As the saying goes, “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.” In high school, Garry Harris (MSEEM ’22) earned the nickname, “Do It All Harris,” by competing in six track and field events, as opposed to one (which is typical). Garry’s life and career have been marked by an ability to move seamlessly across multiple interests. He has combined his passions for energy, sustainability, and community in order to pursue the humble goal he set out to achieve as an entrepreneur – “to save the world.” Garry is committed to pursuing global sustainable development as founder and managing director of the Center for Sustainable Communities (CSC), and president and CEO of the Sustainability Solutions Group & Institute. The Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business is pleased to share a conversation between Garry and Ravi Subramanian, professor of Operations Management. Garry has been a regular partner in Ravi’s class, Sustainability and Shared Value, in which students have developed plans to transform a community in Virginia into a thriving, vibrant, equity-centered Eco District. Continue reading to learn more about Garry’s background and his insights on pursuing a career with purpose.
Ravi Subramanian: Garry, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Would you start by describing your early life?
Garry Harris: I was born in Portsmouth, a small town in southeastern Virginia. As a little kid, I loved basketball and reading. One day in the fifth grade, I put down the basketball and opened the “R” volume of our brand new World Book Encyclopedia. I came across the radioactivity section with an illustration of radioactive decay of plutonium into lead. I ripped the page out and turned that illustration into a science project, using Christmas lights to demonstrate radioactive decay. I won first prize! That’s where I got my first taste of studying energy from the atom.
RS: It started early for you!
GH: Yes, it did! I was like Tiger Woods, who was swinging his golf club at three years old. I started thinking about energy in the fifth grade. Now, I'm still involved in the field and have a real passion for it as well.
RS: What were you interested in while in high school?
GH: For both high school and college, I loved math, science, engineering, and energy in particular.
RS: How would you describe the role your family played in encouraging you?
GH: My parents both provided encouragement. My father migrated from North Carolina, where he had worked in tobacco fields. He then became a laborer at one of the larger shipyards in Portsmouth. His background wasn’t aligned with my interest in splitting atoms, but he encouraged me. In order to build science projects at an early age, he helped me to buy the materials at the hardware store. He was able to look at a diagram and know what we’d need to put it all together. I was the visionary, and my father was the journeyman. He made my visions come to life.
RS: What was the impact of your wider community?
GH: My community in Portsmouth was very tight. Even though at the time we were in a lower income community, we believed in providing assistance to each other. That spirit of community grew in me at an early age.
RS: You were an athlete, too?
GH: Yes, I was a track and field athlete. Back in the day, they called me “Do It All” Harris. Instead of running just one event, like most folks do, I did six track and field events. (I set six school records as well!) That approach has carried over to my way of doing things today.
RS: Where did your interest in sustainability start?
GH: When I went to the University of Virginia, I pledged Omega Psi Phi, an African American fraternity. Community service is built into the fabric of the fraternity. We were required to devote hours to bettering the community. I live by my fraternity’s cardinal principles: Manhood, Scholarship, Perseverance, Uplift.
RS: Can you walk us through some of your career milestones?
GH: After graduating from college [with a B.S in Nuclear Engineering], I moved into industry. I worked for Westinghouse Electric Corporation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations. I also was an instructor, teaching people fundamentals – from thermodynamics to nuclear fuel analysis. Teaching gave me a really firm foundation in terms of power generation.
RS: What prompted you to connect your career in nuclear energy and passion for sustainability?
GH: Early on, I saw the wave of clean energy coming. I had founded a company that was originally built around nuclear energy. Around the same time, the Department of Energy’s office in Atlanta closed. Their renewable energy office was merged into our nuclear energy office. We started to do renewable energy and energy efficiency projects as a result of that. Then, I moved into consulting at facilities around the country.
RS: You’ve also been active in getting faith-based organizations involved in environmental issues.
