Family Philanthropy Speaks: A Conversation with Nicole Systrom

NCFP President and CEO Nick Tedesco speaks with Nicole Systrom, founder of Sutro Energy Group. Nicole talked about philanthropy’s role in climate change as well as how philanthropic capital is catalytic to incubate ideas and build infrastructure. She also shared about leveraging peer networks, intermediaries, and other resources.

Philanthropy is a practice borne out of compassion and commitment—and one that is deeply rooted in family. It’s also a practice that must continue to evolve to effectively meet the needs of the communities it seeks to serve. Thankfully, there are countless social sector leaders who are advancing the field with their bold ideas and unwavering enthusiasm for the greater good. The National Center for Family Philanthropy is honored to share the stories of these leaders through its program, Family Philanthropy Speaks—a series of conversations designed to feature the innovative spirit of family philanthropy. These dynamic discussions aim to capture emerging trends and solutions, share new and diverse voices in the field, and lift up the role of family philanthropy—past, present, and future—in stewarding social change. We hope you will join us to explore what it means to give with intention!

Watch more Family Philanthropy Speaks conversations here.


Nick Tedesco: Welcome to the Family Philanthropy Speaks video blog series from the National Center for Family Philanthropy. These stories highlight the innovative spirit of family giving. Today, I’m joined by Nicole’s Systrom. Nicole is a clean energy expert and an advocate in the fight against climate change. She’s the founder of Sutra Energy group and serves on the board of the Energy Foundation and works with philanthropists and impact investors to direct capital towards clean energy solutions. Nicole, thank you so much for joining us today.

Nicole Systrom: Nick, I’m so glad to be with you. I’m excited for our conversation.

Nick Tedesco: Well, me too. Let’s get started and talk a little bit about your background. We want to hear about you. You are a climate activist and investor who sees social impact as an absolute priority. We’d love to hear a little bit more about you and when and how you decided to dedicate your time and talent to the environment and sustainability?

Nicole Systrom: That’s a great question. I think I was actually introduced, I would say to the environment and the context of philanthropy. So sort of interesting for this community that we’re talking about today. I grew up visiting Yosemite National Park with my family, which for anyone who’s been there it’s just a, truly a inspiring place. The natural majesty it’s like those words actually mean things when you describe Yosemite. And so I grew up visiting that park and just, it was so inspirational to be there. And as I referenced before, it was in the context of philanthropy. So my family had a small family foundation and we were the bulk of our granting for a couple of years, was to a fund that was related to conservation projects in the park.

Nicole Systrom: We would go as a family, partly as our philanthropic diligence for the year and partly to spend time together. And so kind of all of that got wrapped up in my mind around a love of nature and the natural world philanthropy, ethics, service, intergenerational time together. That was one kind of bucket. And then, the really the second turning point for me was in college where I majored in earth systems, which was a degree, an interdisciplinary degree in environmental science policy and economics, but really it was all about climate change. I got pretty well indoctrinated at an early age, that that’s what I was going to spend my time on and has led me to what I’m doing today.

Nick Tedesco: It’s inspiring. Congratulations. You recently joined Galvanize Climate Solutions founded by Tom Steyer and Katie Hall, and you are the chief impact officer. We’d love to a little bit more about Galvanize Climate Solutions and again, congratulations on the role.

Nicole Systrom: Oh, thank you. Galvanize was launched last fall. It is an investment firm that is going to be focused on having climate impact. And I think what is really exciting about it is that the team behind Galvanize, I really understand that in order to make investments in climate related technologies work, you also need to surround the investment tool with policy, science and technology, communications. And so at Galvanize, we want to be combining all of that expertise under one roof. My role, as you said, is chief impact officer. I get to do lots of fun things, obviously chief among them impact measurement and management. I’m overseeing our science and technology team, and also working on policy regulatory affairs work, really all aimed at trying to identify the right climate innovations that we need to really make some progress here.

When the role came along, I mean, I jumped at it because I think it’s one of the few places I’ve seen that’s really understood though, let’s take a different approach to solving this problem. Let’s stop thinking in silos as, “We’re just doing philanthropy or we’re just doing political giving, or we’re just doing investment,” and really think about the problem from a really holistic perspective. I really appreciate that. And then just as I mentioned, I think a couple of times, the team over there is so awesome. People I really respect and admire and I feel really lucky to get to come to work with them and chew on some big climate impact issues. Can’t wait to see where it goes.

