Credit: Stephen Sauer
Ideas Made to Matter
To drive diversity in clean energy, he connects dots and people
Kerry Bowie, SB ’94, MBA ’06, deploys a passion for streamlined efficiency to drive expansion and diversity. As the founder of Browning the Green Space, Bowie aims to advance equity and inclusion in clean energy. The coalition provides a pipeline for career advancement, access to capital, and adoption of green products in communities of color.
Bowie is also founder of the Majira Project — majira means “summer” in Swahili. In a nod to the growing season, Majira helps small businesses and startups led by people of color to grow. His like-minded organization, Msaada Partners — msaada is Swahili for “service” — supports underrepresented entrepreneurs with consulting on economic, environmental, and social problems and access to capital of all kinds.
We talked with Bowie about the ideas that drive all of his ventures, and why it’s important to have “people who are broad enough to stitch the pieces together.”
What inspires you?
My passion is efficiency. I just want things to work better. What really keeps me going, day in and day out, is being able to move the needle on tackling challenges and solving problems. Maybe that’s the engineer in me. I like solving hard problems with big, hairy, audacious goals.
In a sense, math, science, and physics are easy. They are governed by a set of laws and principles. But the human race acts against our own interests. We all have different baggage and motivations, and that stuff isn’t always right on the surface. It takes a lot of time to unearth. Trying to do that, trying to build bridges and see the common threads, is what inspires me.
Who inspires you?
A lot of people. My work falls into three buckets: entrepreneurship and innovation; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and energy and environment. I’m actually reading [U.S. deputy director of energy justice] Shalanda Baker’s book right now, “Revolutionary Power.” She’s inspiring to me, because I’ve been thinking about writing a book. I’m going, “You know what? I need to write my book because I’ve got some stories told from a slightly different perspective than what Shalanda is sharing that I think would be actually really cool to tell.” I just haven’t done it. So Shalanda inspires me.
I got into this work in the green space from reading Robert Bullard’s “Dumping in Dixie” my freshman year at MIT. I didn’t even know that stuff. I’m from Alabama, and I didn’t know. I was like, “Wait a minute. People are shipping their waste to my home state, and we’re taking it?” How did I not know this? He’s a champion in the environmental justice space.
Where do you get ideas?
I listen. I listen to entrepreneurs, Black and brown and women entrepreneurs, and hear what they’re struggling with and what their problems are. I listen to people in the community. I pull from other folks. My superpower, or my strength, is in others.
I don’t want to claim credit for things. I listen across a bunch of different groups, and I just try to sit back and go, “You know what? You guys are saying the same thing,” or, "That sounds like what they’re doing over here, and you know what? You’re just missing this piece.” I think my engineering training at MIT has always taught me how to think and how to problem-solve.
Working in a bunch of different spaces allows me to bring in things that others don’t see. I think that’s a benefit, too, and we need to do more cross-disciplinary collaboration. When I came back to get my business degree at Sloan, I was looking at things through my engineering lens. I didn’t have a business lens. I didn’t have an upper-management lens.
You need people who are broad enough to stitch the pieces together because so many people are working in their silos. I was working in my engineering silo. How do we get the right people in the room and then go from there?
How do you keep track of new ideas?
I have a glass whiteboard to my left. I’m starting to use Trello a lot more digitally and have used Asana in the past. I was a Post-It note person, but I try not to use them anymore.
However, every now and again I take an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, and I fold and fold, and make it fours. I hate to say this because I’m trying to go paperless as much as possible, but I’m counting, and I’ve got at least 25 of them right here in front of me, and I just try to go through them and I rip them apart.
How do you test ideas?
You do them. There was an old guy, Vern, whom I worked with at Texas Instruments. He was a scientist. On his shirt, there was a brown footprint on a polo that said, “Dirt ft.” And dirt ft stood for, “Do it right the first time.”
And so it’s that whole mantra of, “Measure twice; cut once.” But don’t go too far into the paralysis of analysis realm. At the Majira Project, we are where we are today because we just learned and we listened. We take surveys. It’s pretty much like the scientific method. You have a hypothesis. You go and you try it. You see what the results are. You do some analysis. You tweak. You do it again. And you continuously are listening and working on continuous improvement.
What is the biggest idea you’re working on right now?
Browning the Green Space. I think it’s a good one because it flows so naturally. Not that it’s easy, but it is fluid, and people are eager to support the work we are doing and the organization that we are building.
How do you know if an idea is a good one?
I got this from one of my mentors. I won’t share his name, but he’ll know who he is. He talks about: “Are you uniquely qualified to do this thing? Is it a super, super big problem, and do you have a vision to fix it?” And so, Browning the Green Space is a super big problem. Notwithstanding COVID-19 and some of the blatant racial injustices that have taken place over the last year or so, climate change and the wealth gap are really the two biggest problems that are facing us today.
Browning the Green Space says, “Hey, we’re going to tackle those together. We’re going to try to get more Black and LatinX people and women into this green space to tackle climate change, to focus on clean energy and renewable energy and energy efficiency and food and water, and really tackle some of our climate woes.”
At the same time, can we create more jobs? Can we create wealth? Can we fund some startups led by people of color? Can we get contracts for more small business owners of color?
Going back to that piece of connecting all the dots and all the people, I feel like I’m in a really good space to do that, because I understand the problem from different perspectives. I was that young man growing up in a fenceline environmental justice community with contamination being — in a sense, victimized by pollution. I’ve worked at a big corporation at Texas Instruments doing semiconductor manufacturing, and while semiconductor manufacturing is a pretty clean industry, we were polluters. We were part of Superfund cases.
And I worked for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and MassDEP, so I’ve seen it from the government or regulatory side as well. I can talk to that PhD scientist who’s working on electric fracking, and I can also talk to that woman whose granddaughter was just in the ICU because she had a severe asthma attack and totally relate and empathize with the challenges and concerns of both of them.
At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have meaningful impact in the world. In that context — what is your idea made to matter?
How do we get people fully engaged and not leave out Black and brown people, especially in this green wave?
How do we make sure that Black folk are there? How do we play in that green space in terms of climate tech? And currency is green — there’s that economic piece of jobs and income, and I think that’s the difference. Some of the folks who I talked about before, who inspire me in this space, most of them weren’t necessarily coming at it from an economic or business perspective. It was more grassroots, true justice, taking care of folks. That’s really what I’m working on: making sure that Black and brown people don’t miss out on the wave of green jobs that is already upon us and will continue for years to come.