"In order to fight climate change, we need to free up more capital"

Michael Sonnenfeldt—the entrepreneur, investor, philanthropist, and now author—is focused on tackling big sustainability challenges, including climate change. “I am constantly trying to think about how to have the biggest impact,” he says.

What's most exciting to me is that the MIT Sustainability Initiative is using science to solve and address climate change.

In his nearly four decades long career, Michael Sonnenfeldt has made a name for himself as an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and philanthropist. Now, he can add to that list another impressive title—author.

In the 1980s, Sonnenfeldt famously led the development and sale of The Harborside Financial Center—considered one of the most successful real estate deals in the history of the New York metropolitan area, and the largest commercial renovation in the country at the time. In 1999, he founded Tiger 21, the premier peer-to-peer learning network for high net worth investors whose 500 members collectively manage nearly $50 billion in personal assets.

Last year, eager to share what he’s learned over the years, Sonnenfeldt wrote Think Bigger and 39 Other Winning Strategies from Successful Entrepreneurs. Drawing on the wisdom, insight, and experience of TIGER 21 members, and supplementing that with additional research and interviews, Sonnenfeldt’s book offers real-world guidance, and often counterintuitive advice and conclusions, on what it takes to be successful. Endorsed by Michael Bloomberg and Tony Robbins, Think Bigger was released last fall.

Sonnenfeldt is also well known for his philanthropy and activism. Among his interests are climate change and the work of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT.

“What’s most exciting to me is that the Sustainability Initiative is using science to solve and address climate change,” he says. “The school is playing an increasingly central role in designing and implementing solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.”

As one of the Initiative’s most generous donor’s, Sonnendfeldt has a deep appreciation for the importance of cultivating talented business leaders ready to tackle climate change. Helping the next generation receive opportunities to learn and develop is paramount to that endeavor, he says.

Sonnenfeldt is on the boards of several non-profits and conservation groups, including Earthjustice, the largest environmental law firm in the world. He also helped fund one of the leading solar energy research groups on the planet at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, where the researchers are housed in a building named after Sonnenfeldt’s son. He also works closely with governors and senators on climate policy.

Acccording to Sonnenfeldt, progress on climate change also requires concerted commitment from the corporate world.

“In order to fight climate change, we need to free up more capital,” he says. “There isn’t enough capital in the philanthropic world alone to do the job.”

Take his position with Canada-based Carmanah Technologies, for instance. Sonnenfeldt is chairman and the largest shareholder in the company, which makes LED signaling and lighting infrastructure products, most of which are solar powered. The line includes signaling systems for marine navigation aids, ground lighting for airport runways, and industrial and commercial solar powered outdoor lighting systems for roadways and parking lots. Carmanah has nearly 400,000 installations across 100 countries, and recently became the dominant provider of lighting and marking systems for off shore wind farms in the Baltic Sea.

“The cost of solar electricity is 10 times less expensive than it was 25 years ago,” says Sonnenfeldt, “and at the same time the lumens per watt of light output of LEDs is six times greater.”

Sonnenfeldt says he’s “hungry for impact investments” that produce market returns while reducing pollutants that accelerate climate change.

“Philanthropically, I support organizations making a difference in the fight against climate change; and politically I support candidates and government officials trying to be responsible about the risks we face,” he says. “I am most interested in supporting a revenue neutral carbon tax, but there are many other aspects of the issue, including the national security implications of climate change that I am trying to be knowledgeable about.”

Solar-powered streetlights represent only a small part of the remedy to climate change, of course, but Sonnenfeldt is sanguine that the industry’s future is, ahem, bright. “There’s going to be a revolution, and if we let the market do its magic, we could accelerate the transition to a clean future.”