Manager, Impact Acceleration at Aqua Action
Melissa Dick is the Manager of Impact Acceleration with the non-profit organization, AquaAction. In her role, she helps grow water tech start-ups by working directly with founders to develop new business ideas, access different markets, maintain and grow their ventures in a sustainable way, capture their business development and environmental impact metrics, and communicate those metrics in a compelling way. Melissa is a strong believer in entrepreneurship, creativity, and innovation as the path toward a sustainable future. With 8 years’ experience in academia, government, consulting, and the non-profit sector across Canada, she draws from multiple perspectives in her work advancing the fields of resource management, conservation, technological innovation, and sustainable business. In her free time, you can find her outside practicing sports such as running, rock climbing, mountain biking, and stand-up paddleboarding. Melissa holds a BSc in Geography and an MSc in Biology from Carleton University.
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
I work as the Manager of acceleration and impact for an organization called AquaAction. We bring together the worlds of business, entrepreneurship, and environmental science. We specifically tackle issues regarding water, water sustainability, and water management. So sustainability is at the core of our work. We work with startups that are in the water-technology space and operate with the triple bottom line. In our approach, we consider environmental health, social well-being, and a just economy. AquaAction is a nonprofit that receives funds from partners, sponsors, and supporters to help support startups. We are similar to an accelerator or incubator, and at the core of all our programs is the topic of sustainability and social impact. When working with these startups, we track traditional metrics and outcomes, but we’re just as interested in asking about the water impact and how they’re making a difference for freshwater in Canada. We ask questions such as: How many litres of water are they helping save? How many watersheds are they operating in? Are they improving water management practices and monitoring?
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
When I was in high school, I was not interested in science or business. I was into the arts. So I did a lot of writing and reading. Over time, it’s pivoted. I did my undergrad in science and geography, and in my current role with AquaAction, I’m getting my feet wet in business and entrepreneurship. Now, I’m very much interested in sustainability in business. So, over the years, my areas of focus have changed, but it’s made for such an interesting journey. I feel like I have lots of experience to draw from.
How did you enter this space?
I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors. I grew up on a little hobby farm, and my family makes maple syrup every spring. So I was always outside as a kid, and I’ve always been really interested in the environment and how to protect it. When it came time for me to choose what I want to do with my undergrad, I had this sense that whatever I chose, I was going to do that thing for the rest of my life. That terrified me because I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I was guided to think about the things that I generally enjoy in life. Not just what I enjoyed studying, but also the areas that I enjoy working in. That led me to the environment.
I then decided to go into geography. Initially, I was studying human geography, but I took a first-year course in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and learned of the power of GIS and was blown away. I wanted to get involved in it, and so I switched to physical geography, which led me to the science world. It was that introduction to the use of tech in geography and GIS as a technological tool that got me excited, and that has been an underlying theme to what I’ve been doing since then. During my Master’s degree, I used telemetry to track and manage sockeye salmon in the Fraser River in British Columbia. The work I do today also has a tech focus, but specifically in water sectors like drinking water and wastewater treatment. Overall, my interest in what technology can do for environmental health is what led me to this space.
Did you always want to work in the impact space?
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
When you think about water in the private sector – mining, for instance – those organizations have the capacity to fund research and development (R&D) as well as entire teams that are dedicated to environmental monitoring and remediation, or they can outsource to consulting companies. When you look at the public sector like municipalities and utilities that treat our drinking water and wastewater and manage our stormwater, they don’t have the funds to pay for the same kind of research and development that a private company can. So that’s something that we at AquaAction and the startups that we work with, we try to fill that void, we try to help municipalities or community groups address their water issues using technological innovation. Even five years ago, it’d be really hard for a startup in the cleantech world to find a grant that would help them develop their technology if they weren’t planning on heading towards the private sector. Today in government, there’s increasing support for tech innovation across all areas in clean technology. At the federal level, there are examples such as Sustainable Development Technology Canada, which invests directly in Canadian companies that are leading development in cleantech. Even at the provincial level, there’s increasing interest in sustainable procurement. So that’s something I’ve been excited about – how the public sector is growing more open to bringing in new innovations.
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
I think there are two. First, as Canadians, we take our water for granted. However, there are many communities – specifically First Nations communities – that don’t have access to clean drinking water. That is their reality and that is not right. Most of us benefit from being able to turn the tap on and drink clean water and flush the toilet and never have to worry. I think when we talk about having to invest in the resiliency of our water system, we need to think about how climate change is going to impact our environment, and how a lot of our infrastructure is not up to date to deal with the effects of it. This is an opportunity to go beyond just business-as-usual and this is where cleantech and startups with new ideas and new solutions can come into play. So that’s a misconception – that Canada has nothing to worry about when it comes to water.
