Saturday, October 3, 2009

Healing Fragmented Cities

This is a re-posting of a guest post I submitted for my friend Leland Cheung's campaign page. He is currently running for Cambridge City Council.

Many people would rightly recognize that Cambridge is a fragmented city. Walking along the Charles River past the campuses of Harvard or MIT gives no hint of the default economic segregation you would find in East Cambridge or Central Square. But how can local government work to help heal these divides? What difference can a city official hope to accomplish against such entrenched structures and beliefs?

I spent the summer of 2009 working for the start-up (and largely experimental) California Fisheries Fund. Engaging with a diverse group of small fishing businesses, environmental NGOs, and local government representation, I saw first hand the tremendous societal value that can be created in a small community through collaboration. Examining my experience in light of Leland Cheung’s candidacy for the Cambridge City Council, I see many parallels between what I witnessed first hand in Morro Bay, CA, and Leland’s vision he is bringing to this campaign.

The city of Morro Bay, CA is small in comparison to the other cities along the Central Coast, but has a history filled with character and success. Once a thriving commercial fishing port, it has seen its fish landings (and economy) implode in the wake of misguided regulation mismanagement of key species. Fishermen stood at loggerheads with regulators, environmental groups pushing for wholesale restoration of the local ecology clashed daily with economic planners, and the results of this conflict proved disastrous. Some studies have shown a 75%-80% drop in commercial activity, and the loss of many once-profitable businesses with that decline.

But now things seem to be moving in a different direction. NGOs with strict environmental missions have begun to embrace market forces as a powerful tool for reform and change. Hardy, independent fishermen are beginning to see enhanced value for fish that are harvested in a more sustainable manner, and are considering working together for the first time memory to ensure the catch of future generations. Local government officials are beginning to see the spark of economic revival through this unique collaborative effort, and hope for this sleepy little town is on the rise once again. The local harbormaster and mayor’s office have begun to embrace a plan to invigorate the local economy: a comprehensive plan built on environmentally sound fishing practices and innovative product marketing jointly created by all involved parties.

All of this because groups once committed to opposite extremes have begun to talk to each other, to find value in engagement, and have begun to focus on what is possible tomorrow, not on what has transpired in the past. Commercial landings are on the rise again, and a handful of businesses have arisen, driven by thoughtful, local entrepreneurs, to create and keep this new value in the community. Again, all possible because groups once aligned against each other have begun to listen and work for the sake of their combined fate.

Such engagement is what Leland dreams about for the city of Cambridge. This is without a doubt a fragmented city. Standing alongside the economic and knowledge engines that are Harvard and MIT we have entire populations of people who are clearly being left behind, segregated by old prejudices existing between city and university. Bridging this gap is not going to be easy, but I have to believe it is possible. If a ruggedly individualistic fisherman can sit down and listen to an MIT educated businessman who has never been on a fishing boat, finding value in the conversation that directly applies to the community’s well-being, I am confident that the same type of thing can happen here. It only needs a nudge, a push in the right direction. Electing Leland Cheung and giving him a chance to represent the interests of all of Cambridge will certainly be a step towards that end.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act

I just wrote an opinion piece for my hometown paper in West Virginia on behalf of Operation Free and future West Virginians.

On December 4th, 2007, I stood among a crowd of uniformed US Army officers, and watched as my fellow West Virginian and West Point classmate Ben Tiffner was lowered into the ground at Arlington National Cemetery. Ben was killed in action a month earlier, in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on his Humvee in Iraq. As my friends and I left the cemetery, we reflected on Ben’s life as well as on the lives of too many other soldiers who gave the last full measure of devotion for our great Nation.

If you haven’t been to see one of our national cemeteries, you need to. The endless rows of white headstones open up into a new section, constantly growing, devoted to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in today’s War on Terror. Remembering my own time in Iraq leading an infantry mortar platoon, and the dangers we struggled through, I know our military fights a hard, long war. And due to our addiction to cheap fossil fuels, the long war is going to get longer. This is why I choose to fight a better fight, here at home, for cheap, clean energy independence. Our national security depends on it. The lives of soldiers such as Ben’s depend on it. And the lives of our children depend on it. For these reasons we, the people of West Virginia, need the US Congress to pass strong energy and national security legislation this fall.

