Exploring the E-Suite with Dr. Shalini Vajjhala, Founder and CEO, re:focus partners (San Diego, CA), and former Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Office of International & Tribal Affairs at the US EPA.
- Tell us about re:focus partners, including what the organization does and your role.
re:focus is a design firm that specializes in developing resilient infrastructure solutions for cities and communities around the world and integrating project finance into the design process. Our team brings together expertise in policy, engineering, and risk management to craft integrated projects and develop new public-private partnerships. The goal of every re:focus project is to better align public funds and leverage greater private investment to protect and improve the lives of vulnerable communities.
As Founder and CEO, my role involves setting the strategic direction of the organization and putting together our major initiatives and partnerships. Like most small organizations, everyone on our team does a little bit of everything, and on the day-to-day level, I usually have my sleeves rolled up on various project management, design, and analysis tasks and pieces of writing.
- What is your professional background that led you to become involved in the energy and environmental fields?
I am an architect first and foremost, and I have always loved the field of green design. I went on to do graduate work in engineering and public policy (also at Carnegie Mellon University), which widened my view of the many ways to engage in the energy and environmental fields. My research focused on how community mapping could inform environmental decision-making. When I finished my PhD in 2005, I went on to join Resources for the Future, an economics think-tank in Washington, DC, as one of a handful of non-economists in the organization. Being more of a “methods” rather than domain-specific researcher gave me tremendous freedom to work on issues from infrastructure siting to environmental justice and climate change adaptation, which all have important spatial dimensions and community engagement at their core.
In early 2009, I joined the Obama Administration and spent a few months at the White House Council on Environmental Quality before moving to the US EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs. In my time in the Administration, I worked on a huge range of issues, but one of the common threads was pulling together interesting public-private partnerships to make progress where public-sector resources alone were insufficient.
I stepped down from my position at the EPA in 2012, just before Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard, and was urged by our various partners to continue the green infrastructure and resilience work I had started at EPA. That’s how re:focus came to be. In hindsight, I feel tremendously fortunate to have had the chance to focus on interesting problems and follow those problems into new career opportunities that allowed me to tackle the same challenges from very different vantage points, from research to policy-making to entrepreneurship.
- What do you think are the emerging issues in the energy and environmental fields, especially your work in sustainable infrastructure?
We all recognize when infrastructure fails, but we rarely invest in new systems to prevent disaster and protect communities. I think the biggest emerging issue in the energy and environmental field is how we create robust and resilient infrastructure systems of all kinds and recognize the value of the “avoided losses” or the successes where something doesn’t happen—a storm hits, but a community isn’t devastated. Just as with preventative healthcare, valuing and capturing the value of these kinds of investments is going to be essential if we are going to successfully transition to more resilient communities and economies over the coming decade.
- What aspects of working in the energy and environmental fields have you enjoyed most?
My favorite part of working in a field that is so broad is learning from the experiences and perspectives of colleagues from very different backgrounds and disciplines, and finding new lenses through which to see old and stubborn problems.
- What do you find are some of the most challenging aspects of your work in the energy and environmental fields?
Change is hard. Change in the public sector is even harder. One of the best strategies I have found to making real and persistent change is to gradually create space for something new by starting where an existing system is failing. It is much easier to talk someone from a sinking ship onto a lifeboat than it is to get someone to shift course if they don’t know their boat is taking on water. Too often we cling to a system that we know isn’t working for us today to avoid the unfamiliar tomorrow. Finding gentle ways to bring up existing problems and look for better solutions is the most reliable approach I have found to make something new seem like the preferred alternative to the status quo.
One important thing I try to avoid is making a future problem or benefit more important than what is happening now. Lots of experts from behavioral economics to psychology know that people everywhere struggle to make decisions that have benefits in the distant future. Instead, we look for where stakeholders in a system are losing money or value today—for example, talking about the costs of current local flooding instead of only talking about future climate changes—since these same systems are likely to be the first to fail or worst off in future.
- How did you make the transition from several high-profile energy and environmental policy positions in Washington, DC to becoming a sustainable-infrastructure startup founder?
