Represent: Conversations with Diverse Founders in STEM

In 2021, Grid Catalyst launched a series of conversation to highlight diverse founders and entrepreneurs working in energy, climate, cleantech, and sustainability. We are proud to highlight the work and wisdom of these founders, whose stories are both relatable and inspiring.

Our initial videos in the series feature three women founders exploring their highs, lows, and advice for other women considering an entrepreneurial pathway. There is so much incredible experience, grit, and wisdom among these founders that we hope can inform and inspire more women to consider launching their own businesses and leveraging their leadership and innovation to transforming our systems.

Meet the Founders

Zahra Illiff – Vessyll

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Zahra iliff – founder of vessyll

Zahra Hargens Iliff started her career over 25 years ago working in the Chicago real estate and construction industry. Her ventures have taken her from the mountains of Colorado building eco-lodges and running a real estate firm to the beaches of New Zealand building sustainable homes using North American standards able to withstand earthquakes. She landed back in her hometown of St. Paul running large affordable housing portfolios for the Twin Cities’ non-profits. During this time, she discovered the huge opportunity for energy storage to play a large part in the renewable energy ecosystem. Along with husband, she co-founded a residential and commercial battery energy storage company, Vessyll, to meet this growing need. She’s excited to be a part of an emerging industry just getting its start as our planet transitions away from its reliance on fossil fuels.

What advice do you have for future founders?

If you have an idea you are passionate about, go through the exercise of doing a formal business plan. It’s a fantastic exercise and if you can get through that and you are still passionate about it, then that’s a hurdle you have already overcome. 

View our conversation with Zahra.

Elizabeth Turner – Precipitate Architecture

Elizabeth is an architect with a passion for finding synergies to create thriving, equitable communities that depend less on the purchase of energy, saving both operational costs and carbon emissions.

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Elizabeth turner – founder of precipitate architecture

She founded Precipitate in 2017 to explore emerging methods of holistically integrated design at the intersection of architecture, research, and education.  She is a Certified Passive House Consultant through the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) and teaches the capstone project class for the Sustainability Studies minor at the University of Minnesota, connecting students in support of communities.

Elizabeth volunteers extensively with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Minnesota, advocating for public policy with a focus on equity and inclusion toward truly sustainable communities for all. She is co-chair of the AIA Minnesota Government Affairs Committee, on the Leadership Team for the Culture Change Initiative, and a member of the AIA Minnesota Committee on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and Committee on the Environment.

What advice do you have for future founders?

Women considering entrepreneurial pathways you don’t have to do it alone. If you haven’t found your team yet just keep looking and keep meeting people. I think what makes me a successful entrepreneur is having relationships and developing them with everybody.

View our conversation with Elizabeth.

Della Young – Young Environmental Consulting Group

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Della schall young – founder of young environmental consulting group

Della Schall Young is the owner and principal hydrologist of Young Environmental Consulting Group, LLC., a water and natural resources planning, permitting, and compliance consulting firm. She combines her passion for resource management and unwavering integrity to help clients execute projects in environmentally responsible ways. Della holds a Bachelor of Science degree in natural resources and environmental studies with an emphasis on water resources management and a Master of Science degree in water resources science from the University of Minnesota. She recently vacated her role as the citizen, cochair of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, and holds a position on the Executive Board of the Minnesota State Organization of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.

What advice do you have for future founders?

Just do it! You are likely harder on yourself than anybody else is. We prepare for failure, but not as much for success. If you’re thinking about it now, you’ve probably been thinking about it for longer than you are aware of. What’s the worst that can happen? Whatever happens, you learn from it. You’ll be surprised by the people who will be behind you and cheering you on. Trust your gut and just go for it.

View our conversation with Della.

Young Environmental Consulting also published a wonderful summary of the interview with Della on LinkedIn, in celebration of Black History Month and the “ambitious scientist and entrepreneur leading their firm as she paves the way for the next generation in STEM.”

Read the summary of her interview in this article.

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Nina Axelson

Grid Catalyst was founded in 2021 by Nina Axelson, an industry leader with nearly 20 years of experience in energy and sustainability. Previously, Nina was the VP of Sustainability for Ever-Green Energy and served on the board of the International District Energy Association.

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