Secondly, in the water-tech space specifically, sometimes others look at smaller companies or startups and assume that they don’t have what it takes to do business or make a difference. Startups can be really agile and flexible, and they can work with smaller operating budgets and explore interesting partnerships that larger corporations aren’t interested in. I think that’s also a misconception that, hopefully, we’ll overcome soon.
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
So, since the COVID began, I’ve been working a lot from home. We still have an office space, and so once a week, I’ll go and work there. I work a typical nine to five. I’m on my computer,often in meetings with colleagues, potential partners, and startups that I’m working with. I do a lot of relationship building and maintenance. Our organization is based in Montreal, but we work with partners across Canada. The best work days for me are when I can meet startup founders and new partners in person. I’ve had the opportunity to go and see some of their water tech solutions in action, sometimes even meeting the end-user, which is always really exciting and eye-opening to me. So hopefully, once COVID is over, those kinds of meetings and site visits will become more frequent.
In terms of work-life balance, outside of work, I do a lot of running, rock climbing, and other activities like that. When I’m on vacation, I’ll go camping or paddling. So water is always on my mind, but it doesn’t feel like I’m working all the time. Having that work-life balance is important to me. Sometimes it’s those moments where you’re paddling down a river, not thinking about work when you get that idea that helps spur some kind of development. It’s important to have that balance and space.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
I think right now the biggest challenge has been networking during the COVID-19 pandemic. These virtual events are not cutting it for me! For example, I had the chance to go to an in-person accelerator ecosystem gathering at the end of December 2021 in Montreal, and it was like: “Oh, this is what I’m missing in my life.” Being able to meet people and talk in person. Just that energy of being around people. I can’t wait for conferences and similar events to be up and running in person again. So that’s a challenge for me right now, and I look forward to when we can gather in person again.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
I am a lifelong learner, I’m always curious, and I’m always looking to invest in my personal and professional development. I’m really interested in doing an MBA so I’ve been looking at some program options. I’m particularly interested in doing an MBA that has a sustainability focus. I have formal training in science and in writing, but I’m still learning the business side of things. I think obtaining an MBA would be a great way to get some formal training in those areas and also build my leadership skills.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
The first is resourcefulness. I think in the field of cleantech development, you’re always in an exploration and development mode. There is no set path, and so to succeed in the space, you need to be willing to think outside the box. The second is persistency. Persistence is key to execute on initiatives because we are in a developmental and explorational space. It’s not a clear-cut path so you have to be able to recognize opportunities and be persistent enough to execute on them. Thirdly, I would say having technical knowledge in the area you are working in is very important, while also being multidisciplinary. We work with some startups who have multidisciplinary teams, and those are perhaps the most effective teams. For example, one person may be really strong in tech or artificial intelligence (AI), another has a knack for marketing, and another person can handle the client relationships. However, as an individual you can’t just operate in your silo. I think you have to have some knowledge of the other areas that your team or startup is focusing on, especially if you’re a small team. You have to be able to work together towards a common goal, so having the technical knowledge for your role, while being multidisciplinary and curious and open is key as well.
Whether it’s from your own path or the ones from your colleagues and friends who have a similar profession, how important is it to have a specific degree to be able to work in your industry/profession?
I’d say that degrees get you to a certain point. In completing a degree, you’re going to learn the hard skills, and build some of the foundational knowledge that is needed in your field. However, I think it’s just as important for you to go into the real world and to put those skills into practice and gain experience. I think putting the two together (i.e., education & experience) is what will allow you to reach your career goals.
What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone you’re interviewing/working with?
Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career? If not, why and what is your best life or career advice for youth?
I honestly don’t think so. As a young adult, I was really stressed and worried when it came to choosing what to pursue in my undergrad, and ultimately I am glad that I went on the path I chose and pursued something I am interested in. Those decisions have led me to where I am today, and I’m really happy with where I’m at. I am also happy with all my past experiences. There was a point where I was working on rivers and catching and tagging fish. That’s very different from what I do today, but I take all that I learned from those experiences and I bring them with me today. If I could talk to myself as a recent high school graduate, I would tell myself not to be so worried about making the right choice. Life is always full of surprises, and you can’t predict exactly where you’re going to end up, but if you follow your values and principles like you would a compass, you will be just fine.