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Alumni Spotlight: James Geshwiler, MBA ’00

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When James Geshwiler, MBA ’00, initially applied to MIT Sloan, the former US Department of Energy analyst wrote about his interest using privatization to help stabilize the Eastern European economy. Soon after his acceptance, however, a group of MIT alumni angel investors asked for his occasional help with something else entirely—resulting in work that has “distracted” him for 17 years.

Now, Geshwiler is the chief financial officer of Catalyze, an independent power producer he co-founded in 2017 that develops, finances, owns, and operates renewable energy assets for commercial real estate in the United States. The company has dedicated itself to solving a very difficult and complex set of problems, and as the CFO explains it, that’s the only way to do it.

What drives you?

It’s the hard problems that are worth solving. Those are the ones that make a difference—the genuinely difficult problems, like solving climate change and grappling with a pandemic. They’re worth solving on a moral and societal basis. As one of my mentors put it, the worst thing you can do is tie. It's not a stain on your career. Others couldn't solve it either. Lots of people solve the easy ones, but if you can't solve those then you look bad. Everyone else can solve them. So, take on the really hard ones because no one is ever going to shame you for trying.

Who inspires you?

A phrase my mother has always used in conversation with me has been very motivating. Whenever we talk about a hard problem, she just looks at me and says, “If not you, who? Who is going to solve that? You're the one talking about it, so do something about it.”

What is the biggest idea you are working on right now?

We want to flip the US power grid on its head—like when the AT&T monopoly was dismantled and mainframe computing was abandoned in favor of client-server distributed systems. Yes, renewable energy crossing price parity with conventional generation is about making the earth greener and reducing carbon, but it’s also about shifting from centralized to distributed architecture. That is $5 trillion of assets that are going to be changing hands over the next decade. You can't come at it with the old ways. You need new companies, with new perspectives and business models. It’s classic disruption.

 

How has your time at MIT Sloan influenced your ideas?

I don't think it's a coincidence that Catalyze was founded by a large percentage of MIT alumni. The school’s culture and perspective are extremely relevant to what this company is doing. We created Catalyze three years ago with the MIT model of “mens et manus.” You have to understand theory and abstract principles in order to figure out when you're dealing with fundamental change. But that change is never going to happen—you won't have an impact—unless you can literally build it. You can't come from just one or the other. You can't say the world will be a certain way unless someone makes it so. You have to respond to the current environment, while also thinking ahead and imagining what it will look like in the next five or ten years. That is incredibly hard, but it’s also the incredible opportunity before us.