Sustainability X Ventures: Your Questions Answered

Design Mind frogcast: Ethan Imboden, frog VP of Design, Global Head of Ventures

Here at frog, we’re seeing a focus on sustainability increasingly becoming mission-critical for businesses and a key component of innovation, especially when it comes to our work with startups and corporate ventures. That’s why we recently put out a call on social media to listeners and friends worldwide asking for your questions on all things at the intersection of sustainability and ventures.

On this episode of the Design Mind frogcast, Ethan Imboden, frog VP of Design, Global Head of Ventures and Executive Sponsor of our sustainability practice is here to answer your questions.

Listen to the podcast episode and find transcripts below. You can also find us on Apple PodcastsSpotify and anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Episode Transcript:

Design Mind frogcast

[00:09] Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood [EW].

[00:23] Here at frog, we’re seeing a focus on sustainability increasingly becoming mission-critical for businesses and a key component of innovation, especially when it comes to our work with startups and corporate ventures. That’s why we recently put out a call on social media to listeners and friends worldwide asking for your questions on all things at the intersection of sustainability and ventures. Today on our show, Ethan Imboden [EI], frog VP of Design, Global Head of Ventures and Executive Sponsor of our sustainability practice is here to answer your questions. Before we dive in, here’s Ethan to share more on his background in sustainability and to share how frog is approaching its work in this space.

[01:03] EI: This story starts really at the beginning of the ventures practice as we know it today. We realized that this was an opportunity for us to really choose where we are engaging, to demonstrate what frog cares about most and to proactively shape the future that we’re moving toward, because we would inherently be working at the front edge of innovation.

[01:29] So all of this invited us to ask ourselves a question: What is it then that frog believes in? And what is the future that we’re working to manifest? And that took us into this space of thinking about impact ventures and ventures that would have a positive impact on our future collectively.

[02:03] Our impact ventures sit at the intersection of our sustainability and our ventures practices. We’re co creating the next generation of change-making organizations working to scale positive social, environmental and climate outcomes. We do that through three different facets of the venture practice: startup growth, which we do with sustainability-focused founders and in sustainability-focused opportunity spaces. We do this through corporate venture building of new sustainable businesses, and also at scale, and on an ongoing basis, by working to set up venture studios and accelerators to support these activities longitudinally.

[02:43] Our ultimate objective is not to address our social, environmental and climate challenges to the point that we level off the damage that we’ve been doing and then sustain the deeply problematic state where we’ve arrived at that point. But it is rather to reverse the damage and to regenerate both people and planet.

[03:06]: There are a number of reasons why I’m drawn to sustainability. I studied industrial design in graduate school. I entered the professional workforce and was having that first series of products that I’d worked on actually make it to market, which is a huge milestone for any designer. And there was one project that really stuck in my mind because it was a line of toothbrushes. We reached a point where we were hearing from our client that this was scaling and would likely move into the millions of units produced over time. It became very tangible to me that my job was not just a theoretical one. I was actually shifting atoms in the world and rearranging matter and that came at a cost. And that it had a lifespan in the user’s hands and the customers hands, but it also had a much longer lifespan, somewhere else, likely a landfill. And suddenly, a million units didn’t sound so good anymore.

[04:03] From that point forward, I was looking for ways to be more effective, and more conscious in how I was designing to incorporate these additional dimensions of sustainability.

[04:21] EW: So, we put out a call on social media for folks to submit their questions on all things sustainability and ventures. And we got a lot of really interesting questions that I think kind of shed light on how different people are approaching different challenges within this space. Are you ready to get into some of those questions now?

[04:37] EI: I’m ready.

[04:38] EW: All right, cool. Here we go. Well, first off, I think it’s a good idea to do a little level-setting. You’ve mentioned before that this work is about creating positive social, environmental and climate outcomes. But we actually got a few questions around what that actually looks like. So for instance, Caio of AmbevTech asked on LinkedIn, “What does ‘positive’ mean here?” I mean, is it related purely to profits, for example, or does it go deeper than that?

