I Left Amazon for a Climate-Tech Startup, and I Love It

Leandro Mortenegro
  • Rotem Yossef spent seven years at Amazon before moving to ClimateAI, a tech startup.
  • He says he’s happier working for a company whose values align with his.
  • He also likes the benefits, such as room to work on a lot of different things and better PTO.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Rotem Yossef, a 44-year-old senior director of finance and operations at ClimateAI from the Seattle area. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I worked at Amazon for seven years, most recently as the head of Amazon Web Services’ cloud-intelligence partnerships, with internal and external partners on AWS’s business-development side. While I was comfortable working for Amazon, I realized last year that corporate America’s politics were starting to take their toll on me. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic altered the way people prioritized work and life, I knew I needed a change — but had no idea what a midpandemic, midcareer move looked like. I asked myself a question I hadn’t had to consider for a long time: “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

The answer, I realized, wasn’t just about my future — it was about my four young children’s futures as well, and I was looking for something that was more fulfilling for me and would make the world a better place for them. A new job at a climate-tech startup made perfect sense.

For the majority of my career, I’d worked for large companies in roles that had nothing to do with climate tech. To switch jobs, I first had to do some research and familiarize myself with the landscape. 

Climate tech is a broad field, encompassing everything from fusion energy to plant-based proteins, freight optimization, carbon removal, and plastic alternatives. I started with LinkedIn, then wandered into other resources, including Climatebase and Climate Jobs List. The key for me was to explore companies solving problems that were material and interesting to solve, while making a positive impact on people’s lives. 

I soon realized I’d have to be more specific about the kind of role I wanted. My analytical, financial, project-management, and leadership skills, developed throughout my years in Big Tech and the military service, were applicable to many positions in operations and finance. 

As I began to network with more people in the startup world — again using LinkedIn to reach out to connections and connections of connections — I realized that a chief-of-staff role would fit with my skills and personality. In startups, this job frequently entails owning everything that has no dedicated owner, so I knew it would offer me the opportunity to strategize and execute on building important operational systems and processes that would set up the company to scale in size and influence.

I sent my résumé out for about 10 openings and immediately heard back from my current company, ClimateAI, a San Francisco startup that’s built an artificial-intelligence-based forecasting platform to optimize supply chains and crop production. I interviewed with ClimateAI’s CEO, Himanshu Gupta, and, following a couple more stages, received an offer within 14 days.

That was far quicker than I’d planned

The game plan was to spend more time interviewing, receive a few offers, evaluate them, negotiate, and make a call. After all, the common approach is that job seekers aren’t supposed to take the first offer without checking out a few more opportunities. 

The “problem” was that the offer was spot-on for me, so I decided I’d rather avoid the “fear of missing out” and follow a protocol that Amazon uses when interviewing candidates: Start with a strong list of candidates and go with the first one that raised the bar, without looking back. ClimateAI raised the bar. I was thoroughly impressed by the entire C-suite during the interviewing process. 

During the process, I completed an assignment where I drafted a strategy brief, which showed me that the way my brain works was aligned with the way the leadership team thought. At the end of the day, I look at a company like an investor: First, how’s the team? Then, how’s the market? Finally, how’s the product? The team won out, the market is driving, and the product is powerful.

I wake up every morning with a smile on my face, fulfilled by the work I’m doing and the impact our company is making 

I’m just over a year into the job, and I can confirm that many of the rumors you hear about startups are true: Everything happens at a breakneck speed. It’s all hands on deck, all day, every day. There are no political limitations on how you do things. On the climate-tech side, you feel far more fulfilled working for a purpose-driven company. And it comes with a “nice” pay cut, counterbalanced by a dream of an “exit.”

Luckily, I thrive in fast-paced environments with new challenges every day, and that’s exactly what a chief of staff at a startup handles. I went through a thorough process when figuring it all out, so I was mentally and financially prepared to enjoy the startup life’s benefits. I was assured that I had health insurance, could work remotely, had generous sick leave, and had unlimited vacation with a required minimum of paid-time-off days (versus limited time off at Amazon).

Working for a startup offers more vertical career-growth potential: It’s a pure meritocracy, free of politics and rigid hierarchical structures. In no time, my responsibilities expanded to owning finance, human resources, IT, legal, and even a chunk of investor relations — leading to a promotion to senior director of finance and operations this summer. 

It’s also an exciting time to be in climate tech

Venture-capital investment in climate tech increased 80% between 2020 and 2021 in the US alone. ClimateAI has wrapped up its seed-investment and Series A funding rounds, having raised $16 million to date.

It’s invigorating to see how we’ve grown as a team: The team has expanded to more than 50 employees, up from about 25 when I started. I’m allocated 50% of another employee’s time for support and get to be hands-on with our investors, as I manage communications and meetings with our leading Series A VCs and with prospective investors for our Series B.

Beyond this, I feel fulfilled pursuing a career that connects me more with my values. I’ve always been an advocate for a sustainable lifestyle: When I was a college student in Israel 20 years ago, I recycled everything possible, even when that meant jumping over fences to sneak into restricted-access buildings that had the only cardboard-recycling facility on campus.

Today, my family uses a specialized recycling service to recycle items like plastic film, bread clips, and twist ties (yup, those can be recycled). My house has no gasoline-consuming devices, including only LED lights, energy-efficient appliances, and an electric lawn mower. Working in climate tech means that when I go to work, I continue to pursue the same values.

For others looking to make this move, I recommend starting with what — and whom — you know

You should never just apply for a job — thousands of candidates do that. Instead, use your LinkedIn network to reach out to the company’s CEO via a mutual friend or a friend of a friend. Go as high as you can with as close a friend as you can. Your network should be built up every day, not just when you’re looking for a job.

You also must follow the space. Read, read, read — and understand the dynamics and implications of working for a startup and for a startup in the space you’re aiming at. You should also research roles: What are startups looking for? Is there a role that fits you in this space? I suggest reaching out to employers with an open role they have in mind, and if there’s none, you might get lucky suggesting one — but you’ll have to present a very strong case for creating a role just for you. 

Overall, this transition has been 100% worth it for me. Moving out of corporate America to a small startup was a challenge, but the opportunity to build a company and a cutting-edge product that aligns with my values was the chance of a lifetime.

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