I launched re:focus in 2012 after spending several years in multiple positions at CEQ and EPA. My roles at EPA gave me the opportunity to work with many incredibly dedicated civil servants across the federal government. One of the initiatives that I created and that our team at the Office of International and Tribal Affairs was instrumental in developing was the US-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability (JIUS). The program was an experiment to see how government agencies could build new public-private partnerships to leverage funding for green infrastructure. Based on its early success in bringing together non-traditional partners, it quickly grew into a binational presidential initiative, announced by President Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, to catalyze investment in sustainability in cities around the world. This collaboration brought together federal, state and local government officials with a whole bunch of unconventional private sector companies to find new ways to develop and finance green infrastructure in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Philadelphia, PA. Despite their many differences, these two cities still face many similar challenges when it comes to designing and financing new water, energy, and transportation systems. We turned the role of government on its head and found new ways for government agencies to tackle age-old problems. For example, in Rio, we explored how the local civil defense authorities could help fund water infrastructure in slums to reduce landslide risks and save money in their own disaster response budget.
Thanks to the leadership of both of these cities, the lessons from the JIUS (pronounced: juice) were successfully highlighted at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20 in June 2012. Through the JIUS, it became clear that we were playing a unique role in designing and brokering new types of public-private partnerships for sustainable infrastructure, and re:focus was born to continue this unusual work.
Because I got nudged (by our many philanthropic, NGO, and corporate partners) into starting a social business to continue work that I was already doing, the transition to entrepreneurship was a bit more natural than it might have been otherwise.
- As a former policymaker turned startup founder that operates in the sustainable infrastructure space, what can today’s policymakers learn from your challenges and successes?
I love this question. It’s something we think (and write!) a lot about, and most of our team has worked inside government at some point. We work hard to remember the constraints we faced and the things that were barriers for us when we were in their shoes. We also make an effort to share where and when we get stuck so our government collaborators can see things from “the other side.” As one example, over the past two years we’ve dedicated a significant amount of time to tackling procurement barriers to help both local governments and innovative companies struggling to find new solutions for their highest-priority challenges.
The most important lessons we’ve learned are that designing major infrastructure projects takes time and investing in predevelopment (all the things you need to do before construction) is essential, so you don’t just build another version of what you had, but you genuinely get to a solution that will serve your community well into the future.
- What and/or who have helped you succeed as a startup founder?
I have to credit my colleagues for every success we’ve had at re:focus. We are a tiny but mighty team, and working with good people who can laugh and persevere together through the daily ups and downs of any start-up is what makes the work worth doing. A couple of years ago, we realized that one of our major initiatives was worth spinning out into a sister company. My colleagues Elle Hempen and Ellory Monks launched The Atlas Marketplace and did an amazing job turning a spreadsheet into a social business to help cities find, source, and procure innovative solutions for everything from stormwater management to urban mobility systems. Having other female founders to celebrate the wins with and empathize when things are bumpy is one of my greatest sources of support.
- What advice would you give a young person today who is considering starting out in the energy and environmental fields?
Follow interesting problems. Careers are no longer linear progressions within a single firm. Many of the biggest opportunities in energy, environment and sustainability are at the “seams” of existing sectors and fields. At re:focus we work hard to serve as ambassadors between traditional silos. Often our work involves finding other connectors and helping everyone see a problem in the same way. For example, in talking with both transportation and water experts about greening urban stormwater systems, we try to find simple illustrations—like turning the city from a funnel into a sponge—so we avoid jargon and create the space for collaborative problem solving. Often our most successful work will involve someone saying, “Well, we've never done this before, but it looks like a little bit of x and y with a dash of z thrown in.” No one can be an expert in everything but even someone just starting out can learn how to break through jargon, learn from lots of different kinds of people, and see problems from different angles. I think the energy and environment fields offer some of the most exciting opportunities to make real and meaningful change over the coming years, and I’m incredibly optimistic about our next generation of innovators!Dr. Vajjhala was interviewed by Alexander J. Bandza, Associate, Energy and Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practices, Jenner & Block LLP