Posted on 9/16/2014. Interview by Howie Rhee and Marie-Angela Della Pia
Tell us about yourself
I grew up in Kentucky, but have spent most of my years since high school trying to address public policy issues. I spent my time in college at American University planning to one day fight for social justice issues; my goal was to one day defend civil liberties with the ACLU. However, I realized that one of the largest drivers of global social unrest, resource scarcity, and environmental justice is climate change. I decided to change course, entered the public sector, and eventually enrolled in a graduate program at Vermont Law School focusing on environmental law and policy. After getting even deeper into the legal framework driving environmental, and specifically energy policy, I realized I wanted to become really dangerous in the field by heading to the Nicholas School at Duke and focusing on the economic modeling and quantitative thinking behind energy policy and investment decisions.
Tell us about your time at Duke, what were you involved in?
While at Duke I have tried to absorb any skills and tools relating to the financial landscape of energy investments and renewable energy development. I have represented Duke at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations, and the Energy Club at the Nicholas School. As winners of the Clean Energy Track, my team traveled to Maryland this past spring to compete in the ACC Clean Energy Challenge. We competed against a number of other schools for $100,000 from the US Department of Energy.
What's your major/program and when will you be graduating? Tell us something about your educational experience at Duke.
I am a current student at the Nicholas School in the Energy and Environment Program. I was set to graduate in May, but added an extra semester do to a chance to take a course taught by the previous CEO of Duke Energy, Jim Rogers, on renewable energy in developing countries. It has been completely worth it, as I remained in the area to work on 501Carbon.
Tell us about your idea.
501Carbon utilizes climate finance to create turnkey solutions to energy poverty in developing countries. We currently operate as a non-profit, and work with international development partners to create climate change mitigating renewable energy projects using feedstocks such as agricultural biomass or livestock biogas. Over the past year we have established pilot projects in both Pakistan and Haiti, addressing the energy needs of both large-scale manufacturing clients and small-scale households. Upon successful project review by the US government, we will be creating end-to-end biomass projects throughout the energy poor developing world with support of both public and private investment.
How did you come up with your idea? When did you come up with it?
In my opinion, there is no issue more pressing than climate change, and as such, I have worked at many levels of policy and governance trying to implement change. After working with the United Nations, the White House, and the State of California, I realized that there was a lack of people directly on the ground, innovating and really working to address climate change within the policy frameworks that exist today. 501Carbon is a direct result of myself and the rest of the 501Carbon team considering the organizations operating in this field and realizing we could have more of an impact with our own organization.
How did you meet your team members?
Adrien and I were actually roommates at one point, and he and Hasan were neighbors! The population of students working on climate change policy at Duke is relatively small, so we eventually gravitated towards each other through multiple discussions in courses and extracurriculars. Since the beginning of this year we have also added a renewable energy engineer from Strata Solar, a successful international supply chain manager, and a veteran climate change consultant who previously led the sustainability team at international consulting firm DNV GL.
How has the Duke Start-Up Challenge been helpful to you?
The Duke Start-Up Challenge really got the ball rolling for us. We all attended the finals last spring and realized we had the time, concepts, and resources to really make a go of it. Since we've been involved, the DSC team has been nothing but supportive and helpful in our efforts to grow, expand, and test our ideas in the market.
The Duke Start-Up Challenge provides a lot of feedback from over 100 judges. Can you talk about that experience of reviewing the feedback?
Many of the judges were very helpful. It was great to get direct feedback from our ideas, much of which directed our original strategy.
Did you connect with any judges for advice, and if so, who were they and was it helpful? (we will check with the person to see if they are willing to be published)
We have connected with multiple Duke alumni who are now working in the climate change field, and they have been completely essential to opening doors to increased investment and strategic support.
What advice do you have for Duke students that are thinking of starting a company?
I would say two things:
1.) 75% of the world's billionaires are self-made.
2.) Failure is the only thing that can teach perseverance.
Join us for the Grand Finale with Max Hodak ’12 for the 15th Annual Duke Start-Up Challenge on Friday, September 19th, 2014 at 8:00pm ET at Fuqua’s Geneen Auditorium. RSVP on SquadUp
Not able to attend in person? Watch the livestream on Duke’s YouTube channel.