Origin Story Interview W/ Troy Carter, Earthshot Labs

Origin Story Interview W/ Troy Carter, Earthshot Labs

Brighter Future

 / 

Oct 5, 2022

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #NatureRestoration #EcosystemRestoration #ClimateAction #EnvironmentalImpact #NatureConservation #CarbonNeutral #RegenerativeEconomy

Brighter Future

Today, we’re thrilled to be joined by Troy Carter from Earthshot Labs, a company on a mission to restore nature at a planetary scale in order to stabilise our climate, ecosystems, and communities.

Hi, Troy. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us today. To get started, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your work?

Hello! My name is Troy Carter, and I’m the CEO and co-founder of Earthshot Labs. Earthshot Labs is a company focused on nature restoration. I think everyone on the planet intuitively knows what healthy ecosystems look like, and our organisation’s mission is to restore the planet’s ecosystems to full health and vitality. We do that by financing worldwide nature restoration projects in collaboration with NGOs, tribes, governments, and corporations. We also build technology and scientific tools to make that a scalable process and use carbon as a financial mechanism to scale up nature restoration.  

On a more personal note, I grew up in the United States on the island of St. Croix, which is the United States’ territory in the Caribbean. I went to college in California, lived in Hawaii for the last seven years, and only recently moved back to California to run Earthshot Labs.

So, you’re now back in California running Earthshot Labs. What path took you to this point? Where did the idea for Earthshot Labs come from?   

Earthshot is a synthes is of what I’ve done professionally in the past, combined with my co-founder, Patrick. We’ve currently got about 40 people working with us, and we’re growing quickly. As I mentioned, I spent that last seven years in Hawaii, where I didn’t work a traditional job. Instead, I hosted retreats with my wife on our land, which is on the Big Island near Waipio Valley. Our retreats are targeted at couples, groups and individuals who want a deeper connection with the planet and themselves. We give people a chance to unwind the impact civilisation has had on them and expand themselves into who they could become as human beings.  

Before that, I was an entrepreneur. I worked at various tech companies, including Airbnb. Then I started my own company and sold it after a couple years. And so, Earthshot is the synthesis of those two impulses: entrepreneurship and impacting many people worldwide. In addition, there is also my profound love of nature, plants, animals, and all the other beings who share this planet.

Earthshot was born out of that synthesis, including Patrick and the other people who have joined us. They all share a similar story of building a rigorous competency in finance, quantitative ecological model laying, climate policy, or other areas. All of which are important for creating practical and meaningful change in our global incentive structures for how we treat land and nature at scale. Of course, we also all have a heart and a sense of integrity that comes from a personal spiritual journey, interaction with the real world or being in a relationship with people. And so, everyone who is part of this enterprise has some element of that. 

Wow, those retreats certainly sound interesting! It sounds like you’ve spent the last seven years really immersed in nature and building that connection to the planet and its ecosystems. Is that how you met your co-founder, Patrick? And what prompted you to then create Earthshot Labs together?  

Yes, that’s correct. Patrick attended a spiritual retreat in Hawaii. One of his dear friends and coaches introduced us. He’d just had a very strong non-dual experience with the trees and a deep awakening process. He was working at a hedge fund at that time with something like $4 billion under management. I immediately snatched him up. I told him, “You need to leave New York, and we need do this project together.” He agreed, and about six months later, that’s exactly what we did. 

We talked for six months or a year, thinking through the high leverage points related to changing how humans relate to non-human nature. Not just on the level of a cultural or spiritual narrative, but practically, too. We explored why all the trees are getting cut down. Why all the birds and many other species are becoming extinct right now. We discovered that the reason is that we pay people to chop down the forests, put in mines, and use nature in an extractive way. Nature is seen as only useful for human utility. If we paid people differently, like systemically, we could change that. Even if we’re still lagging on a cultural-spiritual connection, at least we can reflect the wisdom and values we know should be true in our financial systems. 

That’s where we come together. There is a sense of scale, a sense of movement that comes from moving very large amounts of money into something that is fundamentally good and important for humans and non-humans. For example, the current wave of the moment is that climate change is suddenly being acknowledged as a big problem. Corporations and governments worldwide are willing to put a lot of money into this, which was not possible a couple of years ago. There’s something about this deep call from the Earth, which is why Patrick woke up to this moment. And many other people are waking up to this moment, too. There is a growing cultural, financial, and political will to change things. To do something about our problems. That’s how Patrick and I met, connected and embarked on this journey together with Earthshot Labs.  

That’s amazing! It’s not always easy to find a co-founder who is on the same page, not just from a business perspective but also on your broader values. When you think about the work you are doing at Earthshot Labs, who benefits most from it? Who are you doing this for?   