GH: As a member at the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, I created the Creation Care Ministry. That program created a movement for faith-based entities around the country embracing environmentalism. As I was consulting, I was moving more into movement-building around sustainability, climate, and clean energy. After some years passed, I decided that what I really wanted to do was combine my energy, sustainability, and community backgrounds. So, I created the Center for Sustainable Communities (CSC) and, later, the Sustainability Solutions Group and Institute. Recently with Atlanta Metropolitan State College, we just launched the National Environmental Justice Institute. We’re creating and launching the Southeast Energy Education Initiative, the Center for Energy Infrastructure and Renewable Technologies, the Energy Horizons Laboratory and Research Development Center, and the Institute for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Moreover, we created Tech Academy. Collectively we are a multifaceted entity with points in several states around the country, with projects that span the gamut of sustainability. Last year, we did 90 different projects, programs, activities, and events associated with sustainability. We’re proud of that. Our goal is to create a more just, sustainable, equitable, and resilient world for all.
RS: You’ve really found a way to bring together all of your interests!
GH: Yes! At CSC, we formed something called “Just Science,” which is an umbrella theme that runs across everything that we do. When addressing challenges, we apply technology, engineering, and research to drive out a solution, and then we make sure that solution is just, equitable, and sustainable as well.
RS: What are your thoughts on the relationships among equity, sustainability, and prosperity for everyone?
GH: Equity has to be at the center of everything that we’re doing. It provides the correct lens to ensure that we’re building a bridge between community and prosperity. Case in point: We’ve created a workforce development program in Atlanta called “Breaking Barriers.” We’re creating new, high-paying jobs and career pathways in the construction industry for residents from historically disadvantaged communities. We wondered how we could equitably connect people with decent jobs, sustainable wages, and great career pathways. We decided to design, develop, and deploy a workforce and training program. We would identify candidates with strong potential for a program in deconstruction – that is, taking buildings apart in order to repurpose, reuse, or recycle the materials. We constructed a four-week training program to develop this workforce. Individuals who graduate from the program are ready to work in decent jobs that are great for the environment. Thanks to a grant, we’ve been able to form the ReBuildATL Coalition, which is moving Breaking Barriers graduates into even more opportunities, such as weatherization, rooftop solar, community-scale solar, sustainability, and facility management.
RS: What aspects of your work excite you most?
GH: There's so much disparity and inequality in the world. There’s just so much to fix, you know? So, in order to fix it, or at least start to fix it, you really have to go after all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. That’s also why CSC helped to form and were a founding member of RCE Greater Atlanta. Early in my career at Westinghouse, employees were all in cubicles and assigned one task. Me being “Do It All Harris” . . . I didn’t like that. Today, we take on a myriad of projects. Every day is something different.
RS: It seems you have an affinity for Georgia Tech, which is great for us.
GH: CSC has been made a Georgia Tech Partner-in-Residence and a Serve-Learn-Sustain Signature Partner. It’s a big honor. CSC has had many connections with Serve-Learn-Sustain. For instance, we helped to start up RCE Greater Atlanta, we’ve had nearly 300 Georgia Tech students and interns work with us, and we’ve been involved in the Asset-Based Community Development program. In addition, we have worked with nearly twelve departments at Georgia Tech – from the Writing and Communication Program through Computer Science. We have also worked on several specialty projects to help advance Georgia Tech as a community-focused Anchor Institution in Atlanta.
RS: I’m also honored that you’ve been a regular partner for my course on sustainability and shared value [read more about the partnership here]. What makes you keep coming back to engage in this course?
GH: The relationship is a huge benefit for CSC. I love the fact that I have 25 students or more dedicated to the work that we do. That’s a unique opportunity. It gives me bragging rights to say that a class is passionate about my work and wants to dedicate energy, time, and mental intellect to helping us. The students are committed to enhancing the quality of life for folks in our partner community in Hampton Roads, Virginia [ECO District Hampton Roads]. Their ideas aren’t going to be put on a shelf. They can actually be used. CSC modifies the plans, adds resources, and implements the plans in the community.
RS: What would be your advice for any graduating student?
GH: Oh, that's easy. Find your passion and purpose early in life. Your passion and purpose will take you through the good times and the rough times. They will give you direction and energy you never thought you had. They will sustain you. Secondly, never give up on your hopes, dreams, and vision. Third, be determined, persevere, and maintain your aim. My motto is, “Count impacts, not years.”
As told to Jennifer Holley Lux