Jen Singh of Understory: recapping a year of learning and growth

Jen Singh of Understory: recapping a year of learning and growth

Understory Team
Understory Team

We finish this season of the Understory Podcast speaking with Understory’s Co-Founder Jen Singh. Jen recaps the work that Understory has done over the past year, highlighting efforts in Circularity and ESG Frameworks. She summarizes what she’s learned from our podcast interviews and Understory Connect events, synthesizing key takeaways from across our community. Jen ends the episode by giving a glimpse of what’s to come for Understory in 2021.

The Understory Podcast is also available on SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, and Google Podcasts.

Episode Transcript:

JJ (the host of the Understory Podcast): Hi everybody, welcome to the Understory Podcast, our last episode of our first season. We are really excited about our guest today -  Jen Singh. Jen is the co-founder of Understory. Jen - welcome to the podcast.

Jen - you have interviewed many founders and innovators. To start us off with the first question, tell us what is Understory? What does it focusing on?

Jen Singh: Thank you for having me and thanks to all the listeners who have been following along on this season. We've really enjoyed the fact that you've been joining us to hear all the stories of the innovators who are doing great work in sustainability. For those of you who haven't heard the story of who Understory is, we are a global platform, even beyond this podcast, that helps organizations use technology and innovation to make our world more sustainable.

The origin of Understory started at the beginning of 2020. We saw that sustainability was at a tipping point across all industries. The climate crisis and climate change have been top of mind across the world whether it's been for governments, nonprofits, or for-profits.

Corporations and other organizations were starting to say this is their responsibility.  There is massive change that needs to happen across the world and they really need to stand up and do their part. It's not only the right thing to do, but businesses are realizing that it's also mission critical for their business.

What we also saw at Understory was that in order for organizations to succeed and make this transition and meet their goals around sustainability and climate change, big transformation needs to happen.

My background before Understory was I worked in corporate innovation and digital transformation and went through the last decade of change across a variety of industries. And what I'm seeing now are very similar parallels in sustainability. Massive transformation needs to happen in the next decade in order for organizations to become sustainable.

Understory is at the forefront to help corporations and other organizations make sure that they have access to the latest technology and innovation and help shift the mindsets of various employees and leaders across their organizations along with implementation.

Beyond the Understory Podcast, we also offer educational training events and other resources to make sustainability accessible, practical, and actionable because these are table stakes that will make the difference in transforming the way that the world works.

JJ: Thank you Jen for sharing that introduction. You talked about not just one thing but a holistic set of things like technology, mindset and processes to really enable organizations to make organizations sustainable. One thing you do in the Understory Podcast is talk to founders and innovators about their innovation and products in sustainability. What did you learn from these founder and innovator conversations?

Jen: I've been inspired  by their stories. First of all, I think it's a testament to the fact that there's already a lot of transformation happening in the industry, these businesses, these founders, these innovators, have been at this challenge for a very long time. There is galvanization and a lot more support behind their efforts, which is bringing many more of these activities to the forefront.

The moral or the big lesson learned is that all these businesses are trying to do good. But at the same time, they're also building successful businesses. So both can co-exist.  In the past, there's always been this perception that by doing good you might be sacrificing commercial interests. What these businesses and these founders are showing us is that you can earn profits and make money while doing good at the same time, so I think that has been very rewarding to see.

At the same time, some of our innovators have highlighted that building innovation in sustainability is still very challenging. A lot of these are smaller businesses. Another thing that I see is that many businesses,  job titles, positions are going to be invented. In fact, we are starting to see some new titles.

JJ: One of the things that you have been writing about is about Circularity. What are the important things in Circularity?

Jen: Circularity was one of the original topics that we tackled at Understory. As founders, we're really drawn to the topic because it's not as well known across the industry. Some might know terms associated with circularity -- whether it's the sharing economy or the circular economy --- but a lot of people don't really know how it all fits together. What we found in a lot of our research is that circularity starts with mindset shift or change.

Circularity changes the way that we work. If you think about the traditional industrial model of business, it starts with producing some sort of good. We consume it, and then we throw it away and that is waste generated from this process. In order to alleviate a lot of the problems with waste and loss of natural resources, circularity is going to be an important part of the new business and operating model.  Circularity is also about designing out waste through the processes so we don’t generate as much waste.. And then finally, once we do need to discard something,  rather than throw it away, we look at the. components and consider them in a cyclical nature, which creates a baseline for a circular model.

Another aspect that is mainstream in some industries but not others is what we see in the sharing economy. For example, fashion retail platforms such as thredUP where the company applies the sharing economy of worn clothes in an innovative and technology-enabled way. Similar things are happening in other industries or use cases such as electronics.

Circularity could be a little overwhelming. It requires a mindset shift and thinking about the concept in a practical way. Really thinking through what little things can you or your organization start with in order to incorporate a circular approach? And then how can you iterate overtime? After that, how do you work your way into the larger circular business model?

JJ: That's a great explanation of  circularity. Now moving to ESG. Huge topic and Understory recently had a webinar and whitepaper on this topic. Explain to the audience what ESG and ESG reporting frameworks are.

Jen: Yes, Understory shared insights into ESG and the various reporting frameworks. We have covered the various ESG reporting frameworks and how they apply to different organizations. ESG is on the minds of many stakeholders - not only from the companies (if they are for-profit) themselves, but also institutional investors and to some extent retail investors.  Outside of the U.S., more efforts are put in financial disclosures related to ESG.  We'll likely start to see some of that in the United States going forward as well. I think I recently saw a statistic that 90% of the S&P 500 public companies have issued sustainability reports in the past year.

JJ: Wow, so ESG is gaining steam.

Jen: But the challenge, and the reason for us to  shed a bit of light on this topic, is tit's still very early days in terms of where the industry is in terms of creating standards around frameworks and disclosures. No true standards exist today akin to accounting standards so more work needs to be done.  I think it's important to make sure that organizations understand the current requirements as well as  best practices so they are in a position to  create the right processes.

JJ: That's really helpful perspective to know that there isn't a common standard, but different frameworks, and I think you're right that there is. With the things Understory accomplished in 2020, what's next for Understory in 2021?

Jen: We are really excited about 2021. We have been rapidly expanding our platform over the course of the past year and we really see that continuing in 2021.  We want to make sure that Understory provides accessible resources to help organizations and stakeholders to achieve their sustainability objectives.

In parallel, we'll continue to help create meaningful connections. You will see more events (Understory Connect) and startup events from us. We also have a weekly newsletter and podcast. We want to bring  together innovators working on SustainabilityTech, ClimateTech, and impact projects. In our community, we have founders, corporations, entrepreneurs, academics, and investors.

To find out what we are doing, you can find us at our website which is Join our LinkedIn group and Instagram.

Join the conversation.