My first answer is that I’m doing it for myself because this is the most fun job I could imagine doing. Honestly, what else would I be working on? To be able to create a dream team of the smartest, most heartfelt people on Earth—that’s the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. And it’s coming true. It becomes even more true every week. So, I’d say, primarily, I’m doing this for myself, just because this is a really amazing ride to be on. 

Then, I’m doing this for the benefit of everyone. We need change so that we, as humans, can balance the planet and get to the next stage in the evolution of humanity. So that we can make progress throughout the solar system and ensure the continuation of consciousness on the planet. There aren’t that many people who directly take responsibility for the issues we are facing and have the capacity to influence policies or incentive structures that are systemic across the entire planet. We have a very special opportunity to create an organisation where we can come together and make those things happen—where we are not the victims of politicians or of the incentive structures of the past. So, on behalf of all of the humans, non-humans, the planet, and the team here at Earthshot Labs, we’re striving to implement global change.   

Amazing! Personal fulfilment is such an underestimated element of making enterprises like Earthshot Labs successful, so it’s great to see that acknowledged. What would you say is the most fulfilling part of your work? What resonates most with you?  

When you’re doing something you’re supposed to be doing, whatever that means, it feels good. Being in the flow of life, even though it can be a lot of work, can feel easy when you’re focused on the right things. The people who are supposed to be a part of it will come together—the funders, the partners, the connection who reaches out. It can feel like a very magical unfolding, and it’s amazing to be in that quality of consciousness, where everything just flows. That’s how it is with Earthshot Labs. Like anything in that space, there’s the complexity of running a business or working with people with different personalities and needs, navigating through COVID or remote work, alongside ethical dilemmas as a civilisation and compromising on things that feel important, but somehow it just feels right.  

Also, my worldview and belief system have been reinforced by that process, where everything works out. My perspective on what is possible for human civilisation is that it can all work out. If we are in it together, if we believe and support each other, and then structurally back that up with our money and our values around land agency and equitable distribution of power and money, there is the potential for things to work out.

You have such a unique way of looking at things. That’s really inspiring. When did you start riding this wave of flow? Has this way of thinking and living always been with you, or is it something you developed over time?

It’s definitely a process that gets deeper. I have become more and more anchored in that experience as my life has progressed. But I’d say there has probably always been an inclination towards that, but there have also been moments when that inclination has been deepened.    

There have been many moments where my flow has been tested over the last fifteen years, too, but I’ve always had enough awareness to realise that I’m the one living. That I am the one who has agency. Life is not something that is being done to me. From there, I move into a place of being in service of life. That continues to deepen as my own journey progresses.  

In life and business, things are never as straightforward as we would like them to be. Can you think of a time in your life or career when you took a completely different direction than planned?

Yeah, this happens all the time. In fact, I would say it happens every week, on every level. For example, I’ve been married for five years, but we’ve been together for seven. It’s wonderful, but it’s also a journey of constantly rediscovering what the truth is. The templates we are given for relationships, business, how we treat ecological systems at scale, how we think about money, how we think about monetising relationships and making them transactional—they don’t feel so good. Or many of them don’t feel so good anymore. So, it’s not as though I’m in a position to say, “Hey, here’s the new blueprint, and now we’ve got do it.”There’s a whole evolutionary process of growing into that. It takes time. I’m surprised all the time with what happens in my life, but I’m very open to the things that I don’t even know are coming.

What life experience do you think gave you the perspective and confidence you needed to start Earthshot Labs and make it successful?

Although Patrick and I have both been entrepreneurs in the past, we’ve never really done something like this before. However, I do think our experience of starting and running businesses gave us the confidence that we could do it. We saw in each other that we could create something really special that could have an impact on the world. We were both interested in working on restoring humans’ relationships with non-human beings and codifying that through restoring ecosystems. The hope is that this will have a very strong climate impact.

Generally speaking, there are many, many NGOs and individuals that are having a small but beautiful impact locally. There aren’t, however, that many large institutions doing the same. Of course, there are the likes of Google or Apple, but the work they’re doing is not that good. They’re not good to work for and they don’t represent an ethos of flow, magic, trust in reality and equitable distribution. Plus, justice for marginalised peoples is not part of that ecosystem. So, we knew we could create an organisation that would be different from the other organisations that we’ve seen—one that combines the ethos of these intimate, nature-connected NGO people and the scale of the Googles and Apples of this world. And it turns out, many other people agree that this is what is needed. 

So, all of that to say there is no particularly unique competency or skill set that made us believe in what we could achieve through Earthshot Labs. Instead, it was more about the idea. And it’s an idea that people could fully resonate with. There are a lot of people who feel that now is the time in their life to focus on restoring nature. It’s much easier to succeed when you catch the wave properly, and now is that time. We believe there will be many other organisations doing something very similar to what we’re doing in the future. 