To be sure, I know the economy of West Virginia has been built on coal. I also know that many people dispute the truthfulness behind the science of climate change. And while I have in fact studied a bit of the science myself, I do not write to you as a climate scientist. Instead, I write to you based on my own experience as a United States soldier. On the battlefield, a soldier doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for 100% certainty before acting. Too often, waiting for certainty results in bad things happening and soldiers dying unnecessarily. We must act when we are sure enough, and the benefits of action outweigh the costs of inaction.

Climate change offers us a similar situation. The world’s top scientific minds agree with 95% certainty that climate change is going to drastically alter the way we live, and that much of climate change is man-made. I’d take that bet any day of the week, especially when my soldiers’ lives are on the line.

Which takes me back to my main point. Assume dry parts of the world dry up even more, and wars over precious drinking water become even more prevalent. Slight sea level increases force the coastal populations of the world’s poorest regions to flee as climate refugees. Instability opens up more holes for extremists preaching anti-American terror to step in and take control. Who is going to have to respond to these threats? China? India? No! We will: American fighting men and women. It is the American soldier who will bear the brunt of inaction. And that will cost us dearly.

We stand at a crossroads. We can choose to do nothing, and be confident that other brave West Virginians such as Ben Tiffner will see their way into our most hallowed of grounds, all because we could not summon the courage to act when needed. Or, we can make an investment in our future today, and reap the benefits for decades to come.

The time for investment is now. On September 30th, the US Senate began consideration of a bill that can and will offer just the added incentives we need to avert the worst of climate change. Such a bill has no chance of knocking out the coal industry overnight -- nor is it intended to. Instead, this bill will spur innovation that will make coal technology cleaner, and will bring better quality jobs to West Virginia. By creating economic incentives for coal users to reduce their carbon emissions, we will unleash an American power just as mighty as any our military possesses: the power of the American entrepreneur. New markets will open up where the hard-working and industrious people of the Mountain State can make the fortunes of tomorrow. And just as importantly, it is going to keep our fighting men and women safer, and our great Nation more secure. We cannot let these benefits pass us by.

Call our Senators and ask for their support today!

Friday, September 11, 2009

A story of airplanes... remembering 9/11

September 11th, is both a difficult and honorable day. Difficult because eight years ago we were woken to threat of terrorism on our shores as thousands of Americans lost their lives in the attacks. And yet honorable because it is now a day we use to honor those whom we lost not only on that day, but in the years since 2001, fighting abroad to secure our safety. However, this is not about the four hijacked jets of 9/11/01. This is about my response to them…

I am lucky enough to be a native of the great state of West Virginia, a graduate of West Point, and a former Army officer and veteran of the Iraq War. I remember clearly the plane that took me to Iraq as a platoon leader. That first year in Iraq, many good soldiers gave their lives for the rest of us, including my good friend and former football teammate, Joe Lusk, USMA ’01. Be thou at peace, brother. I wish I had space to list all of those who gave the last full measure, and I honor them here.

The next plane I want to mention is where this story starts to change. My plane was riding lower over the ground, coming into its landing strip. Looking out the window, I could see desolation all around. Truly the Waste Land of the poet T.S. Eliot. But this was not Iraq or some God-forsaken land in Central Asia. This was me flying home to West Virginia, and those wastelands used to be a beautiful stretch of Appalachia, blasted and laid bare by our coal-hungry economy. My thoughts jumped rapidly from those whom I had lost in the war to future generations of Americans, of West Virginians. What will we call the Mountain State when all of the mountains are gone?

Which brings me to my last plane: a short, small flight from grad school in Boston to Washington, DC, where I would join 150 other veterans with Operation Free in order to meet with our senators on the Hill. We would give voice to the national security threat that climate change poses. You see, this isn’t merely about saving our mountains; this is about preserving our way of life, about reasserting our national place as an international leader. Who will respond when storms of growing frequency and intensity batter the shorelines of the world? Not the Chinese. Not India. We will. The US military. And beyond the count of humanitarian missions that will rise with rising seas, we must not for a moment underestimate the threats that will increase as populations are displaced, as drinking water becomes ever more scarce. Misery and scarcity will spread, creating breeding grounds where terrorists can and will gain a foothold.

And yet there is still time to act. Legislation before the Congress now can give us a chance to avert the worst of climate change, preserve our environment, create new jobs in a clean economy that will last into the next century, and perhaps most importantly, mitigate the threat to our national security posed by unabated climate change. But the time is now. Join Operation Free
and call your senators and support strong legislation that will secure our nation for the future.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A start-up is a start-up...

