State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Student Profile: Davida Heller

Before starting her M.S. in Sustainability Management, Davida Heller had been advised not to chase her dream. When becoming an environmental lawyer for Greenpeace was derided as being a low paying profession with few prospects, Davida followed her family’s advice and moved from Long Island to Los Angeles to follow her other passion, the film business. At 30 years old, she had achieved success as a highly-paid vice president of a Hollywood studio, with all of the trappings. That was not enough, she said, “My passions for the environment started leaking into my everyday life. When I was supposed to be reading scripts, I was reading articles and educating myself on climate change. I felt restless.”

Davida enrolled in a number of training programs to become qualified in the basics of green building. She launched an environmental consulting company called Ecospire offering services such as energy audits, room analysis, water-conservation evaluations and recycling education to residential, corporate and municipal clients. It is a company that she continues to run, though now she runs it from New York, having moved east in order to become a part-time student with the first class of Columbia’s Master in Sustainability Management program, offered by the Earth Institute and the School of Continuing Education.

The new Sustainability Management Master’s program requires all students to take classes in five major areas: economic and quantitative analysis, general and financial management, integrative courses on sustainability management, public policy environment of sustainability management, and the physical dimensions of sustainability management. Davida believes that the rigorous curriculum will offer her opportunities to understand environmental issues on a much higher level than she was able to before. “It is exactly the right thing for me at this point in my career,” she says.

The program offers a great diversity of classes, from architecture and engineering to ecology, environmental science and public policy. It also offers students the option to complete the program in one to three years, depending on their particular needs and schedule. In this first inaugural class, of which Davida is a member, 40 percent of the students are enrolled full time while 60 percent are studying part time. Being a part-time student has allowed Davida to continue to consult through her company, Ecospire. She feels that it also affords her the opportunity to savor the classes that she is taking in the Sustainability Management program—to take them at a pace at which she can really absorb all that is being offered. In her first semester, she is taking Financing the Green Economy with Professor Brannen McElmurray and Sustainability Managementwith Professor Steve Cohen. “I think the professors are great. Steve Cohen is just such a force. What I enjoy most are the discussions about how to become an effective manager. There are such practical management applications being taught. It is a whole new thought process for me. And McElmurray is amazing. I love his approach to teaching. It is all about creating conversation and making us analyze what is going on in the world in terms of financing green projects. I don’t have a finance background but he is really supportive of those of us who don’t.”

Davida is surprised by all of the full-time students. For her, the longer she is at Columbia and can associate with classmates at Columbia, the bigger the network she feels she will have when she leaves. She looks forward to an ongoing affiliation with fellow graduates once she finishes the program. “Everyone just brings such a spark to the table.” She knows that she will have gained a great human resource that she looks forward to tapping into.

Above all, what impresses her about the program is the practicality of the knowledge being imparted. “As someone who is passionate about sustainability, I want my work to have an impact and I know my future efforts will have an even greater impact on society with the knowledge and experience I gain from the program.”

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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