expensive, really physically complex industry. They would get some tech startup on the phone that’s like, ‘Hey, we’re building the customer base, we think we could move a lot of your product!’ They were like, ‘Right, okay, sure man.’”

After upwards of 15 calls with a DC-based solar energy company called Sol Systems, Anderson finally got the response he was looking for. Convinced by Watershed’s mission and growing roster of customers, “They said ‘yes,’” remembers Anderson. “Sol Systems was our first Marketplace partner. This was the moment the Watershed Marketplace really got off the ground.”   

With Marketplace established, the co-founders realized it was time to graduate out of Anderson’s living room. In mid-2020, they hired their first two employees and raised a Series A. Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins co-led the round, which also included backing from their former bosses at Stripe, the Collison brothers. “They were amazing mentors to us, so it meant a lot to have their investment—actual and symbolic—in the company,” says Francis.

They moved into a SoMa office space with an airy courtyard (“That was still mega COVID time, so we would do masked outdoor meetings,” says Francis). As the company grew, the trio enjoyed the same jolt of wonder with each new customer that Itskovich had first felt building his school’s grading system—of seeing their creation used in ways they’d never imagined. Like Sweetgreen, some companies used Watershed’s platform to make their supply chain more carbon-friendly. Others, like DoorDash, focused on the vehicles being used to deliver food, increasing the amount of bikes and EVs, while Shopify used Watershed to hone their logistics. For software companies, it was all about changing their data center usage, finding ways to be more carbon-efficient in their use of cloud computing and storage. “Every software company’s supply chain eventually gets very physical,” says Anderson. “What I think people probably don’t know is how much concrete is going into building a data center for, you know, an hour of a Netflix video. Every company is built on the physical world—there’s no company that escapes it.”

Each partnership felt like meaningful, incremental progress toward their monumental goal (i.e., saving the planet). More customers and more data also helped them refine their product, allowing them to work with customers to identify which climate-friendly changes could be made immediately and easily, and which would be the most impactful. “For example,” says Itskovich, “in the food space, the packaging pales in comparison to the food inside the packaging. There’s a big difference between the thing that sounds good and the thing that matters.”

With their business taking off, they realized that their joint professional history had some drawbacks. “One of our weaknesses as a founding team was all coming from the same company,” says Anderson. “And we did a big push to get outside of that, to recognize our blind spots and make a big effort in the first year of the company to build relationships with founders and executives from very different companies and industries.” 

One of those blind spots was hiring. “We had to play catch-up in terms of growing the team. There was a bit of scrambling, kind of misjudging the market time,” says Anderson. For founders schooled in Stripe’s comparatively deliberate growth strategy, rapid expansion posed a challenge. Like their mentors, the founders wanted to personally meet and vet each potential new hire. But gradually, necessity and the advice of their advisors pushed them to delegate hiring responsibilities to other trusted people on their team. “For Watershed, this climate tech market arrived like a tidal wave,” says Sequoia partner Shaun Maguire. 

Today, all three admit that even in their most optimistic projections, they were blown away by that tidal wave. “I think we were very wrong in 2019—we thought it was gonna be five to 10 years before the climate imperative broadened out from these early adopters,” says Anderson. But the reality is that the industry was hungry for what they were offering. 

They attribute this hunger to a broader, collective climate awakening. Not only the kind that’s reflected in accelerating legislation and subsidies and technological progress, but, perhaps more important, the kind I saw outside my window earlier this summer, the kind that’s apparent in wildfire smoke and canceled flights and record-breaking heat and rising tides and shrinking biodiversity. The kind of existential awakening that’s increasingly become difficult to deny, on a personal or a professional level. 

Francis believes that this awakening has triggered a fundamental corporate shift, “from a mindset around environmentalism as conservation, to solving climate change as an economic, industrial, technological, capitalistic endeavor,” he says. “We have to build a ton of stuff. And the thing that has changed is that clean technologies are a lot cheaper today than they were 10 years ago.” It helps that today, as Maguire puts it, “Certain green technologies have already gotten so good. They’re already better and cheaper.”

