Alumni Spotlight: Laura Berland-Shane (WG'94)
Wharton Energy Network's Alumni Spotlight Series seeks to highlight Wharton and Penn alumni who are changing the game in the energy industry.
Wharton Energy Network: Hi Laura, we’re thrilled to spotlight you for Wharton Energy Network’s alumni spotlight series. Thanks again for joining us. Let’s dive in?
Laura Berland-Shane: Yes! I’m honored to be featured. What may I share that my fellow Wharton alums would find inspiring?
WEN: Tell us about your journey in the clean energy space. You’ve had a variety of experiences across functions and verticals. What are some of the key experiences that shaped you?
LBS: Oddly enough, it took a 2003 trip to Guatemala to visit the Mayan ruins to spark my commitment to sustainability and clean energy. While visiting an organic farm, I learned that macadamia trees (and trees in general) are incredible carbon sinks. Additionally, replacing coffee plants with macadamia could prevent massive rainforest destruction. The farm I visited donated macadamia seedlings to the indigenous Mayans in order to replace their reliance on coffee, which was not economically sustainable (or nutritious) for them. Upon my return to the U.S., I started a non-profit to raise funds for this effort and simultaneously vowed to use my Wharton training in finance to hasten sustainability and the clean energy transition!
Reflecting on my journey, I have tended to gravitate to early stage clean energy technologies and have moved on once they started to mature. With nascent technologies, conducting business development, creating strategies and building markets are exciting yet challenging.
For example, solar PV was relatively expensive and not a rewarding financial investment back in the early ‘00s, so the typical customers were early adopters and environmentalists. I joined a very ambitious but small (based in the back of a flower shop) solar installer and that was my first role in cleantech. We grew that business and through newly introduced tax incentives and rebates were able to attract a few large customers, including American Apparel in downtown LA. Soon after, I launched the SoCal offices and operations for SolarCity. This was still in advance of PPA financing and leases, which have helped mainstream this technology. Today, the price of a residential installation is only about 25% of the cost it was only 15 years ago. Moreover, the cost of energy for utility-scale solar is now cheaper than energy generated by burning fossil fuels.
My subsequent adventures in cleantech led me to explore energy efficiency, building decarbonization and utility scale inverter technology at Siemens. I spent a short time managing demand response programs in 2012 (arguably a bit before the industry gained momentum) and most recently have been focused on transportation electrification infrastructure and decarbonization/carbon sequestration.
At the moment, I advise clients in the areas of business development, government relations, strategy, & marketing through my company – Tellus Strategic Consulting.
WEN: Could you speak to the hard core business case for scaling clean energy technologies?
LBS: Sure – as I previously mentioned, solar PV is a perfect example of how policies and support from government organizations can help scale and drive down costs. Incidentally, conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion per year; with 20 percent currently allocated to coal and 80 percent to natural gas and crude oil.
Currently, the electric vehicle revolution is attracting enormous attention from the financial markets and is also likely to be the beneficiary of Federal policies as this was a core component of President’s Biden’s commitments to address climate change.
Finally, the job creation and stimulus to the economy is no longer a hypothetical proposition. Pre-COVID, more than 3.3 million Americans worked in clean energy, and the median wage for clean energy workers is about 25% higher than the national median wage. E2’s recent report “Build Back Better, Faster” found that investing $99.2 billion in clean energy stimulus would lead to $330 billion in added GDP over 5 years, 860,000 jobs for at least five years and benefits that flow to every region and state.
WEN: Would love to hear more about your work with E2 as its Southern California Chapter Director. What’s keeping you busy these days? (For those of you who aren’t familiar, E2 is a national, nonpartisan group of business leaders, investors, and professionals who advocate for policies that are good for the economy and the environment. E2’s members have founded or funded more than 2,500 companies, created more than 600,000 jobs, and manage more than $100 billion in venture and private equity capital.)
LBS: I’ve been involved with E2 for over 15 years and the work we do seems more relevant today than ever. As a non-partisan group of business leaders, our combined professional experiences and the Clean Energy Job reports we produce have always embraced the link between clean energy and job creation. As you might expect, we are focused on bringing that data and policy recommendations to the new Federal administration. In California, we continue to advocate for policies that accelerate the move to clean vehicles, building electrification and green concrete. My work with E2 has been incredibly fulfilling -- it’s amazing to see that our voice has made significant impacts nationwide in the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs, all the while contributing to emissions reductions and reduced pollution.
WEN: How did your Wharton experience impact you? What advice would give you alums who are looking to follow in your footsteps?
LBS: My main goal as I started my Wharton education was to sharpen my finance skills and thus further my career as an equities analyst on Wall Street. Mission accomplished on the finance side, but my Wall Street ambitions had faded and once again I sought a change.
Although I took an unusual path after Wharton, the education I received has always served me in every role I have taken on – the finance mindset is invaluable as part of a portfolio of skills. Most of my Wharton colleagues did, however, head to NYC and I knew of no one focused on alternative energy/sustainability. We didn’t have courses, professors or career advisors who were creating much content or interest either.
Flash forward to today – Wharton has entire curricula dedicated to cleantech, sustainability, etc. I’ve probably made more Wharton connections in cleantech via LinkedIn than through my days at Wharton!
As far as advice, get experience as early as you can. Network, network, network. It was certainly easier pre-COVID with endless conferences focused on cleantech. However, LinkedIn is super useful and most alums are amenable to a chat or Zoom. Find a mentor! Focus on what inspires you. Lastly, read everything you can get your hands on and stay current, patient and passionate!
WEN: Last question… What keeps you hopeful? --- 2020 was such a trying year, and the community could use some words of encouragement.
LBS: I’m an eternal optimist, so it’s not difficult for me to be hopeful! Especially today, with a President focused on climate, a financial market obsessed with cleantech, corporations like Amazon and Google investing billions in decarbonization, and of course – eager and freshly-minted Wharton grads with the skills and enthusiasm to lend their expertise to the clean energy transition.
Moreover, my two young and idealistic daughters keep me focused on the present and on my ambition to create a healthy and sustainable planet. I want them to enjoy the powerful experiences that have shaped me – like diving in healthy coral reefs, navigating the Amazon in a thriving rainforest, surfing with turtles, driving an EV and eating vegan. I’m not having much luck with the vegan thing yet, but there’s always hope.
WEN: That’s a great note to end on. Thanks again, Laura, for your insights. Look forward to seeing you around future Wharton Energy Network events!
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Laura Berland-Shane is Principal at Tellus Strategic Consulting and the Southern California Director at the Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2). She is a purpose-driven leader committed to building businesses that promote sustainability and reduce carbon emissions. With 20+ years in clean energy, her experience ranges from the founding teams of startups to Fortune Global 500 companies in infrastructure and energy. Laura received her MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a BA in International Relations from Brown University.
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