How Heather Ward went from fashion to founding a world changing climate startup

Nov 12, 2021

logo of AccelerateOTTThis featured story is brought to you by the Power of Why Podcast in collaboration with Invest Ottawa. We teamed up to produce this special series in celebration of AccelerateOTT, Ottawa’s flagship entrepreneurial conference.

She’s the President & Co-founder of Hyperion Global Energy — the world’s first industrial carbon recycling system. But this impact-focused entrepreneur wasn’t always a carbon tech leader.

From marketing, to advertising, and even hospitality, Heather Ward’s knack for identifying emerging trends and connecting the right people to address them has helped this impact-focused entrepreneur and creative strategist bring mission-driven visions to life.

Today, that vision is helping make the planet cleaner and safer for all, where Heather leverages next-generation technology to help companies ‘Clear the Air’ and propel innovation in the circular economy.

We caught up with Heather to learn how we can change systems from the inside out, the power of slow, and why you should never count yourself out — even into a new industry.

Listen to the episode on Spotify / iTunes / Google Podcasts

Tune in to the podcast or take the time to digest each article found below. Regardless, Heather’s story will ignite your inspiration.

This episode is for you if:

  • You want to drive meaningful change from the inside out
  • You’re curious about cleantech and are eager to learn more
  • You just launched a business and need a go-to-market strategy
  • You’re tired of the rat race and are ready to slow down

Looking for something specific?

4:00] The path from “A” to “B” isn’t always straight
[5:00] The time Heather moved to Toronto with one suitcase, no job, and no place to live
[5:41] Research and learn, fast — Heather’s tips to succeeding in Public Relations
[7:20] Here’s how Heather transitioned to the world of clean energy
[9:00] Aligning the professional with the personal
[12:00] How would you explain this to your grandmother?
[14:17] How to craft an effective go-to-market strategy
[15:40] Diversity, inclusion and creative ideas
[16:10] Introducing the Dyson of garment steamers
[18:24] How non-sexy products could be lucrative and innovative
[20:00] Unlocking your creative brain through flow
[21:47] On (intentional) slowness and strategy
[22:20] Let’s remember that the tortoise won the race, not the hare
[26:25] Why Heather swears by a good night’s sleep
[26:51] Presencing and absencing
[28:00] Who are your unlikely allies?
[35:15] How you can transfer your skills to a new industry

Naomi: Tell us about your origin story.

Heather: Getting from A to B isn’t always a straight line. Sometimes it’s a circle. That’s certainly been the case for me as an entrepreneur.

From a young age, business always interested me. I sold catalogue items door-to-door, and studied entrepreneurship, marketing and economics in school.

When I left university and moved to Toronto, I went there with a suitcase, no job, and no place to live. I started in hospitality and moved my way up to events and customer service. I learned principles there that I still use today — for example, the worst complaint you get is the one you don’t hear.

From there I got into PR and marketing, on the agency side with a large national firm. There I learned the importance of research and being able to quickly get up to speed, and understand the industry your client’s in.

I carried this with me when I started my own agency, which I ran for about a decade in Toronto. We launched Canada’s first electric vehicle. In those days, people were just starting to talk about social impact. That shaped me.

A few years later, I made a leap into cleantech. I had moved to Ottawa and wanted to get involved with the social entrepreneurship world, so I joined an incubator at Impact Hub Ottawa. That’s where I met my co-founder. Things grew quickly from there.

Naomi: What motivated you to explore other industries, business models, and the world of social impact?

Heather: As the community lead at Impact Hub, my purpose was to help other entrepreneurs. At that point, after a decade of running my business, I had achieved what I wanted professionally and wanted to get into more purpose-driven work. Things that aligned more with my personal values in social impact, like the environment.

In changemaking, we talk about the world’s problems. As an entrepreneur, you naturally want to talk about solutions.

I met my Co-founder, Jerry, at the Hub. He was a brilliant engineer with this idea for carbon recycling. I liked that it was an approach with a tangible solution. At the time there was climate denial and the silencing of science in the media, and with my background in media, I kept my eye on it.

The best way to change a system is to get inside of it. That’s where the theme of unlikely allies comes from. Collaboration is key to innovation. Look with a new view to potential partners.