[05:03] EI: You see this taking shape in terms of a quantifiable definition of positive in a couple of different ways, you’ve got the triple bottom line approach. And there, you’re looking at an accounting framework that isn’t just looking at the profits of the company—that’s the sort of the financial bottom line, but also the social and the environmental or ecological bottom line. And so there are a lot of different ways of going about this. But on the social side, we’re seeing a lot of emphasis right now on diversity, equity and inclusion. On the environmental side, obviously, a heavy emphasis on carbon emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. And so those are sort of tangible measures of positive—positive being improving those social metrics and decreasing those carbon emissions, while still keeping an eye to the profitability.

[05:59] Another good approach is to look at some of the requirements of B corporations. And those requirements enumerate and prioritize different ways of orienting your business and conducting your business so that it has positive impacts on these multiple dimensions.

[06:16] EW: For those who might not know, what is a B Corp?

[06:20] EI: A B Corp is a business that has met a clear set of standards that are verified for social, environmental performance, for the transparency with the public, for their legal accountability and overall balancing profit and purpose. And so this is a standard. It is a specific type of corporation that actually has and hopefully will have accelerating beneficial status in tax and regulatory frameworks as we go forward.

[06:58] EW: We also received a few questions about the tension between the goals and principles of sustainability alongside our own traditional expectations for success within the ventures space. So, you know, ventures being marked by really high risk, high return, fast results. How does that factor into measuring success in a sustainability sense?

[07:17] EI: This is a great question and an area we could unpack for a long time. Expectations have been shaped by the venture capital model. And the venture capital model—and before I say things that may seem to be negative here—it’s a model that I’m deeply involved in that supported my own startup and definitely has its place. But the venture capital model is one where limited partners put capital into a fund. And really the sole measure of success is the return that those investors get from that investment. Now that return isn’t just how much money did I get back? Was it twice my money? Three times my money? Etc. It’s an internal rate of return. And an internal rate of return isn’t just a profit. It’s the intersection of the profit and the speed with which that profit is made. So inherently built into this system is this expectation that’s called out of disproportionate returns, and that happening in an accelerated time period.

[08:32] EI: There will be, I think, a reckoning where the money that’s coming into this system will increasingly have sustainability objectives tied to it. And we’ll need to find a means for bringing together both this aggressive and very effective form of innovation with a concurrent level of social, environmental and climate responsibility.

[09:01] EW: Piggybacking on this idea of measuring success, on LinkedIn, Mike Roozenburg, who’s a business and service designer, asked specifically about what KPIs could or should be used to create a more objective representation of a venture’s actual impact.

[09:18] EI: This is a great question. And the KPIs per venture will vary pretty widely depending on the type of company that’s being built. You can imagine a software as a service startup, a SaaS, might be more focused on inclusive design of their software product and sustainable IT infrastructure, and so on. Whereas a ride-hailing company, like a company that we helped build, called Alto might focus on bringing solid wages, health benefits, paid time off to an industry not known for any of these, as well as lower carbon emissions per mile for an energy-efficient fleet of vehicles and so on.

[10:01] It’s useful to look at the projected scaling of the company and what areas of the company are really going to scale the most and therefore, perhaps really scale impact in those areas. So for instance, with that ride-hailing company as they scale, their fleet will scale. You’re going to have a focus on those vehicles and also on the employee experience because you’re gonna be scaling that staff really dramatically. For the SaaS startup, you’re going to be looking at how you’re transitioning through different types of technologies and your technology roadmap, and perhaps Cloud infrastructure. And you’ll have in mind what some of those costs will be, and what the loads will be, and you can also anticipate how those might scale with the scaling of your customer base. And so those will come into focus pretty quickly.

[10:51] EW: Megan Luck, who’s VP and Head of Growth at Alaska Wild Caught Seafood, had a related question about success in this space. Now as we mentioned before, ventures is really all about speed. But that’s not always possible when it comes to creating long-lasting sustainable outcomes. Megan asks, “How can we change the definition of success for a sustainable venture by rethinking the timelines upon which we measure that success?”

