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Fasten your seatbelts, we’re going straight up’ – Cool Planet CEO Vicky Brown carves out her own path

Psychology followed by public relations is probably not the most usual college grad trajectory, but Vicky Brown took that path. And she hasn’t worked in either for longer than three weeks.

The Dublin mum-of-three is now CEO of Cool Planet, an interactive visitor centre that aims to educate those who cross its threshold about climate change.

Many of the visitors to the centre, located on the Powerscourt House and Gardens site, are children from primary and secondary schools around the country, hopefully becoming ‘agents of change’.

While heavily invested in the project to help the youth [and those of all ages] learn how to be kinder to the environment, Vicky is a firm believer in allowing the generation of the future create their own career path.

“Before it was all about getting the Leaving Cert results and those results would define where you were able to attend college. And that’s the path you would follow,” she said.

“Now there are so many ways to get to your chosen course. And the most important thing is having a passion for what you want to – or are – doing.”

After completing her degree in psychology, Vicky knew she wasn’t going to pursue it as a career, and turned to public relations for her post grad as she liked the “interactivity”.

However, her first role in a PR firm in New York only lasted three weeks, and her experience there would mark one of many pivotal moments in her CV.

“I remember having a full on argument with the CEO about my role and walking out of the job that day,” she said.

“I thought ‘I’m 23, in New York, and I’ve just walked out of a job’. I rang the employment agency in a panic and told them I walked out and why and they found me a new job.

“Within a week I started in an ad agency, a totally different career. It was a really good grounding experience. Working 8am to 8pm was a normal day but you would regularly be there until 2am in the morning. I loved it.”

Vicky spent two years at the J Walter Thompson agency before moving to ‘The Lord Group’, part of Young & Rubicam, getting “great experience” and mentorship from a boss who was “larger than life”.

“He would shout across the office ‘Hey Browner’, but I really didn’t mind’…He always helped me with writing, he gave his time, that’s so important when you’re young and starting off, and insecure about what you’re doing”.

After a five-year stint in New York, Vicky headed for home, via the obligatory backpacking year route. Her time in the States was about four years longer than she had planned. Rolling with what life throws at you is somewhat form for Vicky, however, as her original move from Ireland was completely on a whim.

“I got a green card the year before and went to San Francisco to validate it but you had to go back within a year to get the card stamped.

“I’d been offered a job in an ad agency in Dublin for the grand sum of £8000 and everyone thought I should take it. I was originally going to New York just to get my green card stamped and come back and start that job.

“But – I’ll never forget it – I was walking through Times Square about 10am on a Sunday morning, we’d been out all night and I thought ‘this place is amazing’. I flew home the next day, refused the Dublin job, told my flatmate I was leaving and I was back living in New York within five days.”

Arriving back in Ireland, it took some time for Vicky to find the excitement in employment she enjoyed in the US. It was after a brief stint as a campaign manager with Bank of Ireland that a personal discussion with her friend, former MD of JCDecaux, the late Niamh Cleary, would mark another significant turning point.

“I remember talking to her and she asked me if I had ever considered doing something in the not-for-profit sector. I had never thought about that before but she told me that Barnardos were looking for a fundraising manager. So I took a look and I ended up getting the job.”

Over the next five years, Vicky welcomed her eldest two children into the world and took a part-time position at the firm which enabled her to juggle the demands of motherhood and work remotely.

But she was soon looking for a change, and she was taken on at the privately-funded One Foundation, set up in 2004 by Declan Ryan and Deirdre Mortell. Over the next seven years, she rose through the ranks from portfolio manager in 2007 to the exit CEO in 2014.

“It was most definitely the single biggest learning curve I’ve ever had. The only way I can describe is ‘fasten your seatbelts, because you’re going straight up’.”

When One Foundation closed, Vicky went back to the drawing board, sat with recruitment agencies, and had many, many networking cups of coffee.

“The foundation was so unique, I couldn’t say ‘I’ve been a market manager for the last seven years’…I had a job that sounded very interesting but they couldn’t really fit it into something else.”

Cool Planet began with a simple but undefined concept from Norman Crowley from Crowley Carbon, and two hours into a pre-arranged meeting with Vicky, he wanted her to work on the project.

With offices housed in Powerscourt, his idea was welcomed by the estate’s custodian, Sarah Slazenger.

“The Slazenger family feel really passionately about this topic as this is what their grandfather bought the estate for. He actually bought it for the waterfall, he didn’t know he was buying the house and gardens as well. He was buying it because he believed in renewable energy and believed in a carbon free future.”

From the creation of a business plan to getting from expert advice consultants around the costing of a visitor centre, Vicky said the budget for the project quickly went from €250,000 to a requirement of about €3.4m.

“It was still a bunch of ideas nothing really sitting together…then we got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Guinness Storehouse from MD Paul Carty and we met with his marketing team who were involved in the storehouse’s early days.

“We came out of that meeting and the two of us stood in the dusty carpark and looked at each other and said ‘our idea is really s%*!”

But after a name change, getting a team of design experts on board, and securing investments from a number of high-profile donors, Cool Planet opened its doors in March of this year.

Borrowing from Al Gore’s initiative of training activists in climate change awareness, Vicky also came up with the incentive for Cool Planet to train local ‘champions’ around the country.

Some 26 people have successfully trained under the initiative since October 2017, with plans to train another 50 in the coming months. As a result, Vicky has been asked to be on the speaker panel with Al Gore at this year’s Climate Reality event in Berlin.

“It’s really just mushrooming now. The business model is really taking off and we’re looking at setting up Cool Planet in Dubai, the Middle East and Australia in the near future.

“We’ve a partner in Dubai who has the third or fourth largest shopping mall there and we are going to set up the first Cool Planet outside of Ireland there.”

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