Nick Tedesco: Well, it’s exciting. And you’ve often talked about the need for using many different tools to address climate as you just referenced. And so this feels like a perfect fit. I’ve heard you say that climate needs an investment revolution. And so I’d love for you to share a little bit more about that this multidisciplinary, multi sector approach to tackling this huge issue of climate.

Nicole Systrom: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think we do need an investment revolution here. I mean, the most basic thing I meant by that statement is we just, we need a lot of money. This is, we are just talking about decarbonizing the entire global economy. I was on a plane a couple weeks ago and as we’re landing and I’m kind of looking out and just thinking like all of the… You know how you get close to the ground, and you could see the neighborhood, all of the cars I could see, those have to become electric vehicles, and that’s just what I can see at this tiny window, we’re talking about the whole globe. And so it’s, I think at bottom, the statement was really about, we need a lot of investment, a lot of money to go into this transition, but more specifically and now I’m not speaking on behalf of Galvanize, just kind of talking generally around how to approach climate investment.

Nicole Systrom: We need to be making investments in electrification. We need to totally change the way we move people and things around the planets and new transportation systems. We have to change the way we produce and consume food. The ag sector is a huge source of global emissions. And really those are just the big buckets, but along with those buckets and the need for more money comes also, I think a need for different kinds of philanthropists and investors who understand that this is, we’re not going to make these changes overnight and we need to make a long term commitment to approaching and solving this problem.

Nick Tedesco: I think it’s smart. We’ve got to use all the tools that are available. I’d love to pivot and talk a little bit about the problem at hand. And talk about what the opportunities are for philanthropists. And again, the definition of philanthropy being loosely defined. Using investments, using traditional grant making, advocacy, whatever might be at your disposable, but what do we see as those opportunities for philanthropists?

Nicole Systrom: Yeah. There’s so much opportunity. It’s like staggering, how much opportunity there is. I think, well that coupled with the fact that climate change itself is such a huge concept, it’s really, can be really overwhelming and intimidating. How do you even get started? I think I would say a couple of things, the first thing I would say to our friends in philanthropy is the biggest opportunity for you today is whatever philanthropy you’re doing, put a climate lens on it. I can pretty much guarantee you that if you’re an education philanthropist, if you’re a healthcare philanthropist, poverty alleviation, homeless, anything, animal welfare, there is likely a climate angle to what you’re doing, climate intersects with everything.

Nicole Systrom: And so my very first piece of advice would be, whatever you’re doing today, aim 10% of it at climate, but keep it in the same bucket, just get going. The second area of opportunity, I think there’s a time opportunity here because… And by this, I mean learning while you go, give while you learn, don’t wait to become an expert. And part of this is just driven by the physics of climate change. If we’re going to decarbonize our economy, if we’re going to become a net zero world by 2050, we can’t wait till 2045 to make the changes. We actually have to make some pretty significant progress in the next decade or so. And so there’s a real opportunity here in terms of reducing emissions now. And so, what I would encourage philanthropists who are new to the space to think about is, take a few months, get oriented, but start giving, don’t wait and partner with the climate philanthropists who I know and work with are just like wonderful humans.

They’d be thrilled to share their strategies with you anytime, but they’re also a bunch of groups and communities out there. I mean, National Center for Family Philanthropy, I think being one that already exist to help philanthropists get money into the field for climate. And then the last one, I would say just an opportunity, really close to my heart and what I know a lot about personally, because it’s where I’ve spent the last decade of my career focused is on, philanthropic support of really early stage technology development. And this is I like to sort of push on it because I think it’s a place where philanthropists often think this is the… What is our job here? Isn’t that what venture capitalists do? Or shouldn’t mainstream investors be supporting really early stage technology development? But there’s a real role for philanthropy to play at the early stages, because these, the kinds of technologies that we will certainly need, they take a long time to develop.

