Q&A with HPU's Fall Commencement Speaker

Dawn Lippert headshot

CEO of Elemental Excelerator (Elemental) Dawn Lippert will deliver the Hawai‘i Pacific University Fall 2018 Commencement keynote address. Elemental is a Hawai‘i-based innovation funder and startup program with a mission to help startups change the world, one community at a time. Lippert founded the accelerator in 2012 and, alongside a team of business leaders, entrepreneurs, artists, and policymakers, has grown the nonprofit to fund more than 80 startups from around the world with $30 million thus far.   

In this Q&A with the HPU ‘Ohana This Week newsletter staff, Lippert shares her background and what motivates and inspires her. 

How did you decide to major in environmental studies as an undergraduate?
I’ve been passionate about the environment and energy since I was a little kid — when I was about six I charged my family 25 cents every time they left the light on! But one particularly formative moment came as a junior in high school: I spent a semester in Vermont at Mountain School, a school immersed in place-based education similar to the kind of education we see here in Hawai‘i. We fed lambs, cut wood for heat, and grew or raised everything we ate. We also learned about the earth by picking a plot of land and studying its history from the big bang to the present. What did the marks on boulders say about their glacial past? What did the stone walls say about the animals that used to live there? And what did the type and size of trees tell us about when the land was cleared and reforested? That experience at Mountain School crystallized my desire to pursue environmental studies and has informed so much of my life and work ever since. 

What inspired you to lead the founding of Elemental Excelerator?
Elemental has existed in some form dating back to when the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative was created in 2008, when the state and Department of Energy realized that innovation would need to play a big role in achieving Hawaii’s ambitious energy goals. This idea — that technology can be a tool to make our communities better — has been a guiding principle of Elemental ever since. By nurturing local talent and inviting innovators from around the world to be in community together and to solve common problems, we can do something that’s never been done before. We can become a beacon to the world to show that we can get off fossil fuels while preserving — and enriching — what we love about this place. 

What motivates you every day?
Solving the problem of climate change and our ending addiction to fossil fuels is a tough challenge that can feel too big to tackle. But it’s also hugely motivating — and as a human race, we have no choice but to make progress. We have everything we need to solve the climate crisis; it just takes the will to get it done. In addition to solving the most time-sensitive problem our species faces, it is the energy and ingenuity of the team I’m lucky to lead at Elemental that motivates me every day. I’m also continually in awe of the resilience, fearlessness, and creativity of the communities and people here in Hawai‘i who overcome tough problems. More than any other place I’ve lived, we put our children’s needs above our financial interests, we care about stewarding our place for the long term, and we treat our neighbors as ‘ohana instead of as strangers. Now that’s something to get you out of bed in the morning!