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‘Keep chipping away, ask questions and learn how to learn’: How female leadership is moving the dial on sustainability

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COVID-19 has forced many Canadian startups to navigate one of the most challenging times. We spoke with Kasia Malz about how she has adjusted her executive approach and her experience leading a sustainable energy company in a competitive space.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Canadian startups to navigate one of the most challenging periods the business world has ever experienced. These challenges, including managing remote teams and securing long-term financing, are further amplified in complex and capital-intensive industries like sustainable energy production.

We recently spoke with Kasia Malz, Chief Financial Officer at Next Hydrogen, about how she has adjusted her executive approach since joining the company, lessons learned during challenging periods of change, and her experience as a Canadian woman leading a sustainable energy company in a competitive space.

You joined Next Hydrogen in the middle of the pandemic, which was a challenging period for any business. What are some of the changes you’ve seen over the past year?

Next Hydrogen has completely transformed—it’s not the same as it was over a year ago. When I started in December 2020, there were five employees and now we’re at about 50. We didn’t even have an office—the team was completely remote—until October 2021. The company was having difficulty landing financing, and when our CEO Raveel Afzaal came in, he raised $60 million for the company and brought the right people to the right seats. Together, we helped take the company public, acquired a solutions provider, and have significantly grown out our infrastructure and processes. This will allow us to properly develop and commercialize our technology in what is a very capital-intensive business, and get it to the finish line, which is exciting.

The biggest challenge has been around talent and trying to get the right people. But we’ve done quite well—we were able to draw top-notch hydrogen talent from a limited pool in a niche industry. We’re the only public electrolysis company in Canada, so we’re trying to pull talent in from around the world. That’s been the most difficult thing because it’s such a hot market. Supply chain disruption has been a huge challenge for us as well, especially since we’ve hit the ground running while building strategies around bottlenecks. Everyone is experiencing the exact same challenges, which gives us time to catch up with our competition.

What have you learned or changed about yourself as a CFO or your approach as an executive during your experience, particularly around managing a remote team?

I’ve been trying to change my approach dramatically. I had a phenomenal hire leave last December, and I’ve been doing a lot of introspection and thinking about what I could have done differently. Was it just not a good match to begin with? Was it the environment? Or was it me and my management style? Because communication is so difficult when work is remote, it’s hard to create a bond with your people. I’m trying to tailor my approach to be more proactive in communicating with my team and fine-tuning my management style to accommodate the new reality in which we’re living and working.

Tell us about your journey—how did get started with Next Hydrogen and what brought you to the role of CFO?

I’m an adrenaline junkie. I like intense, fast-paced, and high-learning environments, and that’s why I was drawn to Next Hydrogen, which is a startup moving very quickly with ambitious plans while working on exciting and innovative technologies. I love the people, and that’s what kept me here. I became the full-time CFO in January 2022, whereas previously I was a contractor working with a few other clients. I’m dedicated to this company now because I love collaborating with a phenomenal group of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. Our two founders, Dr. Jim Hinatsu and Dr. Michael Stemp, are PhDs with decades of hydrogen experience and very intimate with the technology. Our board is premium—some of the most impressive people I’ve ever worked with. Together, we’ve earned the respect of this industry by doing great work, and we’re just getting started.

There tends to be a stereotype around the energy and tech industries being an ‘old boys club’, at least as far as leadership is concerned. What has your experience been as you’ve moved up the ranks to the executive level? Are you seeing a change in the old ways of thinking, or more people like yourself leading transformation in their organizations?

While it’s true that you do see the ‘old boys’ influence sometimes, I haven’t felt any negativity. Maybe it’s because both our CEO and I are considered minorities and are not who you expect to see in these roles. Together we just make such an interesting and strong team and we’ve earned the respect of our company and the industry. We’ve been able to develop and execute ground-breaking strategies. If you keep your head down and do great work, eventually you’ll overcome those barriers.

What is it about working at in a startup environment that draws you in or is attractive to you as a leader? Would you ever consider working at a larger organization?

I like the challenge. When a company becomes set in its routines, I get bored. Prior to joining Next Hydrogen, I took another company public, did a string of acquisitions, and built out the team from scratch, and it was amazing. But once the strategy became more about organic growth, more copy-and-paste, I just wasn’t learning anything anymore. I worked in cannabis for a little while, thinking that it’s a new and vibrant industry, but it ended up not working for me. But I absolutely love the sustainability space. Not only is it exciting—you learn a lot and become more comfortable with uncertainty—but we’re also helping the planet.

What advice do you have for other aspiring women leaders in your industry?

I have been thinking a lot about this question recently. There was a co-op student I spoke with about her career growth and how to avoid getting discouraged because we can’t change the world overnight. A lot of people go into sustainability and get deflated by the perception that it’s all about money and corporate objectives, and not about saving the planet. But it’s going to take a long time to fix these massive processes, and that’s a good problem to work through. We need to dissect it into little pieces and eventually we’ll get there – you have to be patient and determined to see it through. And, especially in a constantly changing startup environment, it’s so important to ask questions, be adaptable and learn how to learn.

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