[11:15] EI: This is a great question and goes right to this notion that many of the ventures, whether corporate or startup that we’re involved in building today do have these two very key components of return and timeline. How long is it going to take us to get to that return and to scale that return? These are dual pressures and nowhere in that is a consideration of a sustainability-oriented purpose of the venture. Increasingly, we’re seeing this get written in even to the very foundation of the company.

[11:57] I have an example here where we’re looking at a new investment and collaboration with a really amazing company working specifically on climate. And in the term sheet that we’re looking at for this investment round, there’s a section around important matters, which is a defined term to be decided with the shareholders. And an important matter could be whether or not there’s an IPO, whether we’re changing the business plan, whether we’re taking on significant indebtedness to somebody and so on. And it says when deciding upon the approval of important matters, the directors and shareholders shall always consider the precept of the company to treat the principles of profitability and preserving a healthy climate on Earth as equivalent. So profitability and preserving a healthy climate on Earth are by definition equivalent in the funding round and I would assume in the corporate documents structuring the company itself.

[13:00] Here, the company is laying a foundation that I haven’t really seen very frequently laid, which is at the level of the organizing principles of the company and its financing rounds to see as equivalent profitability and a healthy climate. So that may not answer the question of how everyone can do it, but this is sort of a Northstar objective of working into the KPIs, the corporate operating principles, and the shareholders understanding of what success looks like, as putting on equal footing purpose and profitability.

[13:40] We’re hearing a lot about building back better, right? Popularized by President Biden, but actually dating back to the recovery from the 2004 Asian tsunami of all things. Rather than build back better, which connotes an aspect of like-for-like renovation on top of existing systems and foundations—an existing way of executing a business, for instance—ventures present a cleaner slate, which ideally can be unburdened by legacy thinking and give us a potential for a faster, maybe more powerful option to simply build better.

[14:14] EW: Another sort of time-related question that we got came from Jay Lester, who’s principal at Essex Strategic Consulting. So Jay asks, “Unless an early stage plan benefits from it in a very concrete way, I usually advise folks to wait on things like B Corp certification or anything else that doesn’t directly help their venture become viable.” How do you feel about this advice, Ethan? When should sustainability be addressed?

[14:39] EI: So I agree, I think with the sentiment here, which is that the focus at the early stages of building a new venture has to be on survival. I think it’s really critical to lay down how, maybe not today, but over time the company intends to bring sustainability forward, and have it be a significant part of the contribution that it’s making to not just the economy, but to society.

[15:08] So yes, I wouldn’t be too focused on creds—“goodness creds” as he puts it—up front. But I would get to work on goodness results. I would definitely get to work on aligning around purpose. One way of doing this, it’s really functional is to preview the B Corp certification process and requirements. Because there are some elements that, if planned for upfront, are much easier to execute and do well and do right then to encounter later and have to refactor in order to get right later on.

[15:46] I do think there’s great value in in getting a preview of where some of the biggest areas of challenge might be towards sustainability for the organization, even if you’re not able to tackle them all up front, so that the foundation takes into account some of those future challenges and certainly takes into account that Northstar purpose.

[16:55] EW: Another question we got on LinkedIn was from business designer Jan Dolansky. Jan wants to know about this idea of post-growth entrepreneurship, so growth in the context of sustainability. Jan asks, “How do we measure growth in a way that is beneficial to society and the environment as well as to our economies? Do we need to make a shift from fast growth, such as exits, investors and scaling, to a more slow sustained growth?”

[17:21] EI: Yes, we need to make a shift in our economic model and our infrastructure, and with this a shift in our definition of success for ventures that fits the new model. My optimistic view is that a Next Economy is now taking shape, reflecting a more comprehensive and urgent understanding of sustainability and a new embrace of stakeholder capitalism. This Next Economy rewards actors and actions that are good for the people by ensuring everyone’s basic needs are met, and that the benefits and the costs of economic activity are shared equitably, good for our planet by transitioning us away from our dependence on fossil fuels to a zero-carbon emissions future and protecting or regenerating the natural systems that we all depend on for life.