And that’s many years before there’s really something commercial for a mainstream investor to grab a hold of. And philanthropy, catalytic capital can play a really important role at that early stage. And just to mention even more specifically, two organizations that I’m on the board of that I think are great in this regard are Prime Coalition, which partners with philanthropists who invest catalytic capital and in early stage tech companies that could have an outsized impact on the climate. And another one, which is a two year fellowship program supporting really early stage innovators just so they can spend all of their time focused on developing both the technology that could have a real impact, but then the whole business that surrounds that technology, which is the vehicle for how we get that technology out into the world to have the impact we all hope it’s going to have.

Nick Tedesco: Thank you for mentioning the role of philanthropic capital being catalytic and being able to incubate ideas and build infrastructure. And thank you for sharing Prime as an example. I’d love to hear a little bit more about an example of some of that work. How might a philanthropist direct their dollars through an organization like Prime or others? What does that look like? What are some of these organizations and solutions that have been incubated out of philanthropic capital?

Nicole Systrom: Well, Prime is the one that I know the best. I’m currently board chair there. I actually was one of the… Well, I was the first employee after the founder for a couple of years there. But I think the innovation that Prime brings to the table is, there’s this period of time between having a technology or maybe even an early stage prototype that you think could be really impactful. And there’s still a lot of risk that you need to retire before a market rate investor will back that company or that technology and yet word that technology to come to fruition like, “Wow, what a huge impact on the climate it might have.” What Prime does is, it’s a charitable organization, 501c3, it serves as an intermediary between kind of innovators, entrepreneurs and philanthropists on the other side. And so what philanthropists do is they often partner with Prime.

Prime has a lot of expertise in facilitating a direct investment from a philanthropist into a company, but many philanthropists choose to use Prime as an intermediary. So giving a grant to Prime or giving a recoverable grant to Prime, or maybe even a loan, a PRI loan to prime at that, then trusting Prime to draw on its own technical and investment expertise, which it has put together under its charitable organization umbrella to make investments into companies that would have a really outside impact on the climate. But for some reason, right now they’re not able to attract commercial investment.

Nick Tedesco: It leads me to a question around innovation, for climate is innovation necessary or is it that we can continue to put dollars towards existing interventions and solutions? Or is it both?

Nicole Systrom: It’s both, it’s really both. We already have the technologies we need to solve climate or we just need to deploy what we have. I think that’s absolutely true, but if you look at the IPCC models, so the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is like the umbrella, global science organization, the sort of like the organization of record on climate, all of their models about where we’re going to go, where we need get, rely on technologies, not in whole, but in some part, rely on technologies we don’t have or technologies that we have, but are not cheap enough for us to meet the requirements of the model.

There’s absolutely a role for deployment and we need to be pushing us hard as we can and deploying the technologies we have, already have today that are cost effective, but there’s absolutely a role for innovation in the future. Especially as we get into sectors that are much harder to abate. Like industry, steel, cement production, those being kind of classic examples there. There’s a lot of, I think technical innovation that’s still needed.

Nick Tedesco: Going back to one of your earlier comments about just getting started and leveraging peer networks and intermediaries, you mentioned a few organizations, but I would love to hear from you, organizations that donors might seek out to be able to find resources, to find network connections, to be able to learn about climate, because it is quite an intimidating issue.

Nicole Systrom: I think a really great first step to get a idea of the scope of what we’re talking about here is I think it’s an organization that is specifically designed to communicate around climate and the climate crisis and all the solutions that we have. And so the materials they have on their website, they’re just really, really wonderful. It’s a great first stop. Another great path for philanthropists who are really looking to learn quickly and also deploy capital quickly, I think, is to work with any number of the great re-granting organizations which already exist working on climate.

Energy Foundation is a really obvious one Climate Works Foundation is a really obvious one. The Hive Fund for Gender and Climate Justice is more of a new one. The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund is, there’s a ton out, that Solutions Project is another one. All to say, many re granting organizations where as a philanthropist, you can give a big block grant and then trust the re granter to invest it in a philanthropic strategy that makes sense, given their expertise and your goals as a philanthropist.

Nicole Systrom: And it’s not a re granting organization, but it is an organization that is specifically built to serve philanthropists who are new to climate and interested in deploying money quickly, the Climate Leadership Initiative, or CLI, it’s funded by a bunch of other major climate philanthropists, just to be a resource, they don’t take in money. You don’t pay them. It’s a bunch of really wonderful strategic philanthropists who can help you get started and help you connect to other climate philanthropists in this space and also organizations that are worthy of your consideration.

