This interview is the latest installment in our series of profiles on sustainability leaders among Georgia Tech alumni. On June 10, 2021, Katherine Huded (MBA ’20), director of Circular Ventures at The Recycling Partnership, interviewed Naveed Ahmad (MBA ’19). As an MBA student at Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business, Naveed took advantage of many sustainability offerings, such as working on an energy equity research project through the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business and serving as co-president of the College’s Net Impact MBA chapter. Naveed, now advisor of Operational Planning and Customer Service at Southern California Edison, serves as president of the company’s sustainability business resource group, EcoIQ. In the following conversation between the two former classmates, topics include Naveed’s career journey, why utility companies are ground zero for making all companies more sustainable, and how we can create momentum for positive change by “building a bigger tent.”
Katherine Huded: Good morning, Naveed. It’s nice to see you.
Naveed Ahmad: Good morning!
KH: I’m excited to chat with you! Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how sustainability was (or was not) a part of your childhood?
NA: I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, the child of two Pakistani immigrants. My dad is a physician who runs his own practice, so he’s an entrepreneur as well. As a kid, I liked to go outside, but to be honest, sustainability was not on my mind. The first time I really thought about climate change was when I was an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University. The school hosted a screening of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. I remember thinking, This is a real problem.
Naveed Ahmad is interviewed by Katherine Huded.
KH: What did you study in college?
NA: I majored in economics and political science. I’ve always been a generalist and had my hands in a lot of things. I took Environmental Studies 101 as a freshman and got an “A”—which was not always a guarantee with me [laughs]. For a while, I thought maybe I could be an environmental lawyer. The concept of justice was always in my heart, but my interest in pursuing law faded. After college, I worked for a marketing agency in my hometown for clients such as Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. I enjoyed my career, but I was looking for something with more of an impact.
KH: What inspired the pivot in your career?
NA: I remember picking up the book, The Entrepreneurial State, by Mariana Mazzucato. The premise of the book is that a lot of people think private investment supports the most groundbreaking and successful companies. However, Mazzucato says that when you look at that data, groundbreaking work is often the result of government investment. A private company, after all, wants a certain return on their investment. A public investment doesn’t entail as much risk because it can be subsidized. Mazzucato’s examples of groundbreaking technology supported by government investment include the U.S. going to space and the technology behind Siri. When I read her views on the ROI for green technology, such as renewable energy, I realized there was an opportunity in front of me. When I saw the Al Gore documentary, I had asked myself, Is there anything I can do about climate change? The book presented an opportunity to do something about it, to make a living doing it, and to feel like I’m doing something “more” with my career.
KH: What brought you to Scheller College, and when did you discover the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business (“Center”)?
NA: I felt that business school would help me transition in my career to something more sustainability focused. I visited various schools and did research online. While doing my research on Tech, I found out about the Center. The big inflection point occurred when I visited. That day, the College was hosting a meet and greet. I genuinely feel that you have to go and visit a school. Sometimes, you just know when you’ve found the right one. The people with whom I interacted, like Michael Oxman [managing director of the Center and professor of the practice] and Elizabeth Shultz, who at the time was president of Net Impact, welcomed me and answered my questions with such warmth. I realized, These people can be my tribe if I end up coming here.
KH: The culture was a huge draw for me, too. When you got to campus, what did you do to plug into sustainability offerings?
NA: First, I got very lucky. I had seen a post on Facebook that said the Center was looking for an MBA student to help with a research project. I reached out to Michael, and he ended up offering me the position. We were funded by the Georgia Tech Strategic Energy Institute and tasked with studying the business case for serving customers at or below the federal poverty line. The project opened my eyes to the utility industry. Utilities provide the energy that companies are using. At the end of the day, a company can be the most sustainable in the world, but if the energy they’re getting from the utility is powered by coal and natural gas, that’s a problem.
KH: How did you build on that first-year project?
Naveed Ahmad on a hike.
NA: I'm really grateful for that project because it was my first tangible experience in the energy industry. I leveraged that experience to get on a strategic solar O&M project for Renewable Energy Systems (RES) later in my first year, and ultimately, both opportunities helped me land my MBA internship with Southern California Edison (SCE) for the summer. In my second year at Scheller, I had the confidence and experience to continue my push into energy, participating in the Renewable Energy Case Competition at the University of Michigan, working on a market sizing project for a battery storage company, and networking throughout the industry. Because of my great experience with SCE, I always kept in touch with them and decided to accept an offer to come back full time.
KH: Would you talk about your involvement with Net Impact while at Scheller?