[18:07] As Jan’s question points out, it’s not clear that our dominant system of funding ventures, venture capital, is readily compatible with these next economy objectives—at least not yet. Our VC system operates on expectations and metrics that conform for obvious reasons to the VC business model. And these are therefore mostly purely financial metrics oriented at the intersection of profit and speed, and acknowledging the expense of risk. So I’m not against venture capital clearly. My startup was VC and private equity-backed. I’m a venture partner with Tuesday Capital where frog has a really deep and long-standing and productive partnership that has many positive impacts. I’m simply saying that we also need new financing models that are aligned with and incentivize and reward companies delivering value to people and planet, in addition to profit.

[18:59] This is a pretty significant mindset and model shift because impact ventures are not monolithically oriented toward financial growth. They are by definition pursuing impact beyond the shareholder economics. This requires that investors track and value this as well. They may have long runways for their technology or their markets to develop and to scale. And this requires patience. And in fact, they may not even have any real intention to exit per se, to sell their company, to go public, to have any change of control or related “liquidity event” as it’s known.

[19:36] Indeed, rather than even some of the standard employee stock option ownership plans to provide employee incentive might not be the structure that they would go for, they might be organized instead as worker cooperatives. And these are often intentionally structured to make change of control really difficult, which again, is sort of contrary to the typical and current VC model.

[19:59] But we are seeing good options emerging. We’re seeing a rise in more sustainability-oriented or focused VCs who can provide great subject matter expertise, support and networks. We’re seeing new models of investment that don’t presume exits and are aligned with founders’ broader sustainability objectives. And we’re definitely seeing non-dilutive funding via government and other stimulus grants. Particularly, this is evident to me here in Europe where I’m now based.

[20:25] And over time, I’m also optimistic that carbon-related assets will mature and get to meaningful values and that regulation will increasingly tie financial consequences and benefits to how our business impacts people and our planet. So there’s a lot of interesting work going on this space, and very transparently, I have a lot more research and learning ahead of me to get fully up to speed, but there’s a lot to be excited about.

[20:49] EW: We also received questions about the broader impact of venturing on sustainability. So, for instance, @vincent.sunnn asked on Instagram about, “Who really benefits here? How can ventures benefit the economy beyond simply supporting the startups themselves?”

[21:06] EI: It sounds to me like at the heart of this question is another one, which is “What is the non-financial value of ventures?” It’s important to recognize that startups, even those that may quote-unquote “fail” have a significant impact on our economies well beyond their own customers and their direct operations. They’re a key source of innovation, often pursuing opportunities before they’re fully proven and assuming risk that’s unpalatable to major corporations, and with approaches that are often incompatible with those larger organizations. They apply pressure to corporations to move faster and to evolve.

[21:42] And when you look at how they operate in the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem, which is almost a biosphere unto itself, you’ll see that they adapt, they reuse, they recycle, repair, recover, etc, one another’s talent, their technologies, networks and so on. So even a failed startup is often the beginning of many significantly fruitful and productive careers. And in this way, startups which by financial investment metrics may have provided an inconsequential return or even have been a complete write-off, can provide an outsize sustainability return by bending our trajectory as a society and as an economy.

[22:23] So the more that sustainability permeates this entrepreneurial ecosystem, the more that DNA gets written into the broader innovation efforts happening in the much larger organizations, that would seem to overpower these small contributors, but which are, in fact very much dependent on them. Regardless of their outcomes, startups and entrepreneurs in aggregate, have a disproportionate ability to trigger meaningful change.

[22:46] EW: The next question we received had to do really with the scale of this challenge. So, sustainability requires a systems approach. While a venture’s focus can traditionally be rather narrow. Ethan Smith, a concept designer and life-centered strategist asked on LinkedIn, “How might we balance the need to quickly and effectively build, test and learn from strong customer-centric concepts—in particular those that don’t directly address sustainability gains—with an overall mission to provide positive systemic impacts?”