Nick Tedesco: Great resources. I want to touch on policy and would love to get your thoughts on how donors can address climate when policy makers won’t act?

Nicole Systrom: It’s an especially important question at this moment in time, which as we record this, at least here in the United States, the President Biden’s Build Back Better Plan, which is a whole raft of things aimed at climate, which would be really transformational. As it’s in limbo right now, it’s being held up because a handful of policy makers are not willing to move forward for various reasons. The one thing I would say is, and I struggle with this myself as a person who’s engaged with policy and policy makers a lot. Oh, it’s so frustrating when they won’t act. And yet, the role philanthropy has already played in getting us to where we are on policy and will we need it to continue to play in the future? It’s really hard to overstate that. We were on a six degree warming path, which that’s way more than 1.5 and 1.5 is already not awesome.

Nicole Systrom: We were on a six degree warming path and that was before philanthropy really got involved. And a few decades ago when the major funders sort of started to understand that this was going to be a big issue and started to make investments, they mostly did it around policy advocacy. And I would say without those philanthropies grappling with the problem, we wouldn’t be on a three degree warming path right now, where there would be no way we would have any hope of hitting our 1.5 degree goal. I think, the truth is policy and climate change is like, it is absolutely essential and philanthropy has an absolutely essential role to play. And we really have to be long term investors here. We can’t get frustrated when things don’t go as we want to.

Nicole Systrom: Another point I would make is, to think about what policy you’re thinking about, because we’re this discussion that we’ve been having so far has been about a federal bill here in the U.S. But again, from an American perspective, there’s so much happening at the state level and so much happening at the municipal level. And a lot of that, what is happening there is really positive, really incredible progress. And also supported by generous philanthropists, all of the work that has been done to help move that policy forward and design it. And so to the extent that you get frustrated with one level of government, I guess I would say, there’s lots of levels of government out there. We need them all to be working. Don’t get discouraged, hang in there.

Nicole Systrom: And then, speaking to the discussion we were having earlier around different kinds of tools, obviously philanthropic organizations can’t make political donations. However, I know many of the people who are part of your community. I mean, they’re family members and they have different pots of money and I would deeply encourage them, encourage everyone out there who’s got some amount of money that they can give as a political donation, giving directly to pro climate candidates, a great platform for that is GiveGreen where if you donate to a political candidate through GiveGreen, when it comes to the candidate, the candidate gets a really strong signal, “This is coming because of your environmental or your climate stance.” We need to send direct signals to our political candidates as well, I think. And so to the extent that people in your community have that capacity, I’d really encourage them to consider political action as well.

Nick Tedesco: I want to come back to your personal experience a little bit. You and your husband have had a very unexpected journey with success as entrepreneurs.

Nicole Systrom: Yeah.

Nick Tedesco: And I wanted to get some thoughts and reflections from you on the experience so far and you being so young and finding success at such a young age and the implications that it has for philanthropy, for you, for your family.

Nicole Systrom: I think as you know Nick, because we know each other personally, it’s been a pretty crazy ride these past gosh, almost over 10 years at this point. My husband is one of the co-founders of Instagram and when we met in college, and so I mean, one of the great gifts is that I got to stand next to him while… And watch Instagram go from an idea to the huge force it is in all of our lives today. I would say I’m really grateful for a couple of things. One being, well, that I got to marry this man who’s wonderful and has the biggest heart and is so such a voracious learner and driven and so curious. But I also got to see that in a very real way, one person can have a really big impact.

Nicole Systrom: Sure. It’s often an exceptional person, but it’s been really incredible to really have that brought to life for me right in front of my eyes. I think, given that this did, we have been blessed with this success early on in our lives compared to most people. It has us thinking a lot about, how we want to use this privilege? And I think one aspect of that certainly calling back to the example that my grandparents set with having a family foundation, we have young kids, we want them to learn that same attitude towards service and compassion for others.

Nicole Systrom: And so philanthropy is an area where we’re still, we’re early on in our journey and there’s a lot to learn from people who’ve had longstanding philanthropic traditions, but I mean, it’s absolutely something that is on our mind. And one of the things that I’m excited and I know Kevin is excited to work on developing in the coming years.

