The future of: The climate with Camille Goldstone-Henry, Xylo Systems
UNSW Business School Article Series: How can we crack the code on gender equality in 2023?
UNSW Business School Article Series: How can we crack the code on gender equality in 2023?
Today, there are extraordinary people all over the world working to create new social, economic, and cultural codes for a gender-equal future. And at UNSW Business School, we are lucky to count many of them among our UNSW Business School our alumni.
As part of International Women’s Day 2023, UNSW Business School interviewed three graduates – leaders in the fields of economics, blockchain technology, and climate change action – on what they see as the momentous changes coming in their field, and the role women have to play in cracking the code on gender equality in 2023.
We spoke with proud Kamilaroi woman Camille Goldstone-Henry (she/her), CEO and Co-Founder of Xylo Systems, AGSM @ UNSW Business School MBAE 2022.
I founded Xylo Systems off the back of my career working as a wildlife scientist.
I've worked with critically endangered species here in Australia, and all around the world in my career. And I had to make critical conservation decisions using species information and biodiversity data. And often at times, I didn't have access to the right most up-to-date information to make those decisions.
This ultimately contributes to species decline and species extinction. And the reason for that is its data is very disparate. It's often sitting in silos, in different organisations and government departments.
The seed for Xylo was a platform that aggregates all of these disparate biodiversity data sets so that we can make critical conservation decisions in a timely and efficient manner, and tackle this extinction crisis that we're seeing globally
Along the road, we've also realised that this critical biodiversity information that we're aggregating can also be applied to a lot of corporate businesses, to help them understand their impacts and the pressures they're applying to our ecosystems and how they can work in a way that can mitigate and even start to regenerate our biodiversity.
At Xylo, we're very much of the belief that you need to work with both those conserving and those impacting species to have lasting effects.
I founded Xylos systems because my own personal mission is to regenerate biodiversity and save species. Being an Australian, I havehave such an emotional connection to koalas, and recently, they were listed as endangered. I want my grandchildren to be able to see koalas in the wild.
Right now, we primarily service development, construction, and energy companies. These sectors have a very tangible impact on our environment, for example, land clearing to develop houses. (We're seeing a lot of it in Western Sydney at the moment.)
For example, we're working with quite a large development and construction company here in Australia to help them understand what the impact of clearing that land might be. We use data to identify what we call biodiversity risks. What endangered species are there? What are their threatening processes?
We identify that risk for that company, and take the next step: okay, these are the risks, but how could we go ahead in a way that is positive for biodiversity in that area? For example, if we take a piece of land, we want to develop it for housing, but can we ensure that a certain percentage of that land is conserved for koalas? For example, by developing wildlife corridors? Then we track those actions over time.
Everything. We're only a small team now, as we are a startup in its early stages.
As CEO, my number one role is to set the vision and the mission for the organisation, and make sure that everything we're doing within our startup aligns with that overarching mission of regenerating biodiversity and preserving biodiversity for future generations. And we do that using technology data, AI, and analytics.
But also, my role as CEO is to make sure that we have the resources to undertake those activities. A huge part of my job is acquiring funding, whether that be through private avenues, venture capital firms, angel investors, or by working with our customers. I need to make sure we have that recurring revenue as a startup, fulfilling our mission, and are sustainable in our operations.
First, I did my undergraduate in animal and veterinary bioscience. I went and had a career in conservation off the back of that, which was an absolute dream. But I became burnt out quickly because I knew it was not making as much of a difference as we needed to see. We're seeing biodiversity decline dramatically, and not doing enough to stop it.
That's when I started looking at other avenues and industries to take their strategies and skills and bring them back to conservation. I thought: I'm a scientist, and I have no business skills. I'll go and enrol in an MBA at AGSM @ UNSW Business School and hopefully find some answers there.
And that is exactly what happened.
When I started, I didn't know that I was going to start Xylo Systems. I thought I was going to go and join another organisation and work my way up. Before starting, I had no idea about accounting, finance marketing. I knew science. I didn't know how to financially forecast an entire organisation. My AGSM MBA gave me the skills and the confidence to be able to do that.
Because I founded Xylo during my MBA, I was able to tailor my MBA experience to what I was building. All the electives I took were issues I was dealing with in the startup at that time. I took social impact to understand how social enterprises work. I took AI and advanced data analytics to skill up in my data science skills, to apply to our product development. This really set me up to run a successful startup.
Technology and conservation is an exciting frontier. Because when it comes to understanding biodiversity trends and impact, that requires a lot of monitoring.
Right now, monitoring is done by boots on the ground. It's done by wildlife scientists. Let's say, for example, physically counting the number of koalas that they say in a certain area of land. You can imagine how much time and therefore resources that takes. If we are to understand the fast-changing ecosystem that we're seeing, we need to be able to very quickly scale up our ability to monitor areas of land, habitat, ecosystems, and species. The only way we can do that is by using technology.
We're seeing an exciting expansion of remote sensing technologies to monitor species in the wild. There are a couple of really cool Australian startups that are diversifying into this area: for example, Wildlife Drones are using drones to monitor koalas in the wild using infrared technology. They can now fly drones across vast areas of land and count how many koalas are there. That’s 10 times an ecologist can monitor.