[23:16] EI: So if I’m understanding the question correctly, what we’re getting at is the possibility that in corporate venture building, which has adopted startup like lean development models, which often thrives, and manages risks and expectations, by making demonstrable progress through rapid iterations. It may be challenging to manage the long gestation period of solutions for complex systems, like those found throughout sustainability. And because of the complexity and intersectionality of sustainability, some of these more immediately gratifying corporate stage-gate satisfying, rapid, empirical learning cycles that work well for more focused customer-centric solutions may not be so applicable.

[24:00] But I would say that actually, the same approaches that we use are very applicable here. A good example is riskiest assumption testing. So this is a way to really narrow your focus, which is sort of what the question was getting at, to get back down to a relatively simple-ish challenge within the larger complex systems design challenge that needs to be resolved in the longer term.

[24:23] In riskiest assumption testing, just as it sounds, we identify the assumptions that must be true for our venture to work, but about which we are most uncertain. And then we tackle and eliminate these first. So on the customer-facing side, this can be a question of validating, for instance, if the value proposition we’re offering is actually meaningful and a good fit for our customer. We probably want to add in there that the cost to them is both low enough to attract their business and high enough on our end to sustain our operations. There are a number of rapid and low-cost approaches to undertaking these sorts of validation tests.

[24:57] On the technology implementation side, we might identify our riskiest assumptions by dividing our development challenges between two big groups. One would be those that may be really hard and may take a lot of time and consume a lot of resources, but we’re almost certain we can address. And on the other hand, those which simply may not be possible at all, no matter what we throw at them. I think we can agree that it doesn’t matter how much we work on the first kind of challenge, when if we don’t address a second kind of challenge, it’s impossible to succeed. So that’s where we start.

[25:26] As an example, the SpaceX business model is built on an assumption of low-cost space missions. For those to be possible, we can’t throw away most of our equipment every time we go up. So our assumption, a rather risky tech assumption several years ago, is that we’ll be able to land our booster rockets back on Earth, which is a total science fiction scene that had never actually been accomplished before. That was a big risk. And as we’ve all seen Elon adores very publicly and explosively testing his way to success. So that’s riskiest assumption testing writ large and in a familiar way for those who have been tracking, in this case, SpaceX.

[26:06] EW: Okay, so our next question is from Senior Industrial Designer María Alejandra Farias. So María asks, “Is it possible to get to the point where the standard is sustainable and not necessarily a reason for status?” What do you think?

[26:21] EI: Not only is it possible to get to the point where the standard is sustainable, it’s an absolute imperative. But the standard won’t look or feel the same to each of us. And that’s because our negative contributions to the environment and climate are not evenly distributed across our global population.

[26:39] Which takes us to Maria’s point about the status or even the privilege of sustainability. Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute published a study recently on our extreme carbon inequality. This study, and many others, underscore the sustainability is disproportionately in our hands: the hands of the privileged. Looking at the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, we see that the richest 1% of the world’s population was responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the poorest half of humanity.

[27:13] So, put differently, 63 million people did more than twice the damage of 3.1 billion people. And before you start thinking about those privileged people over there, realize that to be in the top 1%, you need to have an annual net income of about $109,000 or more. If you have an annual net income of about $38,000 or more, you’re in the richest 10% of the world’s population. This 10% accounted for over half the emissions during this 25-year period. So let’s flip that around: 90% of the world’s population did less damage than the 10% who make $38,000 or more.

[27:53] Making matters worse, it is this 90% who are bearing the worst consequences of the climate crisis. And they are in the least resilient position to cope with it. If we think we’re going to consume our way out of this, we’re on the wrong path. Everybody cruising in Teslas isn’t what’s going to get us there. If you want a luxury reference point, we need to be thinking more along the lines of Patagonia’s famous ad with the headline, “Don’t buy this jacket.” Reuse what you have. Repair what you might otherwise replace. Resell or give what’s no longer appropriate for you. Buy used rather than new. And so on and so forth. I hope and expect we’ll find new, more appropriate elegance in the provenance of our fewer belongings, and our longer and deeper relationship to them as we move forward.

[28:34] In a circular economy, we should be thinking of ourselves as stewards of assets, rather than consumers of resources. So coming back to our question, it’s an imperative that sustainable be the standard and sustainability is not a privilege. It’s a responsibility that lands squarely on the shoulders of the privileged, including me.

