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CEOs need to take an active role in leading on topics that affect our humanity. Partisanship aside.

Connect to this article on Quartz at Work.

By Clay Wilkes, CEO, Galileo

When the pandemic hit, nightly walks with my wife became part of my pandemic routine – a chance to escape the chaos of the world and take solace in the natural beauty of Utah’s mountainscape. But over the Summer, that escape hatch closed. West Coast wildfires turned our air into smoky haze, making it so unhealthy and hazardous to be outdoors that our peaceful moments of refuge became reminders of a looming threat.

While our business is focused on the movement of money, I’d be shortsighted to ignore that looming threat on the horizon, because, frankly, it threatens our existence. As a recent report commissioned by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission titled “Managing Climate Risk in the U.S. Financial System” noted, it’s not just the physical risks – the hard costs of damage from fires, floods, hurricanes and derechos. “A world racked by frequent and devastating shocks from climate change cannot sustain the fundamental conditions supporting our financial system,” the report concluded. In other words, money won’t matter in a world where climate change is unchecked – where continents are ablaze, glaciers are melting and rainforests are disappearing.

I may lead a fintech company, but primarily, I lead 450 hard-working employees. With their well-being in mind, it would be irresponsible if I didn’t speak out about the climate crisis. And perhaps because I work in fintech, I’m compelled to speak out about the financial implications of this crisis. From the threat to U.S. financial markets detailed recently by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to the potential risk for banks highlighted in a recent report from sustainability nonprofit, Ceres, it’s clear the cost of climate change will be catastrophic. A recent study on Australia, for example, found that while lack of climate action will cost the Australian economy $3.4 trillion and 880,000 jobs over the next 50 years, adopting policies promoting net zero emissions by 2050 would create 250,000 jobs and add $680 billion to the economy. With so many voices weighing in on the side of “We can’t afford to address climate change,” we need every possible knowledgeable voice to articulate the true cost/benefit balance in terms people can understand.

When the world went into lockdown and we saw a vast reduction in human movement and activity, we got a glimpse of an alternative future where the Venetian canals are clear enough to see fish for the first time, and Los Angeles, notorious for smog, has some of the cleanest air in the world. This is the future that our children and grandchildren deserve, and we now know that the collective action of human beings makes it possible. The latest data from the International Energy Agency shows that the drastic reduction of global economic activity and mobility during the first quarter of 2020 pushed down global energy demand by 3.8 percent compared to first quarter 2019. There hasn’t been a decline like that in the past 70 years.

With the inauguration of President Biden, there’s hope that this issue can and will be addressed. He’s already promised to rejoin the Paris climate accord and I’m hoping that’s just the first of many reversals to President Trump’s problematic climate policies. With Utah’s air quality particularly susceptible to emission, President Biden must reverse the Trump-driven Environmental Protection Agency rule that weakened regulations on the release of mercury and other toxic metals from oil and coal-fired power plants. He must also reverse the Trump administration’s plan to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments and stop the U.S. Department of the Interior from permitting drilling, mining and grazing on these breathtaking Utah landmarks. But we can’t rely on the government to solve this crisis alone.

ESG investing (Environmental, Social and Governance) can be a big driver of change, as investments into companies and technologies that are mission driven can have a large impact on the way companies behave. We need to go beyond this as leaders and as individuals. In the case of clean air, we need to incorporate these principles into our core values and take action. We should be attempting to preserve the Amazon rainforest (also known as the “lungs of planet earth”), and investing in regenerative farming. Just these small steps could have a large positive impact on our environment and planet.

As states and countries reopen, carbon emissions are surging back to pre-pandemic levels, which makes it even more important for companies to lead by example. For my company, that means providing incentives for Galileo employees to lead cleaner lives. We’ve been powering our home and company headquarters in Salt Lake City with green energy for several years now and encouraged employees to do the same, offering to pay 50 percent of their home power bill if they do. We’ve also encouraged our employees to drive electric cars, offering $5,000 towards the purchase. But the big change I’m committing to now is remote work. This pandemic has revealed the effectiveness and positive environmental impact of a remote workforce, and I will never require all employees to commute to the office again. Like many other leaders, I’m committed to a hybrid remote work model and for those who do choose to drive into the office, I’m committing to buying the carbon offset for their commute, making it part of Galileo’s standard operating procedure. These are just a few examples of how CEOs can make small, incremental improvements by galvanizing the people they lead.

Many CEOs refrain from expressing political opinions for fear of alienating customers and employees, but I believe failing to speak out about this critical risk to our existence would be even more alienating. We can’t wait. This is not a partisan political issue. This is a human issue. 2020 was the warmest year on record. A median 70 percent of people across 14 countries say climate change is a threat to their country’s survival. And while the scale and scope of this climate crisis is overwhelming, we can’t cower in fear. We must rise to the occasion and lead by example because humanity depends on it.
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About Clay Wilkes, Founder and CEO, Galileo Financial Technologies:

Clay is the founder and CEO of Galileo, and the visionary behind its sophisticated global payment platform and APIs that set the industry standard for card issuing and digital banking.

Galileo powers North America’s leading fintechs—including KOHO, Robinhood, SoFi, Varo and many others—as well as the U.S.-based business of international powerhouses, such as Monzo, Paysafe, Revolut and TransferWise. Earlier this year, Galileo established offices in Mexico, where it is certified to support domestic issuers, and is now partnering with Mexican and Latin American fintech leaders.

Galileo’s commitment to removing complexity from payments has led to striking year-over-year success. During 2019, Galileo’s run rate topped 80 percent for the second straight year and first quarter 2020 growth exceeded 95 percent.

As a fintech itself, Galileo is in rare company: a bootstrapped organization that achieved profitability years before accepting outside institutional investment. Under Clay’s leadership, Galileo announced its first institutional investment round in October 2019, led by venture capital firm Accel. In May 2020, Galileo was acquired by SoFi and now operates as an independent business unit with Clay as CEO. As an independent business unit, Galileo continues to focus on serving the financial services ecosystem and its partners, with enhanced capabilities to bring investment and lending products to market.

Clay’s love of technology developed as a student while hunkered down in high school and university computer labs in his native Oregon. He launched his professional career developing communications and operating systems for Sperry, IBM and Novell. In 1994 Clay founded I-Link, which developed Voice Over IP and the first switchless voice network. As CEO, he took I-Link public and authored patents for VOIP.

With his wife, Clay founded The Galileo Foundation, providing opportunities for Galileo employees, clients and partners to engage with people worldwide who lack economic opportunity.

A dedicated humanitarian and environmentalist, Clay points to Galileo’s Core Values as the embodiment of what he believes as a business leader.

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