The Alumni Spotlight series includes interviews Earth Institute alumni about their career paths, how they became interested in Earth Institute programs, and for any advice that would be useful to current and future students.
Lili Gao graduated from Columbia University’s masters program in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program in 2015. We caught up with Lili to discuss her experience with the program, what led her to enroll, and how it prepared her for the challenges ahead in a career as an energy consultant.
What was your background before coming into the program?
I had a pretty varied background before joining the ESP program. I spent five years in Beijing, China, working in business development for a Chinese consumer electronics [company] and then leading the Asia Pacific marketing operations team for Lenovo (the maker of those trusty black ThinkPads!). I loved my coworkers and was good at the work but didn’t feel that I was making a real impact. After leaving China, I moved to California and worked for eight months for an agricultural importer, spending a lot of time in the Central Valley, where so much of our food is grown. This was an eye-opening experience, seeing large-scale agriculture and the delicate food-water-energy nexus, especially during the drought. This time in California and seeing various environmental issues in China pushed me further and prompted me to apply [to various programs].
Why did you choose Columbia University’s MPA-ESP program?
I was attracted to the fact that it was a one-year-long broad terminal professional degree that combined an overview of the science with a good practical component. I wanted to bring sustainability into business and this program seemed a good fit. I was also excited by the prospect of spending a year in New York City to experience such a dynamic place.
What are you primarily focused on in your profession?
I am a consultant at a transformation and innovation consulting firm, where I focus on helping electric and water utilities transform their business, especially in how they interact with their customers and how they can improve various parts of their operations.
How did the MPA-ESP program prepare you for your career as a consultant?
In terms of education, my energy electives gave me knowledge of the utility landscape and the broad course material prepared me to be conversant in topics adjacent to my work. Practically, the workshops were amazing in terms of going more in-depth in a topic, managing people and managing a client.
The program and Columbia has [also] been helpful as I continue to build my network in the industry, which is a critical part of working in consulting.
What exciting challenges do you foresee in the future of the energy industry?
It’s an exciting time to be in the energy industry — new technology, changing business models, increasing regulatory pressure to address climate change and empower customers. Utilities are at an important juncture to determine how they do business in the future and how they influence those future operating models.
Is there any advice you have for current students wanting to pursue a similar profession?
In terms of job hunting, start early! You may just be settling into your program, but many firms, especially the big ones, have campus recruiting programs that start in the summer and fall. You should especially take advantage of campus recruiting if you don’t have much prior work experience or have a varied and non-traditional background. A lot of students reach out to me for information interviews in early spring; by then offers have already been made, and a lot more networking and work will be needed to make inroads at these firms.
In terms of skills, having good analytical skills will improve your chances in many places, and practice structuring your communications, both through case interview prep and in your workshops.
My biggest piece of advice is to start information interviews early — this helps you understand if you want to be in consulting, what companies are looking for, your potential fit in the firm, and in the best case a referral.
If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact assistant director Stephanie Hoyt (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any questions or to schedule a campus visit.