[syndicated from]

The California Fisheries Fund is definitely still a start-up. The rapid changes of direction; the nebulous defined roles and responsibilities and the need for self-starters to go through their days doing just that. Even over the short seven weeks I have been with the CFF, I have experienced the turmoil that goes with working in this kind of fast-paced environment. Right now I feel as if I could throw out half of the draft fund operations manual I was given when I started and in fact, have been trying to do just that with my work on defining, refining and updating our mission performance metrics.

Not so easy in this kind of world, where success is not measured by how much money you can bring in, but by much more intangible things such as the increased economic livelihood of a working waterfront, or the estimated conservation delta in the 1, 000ft-deep habitat of one of 60 species of rockfish.

I have been challenged every single day on the job and have loved it. Now I am heading towards the landing pattern of my internship, finalising my projects and working on ensuring that others buy into my ideas and are ready to assume full ownership of the results.
Earning the trust and respect of a diverse group of players. Trying (and most likely failing) to work my way through the deep, political waters of the California fishing industry has not been easy, but has taught me that these individuals are not too different from the hard-working people I grew up with in Appalachia. And I doubt they will be that much different from the hard-working people I will I am sure work with wherever I end up, once I have graduated.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Not Always "Us vs Them"

[syndicated from my blog at]

I now have a little over two weeks remaining with the California Fisheries Fund and am in the process of drafting up my final project papers and presentations, a little of which I have given a window into through this blog. But more important than those white papers or recommendations that I leave with my clients will be the impression that I leave behind.

I doubt very much that I need to explain the difficulties with its reputation that the MBA degree is experiencing in the greater market place. I have spent time and effort this summer trying to dispel those myths, not only to my co-workers at the
Environmental Defense Fund, but also to those of you who may be considering an MBA education, but aren’t sure that a business degree is going to allow you to make the positive impact you desire in the world.

I am coming away from my internship in San Francisco convinced otherwise. I am surrounded on a daily basis by people who dedicate their lives to issues greater than themselves and I have not felt out of place even once, neither have I felt that I have nothing to contribute. The scientists and economists around me bring great gifts to the world as “public policy entrepreneurs” through the EDF, but I have found that I do as well. So far, my MBA experience has allowed me to refine my ability to make and execute decisions and to understand the motivations of individuals that are affected by those decisions. Management, leadership and being business savvy, they are all needed in the non-profit world as well. The ability to present a different perspective, to build and drive a team to succeed, to find a need and fill it with a novel idea or product: these are skills that are needed in any type of organisation and are ones that an MBA can help teach and refine.

Overall, I am very pleased with my experience this summer: it has not only shown me just how valuable my skill-set can be, but I think I have also done my part to show the world that you shouldn’t judge a person by their degree alone. An MBA does not equate to profit-driven greed, nor to a quantitative robot. And not all environmentalists are tree-hugging socialists (although I DO love trees.)

Step One: Earn Their Trust

[syndicated from my blog at]

When it comes to all things ocean, I am the first to admit that I am completely a fish out of water. I was born and raised in the hills of West Virginia, went to West Point to join the Army over the Navy and have yet to take the sailing classes on the Charles river, offered free to all MIT students. And while I love to eat fresh fish, especially cooked over a fire or grill, I am just not going to be able to name all 50 plus species of rock fish that populate the coast of California.
Seven weeks ago, I couldn’t tell you what a purse seine or a gill net was, (types of fishing nets) much less the differences between the two. And yet, here I am, trying to help a group of fiercely independent and rugged fishermen with their businesses.

I am currently working with a small group of fishing businesses (fishermen, unloaders and processors), to try to bring a new brand to life. I have certainly been able to bring some basic MBA skills to the table, marketing and brand management having been two of my favourite classes during my first year at
MIT Sloan. I have spent countless hours on the phone talking to seasoned brand managers from industries that have similarities to this Californian local, wild fishery, teasing out the key strategies that could help my clients. Diving into their existing market to try to divine exactly what it is their customers love about fish and what it is that should give them a sustained competitive advantage if we can capture it. This is information that these guys cannot readily get on their own. Of course, if they had the time they could work it out, but they spend days out at sea, to bring in the freshest, highest quality catch, in a manner that, surprisingly, is proving to be quite ecologically sound, as well as economically beneficial.