[28:53] EW: Okay, so our last question really deals with what’s next. Designer Mike Tannenbaum writes, “Would love to hear your thoughts on how people in our industries have successfully shifted focus to sustainability and climate and found impactful work.” So what do you say, Ethan? What can people do to figure out where they fit in to start to help in this space? And how do they get started?

[29:14] EI: To answer this question, I’ve thought back a bit about my own journey. And some of the journeys I’ve seen my colleagues on and friends and others who’ve turned in this direction and, greatly simplified, perhaps three key elements here.

[29:28] First, you need to let go of your worry that you don’t know enough. You need to realize your contribution is already valuable and needed. So if you think of this as a barn raising, building a barn alone is really daunting, really slow, or perhaps even in certain steps impossible. But when you go to a barn raising perhaps your first barn raising, you know nothing about building a barn, your job might just be to make sandwiches or move wood from Point A to Point B. But you’re still a valuable contributor. These are jobs that need to get done and that you already know how to do.

[29:58] Second barn raising, you may have a hammer in your hand. Fourth barn raising, maybe you’re responsible for framing one side of the barn. And then your seventh barn raising, it might be your own design and you’re organizing the whole thing. Don’t try to get to your seventh barn raising on Day One. And don’t worry about being there. There are other people that are ahead of us. And we can lean in and be useful.

[30:17] Being a designer is a lifelong pursuit. And the practice changes faster than your mastery of it. And there’s a half-life on our knowledge and our craft. So a growth mindset is non-optional. It’s baked into our job description. So here, let go of your worry you don’t know enough and dive in. Begin contributing and learn as you go.

[30:37] Second, it’s important to find your entry point then. What is your contribution that you can make from Day One? Where are you best suited to help today? What’s the overlap between what you already know and do well, and the needs of sustainability in your company or your community and so on? So if you know how to convene a group of people and move them toward a shared understanding, do that. Someone else can be the subject matter expert and you can be the facilitator. If you know design for manufacturing, collaborate with someone who knows the material science of bioplastics, etc., but lacks the understanding of the actual factory floor and how that works and the realities of mass production. Help them bridge the gap in their own knowledge or experience. So find that place where you can contribute right away.

[31:23] My entry point and sort of how I jumped into this personally, was when I realized that design has a power to steer us from an emergent future that happens to us and toward an intentional future that we proactively shape. I realized that through design we can help: 1) understand current and future needs, 2) we can imagine or simulate potential desired futures and 3) we can chart the dynamic roadmap to that chosen future. So largely, those are the places that I thought I could begin to help alongside appropriate subject matter experts.

[31:59] So the third piece is you’re probably not working on your own, you’re working within an organization. Don’t wait for your organization or your clients or collaborators to ask. So even the businesses with the best intentions can find it challenging to reorient to put sustainability at the fore. You need to figure out the first obvious overlap between your organization’s business or operational model and collaborate with that reality.

[32:26] So our growing sustainably practice at frog is a result of the collective efforts of sharp and committed designers, strategists, technologists, program managers, general managers, members of HR and Ops, etc., who have realized that they do know enough to contribute and have decided how they would like to get involved and have found ways to engage now within our existing model.

[32:46] This has started a flywheel where as we grow our understanding and our capabilities, we’re able to deliver on increasingly sophisticated asks from our clients, which in turn generates greater interest from the market and greater positive pressure on us to continue to build our capabilities and our offering. So now we’re getting to a place where we have real mandates to pursue this work. But that’s only by, again, collaborating with the reality of the consulting model, which is really driven heavily by what clients are asking us for, how we can generate revenues, how we can bring the best talent to the table, and so on and so forth. We need to work within that framing as a starting point, prove success and scale out from there.

[33:27] EW: Why is sustainability so important for the design world right now?

[32:31] EI: The role of design is to both anticipate and respond to the changing context in which it’s operating. Our context now demands that we both anticipate and respond to simultaneous and interlinked social, environmental and climate crises. We as designers, strategists, technologists, as corporate innovators, as investors, as advisors, and educators all involved in this intersection of sustainability and ventures, we have tremendous value to bring to this effort.