After collaborating with Jerry, we got into the Carbon X Prize, which was a competition to solve the world’s most pressing problems. That catapulted us into new ways of looking at the carbon problem.

Naomi: What does it mean to shape the narrative for climate change?

Heather: When you start doing startup pitches, you need to have an elevator pitch. Something I’ve learned is to explain it like you would to your grandmother, to be concise.

One of the challenges with the tech industry is how deep you can go into the subject. It’s different when an engineer is explaining something to you, compared to a marketer.

You don’t want to dilute the message, but you need context. If you want to get off the shelf and into the market, you need to look at all the forces, and competition, that are driving the industry. Know your audience, and adapt your message to them.

Naomi: Can you walk us through how you approached your go-to-market strategy?

Heather: Know your market and do your research. Design thinking principles apply here. The three main things you want to look at are desirability (does someone want this?), feasibility (can we build this?) and viability (can we sustain this financially?).

With the tech adoption curve, at the early stage, you’re searching, doing customer discovery and validation, then looking at your product-market fit. You leave room to iterate and potentially pivot before you execute.

Creativity is important. Being able to bring a fresh perspective, even from outside the industry, is key. That’s why diversity and inclusion are so important. On our team, people have different experiences from different industries.

In my past career, a client of mine was launching a product, let’s say the Dyson of garment steamers. In the American market, people like Martha Stewart were fans. In Canada, we were finding that most of our product requests were coming from photographers and fashion designers. So, the brand became the official garment care to Fashion Weeks in Canada, where we did about 18 seasons backstage.

We found ourselves in New York, and eventually rolled out globally to Fashion Weeks in Paris, London, Milan. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to travel to all those spots but we did win a global PR award for the client. To this day, they still have that sponsorship.

Naomi: We don’t often talk about these less obvious, not-so-sexy products or ideas, even though they can be lucrative and innovative.

Heather: If we can make steamers sexy, I’m excited to see what we can do with carbon recycling. I’m going into cement factories. But look at what Dyson has done with vacuum cleaners or Tesla with the electric vehicle. There’s a lot to be said about design and product.

Naomi: Do you have any mental exercises that have helped you think creatively?

Heather:  I used to go to CreativeMornings here in Ottawa. It’s interesting how you can feed that part of your brain even if you don’t consider yourself a creative. Just looking at other people’s stories, you never know what will inspire you.

You have to let your brain get into that flow mode. That’s why some of our best ideas happen in the shower or right before bed. Some folks put a notepad by their bed. Go for a walk, get some sunshine and fresh air — do something different. A musical or artistic outlet can often bring inspiration.

Slow down. We are so rushed. We talk about the hustle. I try to be slow and strategic because that’s where the real magic happens. I read In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré, a Canadian author I had the pleasure of seeing speak at Idea City. He changed how I see time and speed and the importance of doing the right things at the right time.

We often forget Aesop’s fable where the tortoise won the race, not the hare. In entrepreneurship, you need endurance for the long haul. Pace yourself.

Naomi: You’re very purpose-driven. After running your company in Toronto for 10 years, you sold it, then transitioned to a completely different life. Why?

Heather: It was a fast-paced, dog-eat-dog world. The financial sector is a fabulous time when you’re in your 20s. The wall I hit back then was losing my dad suddenly. It was a massie wake-up call that life is short. It put things into perspective.

I achieved what I wanted professionally and wanted to give back. Through the media, I was reading about climate change. My brothers lived in Ottawa and are both engineers, and my dad was a Professor who pioneered environmental engineering in the 70s. His name was Gerry, like my Co-founder’s. I believe in serendipity.

I got quiet, slowed down, and moved to Wakefield, Quebec, a little village north of Ottawa. When you start to follow your heart and intuition, it will draw you to the places that you need to be, where you can really turn off that noise. And sleep.

I was so happy when Ariana Huffington came out with Thrive. For years I had been saying that sleep was key to my success. In terms of pacing, that’s what led me to this more purpose-driven work, from joining the Impact Hub to connecting with global changemakers, and being so inspired by these stories.

