CEO and CTO Liz Dennett on 'running the mile you’re in'

Written by:

Katie Mehnert

If you were serving as CTO of a company based in Houston and CEO of a startup based in Denver simultaneously, would you decide that you absolutely must go run a marathon as well? Not many people would! But not everyone has the boundless energy of Liz Dennett.

“I have no chill,” she says, laughing. “I don’t believe in doing things to the 70% mark. I do them 110%. I eat, breathe, sleep everything I’m passionate about.”

That includes working for the energy transition. And it explains why she’s part of the Women & Allies in Energy team that will run the TCS New York City Marathon together in November. Our motto is, “Running toward net zero.”

Originally from Palmer, Alaska, Liz earned a Ph.D. in geomicrobiology and astrobiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked in energy, becoming the lead solutions architect for energy data platforms at Amazon Web Services, a VP at Wood Mackenzie, and then chief technology officer at Cemvita. The company uses synthetic biology to advance the energy transition. As Liz puts it, “We do these crazy, awesome moonshots.”

She discussed her career and experiences earlier this year as a speaker at our Energy 2.0 Unconference.

Recently, she was asked to also take over as CEO of Endolith, a business within Cemvita that focuses on new, cleaner ways to extract minerals necessary for the energy transition. “The technology of biomining is really, really cool, and has the potential to fundamentally shift the requirements for the critical minerals needed,” she wrote on LinkedIn, adding that she is “eager to forge a path that brings this science out of the lab and into the world.”

Liz explained that this kind of scientific work is a necessity to ensure a just transition -- one in which people across the world, including in impoverished nations, stand to participate and gain. “This needs to be something that every citizen of the planet can afford,” she said. “It's part of the reason I'm so passionate about the work that ALLY Energy is doing because this isn't an ‘us vs. them’ problem. This is every citizen and every country.”

The power of ‘type 2 fun’

Liz is a believer in the so-called “fun scale” that outlines three types of fun. The first is something that’s fun while you’re doing it and afterward. The second is “not always fun when you're doing it, but it's fun after the fact,” she says. 

The third type, as Masterclass puts it, includes endeavors that “are pleasant neither during the event nor after the fact, but they can become a good story for some.”

For Liz, the work she’s doing and her commitment to training for the marathon are signs that “I live in the type 2 fun zone.” And in both, she says, there is a finish line. “We just have to figure out how to get there.”

It’s an ethos she shares with her employees. “The lab hours might be long. It might be really challenging. We’re going to have to invent our way out of problems.  Sometimes, we have to go out and find new organisms, new ways of doing this work. But the payoff is ultimately going to be worth it.”

Focus on the now

The key, she says, is to “run the mile you’re in.” It’s important to avoid fixating on the overwhelming journey ahead. “If you think about the finish line, and you think about everything you need to do, you can very quickly get in your head. If you're at mile seven and your leg starts to hurt and you realize that you are a quarter of the way there, mentally you can shut down.” 

Similarly, “If you are at the lab bench doing experiments and you realize that you are two months into an 18- or 24-month scope of work,” that realization can have the same effect.

So she turns to “realistic optimism.” It means having faith that you’ll face challenges in the future but, for now, “I’m just going to be present. I'm just going to focus on the next little bit. I'm just going to put one foot in front of the other.”

And, Liz adds, when you’ve got a great team, it’s crucial to tap into that collective power. “So it's not about me alone crossing the finish line. It's about the people to the left and right of me who have been in the trenches together… We're going to pull each other across that finish line, and celebrate together.”

Interested in being a part of the journey?  First, help us give a big thanks to TCS for their support of the team!  Help contribute to the Women and Allies in Energy Marathon team by donating to our charity, The Energy Project.

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