Nick Tedesco: And I think there’s a misperception from a lot of people that philanthropy can be pretty linear. There’s an interest or a passion and you go after that. And so I’d love for you to maybe reflect upon the emergent path that you are on, you referenced at you’re very early in your Family Philanthropy journey. And so perhaps you can shed some light on what that is like that it’s not linear, that it’s often meandering.

Nicole Systrom: Yeah. I think it’s obviously, climate is the thing I know a lot about personally and hopefully I’ve demonstrated, feel pretty passionately about at this point. I have a lot of ideas about the philanthropy that I hope we will be engaged in the climate sphere, but I think it’s my husband while he certainly agrees that climate is a huge issue, there are other things that really matter to him a lot as well. I think like supporting our communities, making sure that people in our communities are well cared for and have access to basic human rights, being able to live lives with dignity. I think that we are exploring all of that. And I think earlier when I was speaking about learning while go, I think that’s absolutely the approach we want to take because, philanthropy isn’t our full-time job.

I work at Galvanize now and my husband has his own projects. And so, what it’s looking like for me is practicing what I’ve been preaching for the past 30 minutes, which is around finding great, charitable partners that are already out in the community that have a lot of expertise and leaning into them as we figure out how we want to express our philanthropy and also to the idea of putting in climate lens on things that we care about. If there’s a particular region we care about, what can we do from a climate perspective in that region? I think, it’s been really fun to get to know the organizations out there and to figure out how best we can support them.

Nick Tedesco: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs that are just beginning to focus on their philanthropy?

Nicole Systrom: I think it’s really pretty simple. I’ve said it before. It’s just start, that’s it. I think a lot of entrepreneurs are really driven people and making broad generalizations here, they want to dig into something, they want to do it. They get excited about the system and learning about everything and I think you have to be honest with yourself about how much time you can put into philanthropy, but however much time or effort you want to put into it. The most important thing is just to start. And you learn it’s not that scary or you learn how to manage expectations and life is long, there’s lots of time to learn and change course, but we don’t get to have those learnings if you don’t start playing the game.

I mean, there are to just tons, tons of charitable organizations out there, all deserving of your support. And I think, the hardest part is just getting over that initial inertia and just… Even if it’s something as simple as giving to a huge national organization, just giving something to get your muscles working around philanthropy and, like anything it’s something you can really take really far and hopefully in a direction that brings a lot of joy and purpose to your life.

Nick Tedesco: Brilliant advice. And I know we’re at time, so I want to close with one last question. What’s your hope for philanthropy as we emerge from the pandemic? And hopefully there’s a broader recognition of the pervasive inequality that we have seen in our country and in our world.

Nicole Systrom: If it’s been a really rough time for everybody. I think to me, the main lesson coming out of… Well, we’re still in the midst of the pandemic, but the main lesson here is how we can’t sit on the sidelines and we can’t ignore these problems. I think when I take it to climate in particular and the sort of putting an inequity lens on climate and the climate movement, for a long time, the climate movement hasn’t really addressed and has in many ways actually withheld power from many of the communities and groups that are actually most affected by climates. I think, and that that needs to change. And my deep hope is that we can, as a climate movement recognize that the people… I think, MacKenzie Scott actually, I think is a great example here.

Nicole Systrom: She gave $125 million to climate and she says, her life has yielded two resources. One is money and the other is the conviction that the people who are experiencing the inequities are the ones who are best positioned to come up with the right solutions. I think the climate movement could really, I hope take that to heart. I see a lot of evidence that we’re moving in that direction, but it’s certainly an area that I am very excited to dig into and learn much more about myself. But I think the rest of the philanthropic movement, especially those who are coming to climate or have been climate philanthropists for a while, it’s an important area of inquiry to think about, to really reflect on who’s at the table? Who has the power? And who are we supporting and lifting up?

Nick Tedesco: Well, thank you, Nicole. Really great advice to end on. And I want to thank you for your time, your insights, your encouragements, the words of wisdom you’ve shared and the call to action around climate. And we are just excited to follow you in the role at Galvanize and continue to watch what you’re doing with the Family Philanthropy as well. So thanks for joining us.

Nicole Systrom: Oh, you’re so welcome. It was really fun.