Victoria Elliot, College '16, attended a recent event with Boston's Chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space Austin Blackmon AB '07, MBA '13, Assistant Dean of Student Life for Public Service Gene Corbin, and Harvard Business School Senior Fellow Joe Lassiter. The event was hosted by the Harvard Office for Sustainability, the Harvard Council of Student Sustainability Leaders, the Harvard Alumni Alliance for the Environment, and the Harvard Alumni Association.


The panel was called "Academics to Action." As a yet-to-be-employed second semester senior, it was in my best interest to attend this event to learn ways that I could potentially apply my degree in Environmental Science and Public Policy to public issues and possibly facilitate change.

Fed up with all technology after realizing that my audio recorder was out of battery (not the kind you charge, but AA)  and that I'd left my camera battery in its charging dock, I resorted to people watching. As Austin Blackmon, Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space for the City of Boston and the event's main speaker, shared a story from his college years with some of the event coordinators and representatives from the Harvard Alumni Association, I took note of the nametags of the other attendees. In attendance were professionals in urban design, consulting, and finance, Harvard professors, and graduate students from Harvard Business, Law, and Kennedy Schools, among others. Even former mayor of Cambridge, Henrietta Davis was sitting right next to me, catching up with Joe Lassiter the event's moderator. Right as an event coordinator asked that we direct our attention to the speakers, I began to feel less out of place among these established professionals, educators and graduate students as I remembered that they had all been in a position similar to mine at some point: attempting to find the pathway that best fit me.

So it was with anticipation that I listened to the introduction for Austin Blackmon, which ended with the intriguing question, "So how does one go from being a first year at Harvard to Boston's Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space within a decade?"

I was likely distracting the other listeners with the sound of my frenzied typing as I attempted to catch every one of his words, not only to write this story, but also for my personal edification. Blackmon's journey began as many undergraduate career exploration processes begin: with a Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics fellowship. The professionals at his internship in Washington D.C. provided him with some valuable insight: Energy, education, and national security are three places where one could impact the world, and that business school is quite beneficial, regardless of the field one might pursue. Blackmon then asserted that these stops on his career pathway prepared him for his later career shift from the private to the public sector.

Joe Lassiter, former Professor of Management Practices in Environmental Management, also provided insight on positive ways to implement environmental change. "I didn't know what different points of view were in other parts of the world," he declared, mentioning startups and businesses catering to demographics similar to that of Cambridge, with populations with few issues such as energy access and clean water. Referencing colleagues helping to provide energy to hundreds of thousands of people in India, he emphasized the importance of thinking outside of one's own demographic to make a measurable change.

...he emphasized the importance of thinking outside of one's own demographic to make a measurable change. 

Lassiter posits that a good way to measure the magnitude of positive impacts on sustainability is to look at the success of startups, where the signs of progress are clear, as 8 out of every 10 start ups fail. His main advice for students is to seriously consider business school, which, contrary to popular belief, is not just about making money. Business school can help provide students with the tools to help people lead effective organizations and the resources to learn how to attack difficult problems.

Business school can help provide students with the tools to help people lead effective organizations and the resources to learn how to attack difficult problems.

Blackmon's advice for students is to make the most of the resources available in our University system, and also, not to be hesitant to leverage the Harvard network. "Students have a rare opportunity to leverage classwork to augment professional experience." He mentioned the ample opportunities around campus, like with the Office for Sustainability, and even outside of the Harvard Bubble, such as with Cambridge City Planning.

Students have a rare opportunity to leverage classwork to augment professional experience.

Blackmon and Lassiter then went on to speak to the some of the sustainability initiatives that they found to be most exciting. Professor Lassiter asserted that the most exciting work is the work in which you are involved. "Get involved in something… don't just talk about it!" Lassiter is involved in solar wafer technologies, and finds controversial technologies, like geoengineering and nuclear power to be fascinating fields. Blackmon's interests lie in the lessons learned from the Paris Climate Convention, where multiple opportunities exist to share successes between nations, and especially developing countries like China and India.

This event gave a fascinating perspective on the different avenues for success in sustainability and environmental initiatives. Some of the most valuable lessons that I gained from this panel were:

1.     Take advantage of the Harvard Network

2.     Business School is useful for learning to lead, and learning how to solve difficult problems

3.     Think outside of the comfort of your own demographic

4.     Always have a spare battery