Thank you for sharing that! No business is ever completely smooth sailing. What challenges have you faced with Earthshot Labs since you started, and what did you learn from them?

We spent about a year talking to and learning from others, trying to identify exactly what we wanted to do. We had a general idea of what we wanted to do—something around financing and nature—but we weren’t entirely clear on what the actual business would be. There were so many questions that we needed to answer before we could get started. What creates a sustainable organisation? What are the real leverage points for generating change? It’s possible to work hard on something and have no impact whatsoever in the end. Or to have a great external impact but betray the people you serve. So, there were different points along that journey that synthesised our ideas into what Earthshot Labs is now.

It was very challenging at times. I felt I was struggling. I was waking up in the middle of the night thinking about aspects of the business. But these challenges were mostly driven by issues of integrity or if we weren’t making decisions based on the values that we held. For example, there was the issue of equitable pay. When we consider the incentive structures that most companies use, there’s a very high discrepancy between highly paid employees and those at the lower end of the scale. So how do we pay people fairly? We spent a lot of time thinking about this, and at some point, we realised that we were paying people too little. Originally, we felt that our runway was quite short, so we limited the salaries we paid to give ourselves as much time as possible to get the business off the ground. However, as soon as we let go of that mindset and paid everyone 20 to 50% more, we realised there was enough momentum to carry us through. There was enough revenue and business traction that we could take risks, pay people more, and shorten our runway. So, we did, and it all worked out! It’s a good example of our approach. We’re constantly adapting and learning.

Some entrepreneurs report experiencing an “A-ha!” moment or two along the way. A moment where things just click into place, suddenly make sense, or come into alignment, making progress easier. Have you ever experienced an “A-ha” moment in your startup journey?

Wow, yes, I’ve had so many! Very early on, when we were still exploring and talking to people about our idea, we started our Slack channel. Before we knew it, a few thousand people had joined, so we quickly realised that we had something there. People wanted to give their time to this issue, and we learned many lessons over that year. So, that “A-ha!” moment was the origin of this entire project. It was like a miniature sandbox for the organisation we wanted to create and grow.

As a result of that “A-ha!” moment, we were able to identify exactly what options, from those we had come up with, made the most sense for us. We could clearly see our true impulse. What really drives and excites us is an organisation focused on nature. It’s about trees. It’s about animals. It’s about all these ecosystems that, when you’re in them, you feel different. You feel the full energy and vitality of a planet that has evolved over billions of years. It’s not about optimising for carbon sequestration. It’s not about increasing agricultural margins. It’s about restoring the relationship between humans and the rest of nature and making that structural change within human economic values. That was our “A-ha!” moment.

You’ve touched on your spirituality several times. Do you believe in a higher power? And if so, how does this influence your business? Or your decision-making in business?  

That’s an interesting way of putting it. I personally don’t like to use the words “spirituality” or “higher power”. I think they can become very easily conceptualised as something they’re not. I mean, in short, yeah, I do. For me, however, it’s more about: are your relationships good? Do you have integrity? Are you doing meaningful work? These are the proof points that show there’s a higher power or a spiritual side to the world. We can have deep experiences that are not related to this reality. I think that's really important. 

If people haven’t had these experiences, they probably should, whether through meditation, plant medicine, or religious experience. You can have deeply transcendent experiences by being in congregations of people who work themselves into a religious fervour or through other practices, such as yoga, and spending time in nature.

My first real spiritual awakening happened many years ago, when my girlfriend broke up with me. I felt so much stress and heartbreak because of it. I was walking along the beach one day, and reality changed from one moment to the next. There was no outside intervention other than my suffering and heartbreak. That was the moment when reality shifted from what it was before to total dissolution for some time. It completely reformed my perception of what was going on around me. I have had many experiences like that. Carl Jung said, “there’s no birth of consciousness without pain.” There’s often a moment when things crack, and that has to happen so another perception of what is going on can come in. I think one of the most important elements of how organisations need to lead is having a deeper understanding and appreciation for reality and what is happening. What is the role of human beings, and what is the role of the planet?

In addition to this, we need some perspective on how deep time is—after all, it’s gone on for billions of years—and the context in which humanity has existed on this planet. So, for example, many tribes have creation stories, and I think it’s very beautiful to listen to these because many of them come from other perspectives of reality. And although they don’t match up with consensus reality, they are true. I believe we need to incorporate these other stories about how reality works because there are people who know more than we do. And that’s important to understand.    

That’s a fascinating approach. I’d love to hear a little more about it. How do you integrate that into your business with your team? Are there any specific actions that you take?  

