Using Innovation to Tackle Pollution & Climate Change Corey Lien & Tammy Hu – Co-Founders, DOMI Earth

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Taiwan-born serial entrepreneurs Tammy Hu and Corey Lien’s latest venture, DOMI Earth, is working to move small businesses and families from awareness to action on the world’s climate goals.

The climate challenge has been called the “million-piece puzzle.” Governments, corporations, NGOs, and community groups have made progress on a catalogue of commitments, but these efforts have yet to cohere into a lasting solution. Drawing on the lessons of the global experiment in social enterprise, DOMI has spent the last three years crafting business models to bridge the gaps in meaningful, effective collaboration among stakeholders. These kinds of interventions are critical if we want to realize the systemic change we need.

DOMI’s first task? Activate millions of people to save energy in their offices and homes. To accomplish their goal, Corey and Tammy have built a vibrant culture of playful experimentation and determination with a team that is generating novel solutions to stubborn problems. And they’ve brought the greater community along with them, seeking to give everyone “something to do” in solving the most pressing issue of our day.

When Pollution Hits Home

What initially inspired you to make a difference and what path did you follow? 

Tammy: Before DOMI, I’d spent 11 years in Beijing. I saw my friends and their kids suffering from lung and other health issues because of the city’s horrible air quality. But it wasn’t until I had my first baby that it really hit home for me: if I continued living in Beijing, my family and I might face the same health problems some day. That was a risk I couldn’t accept.

Corey and I decided to move back to Taiwan to raise our kids. When we arrived, we discovered that there was tons of smog in the sky here, too. While it wasn’t quite as bad as Beijing, I was upset to realize how polluted my hometown had become. We were rooted here. We had friends and families here. So, I started thinking, “What we can do, together, to fix this?”

My big “Aha!” moment came one day as Corey and I were crossing a busy street in Kaohsiung. We’d recently had our second baby, and we were pushing her in the stroller.

We were chatting at a crosswalk, and the moment the light turned green, there were dozens of motorbikes making this huge, thick cloud of smog—and it was blowing directly toward my baby. So I scooped her up out of the stroller and ran across the street to get her away from the pollution. I left Corey standing in the middle of the intersection. He had no idea what was happening.

At that moment, I knew we needed to do something.

I was absolutely not an environmentalist before this. I had spent my whole career in fashion and media. But from that point, I knew that this was the problem we needed to solve. The hard part was knowing exactly what to do, and how to do it. But I knew I had a responsibility as a mom to figure it out.

Tackling a Multi-Stakeholder Issue

Corey: After Tammy left me at the intersection that day, my brain just started going. I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 17. I had plenty of experience of starting companies, taking them public, bringing teams together to solve problems. But that day, I started thinking, “How come we’ve managed to develop all of these innovations—Facebook, self-driving cars, all of the gadgets you see in James Bond movies—and yet we haven’t figured out how to quit polluting the earth?”

Tammy and I started trying to figure out a way to tackle this. I think it’s that feeling of responsibility that drove us. We knew that this was what we needed do.

Tell me a bit about your work at DOMI and how it’s helping to make a positive impact.

Corey: We started looking at the pollution problem on a macro scale. A single product isn’t going to solve this. A lot of products need to come together to make it happen. We wanted to take a holistic approach, and so three questions surfaced pretty quickly that we knew we needed to answer:

  1. Can we find things to improve the situation by sourcing what’s already out there?
  2. Can we identify the gaps and then design for the gaps? 
  3. Can we become a common platform to bring all of this work together?

The first two pieces are focused on solutions; the third is focused on people.

It’s the third piece that actually matters the most. Solving climate change has to take a multi-stakeholder approach. It can’t just be the consumer, or just the government, or just the NGOs. Right now we have customers in government, the corporate sector, and we’re starting to work directly with individuals and households.

The angle that we take is to explore whether there is a product or service that we can build for these various stakeholders that helps them empathize with one another and work together to overcome what once seemed like an obstacle.

What’s kind of weird is that nobody else seems to be taking the lead. All of our stakeholders have an interest in making an effort on climate and pollution. Yet they need someone to convene them, so they can work together.

Tammy: In this sense, we’re really leading a movement. We’re not asking anyone to buy products. Instead, our goal is to package everything together to make it easier for everyone else to make progress toward a home that’s safer and healthier for all of us.

Corey: That last part is our philosophy. We want people to capture a simple set of ideas so they feel that they can engage and make a difference. To do this, we created organized what we were doing around the concepts of “minus and plus.”

The “minus” side is about the things we can be doing right now to reduce our energy use and carbon footprint? For example, could you switch to LED lighting in your house? Or could you install automatic timers to shut off your appliances when you’re asleep or at work?

The “plus” side is about what kinds of seeds we can plant for a more sustainable future.

