Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

ClearFlame Engine Technologies’ founders on challenges facing underrepresented founding teams, and the strengths that such teams provide.

ClearFlame was founded in 2016 by a woman and a half-Black man. While Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) has recently become a major topic of public discourse, the challenges associated with DEI have always been a part of our daily reality. As such, we feel it is important to share our experiences as minority founders in the startup and energy space, to highlight the progress that is required, and to speak to the importance of expanding DEI within the sector and beyond.

While improving DEI is a challenge in many settings, women and racial minorities are particularly underrepresented in STEM fields. We have always stood out as different, whether as one of a handful of women taking upper-level engineering courses or one of the only persons of color at a conference. This sense of “otherness” is a major burden—and it falls on us not to internalize this feeling of alienation and non-belonging.

We are proud of who we are and celebrate our diversity, but too often that diversity is used to minimize our success. BJ’s academic and professional successes have often been credited to Affirmative Action. His resume is then questioned in a way that would never occur for a white male with similar credentials. Julie’s technical abilities have been consistently underestimated—both as a woman, and as someone who models openness and vulnerability. Both of us have felt an immense pressure to overachieve—to be perfect—to prove we even deserve our seat at the table. It should not be this way.

If we are going to improve DEI, we must eliminate this type of thinking from the workplace. BJ is not just “successful for a Black man”, nor is Julie just “smart for a woman”— our accomplishments speak for themselves. Diversity should be championed as a source of strength, while our successes must also be independently acknowledged based on their own merit. We would encourage everyone (including other minority groups) to become more aware of these judgments as we make them, so we can begin to mitigate the challenges they create.

We also would like to acknowledge the privilege we have had in reaching this point. The Stanford name on our degrees has helped open many doors for us, but a Stanford degree should not be required for our ideas to have merit and value. A Stanford pedigree is a level of exceptionalism that is rarely expected and never required of the white-male demographic. We also strongly oppose the use of our success for the creation of a narrative that “BJ and Julie have succeeded; therefore the DEI problem does not exist.” This thinking only reinforces the faulty logic that a greater degree of exceptionalism is required from underrepresented groups. Our success has, to some degree, garnered us an audience regarding DEI, but our success is less useful in understanding the DEI problem than appreciating the hurdles we have had to overcome along the way. It is these hurdles, including implicit biases, that must be recognized, acknowledged, and removed to truly enable equitable career pathways for underrepresented groups.

Finally, we would like to use ClearFlame to highlight the need for DEI in the startup space. We do not believe it is a coincidence that a company that is shifting the narrative around how we must address climate change is also breaking the paradigm of “what a cleantech startup team is expected to look like.” We believe that ClearFlame offers a solution that can be far more equitable across a range of economies worldwide than many leading low-carbon transportation alternatives, and our desire to offer an equitable solution is born out of our own diverse experiences. Solving the world’s problems will require a diverse range of ideas, and we must acknowledge that those ideas will come from a diverse range of thought-leaders. If we do not find a way to value ideas from across the racial, gender, socio-economic, and geographic spectrums, we will not achieve the diversity of thought and range of ideas needed to address social inequity, climate change, and other global challenges. There are more great ideas in the world than can be possibly supported and pursued to implementation, but the more we can do to ensure that all ideas receive an equal look (regardless of who conceived of them, or where they come from), the more likely we are to find that best solutions.

We realize that we at ClearFlame can only speak to our own personal experiences as founders (and not as spokespeople for entire demographic groups), but we look forward to continuing to share that experience with the world. We hope, to the extent it may be helpful, to be role models for future problem-solvers so that they will not feel so isolated in STEM fields. We welcome any engagement that would help us make that a reality. We have faced adversity due to our backgrounds, but we remain proud of ourselves. Most importantly, we ultimately believe that our success is not just in spite of DEI and bias barriers, but built upon the strength our backgrounds and our communities have provided. This strength, and the strength of many others, can be harnessed by the world—but only if we learn to open doors to wherever that strength may come from.

Thank you for taking the time to understand, appreciate, and share this message.

BJ and Julie