It’s not always obvious how we integrate something like that. We do things that might seem a little bit hippy at times. For example, we take a breath together at the beginning of a meeting. We do this so we can be fully present for what needs to happen during the meeting, whether it’s a decision or a strategic, creative, or relational conversation. We also have retreats every quarter, where people spend five or six days together in the forest and have the same sorts of strategic, business and relational conversations. There’s lots of meditation, breathwork, and spending time walking in the trees. These things feel different from anything I’ve experienced in any other organisation I’ve been a part of. 

So, it does come in but I don’t think it can be easily codified into “if you do these three things, then you will have brought a deep level of spiritual awakening into your organisation.” I don’t think that’s how it works. But hey, you can’t go wrong with breathing deeply at the beginning of a meeting—especially if it’s with your bankers!  

Within all successes, there are things that have had to be put on the backburner or put aside. Do you feel you have made compromises or sacrifices to get where you are today?  

I thought I had to make compromises and sacrifices at various points in my journey, but I don’t think that anymore. I think we can do ecological restoration at scale in a way that does not compromise our values or the quality of the restoration. 

On a more personal note, I believe that there is plenty of support to live my life—for anyone to live their life—without a serious level of compromise. But, on the other hand, I think some things are aspirational, such as realities in the future that are very challenging to live today. Those could be relational or they could be how we wish economics worked. So, in one sense, it’s a compromise because it’s still in the future of human evolution. We can, however, choose to meet reality where it is right now.

We’re currently experiencing a period of great change and uncertainty, on personal, local and global levels. One thing we know for sure, however, is that we can’t know how the future will unfold. We’d love to know how you personally envision the future?

In my opinion, it’s our job to envision the future because if we don’t, the people who do might have a shitty vision of the future and accidentally steer us in that direction. Just look at the news about where people think ecological systems are going. Everyone agrees that the shit will hit the fan. Why don’t I agree? Well, because the shit doesn’t have to hit the fan. Because we know exactly what we need to do; it’s just a very large and very complex task. We need everyone to be a part of it. But we can create something different if we decide to. Some elements are very simple, such as having biodiverse native ecosystems, places where there is no noise pollution or no light pollution at night, and places where we can combine these ideals with the social complexity of a city.

There’s so much interesting stuff happening right now. The biological complexity of a forest, for example, is beyond a human story—it’s a multi-species life story! There’s also technological advances, such as self-driving cars that might allow us to reduce the number of streets and open up more appropriate parking spots. Suddenly, you can have trees in your city. Part of this vision of the future relies on social, systemic, and political changes. We’ve just got to be creative.

Wow, that’s a very interesting take. Thanks for sharing your vision of the future, Troy. Speaking of the future, what would you like future generations to take away from your work at Earthshot Labs and all you have achieved on your journey?  

When others look at my journey, I want them to take away a belief that they can do it. There’s nothing easier than doing something you’re supposed to do. You just need to tap into something that feels very real to you. There is so much support; you just need to do it. And if you feel unsupported, you can email me. I’ll see who we can hook you up with to get you what you need. We need to build a culture where we are allies, all helping each other to get what we need, independent of economics, social class or anything else. If that doesn’t happen, solving this ecological climate and our structural economic issues will be a very long slog. 

All over the world, there are entrepreneurs, young and old, just starting out in their journey, building businesses that could potentially change the world. What advice would you offer to those people?

The bigger the problem and the more you care about it, the easier it will be—even if your goal is to restore net reforestation by 2030 and protect half of the planet by 2050. Because it’s a big problem, it will be easier to gain the momentum, allies and funding you need. It’s okay to have the goal to make some money and have a nice life with a standard profit-focused business, but just know that it will be the same amount of work as creating a big, world-changing solution and being wildly successful. Life will support you when you choose to focus on a really good project that has an impact.  

If you’re having a hard time identifying something to work on or you’re struggling to find support, you can join the Earthshot Labs Slack community to connect with others who have the same questions and motivations as you. I’d also recommend that you go out and meet people in person, talk to them about what you want to do, and then just do it.

Like all good things, this insightful interview must come to an end. Before we wrap it up, we’ve got one last question to ask you, Troy. If you could share just one message with the whole world, what would that message be?  

The whole world! Wow! The message I would want to send is not something I think you could just tell someone in words; it’s more of a deep understanding. I think the core struggle that almost all humans are facing is about loving yourself, feeling at home in the universe, and feeling happy where you are, independent of your circumstances. We all want to feel a sense of belonging and deep appreciation for our body and life. I think that’s where most humans are right now. If I could wave a magic wand and deliver that feeling of self-love and self-appreciation, that’s the message I would want the world to have.

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A huge thank you to our wonderful guest Troy Carter for participating in this interview and sharing his experience. If you would like to find out more about Troy and the work he is doing at Earthshot Labs, you can find him at: www.earthshot.eco.

To stay up to date with all of our latest content and interviews with amazing people like Troy, subscribe to the Brighter Future newsletter here.

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