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Oct 3, 2023
Streetlife Ventures’ Laura Fox On Where Cities Meet Climate Former Citi Bike general manager’s new firm seeks to fund companies at the intersection of urbanism and technology By Anna Staropoli October 3, 2023 7:00 am Laura Fox. Photo: Courtesy of Streetlife Ventures Laura Fox, co-founder and managing partner at Streetlife Ventures , always wears a helmet. A frequent Citi Bike user — and the bike-share company’s previous general manager — Fox lives what she preaches: namely, the adaptation of tangible, citywide solutions that benefit the climate. “Cities are where we need to create this impact on climate,” said Fox. After leaving Citi Bike in April, 2023, she co-founded Streetlife with Sonam Velani as a way to propel that very impact. The venture and investment fund approaches cities from the perspective of five urban climate sectors: mobility and logistics, buildings, water and waste, energy, and adaptive infrastructure. Fox highlighted Cadence OneFive, which focuses on multifamily housing decarbonization, and Voltpost, which retrofits lamp posts into EV charging stations, as examples of companies doing great work in urban environments. Fox’s interest in cities and climate, however, began way before her time at Streetlife. Her resume includes stints at Sidewalk Labs , Boston Consulting Group and New York University’s business school. Yet it was her time in Qatar as a digital strategist for museums where Fox had her “transformational career moment” at the age of 24. She spoke to Commercial Observer in late September about her work, both past and present, and cities, both present and future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Commercial Observer: What sparked your interest in the intersection between cities and climate? Laura Fox: As I was walking through the streets of Doha, [Qatar] every day, there’s no sidewalks, no public transit, no affordable housing. Plus, we frequently had water and food access issues. I realized that I needed to move down in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: to think more about core urban problems like sustainability, transportation and housing. All of that took me to work in Bangladesh on urban slum issues; they’re dealing with a lot of climate-related issues in terms of adaptation resilience. Then, after business school, I worked at the Boston Consulting Group to both refine my toolkit of hard skills and to work directly on some of the urban issues that I cared about. I took all of these experiences to Sidewalk Labs to help lead the development of their master innovation development plan for the City of Toronto, which included diligence on a range of urban topics from housing and buildings to mobility, digital infrastructure, sustainability, climate solutions and more. It seems like your work with cities and climate is all very cumulative, gradually leading to what you do now. It felt that way. I left Sidewalk. I went to lead Citi Bike at Lyft for four years, which is probably the most meaningful role of my career and the part of the career where I was working for others. It’s exceptionally rare to work on something where you have an impact on cities and climate in such a tangible way, with a product that you and millions of other people love and use. I was the first female general manager of the system and really focused on diversity as a business strategy, not just charity as it sometimes can be viewed. More than 40 percent of Citi Bike riders are now female and more than 50 percent identify as a person of color, which is really important when we think about these intersections of climate and cities: that the work that we do has to be for the benefit of the whole of city, not just a part of a city. When we talk about sustainable cities, are we including social elements in that definition? We certainly do at Streetlife. For example, we’re committed to having a fund where our portfolio represents the diversity of our cities, and helping founders understand how to leverage local grants, creative capital stacks and innovative business models to make sure that their solutions can be deployed across the city and not just in wealthy neighborhoods. Federal programs like Justice40, which essentially says that 40 percent of the Inflation Reduction Act has to be allocated to underserved communities across the United States, as well as accompanying state and local programs, are really helping in that work. Our pipeline works explicitly with multifamily affordable housing units to install low-cost EV chargers in a way that, one, doesn’t require an expensive building upgrade, and, two, where they’ve been able to leverage incentives, as well as grants. Like you said, biking is such a tangible thing that gives you a clear route to make cities sustainable. How have you taken that element of tangibility to what you do now? The rapid growth of cities in an ever-warming world is one of the biggest challenges that we face globally. We focus on bringing, really tangibly, practical solutions and optimism to problems that we often hear from friends, communities and the broader news. Like: “What can I do to avoid taking my kids to school on flooded streets?” to “Is running out of clean drinking water inevitable?” and “Will we have to wear a mask every day?” We like to think