Case Studies

From tech start-ups to climate change: how a trip to Patagonia sparked an idea for corporate climate action

WorkForClimate's founder became passionate about climate “pretty late in the game”.

Article by
Amy Foyster
Bryan Rollins

As the founder of WorkForClimate, a start-up focused on fighting climate change, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Bryan Rollins had spent his life obsessing over global warming. But, in his own words, Rollins became passionate about climate “pretty late in the game”.

It wasn’t until three years ago, when the Alaskan-born Sydneysider stepped down from his role as one of tech-giant Atlassian’s General Managers and set off on an overseas trip that he redefined his mission in life.

“I spent five months in South America and the whole time I was in nature, either on my bike or hiking. While I was in Patagonia, I read a number of books on climate, like Drawdown. The summer weather was highly unusual and when I spoke with local elders in the small communities in the area they confirmed that they had never seen weather like this in their entire lives, and that they could see the clear effects of climate change over their lifetime.

His final adventure on his year of travel was returning to Alaska, where he was born.

"I went to see a glacier that you used to be able to see from the parking lot. Now you have to take a 30 minute boat ride, or drive all the way round the back and hike in to see the edge of the glacier. It's one thing to read the clear, conclusive science, it's another to confront the evidence and witness how much things have changed in my lifetime,” explains Rollins.  

"It's one thing to read the clear, conclusive science, it's another to confront the evidence and witness how much things have changed in my lifetime.”

Rollins returned to Australia in July 2019 and set out trying to meet as many people in the climate world as he could. Eventually, he was introduced to John Hepburn, who is the Executive Director of a climate change network called The Sunrise Project. Rollins describes him as “having a more strategic view of climate than anyone else I’d met previously”, and so they began to talk about the intersection of business and climate.

“John was really interested in how to get employees within corporations involved in combating climate change. I have a perspective of how I think things get done inside of organisations, having sold two and been inside a number of companies in my career. So, we formed a hypothesis around what employee engagement would look like.

“Rather than it being about people versus management, we wanted to find the changemakers in organisations, because change in large organisations is very difficult! They may have launched a new product, championed the change on a parental leave policy, or introduced an amazing new cost-cutting measure to the organisation — the thing they have in common is that they were able to see that change through.

“We set out to find a way to give these people as much assistance as possible, so they can do what they’re great at, which is making changes inside their company, and support them in shifting the policy, programs, attitude and decisions of their organisation. That is how the concept of WorkForClimate was born.”

WorkForClimate aims to take away many of the barriers changemakers face within organisations, such as not having enough time to undertake all the research from scratch, or not knowing what steps to follow to help their organisation decarbonise.The four key areas of focus include switching your company’s energy to 100% renewables, reducing emissions by setting verified science-based targets, switching your company’s default superannuation fund to an ethical one and corporate lobbying against carbon-intensive business practices.

Rollins’ top piece of advice for employees looking to tackle one of WorkForClimate’s goal areas is to find like-minded colleagues to work with.

“If I look back at my last two years at Atlassian, it was probably the proudest time of my entire professional career and yet it wasn’t because of individual heroics on my part, it was because we had an amazing team that had a strong notion of collaboration and an amazing platform of trust. You only need to find one or two people who you think can help you figure out how to get momentum inside your organisation.”

Rollins’ also believes that great changemakers understand the environment they’re working in, what arguments will resonate, and what motivations the organisation will have to make the change. Finally, he says that it’s important to have the ability to ask direct questions.

“Life’s just too short not to ask that uncomfortable question, yet we hold back a lot of time. You have to be willing to show that you’re a leader and be an advocate and put yourself out there. In the corporate world, people live on a far too conservative basis and that’s why corporations stagnate.

“If you look at the careers of dynamic changemakers, they’re the ones who are phenomenally successful, whereas the people who just go with the flow, are less likely to find themselves in positions of authority. I think that leaning into a little bit of conflict and challenging the status quo, is where that sort of leadership is born, not by simply following the existing execution path.”

"I think that leaning into a little bit of conflict and challenging the status quo, is where that sort of leadership is born, not by simply following the existing execution path.”

For Rollins’ vision to be successful, WorkForClimate wants to see systemic change in the global corporate sector.

“Much like how gender equality is a default assumption at a lot of larger organisations, we’d love to see the notion of climate awareness baked into the values of every company, instead of it being a high-level concept only discussed at board meetings or among an under-resourced sustainability team.

“It’s almost like if in 30 years someone told you they planned to buy a petrol car. You’d tell them that was insane, because they’d have to give up so much else to justify moving away from an EV,” says Rollins.

“We want the same thing for corporations. We want them to be assuming the clean solution as the default, rather than assuming the high-carbon solution by default and then having to come up with the justification for why they wouldn’t go with a carbon-intensive solution for part of their business.”

"We want corporations to be assuming the clean solution as the default, rather than assuming the high-carbon solution by default."

While supporting the lead up to WorkForClimate’s official launch in July 2021, Rollins’ also took on a role at private investment firm, Grok Ventures. He is focused on working with founders of clean tech companies to help them scale and grow.

“Everyone can find a way to make an impact — my new role is my way of using my background and skills to make a difference. But you don't have to leave your job to make a difference — you can make a difference right where you work and live."

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Images supplied by Bryan Rollins.

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