NA: For those who don’t know, Net Impact is a national organization for business students and professionals who want to make a positive impact in their communities. As I said earlier, when I first visited Scheller, I met Elizabeth Schultz, who was president of Scheller’s MBA chapter. She was really passionate about sustainability. She came from the design/architecture world and was pivoting in her career as well. I think she saw Net Impact as an opportunity to flex some leadership and event planning skills. The group provided lots of great opportunities. In my first year, for instance, I attended the national organization’s annual conference, which happened to be in Atlanta. I got to hear Paul Hawken, whose book, the Ecology of Commerce, inspired Ray C. Anderson to change the way he viewed his life and business. Being involved in the group allowed me to connect with people who shared my passions. In my second year, I served as co-president. I felt that taking that leadership position was a great way to give back to the club and the Scheller community.
KH: Returning to the present day, I’d love to hear more about what you do now, and how Scheller and the Center helped to prepare you for it. How is sustainability part of your world today?
NA: I work for SCE, which is an electric-only utility in the Southern California region. Our territory is 50,000 square miles, and we have about 5 million customers both on the residential and commercial side. I work specifically in business planning for customer service. I directly manage the budget and planning for our Customer Programs and Services division. What that entails is our advanced energy solutions, e-mobility and transportation electrification, customer experience, and customer care. Today, by the way, is officially my two-year anniversary!
KH: Congrats! What do you find rewarding about the job?
NA: Very simply, I believe in the mission of SCE. It’s one of the most forward-thinking utility companies. By supplying electricity only, it has an advantage over other utilities that supply gas as well. In those other companies, there’s tension because you have to make money off both areas. When you supply electricity only, you can focus on cleaning your generation, which I think SCE has done really well. SCE has clear goals to get to 100% carbon free electricity supplied to their customers by 2045. Another thing: California has very clear goals about reducing carbon emissions. As part of that, SCE is committed to getting 26 million EVs on the road in California by 2045 and is building electrification infrastructure to make that possible. When I’m deep in spreadsheets and feeling personally disconnected from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, I stay motivated by zooming out and thinking how our company is genuinely trying to reach tangible metrics and goals.
Naveed Ahmad (center) with SCE’s 2020 EcoIQ board.
KH: I hear you. No one person can fix climate change. If you’re with an organization that has that goal, and you’re adding critical elements to the success of that organization, that’s an important piece of the puzzle. How else are you involved in making a sustainability impact?
NA: I’m president of EcoIQ, which is SCE’s business resource group (BRG) that builds the culture of sustainability through a steady flow of conversation and events. The group, which started in 2008, now has over 500 members. My role has been extremely rewarding but has only reinforced that you can’t force your passion for sustainability down other people’s throats. Just like in business, you have to understand who your users are and what makes them tick. If members want opportunities to take their kids out on a trail cleanup, don’t lean away from that, lean in. If you lean in, down the road, if you want to have a conversation about environmental justice, the person might say, “Hmm, I’d like to learn more about this.” If we’re going to reduce climate change, we need a bigger tent.
KH: How do you stay connected with Scheller these days?
NA: This spring, I was asked to become a member of the Center’s Advisory Board, which I’m excited about. I’ve also donated to the Center. When I started at Scheller, I had this vision of what the Center would be. It was all that, and more. I’m really appreciative of the many opportunities the Center presented to me, and I’m happy to support it.
KH: What would you tell current MBA students who want to incorporate sustainability in their careers?
NA: The first thing, which is more philosophical, is that you need to put in the work to understand yourself. I actually have a lot of respect for you, Katherine, because you’ve always been clear about the type of role you really want. The second thing is: You need to understand that sustainability is not a role, but rather a philosophy or tactic. The other day, I was talking to Jesse Miers (who is my hero, by the way), the former president of Green Up, Delta’s sustainability BRG. I asked him, “Have you ever thought about moving into a sustainability role?” He said he’s thought about it. But he’s now managing fleet strategy at Delta, where he’s responsible for evaluating whether certain planes need to be phased out. He said he can potentially have more impact by deciding to phase out poorly performing planes than by being in a corporate sustainability role.
KH: This has been a great discussion, Naveed. Any last thoughts on what your Tech experience meant to you?
NA: There was a time that I used to think sustainability was just about things like clean energy, solar panels, and wind turbines. It’s really about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. Yes, sustainability includes a responsible use of resources, but it also includes racial justice, gender equity, and other social issues that don’t always get a lot of fanfare in the sustainability space. Tech was instrumental not only in helping me realize that great business opportunities are out there in the sustainability world but also in evolving my idea of what sustainability encompasses both in and outside of the business world.
As told to Jennifer Holley Lux