When it comes to the AI space, we're starting to generate a lot of biodiversity data, thanks to these new remote sensing technologies. It might take an ecologist or a wildlife scientist hours to review video or image footage and work out if something is a quoll or a kangaroo.
We can now train algorithms to automatically detect species so that we don't have humans doing that ourselves. And again, that just helps us with our ability to scale monitoring species in the wild.
I'm of the strong belief that diversity drives innovation in technology and AI. If you've been paying attention at all to the way the tech industry is going, it's predominantly men currently. We don't have that gender diversity.
I'm also of the belief that without that diversity in tech and AI, we can't truly use those technologies to tackle global issues like climate change, and environmental loss, specifically. Because the way in which AI algorithms are developed can be incredibly biased. If we have biased AI algorithms, are we starting to magnify the injustices that we've seen in the world? Are we starting to replicate colonialism in the tech space?
I'm a Kamilaroi woman, and this is a huge concern for our First Nations brothers and sisters. It is really an important issue, and having our First Nations mobs involved in the conservation and regeneration of biodiversity is critical. We cannot regenerate our ecosystems without these communities. If we have AI algorithms that are telling us to do certain actions and they're also starting to magnify these colonial aspects that we've seen in the past, this is just going to further marginalise our First Nations communities.
We're not quite there yet in our product development, but our roadmap is to incorporate traditional conservation and land management practices into our algorithms. We have already started conversations with different Indigenous rangers' groups, helping them to scale their operations by assisting them to effectively collect biodiversity information and make decisions with that.
The next stage is to say, if you were to manage this particular biodiversity issue or particular land from a traditional perspective, what would that look like? And how can we build that into our AI algorithm? Our Indigenous people have effectively managed our land for over 40,000 years. We need their input to reverse the huge damage that we've seen in just the short amount of time that white people have essentially taken over the world.
I mean, the obvious one that everyone always like goes to is Canva, right? It's one of Australia's most successful companies, headed up by Melanie Perkins, one of our gold star female tech CEOs. I really look up to the company that Melanie has built and the challenges and hurdles that she had to overcome as a female founder.
I draw on that as inspiration to go through this startup journey, because it's really tough. She often says you've just got to keep going, and I draw on that for a lot of strength.
Looking at female-led innovations in the climate and sustainability tech space, there are some incredible UNSW alumni that are working in this space. There's Naomi Tarszisz, who's founded a startup called Replated. She's tackling the plastic waste issue from takeaways.
There's Raj Bagri, founder of Kapture, who is developing a new technology to capture carbon at the point of emission - the holy grail of reducing carbon emissions. That's our homegrown talent that's tackling one of the number one issues in the world right now.
More specifically to wildlife, I already mentioned Wildlife Drones, Dr. Debbie Saunders is the founder and CEO. There is also Dr. Natalie Schmitt, who runs a startup called WildTechDNA. They use DNA analysis to help corporates understand the biodiversity impact as well.
I consider all of these incredible women as collaborators and partners in this wild journey that is being a startup founder. I think that's the unique thing about being a female founder is you tend to lean on other female founders around you and offer support to them. Which I think is our superpower against the men.
There are a couple of ways in which we can look at this and I think a big one that I'm passionate about is providing pathways to women into tech, innovation, and entrepreneurship more generally.
A new initiative for Xylo Systems this year is offering a paid internship programme for female students aspiring to careers in tech and innovation. We predominantly take students from a data science or ecology or wildlife background that are interested in innovation and tech. I’m really happy to open their eyes to the possibility of careers in tech because I never had that myself as you know a science undergraduate student.
We strongly encourage women who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to apply for that internship programme. This internship is one concrete step that startups themselves can take to a more gender-equal startup ecosystem and a more gender-equal, private corporate future.
Being a female founder in Australia is extremely difficult. This is mostly because to be a successful startup, you need to have funding to get you through what we call the valley of death: from the initial idea stage to the acquisition of customers and being a sustainable company.
The State of Australian Startup Funding report was released just last month, and they recorded a devastating figure for VC funding that went towards all female-founded startups in 2022. So, if I could click my fingers and change anything about the startup ecosystem is that it would be funding is distributed evenly across startups, and at least 50% of female-founded startups are represented in that VC funding.
I'm a little bit cynical. I've raised money for Xylo, and we are raising another round right now. And I'm not going to lie. I think that risk aversion does play into VC funding decisions because they want to fund back tried and tested models - and that's usually successful business models that are backed by white men, in their minds.
Knowing that I am working on a huge, complex global problem that is biodiversity loss, and knowing that what I'm doing is going to make a difference. That gives me real drive and real purpose to get up on the days when VCs say no to me!
Having that ability to work on your personal mission and absolute purpose in a creative and innovative manner. What thrills me is working in the startup ecosystem, you get to be surrounded by other people who are working on their purpose in creative ways. That just drives you even more.
In startups, you get to work with people who are building the future. Is that not the best thing ever?