about agency and optimism rather than doom and gloom. Part of Streetlife is raising a $30 million fund to invest at this intersection of cities and climate across five different sectors: mobility and logistics, buildings, energy, adaptive infrastructure, and waste and water. Solving these sectors is critical to solving for climate change and is also going to be one of the greatest economic challenges and opportunities of our generation. We need to spend an incremental $5 trillion annually in order to get to net zero. Which of these areas leaves the biggest gap for opportunity? There’s opportunity across all of these sectors. Just on the logistics side, New York receives something like 3.5 to 3.6 million packages per day, and that doesn’t even include grocery. Right now there are a lot of large trucks driving around streets, creating a lot of emissions, noise, congestion, all of that, and so huge opportunity there. On the building side, buildings are about 40 percent of emissions across all of the U.S. but can be 70 percent of emissions in really dense cities. There’s a lot of ways that decarbonizing buildings can actually lead to decreased costs for building owners, which is the thing that we really focus on. And it’s not enough to go green and have going green be the message; we have to think about the tangible benefits to building owners of doing this work, which is that we have great incentives on the table right now with the Inflation Reduction Act. How much of your approach can widely apply those concepts versus employ them on a city-to-city basis? In general, we focus on identifying pain points that are relevant across geographies, and then identify ways to solve and pilot them. That has a local approach, right? Especially for technologies that aren’t just software, but include a hardware element, it’s really important to have partners to deploy with locally. With Streetlife, we partner with everyone from real estate owners, original equipment manufacturers, infrastructure partners, finance partners, and then city asset holders like New York City’s Economic Development Corporation and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. You’ve studied business, but your background is also in literature and Italian. How have those subjects shaped the perspective you bring to your work? I studied how outsiders — whether that’s due to race, gender, economic class — in global cities negotiated their self-identity and relationship to place in society. And so it had a theme related to cities, but was looking at it in a different way. That grounding in a multidisciplinary background prior to business school and the experiences that I had really allowed me to identify the area that I was passionate about and wanted to make my impact on when I thought about my future career. The steps since then have been amassing the skill sets to create that impact in a way that I saw was necessary. As someone who also studied literature and Italian, I feel like those are fields where people assume you can do one thing but really you can do everything. Literature and Italian or other areas can be highly analytical and help you understand how to structure a problem, think about an argument, really analyze a topic. Those are great underlying skills for the rest of your life. What has surprised you most about this line of work? I think that there’s the good and the to-be-improved. There’s a lot of great work that’s happening in cities. Minneapolis has done some really creative financing to add tree cover through carbon credits, which are typically thought about for rural areas. Seoul has done some really smart thinking in how they budget finance mass transportation. Cities like Jersey City have moved really quickly on roadway infrastructure to make it great to be an alternative transportation user, be that someone who’s on a bus, on a bike or walking. I think the area to be improved in that, though, is that cities are not the best, oftentimes, at talking about what works well and then developing some clear case studies to replicate and scale that work to other cities. If cities themselves are leading the way, it’s especially tough because politics can get in the way — one mayor released a press release on a great innovation locally, and so another mayor doesn’t want to adopt it. That opportunity area is one where the private sector can really step in because the structures and motivations are different. They can help with that scaling of successful business model structures and others to different cities, both in the U.S. and around the world. Last, you’re on the board of Governors Island, which is building a climate hub. What has it been like being a part of that? It’s been great. Governors Island has long had a commitment to climate change, so it’s provided space to groups like the Billion Oyster Project and entrepreneurs working on water-related challenges. The climate hub continues to increase that commitment, and it’ll be one of the foremost centers of urban climate solution incubation and also innovation deployment nationally. It’s set up to be a living lab for testing these solutions across the island, especially when it comes to water-related issues or decarbonizing buildings. Anna Staropoli can be reached at email@example.com . Keywords:
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