• | 5:03 pm

He quit Google to work on climate change. Now, he’s helping others do the same thing

In July 2020, two former Google employees launched a Slack network for people who want to work on climate solutions. It now has more than 8,500 members.

He quit Google to work on climate change. Now, he’s helping others do the same thing
[Source photo: Westend61/Getty Images, Billy Huynh/Unsplash]

Three years ago, while working as a software engineer at Google, Eugene Kirpichov happened to watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth on a long flight. On the flight back, he watched the sequel. Afterwards, he couldn’t stop thinking about climate change. “Every time I would meet someone who was a real [climate] expert, I would ask them, ‘Is it really that bad?’” he says. “And they’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s really that bad.’”

The more he learned about the problem, the more anxiety and despair he felt. Then the pandemic hit, adding a new source of anxiety. But Kirpichov, now 34 years old, started volunteering on a project to build a low-cost ventilator, and it changed how he felt about COVID-19: He was focused on finding a solution rather than fear. He realized that he might have the same experience with climate. And even though he had a plum job in machine learning at Google—and had been there for seven and a half years—he decided to leave to find new work on climate solutions. Cassandra Xia, a friend at Google, decided to leave at the same time, as each convinced the other that it was the right choice.

Eugene Kirpichov

“The reason I’m leaving is because the scale, urgency, and tragedy of climate change are so immense that I can no longer justify to myself working on anything else, no matter how interesting or lucrative, until it’s fixed,” Kirpichov wrote in an email to colleagues. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I think others, who have the privilege of being able to do so, should follow suit. I like to frame the problem positively as ‘how much can we save,’ and every one of us can have a hand in saving something.”

When he shared the email on LinkedIn, the response was overwhelming. “It turned out there were so many people in the same boat,” he says. Many, like Xia and Kirpichov, didn’t know exactly what direction to take as they switched jobs. So in July 2020, the pair decided to make a Slack workspace where anyone making the transition could talk. (They met their third cofounder, product designer Eva Illescas Sanchez, on LinkedIn.) “We just made this little experiment—let’s put everybody in a community and see what happens,” he says. “Two years later, we have the world’s largest climate community.” Kirpichov now spends all of his time running it.

The Slack community—called Work On Climate—now has more than 8,500 members. Many have backgrounds in tech or design, and even if they liked that work, they were all ready to do more. “[I’m] done with putting what time and energy I have towards anything else—this is our Hail Mary moment, and I cannot make myself be okay with working a standard job,” Briana Montagne, a UX designer and developer, recently posted in the community’s “introductions” channel. It’s a reflection of a broader sentiment: Nearly a third of Americans now say that climate change is their “top personal concern.” Among Gen Z, that jumps to 37%. While people often don’t know what to do—or feel paralyzed by the scale of the problem—the people in the Work On Climate community are ready to act.

Some also are disillusioned with the current state of the tech world. “VC money, at least until recently, has been pouring into three or four areas—e-commerce, fintech, social media, and crypto/Web3—all of which have demonstrated, at best, minimal and, at worst, negative social value, and the people working for those companies know it, even if some of them (but by no means all) have done reasonably well financially,” says Jed, a software engineer who didn’t want to share his last name with Fast Company because his employer doesn’t yet know that he’s looking for a new job. (VC investment in climate tech is now quickly growing, with a record amount of funding entering the space last year.)

Many people in the community are entrepreneurs and looking for potential cofounders or early employees. Richard Wurden, who had worked as an engineer at Tesla, met former software-company founder Kenny Lee on Slack last year; they now have a startup called Aigen, which is building small, lightweight solar-powered robots that can automatically weed farm fields without chemicals. The startup raised $4 million in seed funding in January.

For newcomers, the community offers “starter packs”—lists of resources about the overall challenge, specific topics like climate policy or carbon removal, and tips on the job search—along with curated events with speakers from climate-focused companies. Groups of people can also join learning groups to dive more deeply into topics. Some climate experts in the group volunteer as experts to offer advice to people just starting out. One channel in the Slack workspace lists climate gigs. In another, climate startups post full-time jobs.

“From the start, we were just absolutely obsessive about keeping it actionable and motivating,” says Kirpichov. “For example, we really didn’t want it to turn into a place where people just exchange links, or sign petitions. We wanted to be focused 100% on helping people find climate work, and helping them take the next step.”

There’s a perception, he says, that working in climate means being an activist or a scientist. But the constant stream of jobs posted on Slack illustrates the diversity: Engineers building carbon-capture equipment for cargo ships. Data scientists modeling carbon storage in trees. Software engineers working on wildfire prediction or clean energy. Analysts for an electric vehicle company or a climate tech VC fund. Someone working in a traditional tech job or another industry may not know these roles exist. “Even though the jobs are there, people don’t think of looking for them,” Kirpichov says.

“I used [Work On Climate] initially to learn about industries within the climate space that align with what I was looking for, something that has a broad environmental but also cultural and wildlife impact,” says Victoria de Aranzeta, who recently pivoted from healthcare to a job at NCX, a forest carbon marketplace. “Once I honed in on forestry, I started to cruise the jobs channel, to identify companies, research them, and seek out roles at the ones that resonated with me.”

There’s an extra layer of complexity when someone evaluates a potential climate job, as candidates try to understand how much their next employer might actually be able to reduce emissions. “People are evaluating the impact that they’re having in a lot more detail than they would in any other purpose-driven space: Is this actually going to make any difference in the overall situation?” says Joshua Stehr, a service designer who has been volunteering to interview Work On Climate members to help the group learn how it can best support members.

The community, which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, is now fundraising so it can hire staff. While cofounder Xia took a job at a carbon finance company, Kirpichov plans to keep working on the nonprofit. The goal, he says, is not just to help people in the community transition to climate jobs, but also helping make climate jobs mainstream in general. Working on the problem has helped ease his anxiety. “I think these days I’m spending 0% of my time worrying about climate,” he says. “I spend 100% of my time just thinking about the next steps within the organization. It changed my outlook from the idea that capitalism and saving the planet are incompatible, to [recognize that] people who know how capitalism works are turning en masse to direct all their power, and connections, and skill, and industry knowledge to fix climate within what capitalism can do. And they’re succeeding.”

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Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley. More