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.