But I digress; that is not the most challenging part. The real meat of this summer position will lie in how well I am able to convince them to trust me, that what I have to share with them is worth their time and effort to put into place. Most of these fishermen have spent their lives on the sea. They have seen increased regulation come and drive out businesses, watching their economies shrink by as much as 75 per cent in 20 years. But this challenge is also why I think we will succeed. The
California Fisheries Fund is truly here to stay in these communities. By making investments throughout the value chain and then helping the businesses to grow and thrive, we are earning their trust.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Measure of Success

[syndicated from my blog at]

One of the first tasks I was asked to tackle for the
California Fisheries Fund was the challenge of measuring the performance of the fund and its mission impact. Not in strictly financial terms, either. The goals of the CFF are three-fold:
Increase conservation measures supporting commercial fish stocks and their natural habitats.
Help revitalise California’s coastal fishing communities after decades of economic decline.
Assist fishery related businesses to make the transition from open-access to a catch-share based management regime.
Capitalised currently at $5M, you’ll notice something missing from those goals: nothing about earning the investors a financial return. While the goal of the fund is to remain solvent and self-supporting, this is a mission-driven, financial instrument, providing low-cost capital to higher risk businesses in need.
And nothing quite like it exists anywhere else in the world. So where was I going to begin? Not knowing what I didn’t know, my first step was to examine the existing state of the fund and I dived into the loan files of our current portfolio of borrowers. I wanted to know what the businesses we were helping were all about. This meant looking through financial statements, re-examining the business plans presented with each application and building a simple model to understand the various dynamic interactions at play within the fishery: economic, environmental, and social.
Not a simple task, but a mental exercise I found very helpful as I then took a step back and began the thought experiment of examining the fund fully deployed:
What are the impact goals we want to see? What actions are we as a fund taking? What are the intermediate outcomes that might be measurable? At what cost? Where will the data come from? Who is going to be doing all of this measuring in the future? As a start-up, the CFF still has only two full-time employees plus two interns for the summer. That is not a lot of staff to go around.
So what can we hope to do? Analyse the system and then simplify and standardise a proposed group of metrics. I don’t have the answer yet, but am making steady progress. Working with a group of PhDs and other fishery experts, we are taking an innovative approach to this unique challenge and focusing on what should be measured and can be measured. Business as usual for the EDF.

Following that vision thing...

[syndicated from my blog at]

Everyone who works at the Environmental Defense Fund wants to change the meaning of the term “business as usual”.
The EDF was founded with its
original intent to do just that, through whatever means necessary, to force those who were harming the natural environment to stop and pay society for their ecological “sins.”
You might even be familiar with its old unofficial slogan, “sue the bastards”. Despite this history, the EDF may currently be the leading proponent of market-based solutions and for working with corporations to find “the ways that work”. How did this happen?
This morning I found myself yet again in the conference room, this time with
Fred Krupp, the president of EDF for the past 25 years. With these questions in my mind, I was priveleged to hear at first hand from the man who was instrumental in that change.
Which is where I get to the vision thing. Fred has had his eye on the ball pretty much since he was a kid in New Jersey. He has been focused on the environment his entire career, starting as a lawyer, activist and then as the director of EDF.
Something that seems to me to be more important than keeping his eye on the ball, however, has been his ability to know where he wants to hit that ball. He has harnessed the deep desires of the environmental movement for change and focused on the outcomes that everybody wants.
What he ceased caring about in the late 1980s was the methods used to get there. Inspired by the wild-eyed entrepreneurial spirit that resides in the American business world, he has helped transform what it means to do business in America. Together with a crack-team of economists, he helped create and enact the idea of
cap-and-trade for pollutants, which has been a run-away success for acid rain pollution and is likely to do the same for carbon dioxide, eventually.
This type of vision took courage. Courage to stand up to much of the environmental movement he had been a part of for his entire life, as well as having the tenacity to fight through the barriers that entrenched corporate interests had put up against change. Who knows how many countless hours he spent laying out and selling this idea to stakeholders at all levels of our economy?
These are a few of the lessons I am learning this summer. This is true leadership.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Who wants to be a rock star?

