State of the Planet

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Sustainability Management Alums Take the Entrepreneurial Path to Success

Before graduating in May 2012, MS in Sustainability Management alums Sami Abbay and JD Capuano worked together to make their entrepreneurial dreams a reality and started Closed Loop Advisors, a sustainability management consulting company.

When JD Capuano and Sami Abbay joined the M.S. in Sustainability Management (MSSM) program back in September 2010, they both knew from the start that they wanted to become entrepreneurs. Over the course of the past two years, JD and Sami were able to make their career dreams a reality in the form of Closed Loop Advisors, a sustainability management consulting firm that focuses on strategy and operations. In many ways Closed Loop Advisors was incubated in the MSSM program. Not only did the program bring these two entrepreneurs together, it also gave them space to test the prospect of a business partnership through an independent study project.  In less than a year, Sami and JD have engaged a growing group of MSSM alums to consult for an expanding list of noteworthy clients.

1. What is your current job?

We are the co-founders of Closed Loop Advisors, a sustainability management consulting firm concentrating on strategy and operations. The most important thing that we do is to simplify the complexities of sustainability for our clients.

We’re working with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on their three-year sustainable operations plan. Our role at NRDC started with refining their drafted sustainability plan and continues with project management on over a dozen initiatives. We just began working with Etsy to establish their sustainability baseline, expand their metrics tracking, and deliver a diagnostic of their sustainability performance and opportunities.  We are also finishing a feasibility study for the New York City Office of the Mayor that examines plugging food trucks and carts into the electrical grid.

2. Do your current job responsibilities align with the professional goals that you originally had when you began the MSSM program?

Both of us had considered entrepreneurship long before applying to the MSSM program. When the program began, we each had a few ideas for the kind of work that we would like to do after graduation and consulting happened to be on both of our lists. Sami proposed the idea that we start a company in November of that first semester, so over winter break, we rolled up our sleeves to begin brainstorming how to make our entrepreneurial dream a reality.

3. What skills has the MSSM program taught you that you think have proven useful to your current position?

The program’s emphasis on systems thinking as the way to approach problems is indispensable in our line of work, especially when we are helping clients set or recalibrate their sustainability strategy. Systems thinking is also useful when working on specific projects. Applying such a perspective allows us to identify linkages with other projects (planned or needed) as well as to foresee certain unanticipated consequences. The program has also taught us valuable technical skills such as being able to conceptually design a sustainably built environment, assess and improve the energy efficiency of a building, and conduct a life cycle analysis.

4. What skills and tools do you hope to acquire through this job?

Prior to the MSSM program and the formation of Closed Loop Advisors, Sami worked in mechanical engineering and JD worked in business analysis. These professional backgrounds, combined with years of sustainability volunteer work, helped us to develop extensive skill sets that are highly transferable to the work we do today. We are very fortunate in that respect.

One area that is relatively nascent in sustainability is metrics. Both of us have extensive work experience with developing and/or analyzing metrics, so this is one skill we have a keen interest in sharpening.

5. How has collaborating with your fellow students in class projects benefitted you professionally and personally?

First off, it was a fantastic group of people!  Everyone was so mission-driven about sustainability and brought diverse experiences and perspectives that forced us to challenge our own thinking. Over the course of the program, we made some great friends and future business contacts. Our one regret is that there wasn’t enough time to get to know everyone!

The professional benefits of our class assignments have been tremendous. We currently have three fellow alumni consulting at our clients, all of whom we worked with on class projects. Class projects allowed us to get a better sense for the way a person thinks and the kind of work that they produce.

6. What kinds of environmental initiatives do you hope to start in your new position?

Our primary objective is to lead companies and nonprofits through the process of setting or refining their sustainability strategies. One important aspect we pursue on the strategy side is selling the benefits of integrating sustainability into an organization’s culture. We advocate forward-thinking projects, which is why we are really excited to work with NRDC and Etsy.  NRDC wants to move beyond their already laudable sustainable operations and really push the envelope. Etsy is making sustainability and social responsibility a living, breathing part of how they work.

We have also found opportunities to stay loyal to our roots!  We just helped NRDC design a fall semester MSSM capstone to develop a net zero energy plan for their NYC headquarters.

Lastly, it is our endeavor to convince clients to implement sustainability solutions that address multiple problems.

7. How do you intend to utilize your degree from the MSSM program to further your career?

The MSSM program is a tremendous asset to growing our company. We are proud to have hired three fellow alumni for consulting engagements!  Eileen Quigley and Larry Cheng are each working on assignments for NRDC and Ryan Meinke is working on projects for both Etsy and NRDC.

As we grow, we will also look forward to providing internship opportunities for MSSM students. In addition to hiring fellow alumni, both classmates and alumni alike have been very supportive from following us on social media to helping us to generate business!

Lastly, we are grateful to have several faculty members provide advice from the company’s pre-launch phase through our latest proposal to a prospective client. We look forward to continued collaboration with MSSM students, faculty, and alumni for the rest of our careers.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The M.S. in Sustainability Management program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Please visit our website to learn more about the program.

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