[33:59] Entrepreneurs are a force multiplier. New ventures, both those being launched by startups and by global organizations, are a nexus of future-focused efforts that will define our tomorrow. The intersection of sustainability and ventures is absolutely crucial to ensuring that tomorrow will be livable, not to mention just, equitable and ultimately regenerative.

[34:22] I also want to emphasize that I see real reasons for hope. We’re seeing signs of mobilization at scale to work toward reversing climate change and to address our other challenges. Importantly, our economies are beginning to recognize that they cannot operate independently of sustainability. So the reductivist, short-term, profit-oriented organizations and economies that we’ve built and profited and prospered with are now confronting a pressing need to move forward toward a more systems-oriented, inclusive, longer term stakeholder-oriented engagement in order to thrive.

[34:55] Employees are demanding action. The competition for talent is as fierce as ever and building great teams increasingly requires delivering on a purpose beyond profit. Governments are ramping up regulation making it clear that the status quo will become either illegal or financially untenable. Financial markets are just beginning to meaningfully price in some of the risks and opportunities presented by this landscape, and the largest sources of capital are demanding new levels of transparency and also action.

[35:25] And importantly, leadership teams have their own ambitions to make their mark beyond shareholder returns. And of course, [they] are also seeing the compounding costs of thinking short-term and ignoring the full stakeholder and systems view that accounts for the full ramifications of their actions. So I believe and certainly hope that we’re at the beginning of a significant shift from amassing an incredible amount of potential energy to converting this into kinetic energy—taking action at scale.

[35:54] There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, I don’t know, millions of designers who want to contribute, who need new design instruments, who are looking for ways to drive impact at scale. Our job is to help unlock the energy so that it can be emitted rather than bottled up, and help direct it so that it is productive, not frustrated or delayed or simply wasted. It’s our job to help lift our sights beyond sustainable as standard to regenerative by default.

[36:24] EW: Well, Ethan, I want to sincerely thank you for being here and joining us to take our listener questions this way.

[36:30] EI: You’re so welcome. It’s wonderful to have an opportunity to think, be challenged and spend time at this intersection of two of my favorite things, sustainability and ventures, where I feel like I have a lot to bring and so much more to learn. Opening this up as a conversation helps me to progress my own understanding and also I hope invites people to engage with me and with us in this topic. So thanks for having me.

[37:03] EW: That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a global design and strategy consultancy. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation. We really want to thank frog VP Ethan Imboden for sharing his insights. We also want to thank all of you who submitted so many great questions—it was truly hard to whittle it down to just ten. Last but not least, we want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us, and be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.


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Elizabeth Wood
Host, Design Mind frogcast & Editorial Director, frog Global Marketing
Elizabeth Wood
Elizabeth Wood
Host, Design Mind frogcast & Editorial Director, frog Global Marketing

Elizabeth tells design stories for frog. She first joined the New York studio in 2011, working on multidisciplinary teams to design award-winning products and services. Today, Elizabeth works out of the London studio on the global frog marketing team, leading editorial content.

She has written and edited hundreds of articles about design and technology, and has given talks on the role of content in a weird, digital world. Her work has been published in The Content Strategist, UNDO-Ordinary magazine and the book Alone Together: Tales of Sisterhood and Solitude in Latin America (Bogotá International Press).

Previously, Elizabeth was Communications Manager for UN OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague. She is a graduate of the Master’s Programme for Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Ethan Imboden
Vice President & Head of Venture Design, frog
Ethan Imboden
Ethan Imboden
Vice President & Head of Venture Design, frog

As Vice President & Head of Venture Design at frog, Ethan Imboden oversees the firm’s work at the intersection of design and entrepreneurship. As part of his role, Ethan leads frogVentures™, which invests frog’s capabilities into shared-risk opportunities and ensures that frog’s portfolio companies start smarter, build faster and establish crucial design and strategy capabilities to support their growth.

Audio Production byRichard Canham
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