“Certain green technologies have already gotten so good. They’re already better and cheaper.”

Shaun Maguire

This is why a large part of Watershed’s mission is to make it impossible for corporations to participate in climate denial on economic grounds. “I think the fundamental thing that enables Watershed is that even the most ruthless business can prioritize climate right now,” says Anderson. “We can surface the data so they can cut 20 to 40% of carbon today, and then there’ll be another 20 to 40% available by the time you’re done because of technological progress.” 

Sangwon Suh, Watershed’s head scientist and former UNEP member, sees businesses as playing an instrumental role in combating climate change. “So many changes are induced by the private sector,” says Suh. “If we can harness the power of the private sector—a sector that’s quick, efficient and not subject to congressional consensus—I think that there is a reason to be hopeful and optimistic about solving this climate change problem.” 

Anderson sees this corporate climate awakening as fundamentally social, feeding off of communication. “I think the x variable that we failed to factor in was that there would be this feedback loop of, as more companies get in, and you get more proof points, it’s easier for the next company to get in.” 

All of these shifts in mindsets, technologies and climate mean that much more of the world is now attuned to the reality of climate change. “At least in the business world, we’re past the climate denialism phase,” says Anderson. But as all three founders experienced at one point or another, more understanding can also mean more dread. “Climate doomerism is the feeling that there’s nothing [we can] do. Or the only thing that we can do is some sort of complete systemic change that eradicates existing businesses altogether. This is one of these other challenges—getting really clear data to businesses on the short-term action that you could actually do that will actually move the numbers this year,” says Anderson. “I think if we can just keep getting that message successfully out there, it’ll succeed.”

Now that more corporations are awakened to the challenge, the real work can begin. “We have a long way to go, but already more than 527 million tons of CO2 are managed by companies that use Watershed,” says Francis. “So we’ve gotta scale that number up.” 

While most people would find the task daunting, Watershed’s founders see more reasons for optimism than ever, in part because of their front-row seat to all of the talent and ingenuity being devoted to averting the climate crisis. “Cement and steel are great examples of industry sectors where historically there has been no low-carbon alternative,” says Anderson. “And we are just now at the threshold of having commercially viable low-carbon options for both.” 

Carbon removal technologies are also making strides. Suh is particularly excited about “biological approaches like growing biomass and turning that into more permanent storage for carbon, or using carbon to produce more permanent polymers that do not degrade over time.” he says. There’s also the development of “direct air capture,” a solution that works by capturing carbon from the air, heating it up to the point of saturation, then storing it all in rock form where it can’t leak back into the atmosphere. 

“Every week at our all-hands, we have this thing called climate corner,” says Itskovich. In recent meetings, the team has learned about which materials in the apparel industry are most emissive (animal-based products like wool), about ways to create lower-carbon cement (reducing the amount of clinker) and about pathways to net-zero emissions from aviation (replacing fossil jet fuel with biofuels or synthetic fuels). 

And it’s this idea, this regular, communal exposure to climate science, more than anything else the founders have told me, that feels like an answer to my question of why their climate awakenings occurred earlier than most. Crucially, it also reveals an answer of sorts to how we can ensure that others have similar awakenings before it’s too late. For Watershed’s founders, it took seeing the impacts of climate change, but it also took engaging in a meaningful climate dialogue with people they trusted. It’s what Watershed is doing internally, and it’s a conversation they’re continuing to foster in the private sector around the world.   

“We’re doing a rafting trip with our executive team in Montana in late September,” Francis shares as we wrap up our conversation, a reminder of the foundational joy that fuels all their urgency and long hours and coding and selling and problem-solving. “It would be the first time we’ve done an outdoors trip with a broader group within the company—but I think it could be very successful,” adds Anderson with a smile. That “could” seems to imply that the trio hasn’t completely ruled out sprint-hiking from the agenda.    

Related Topics