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Why this tech CEO says being an introvert is good for business

Jennifer Holmgren is speaks softly, treads gently and has a warm, friendly demeanor. She says she is an introvert. She is also the CEO of an innovative biotech company that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars.

Being an introvert and being a CEO may seem, at first blush, incompatible. But for Holmgren, 58, introversion helps her be a better executive.

"The advantage, I think, of being an introvert is you listen more. You think before you speak, often, which means that you're listening, and I think that's important," says Holmgren, speaking with CNBC Make It in Los Angeles in May.

"Sometimes people won't speak unless called upon, and if you aren't listening or giving people a space to speak by not continuously talking at them, you may miss an important opportunity, an important idea," she says.

"I have found that by listening more you enable more people and more ideas. You get a diversity of input because you aren't just hearing one voice (usually the loudest one!) or worse, just listening to yourself speak," Holmgren tells CNBC Make It.

LanzaTech, which launched in New Zealand in 2005 and has raised more than $250 million, identified a bacteria found in the gut of rabbits that helps turn factory carbon emissions (pollution) into ethanol, an alcohol that is blended with gasoline to reduce the amount of fossil fuel used by cars.

"As CEO of an early stage company, trying to bring new technology to the world, it is crucial that I listen to our team, investors, customers and understand where they are coming from, what they are thinking and what they really need," Holmgren explains.

"Remember, to get a new technology into a company, someone inside that company has to be a champion. You have to learn enough to help them be that champion and to protect them in that journey."

LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren
CNBC | Andrea Kramar
LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren

Interestingly, Holmgren didn't realize she was an introvert until relatively recently.

"I certainly never considered myself an introvert," says Holmgren. But a member of the board at LanzaTech recommended she watch a 2012 TED Talk entitled "Power of Introverts."

"I watched it and I laughed afterwards because it was so obvious to him that this represented me. I had not thought about myself in that way," says Holmgren, though now she does. "The video was my 'aha' moment…. It explained why everyone wanted to team build (and I didn't) and why I hated the idea of open work spaces...."

The wildly popular TED Talk by Susan Cain, author of "QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," has been viewed almost 20 million times. In it, Cain says introverts are culturally undervalued, but that's a mistake.

"[I]t's our loss for sure, but it is also our colleagues' loss and our communities' loss. And at the risk of sounding grandiose, it is the world's loss. Because when it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best. A third to a half of the population are introverts — a third to a half," Cain says in the TED Talk.

Often, introverts are overlooked, according to Cain.

"[I]ntroverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful, much less likely to take outsize risks — which is something we might all favor nowadays," says Cain.

"Extroverts are more likely to be attracted to and selected for leadership roles, but they're not better leaders than introverts," top Wharton professor and organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote in a piece on Cain's website, Quiet Revolution. Grant studied the topic and found "extroverts and introverts were equally successful overall—and excelled with different types of employees."

Indeed, some tremendous leaders have been introverts, says Cain, pointing to Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Gandhi.

"All these people described themselves as quiet and soft-spoken and even shy. And they all took the spotlight, even though every bone in their bodies was telling them not to," says Cain. "And this turns out to have a special power all its own, because people could feel that these leaders were at the helm not because they enjoyed directing others and not out of the pleasure of being looked at; they were there because they had no choice, because they were driven to do what they thought was right."

That rings true for Holmgren, who is motivated to push through the CEO tasks that are hard for her has an introvert, like press interviews or fundraising. She is more passionate about the cause that LanzaTech is working toward — using technology to counteract climate change — than she is afraid of being uncomfortable, she says.

"You just have to really want to do what you're doing more than all your fears that bog you down," says Holmgren. "It is why I stand up and speak and why I banish that feeling of dread when I step up on a podium or walk around a room of potential customers or investors.... Changing the status quo is reason enough for me to get up and speak or to spend an evening at a dinner party."

— Video by Beatriz Bajuelos Castillo

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