[syndicated from my blog at]

Five weeks ago, I left the comforting environs of Cambridge, Massachusetts and MIT Sloan for the unknown challenges awaiting me with the California Fisheries Fund.
Anticipating a huge cultural shift, I was prepared for pretty much anything, other than the highly professional, financial district high-rise in San Francisco where the CFF is co-located with the
I was also not expecting that I would find myself using nearly every subject I covered in my first year of
MBA studies. Within the first two weeks.
No, that is not an exaggeration.
In my role so far, I have used pretty much everything taught to me during
MIT Sloan’s (in)famously quantitative Core, including accounting, data modeling and statistics, micro-econ and intro game theory, marketing, organisational processes, finance. Check, check and check, check, double-check. And how about branding, sustainable business strategies (S-Lab), and systems dynamics? Again: check, check, check. Is this unprecedented? When talking to my closest friends and classmates at other internships, absolutely. I think I have used a broader-based set of skills than any MBA intern I know (hopefully not mis-using them!), including all those folks who ended up in management consulting roles, tech start-ups and especially you out there in investment banking.
So let’s take a look at how that has been possible and take you back a bit to those first few days, when I first ran into this bunch of economic thought leaders, PhDs in Marine Ecosystems and entrepreneurs. I arrived and found myself climbing a three-day cliff of a learning curve about
catch-shares, a highly innovative fishery management system the EDF has been backing and which is finally gaining traction in the US regulatory system due to its success around the world in defeating the Tragedy of the Commons. The training was called “So You Want to be a Catch Shares Rock Star?” and to this day is one of the most well-structured and informative training sessions I have received anywhere, with a great balance of theory and practical application.
But more to the point, this training was geared at folks who have been immersed in oceans issues such as fishery management and declining commercial stocks for years. I had been through a two-day simulation exercise in MIT Sloan’s
S-Lab, but was certainly not even close to the level of expertise of my colleagues. Intimidating? A bit. Intellectually challenging? Indeed. But awesome and inspiring? Absolutely!
After three days I had a good grasp of the underlying policy situation surrounding California’s coast groundfish fishery and of the market forces CFF was trying to harness through its innovative lending structure. And that is when the fun really began.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tree-hugging, Dirt-eating Druids? Not so much...

syndicated from my blog at

Did I just hear those words? Having been distracted by the brilliant 28th floor view of the Bay Bridge, I was quickly thrust back into reality.

As I was sitting in on a conference call with the Director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Corporate Partnership Program, the title referenced phrase is how he described the expectations of his business “partner,” FedEx’s chief engineer. It wasn’t too far off from the sentiment I was expecting when I first arrived here five weeks ago, although I must admit I didn’t hold quite the negative bias about it. After all, I had searched out and taken a summer position with an explicitly environmentally oriented organisation for a reason.

In many ways such a position was what I wanted and felt I needed. My lofty ideals and bend towards public service have definitely pushed me more towards the John Muir Trail than to Wall Street. And so, my expectations weren’t too far astray from the thoughts permeating the mind of that engineer.

Much to my surprise, that was not at all what I got. Before the next days and weeks allow me to divulge all of my secrets, let me first start off by recognising that this is a serious organisation, hell-bent on finding “the ways that work,” by which the EDF means economically sound solutions to our most pressing environmental woes. And I quickly learned they have the right kind of people to get the job done.

During my first days in San Francisco, I found myself in EDF’s Ocean’s Program, surrounded by not only PhDs and other experts in marine biology and climate science, but by economic thought leaders and successful entrepreneurs with 20 plus years of business success behind them. Great! But I was in strange waters; I was the only MBA student in the office, among a dozen or so other interns, ranging from undergrads studying biology and economics to other Master’s candidates conducting research in marine ecosystems and even a second year law student working towards his J.D. After nearly a full year of business school surrounded by mostly future techies, management consultants and bankers, I was a fish out of water.

As I said before, this is a serious and broadly skilled group of experts. With my limited technical expertise and relatively short experience, how was I going to jump and make a difference in ten weeks? My unique position with the fledgling (and also quite unique) California Fisheries Fund would provide the perfect opportunity to do just such a thing. This has proved to be a fast-paced adventure through business and politics, with gorgeous views along the way.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The MBA Job Hunt

We all know that MBAs aren't getting the best rap on the outside world these days, due to bang-up jobs by the likes of (do I really need to spew the cherry-picked list of failures here?).
In any case, I have decided to put up this job search mash-up I... ummm... mashed together for one of my MIT classes. For all of you MBAs out there still looking for gainful employment, check it out.

Friday, March 6, 2009