Net Impact President Barbara Seymour caught up with NIB member Ian Lavery last month to find out how he went from an 18-year-old kid maybe studying the brain and psychology in college to the go-to guy for sustainability questions at Cate Street Capital.
Was there a trigger that made you want to work in an environmental field?
My calling to the environment started in undergrad in California. It’s pretty simple actually. I went to school surrounded by beautiful redwoods. I fell in love with those trees. And I wanted to do something to protect them. So I decided to become an environmental studies major. But even back then I had a sort of stubborn streak of practicality. I thought if I double-majored in econ I might have better luck finding a job. Luckily this proved true, after I graduated I entered the world of environmental consulting.
What made you leave the working world and go back to school?
The shifts that I was seeing in the industry and in the world. During that time climate change really emerged as a global issue. Renewable energy became a big player. I saw a real opportunity for businesses to incorporate environmental challenges and opportunities into bottom-line decisions. But I wanted to have more credibility and a greater understanding of the levers at work—GHG reduction plans, carbon counting, tax credits . . . I decided to go back to school and concentrate on business development and energy. Whenever I had a choice, I focused on sustainability issues.
When did you become involved with Net Impact?
I joined my grad school chapter at MIT my first year. It was an obvious choice among hundreds of outside-the-classroom opportunities. I became the President of our chapter my second year. From there I joined the Boston professional chapter and focused on marketing. I still go to events when my commute allows—every job has to have some downside. Net Impact is one of the reasons I am in the great job I’m in today.
So what is it exactly that you do?
My work is quasi private equity; we operate portfolio companies with the goal of developing clean tech projects in New England and beyond. Solar to plastic recycling, to biomass energy production facilities – I analyze it all. I apply my environmental background, hard business skills and passion for sustainability to analyzing potential deals. In other words, I do project development in the clean tech space.
I love the full-scale pitch with detailed economic analysis. Thus far, my most interesting project has been converting an old oil boiler at a paper mill we own. Right now the boiler is being retrofit to work with natural gas; once completed, we’ll save money, reduce emissions, produce more paper and create some additional jobs at the mill. It’s a soup-to-nuts example of project management and a win-all-around situation. It’s rewarding to see ones work come to fruition this way.
The most challenging aspect of my job is that we’re simultaneously developing 6 or 7 startups. Of course, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes you do a ton of work and when you have to step back and go in a different direction; it can feel like you wasted time. But you gain a lot of important knowledge of the industry and that can be applied next time you are faced with a similar situation.
What advice do you have for other Net Impacters career searching right now?
Consumer electronics firms develop products to meet the needs of customers. The same needs to be done in whatever space you want to go into. Develop your skills to meet the needs of your future project manager.
Between MIT and Cate Street I had another job, an anaerobic digester project to turn recycled waste into energy. Unfortunately the project fell through though after about a year. I stumbled into an old colleague and chatted with him, which is how I eventually ended up at Cate Street. The point is that networking is invaluable. Every job I’ve ever had came through networking. By virtue of being a part of Net Impact, career searchers have already taken an important step. Use the Net Impact network – it’s a powerful group. Especially if you are looking for something a little bit down the line, say after grad school or just knowing that in a few years you will be ready to move on from your current position, you have a chance to be forward-thinking. Go to the events, learn about the careers and sectors out there and the skills that will be needed. Develop those skills!
You’ve been a Net Impact member for many years now, and served on the Board of Net Impact Boston. What impact has your membership had on the work you do and how you do it?
Being a part of that group and being exposed to all the different elements of sustainability has made me the go-to guy for sustainability questions at work. Whether it’s a green house gas report, a question about energy efficiency, or just a desire for a good back-and-forth about a Washington policy under debate, my colleagues seek me out. Working with Net Impact teammates helped me sharpen my skills, ask important questions and learn to explore areas I might not previously have considered.