Iris ten Have is a trained chemist that turned into a climate tech investor. She is currently Head of Science at the Berlin-based climate tech venture capital firm Extantia

Tell us a bit about yourself and your mission?

As a woman who studied chemistry, worked in academia, and is now working in venture capital, I have somehow navigated male-dominated fields my whole life. I hate to say it, but growing up I didn’t really have any female role models, no one to look up to. Now, I see this as my mission: to inspire younger female generations. So young women can see me talking on stage or speaking up and hopefully say: I could be like her one day. Even if that means having to overcome anxiety, fear of failure, and imposter syndrome. For example, being the only woman on a panel amongst a group of more experienced men might scare me, but somebody needs to do it for things to change. Representation matters.

I’m also on another mission: saving the world from climate change. At Extantia, we invest in exceptional technologies that slash greenhouse gas emissions at scale, bridge the cost gap between fossil fuels and renewable alternatives, and turbocharge our path to Net Zero.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

I wouldn’t say that I ever really planned out my career. I would personally find that boring and it would lead to too many expectations from myself. I believe in a healthy amount of serendipity and being open to whatever comes on your path: sometimes you just have to be at the right place at the right time.

It is not very common for a chemist to be aware of the venture capital industry. However, I spent some time in Silicon Valley during my research years, which was the first time I got introduced to the concept. Back in 2017, the industry seemed mostly focused on software. Think of the large tech giants from the Valley that were essentially built by venture capitalists. So back then, I couldn’t really see how a chemist like myself would add value to a venture capital fund. Fast forward 5 years later: I decided to spin out of academia determined to make a significant dent in climate change and was positively surprised by the amount of funds that seemed interested in climate tech.

Coming back to serendipity: I eventually found Extantia via a quick Google search using the terms “venture capital CO2”. I had no connections in venture capital and sent out a cold inbound application. This took quite some courage, but I’m happy I did it. Now, as Head of Science at Extantia, I feel like I can finally make the impact I always wanted to make. Apart from being the in-house chemist, I’m also an investor and a thought leader.

What challenges have you faced along the way and how did you address these?

Generally, women in male-dominated fields face tough situations regularly. Think of things like gender-based discrimination or exclusion. Even though startups founded or co-founded by women generate more revenue per dollar of funding than those founded by men, the growth potential of female-led startups can be endangered by less access to capital. Only 2% of venture capital funding comes their way. Moreover, female founders often report bias from investors and other stakeholders who question their credentials or ability to succeed in male-dominated fields. For example, a study from Harvard Business School found that male investors were more likely to ask male founders promotion-focused questions, such as “How do you plan to grow your business?”, while asking female founders prevention-focused questions, such as “How do you plan to avoid failure?”.

I have personally also faced such situations. It is very challenging to speak up, especially when there is an imbalance of power, which is often the case. For example, I’ve previously been mistaken for an intern at work-related events. The appearance of a younger woman may not always fit into the standard picture of authority that older white men have in their heads. Every time something like this happens, your credibility is essentially questioned and you feel like you need to prove yourself again.

So, what are the learnings that we, women, can take away from such situations? Women sometimes feel like they don’t have the right to speak up. I would love for our imposter syndrome mindsets to vanish, but fighting the system is not for everyone. It is hard. You need to make sure that you take care of your own mental health and deal with the pressure that you face. Try to keep talking to trusted peers and close allies. Sometimes, fighting can also be manifested by just being present in the room and taking a seat at the table. 

How can we improve diversity in the tech sector?

Diversity is generally still a problem in all areas of the venture capital and startup industry. You might now be wondering: why should I care about diversity? The answer is simple: you are missing out on unique opportunities if you don’t open up to diversity. Winning teams are diverse teams that can see problems and solutions from various angles.

Sounds obvious, so why is diversity still an unsolved problem? This comes down to talent blindness: people are typically better at finding and rating qualities that they possess themselves, which leads us to look for people who are like us. A lot of managers tend to focus on “getting the job done”, which creates an environment where hidden talents can never show themselves. 

The first step to overcoming talent blindness is awareness, which can be raised through educating employers on the negative impact of talent blindness and the importance of diversity in the workplace. For example, unconscious bias training and sharing success stories of companies that have embraced diversity could be good places to start.

What do you think companies can do to support women and other minorities working in the tech sector?

There are a couple of actionable steps that companies can take to support women and other minorities working in the tech industry:

  1. Expanding the talent pool by reaching out to diverse networks. Individuals that identify as a minority may not feel supported if they are the only minority in a team.
  2. Increasing awareness of unconscious bias and promoting inclusivity by offering training and other resources.
  3. Managers should cultivate creativity, celebrate diverse perspectives, and focus on developing the specific strengths of their team members.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I’m certainly proud of my career switch: transitioning from being an academic chemist to a climate tech venture capital investor. This switch involved getting over my fear of failure and sending out a cold inbound application. I am happy I did it and am feeling grateful for the opportunities that have come my way so far.

What do you see as major factors contributing to achieving success?  

A major factor contributing to success is having a supportive and diverse team to work with that can see and solve problems from multiple perspectives. Staying open-minded is a key factor too. For example, I have learned a tremendous amount from our Head of Marketing, Fernanda Bartels, in the past year. We often talk about our different views of the world: I see the world from a chemist’s perspective in atoms and molecules, while she sees the world from a marketing expert’s perspective in fonts and designs.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

From a high-level perspective, my challenge for the next decade is tackling climate change. At Extantia, we’re already doing that by investing in technologies that can save vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. We typically back early-stage startups and know firsthand that founders face a tough road when it comes to scaling their companies. But once these green pioneers mature and take off, it’s absolutely thrilling to see the impact they will have in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We’re excited to help these startups soar and change the world for the better!

I would love to see more diversity in climate tech. Both on the founder and the investor side. I genuinely believe that well-oiled teams with diverse perspectives can address climate change-related issues in a much more holistic way compared to non-diverse teams which are much more at risk of becoming an echo chamber.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in tech?

  1. Learn something new every day. The tech industry is constantly evolving, and it’s important to stay up-to-date with the latest trends and technologies.
  2. Build a strong and supportive network. This can provide valuable guidance and support as you navigate your career. Look for people who inspire you and ask for their advice and insights.
  3. Be open to new opportunities. The tech industry offers a wide range of career paths. Explore different areas and take on new challenges to broaden your skill set.

If you could swap places with a superhero for a day, who would it be?

The superhero I’d love to switch places with is Elastigirl from “The Incredibles”. Her primary superpower is elasticity, which allows her to stretch various parts of her body to great proportions. Apart from being a very flexible shapeshifter, she can achieve superhuman levels of strength, durability, and agility using her elasticity powers.