We started by planting trees. We realized after a while that the real “seeds” we were planting weren’t in the ground—they were in the hearts of our children. And when children got interested, parents got interested.

Kids became our way to influence households. They’re also the ones growing up with a deep love and respect for our planet.

“B”ing the Change

Now, tell me about the B Corp movement.

Corey: Before we did anything to bring the B Corp movement to Asia, we were lonely! I think that many entrepreneurs feel this way at some point. That’s probably doubly true for those who are working on social and environmental issues, considering that the problems they’re trying to address are so huge. We started thinking of B Corp as a really good rallying point in the journey toward making impact as a business.

Before we travelled to the first B Corp Champions Retreat in 2014 in Vermont, we met with two other companies here. We all agreed that this was an important movement for Taiwan.

Tammy: At the retreat, we realized this B Corp idea was a lot more than just a certification. It was a total change in mindset. We were wondering how we could bring the idea into companies that already had this mindset.

Corey: Before we took off for the U.S., I emailed Bart and Jay, two of the founders of B Lab. They responded after we landed, and we scheduled a meeting at one of the roundtables. We sat down and said, “How do we start a movement?” That was the first question we asked.

One of the things they had us do at the retreat was to write our commitments to the movement visually on a wall. Over the next year we ended up doing exactly what we wrote down.

We launched the movement here in 2014. In 2016, we hosted the first Asia event… 600 people from 22 countries came to share this idea and start building. Right now, Asia has 17 countries with B Corps. We’ve continued to promote this in Asia and we’re currently planning our third annual event!

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome thus far?

Tammy: For the last couple of years, DOMI’s main focus has been energy.

The major unaddressed energy problems in Taiwan come from all of the households and the scattered small-to-medium enterprises—the stores on the street. There are twenty-four million people and 1.4 million SMEs here in Taiwan. Their energy and environmental impact is huge.

For the most part, these people aren’t very well educated on the environment. And there’s no economic incentive to persuade them to change. Overcoming that barrier was by far the biggest obstacle for us. To address the knowledge gap and persuade people to change, we had to put financial incentives together with technical solutions, and spend a lot of time face-to-face in conversation, trying to convince people that this was a good idea. That’s an expensive way to activate customers, and it was the hardest thing for us to solve. But we had to solve it if we wanted to be a climate leader—and if we wanted to survive as a business.

The key is to move people from the heart. People don’t believe something because I say it. They believe it because they feel it.

DOMI’s solution is quite simple. We create the opportunity for a small success, which leads to a small burst of happiness. We make it as simple as possible for people to achieve that.

What are the small steps?

Tammy: Right now, a simple step is installing LED lighting. Making that switch makes a lot of progress, in terms of energy reduction and saving money. The financial incentives and the environmental impact match up great there.

Corey: In Taiwan, we’re trying to get rid of nuclear energy sources. If everyone on the island switched to LED lighting, it would save 11% of our energy consumption. Nuclear serves 12.5% of our energy consumption. So, we could close the nuclear plants almost immediately with that change.

Tammy: We also encourage people to use a timer that plugs into the wall socket and automatically shuts off power to appliances like your TV, Wifi router, or computer when you’re not using them.

And we published a picture book for kids, which is this fun little story about energy and electricity savings. Kids love it, and it creates space for kids and parents to talk together about environmental questions. So the concept becomes embedded in a family’s daily life.

Corey: All of these things fit into the “minus” side of DOMI’s philosophy. But of course we try to match it with the “plus” side. So when customers buy from us, part of what they spend goes toward planting trees.

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or pursue their passion?

Tammy: I’ll start with practical advice. You have to believe that you are the one that can make it happen. It starts with your vision. In the beginning, you may not know exactly what that vision is, but that’s ok. It comes.

From there, define the strengths that you have and the strengths you need to rely on others for, in order to make your vision happen. Once you reach the point where you realize, “If I can’t make it happen, then no one else can,” you’re set. You’ll be able to do whatever it takes to realize your vision.

Corey: For me, it’s following the heartbeat. When that trigger comes, just continue working on that trigger. Don’t think about whether it’s easy or difficult. That’s irrelevant. Just do whatever is required to get it done.

Follow that beat and then go out and act on it. Then, take another action after that… and another after that…

Tammy: I think it’s important to cheer yourself up along the way. I do that by talking to Corey.  

Corey: We both wake up really early, so we get our own time before our kids wake up. We could just lie in bed talking… or we get up and brush our teeth together. These are the little things that are really valuable to us.

And then, our other secret is our teams—the team within the B Corp movement, and the team within DOMI. That’s an important experience for us, from the inspiring conversations we have, to the knowledge that we’re all reaching for big impact… you don’t get to experience that in a regular office.