Kevin Webb comes from a career of more than 8 years in early-stage venture capital and is now a student in the Sustainability Science program at Columbia University. He moved to New York in January with his dog Chewie, having lived in San Francisco and the broader Bay Area most of his life. Kevin is the founder and current president of Sustainability Science’s student organization, as well as ENVENT (Environmental Entrepreneurs).
What drew you to the M.S. in Sustainability Science?
I was really lucky in my previous role, and saw firsthand the amount that could be built and changed in only a few years through startups. My undergraduate degree was in human biology, with a particular focus on the environment, and in recent years I started wondering if I could focus on the kinds of new businesses steering us toward a more sustainable world. Sustainability Science (SUSC) was a new program, where I could learn about environmental challenges, through a scientific lens, alongside a driven peer set, all while getting a say in how this very new program evolves. It also let me start in January, and I was ready for a change!
What do you intend to do professionally once you achieve your degree?
I’m figuring this out! The most likely path will be stitching together my past experiences investing in startups with my passion for working toward a world that works for humans and the other species we share this planet with. That may mean investing again, or it may mean jumping and starting a company myself. In the meantime, though, I’m relishing the chance to learn and absorb.
What do you think is the most important sustainability challenge?
Right now, the most important sustainability challenge is weaning our world off its dependence on carbon, quickly, without completely unraveling the systems that support humans and their societies.
If I can broaden out a bit, though, the most interesting sustainability challenge is envisioning a world where we humans are proud stewards, where we design, build, and modify our homes, food systems, and ways of life to work with nature, to invite its diversity and complexity. This more restorative vision would require a synthesis of older, culturally local practices and new technologies that I find very exciting to work toward.
What skills and tools have you acquired through the program so far?
For me, the biggest asset has been getting to know and spend time with professors on the front lines of studying climate change in Sustainability Science, and adjunct professors applying learnings from climate change to their respective fields in urban planning and agriculture in Sustainability Management. I’ve gotten more experience writing reports and proposals, and have enjoyed the chance to learn software like ArcMap to visualize these proposals.
How have you applied what you’ve learned in the program so far?
For my final project in Environmental Infrastructure Development with Carter Strickland, I wrote about the possibility of building wildlife crossings up in the Adirondacks. In addition to giving me an excuse to head up there for a weekend, the paper was turned into a two-part essay published on Rewilding over the summer (Part One, Part Two). I also used some of my learnings (and library access to scientific papers) to contribute to a report by Revive & Restore on some of the ways genetic technologies can be applied to ocean conservation challenges (link).
Beyond that, I’ve liked when friends and former colleagues have asked for help evaluating more environmentally oriented startups, or better yet, when they’ve been considering new careers and have wanted to pivot to something more impactful.
Beyond the classroom, what sustainability-related extracurriculars have you engaged in with your fellow Sustainability Science students?
I adore my SUSC cohort, and helped to found our student organization, RESCUE (Resiliency Science Union of Excellence — I was honestly expecting more pushback on the acronym). This past summer we joined NYC Parks to tag and monitor horseshoe crabs near Coney Island, and we’ve also gone on hikes, seen movies, taken bus trips up to Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and just hung out after classes. Through RESCUE we’re hoping to make these kinds of activities a little more formal, but we’re still fewer than 20 people, so we have the luxury of spontaneity.
What is your favorite class in the SUSC program and why?
I really enjoyed Brendan Buckley’s Predicting the Effects of Climate Change on Global Forests, because I’d never had a primer on the role of tree rings in helping scientists understand past seasonal and decadal climate variability, and Dr. Buckley was friendly, unassuming, and extremely knowledgeable. With a small class size, Dr. Buckley really catered the material toward what best suited our interests.
How do you intend to utilize your degree from the SUSC program to further your career?
What I really wanted from this program was a group of peers who would also be working toward a more sustainable future, now and decades into the future. As far as the course materials, the chance to dive deeply into a range of sustainability challenges has let me reflect upon and revise my views, which I hope will be relevant no matter where my career takes me next.
How has collaborating with your fellow students in projects in the classroom benefited you professionally and/or personally?
While not in class, I had the chance to be the project manager for the SUMA Net Impact team consulting with Sweetgreen on their use of bioplastic. It was my crash course in working closely with a team with diverse professional backgrounds, as well as with a prominent, environmentally conscious client. By the end of the semester, I was really proud of the work we did together to understand the scale of the issue and to make immediate and long-term recommendations. The project also led to a significant increase in my salad consumption, which was probably healthy.
What do you think is the most beneficial aspect of the SUSC program with regard to your career?
I think the peer group of people who have all, in the past two years, re-oriented their lives and careers to be a part of a more sustainable future. It’s easy to become jaded, but I’m really inspired by the work they do, and I’m excited to see how they make a larger impact after graduation. As I navigate my professional path in a changing, uncertain world, I’m very grateful to be accountable to them.