Otto Sharman from MIT has a theory of presencing versus absencing. Presencing is open heart, open mind — compassion, curiosity and courage as opposed to fear and blame.

I changed my mindset and looked at how I can work within a system to create change. Who are unlikely allies that I can partner with?

Naomi: Can you tell us more about unlikely allies?

Heather: It’s a big term that relates to systems change. Saying that industry is completely bad, and they need to just stop doing what they’re doing isn’t realistic.

To tackle climate change you need to affect economic, political and social systems. Where are the pivot points? How can we innovate in these industries? Pressure from shareholders, impact on stock prices, committing to targets with the Paris Agreement.  Change is coming.

These companies are desperate for technologies like carbon recycling. Where we are right now with cleantech is comparable to 15 years ago in the solar industry.

Collaboration is key for innovation. What is an industrial customer’s pain points? How can you solve them?

Naomi: Where can people read more about what’s coming up in cleantech?

Heather: Following COP26, happening this week in Glasgow, is an interesting place to start. Bill Gates has invested in this sector with Breakthrough Energy ventures. He put out a great white paper on cleantech and what it’ll take to scale it.

A lot of these companies exist in accelerators and incubators because it’s so early. We were part of TechStars Energy accelerator in Norway. A lot of these companies aren’t public yet in terms of investment, but if you find them, amplify them.

The Orca project in Iceland is sucking CO2 out of the air. I have seven nieces and nephews that I’m very close to and worry about the future for young people. And I think it’s important that they see not only the problems but the solutions and how they can get involved. You don’t have to be an engineer or have a PhD.

With the right drive and passion, you can get involved. Look at how policy can push these issues forward, like carbon pricing.

Naomi: What would you say to folks who are thinking about transitioning into a new industry?

Heather: If you have transferable skills, you can bring those to the table. People talk about imposter syndrome, but when I looked around I didn’t see much being done in this industry.

If people can take anything from my personal story it’s that I worked in other industries and brought those skills with me. Don’t put limits on yourself.

I could have said, “I’m not a chemist, so how can I possibly lead a company in this space?” But you have to be willing to learn, to jump in and see where your passion takes you. What do you love? What fascinates you?

There were early days when we were bootstrapping when I was not getting paid to come to work. So you have to really find something you love, your purpose. Go into spaces with like-minded folks. Whether it’s CreativeMornings, or for me it was Impact Hub. That’s where the magic happens in terms of serendipity.

Have courage, make the leap and be comfortable in the unknown. Be open to what you might find — your gifts to the world are important.

Connect with Heather

Connect with Naomi

About the Power of Why Host, Naomi Haile

headshot of Naomi Haile, wearing a white sweaterAn intrapreneur, consultant, and interviewer.

Naomi Haile is curious about people, their paths and what drives them. In 2017, she launched the Power of Why Podcast. Her guests have taken the non-linear path in business, venture capital and other creative professions to share their story. Each episode explores people’s philosophy on life and work.

As we all navigate our lives and careers, Naomi hopes that everyone she connects with – guests and listeners – can shape products, companies, and communities of impact.

Naomi is a consultant at QuakeLab. She is starting graduate school at Columbia University.

Check out other inspiring stories in this special series in celebration of AccelerateOTT:

Bobbie Racette’s inclusivity-first platform is revolutionizing the $455 trillion gig economy
How Esosa Ighodaro-Johnson got out of her own way to raise $1.4 million and co-found Black Women Talk Tech
She’s ushering a new generation of financially empowered youth: introducing Tecla Kalinda

logo of AccelerateOTTAccelerateOTT rallies hundreds of founders, innovators, industry veterans, investors, tech giants, and a host of entrepreneurial partners from Canada’s Capital Region across Canada and worldwide. This one-day flagship entrepreneurship conference hosted by Invest Ottawa strives to equip, connect, and create new opportunities and impact for founders, entrepreneurs, business owners, startups, scaling firms, SMEs, and their partners.  It aims to catalyze their growth and success by addressing key opportunities and challenges facing the startup and scale-up community; providing actionable insight entrepreneurs can put to work; and facilitating relevant investor, customer, and market connections. Visit Invest Ottawa’s venture path programs to see how we can help your business thrive.


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