In this edition of Fridays from the Frontline, we hear from current Duke Fuqua MBA student, Kevin Biehl, about his journey from being interested in shaping a greener future to being positioned to make a real impact.
From Awestruck Climate Outsider to Decarbonization Practitioner
By Kevin Biehl, Duke Fuqua
Before Fuqua, my career ambition was similar to that of a typical corporate net-zero emissions statement—ambiguous, distant, and baseless. I committed to lead the fight against climate change “by 2050” without a plan to show how I would, or any evidence to suggest I could, accomplish that.
Finding My Voice and Climate Apprenticeship
Fuqua was my last stop in a week of visiting potential environment and MBA dual master’s programs. Duke MEM/MBA students helped coordinate a gathering at a brewery, where nonstop clean energy deliberation made it clear that Durham was where I belonged. Would I advise trusting a gut full of hops to direct pivotal professional choices? Perhaps not. But by auditory osmosis, I was absorbing knowledge at a rate that I knew would accelerate my climate career. This sort of extracurricular banter is ubiquitous in Fuqua’s energy community and exposure to it led me from a climate-curious software project manager to a climate professional surrounded by congressional and industry leaders.
Cleantech Forum San Francisco, a 300-person assembly of climate investors and startups, offered the first opportunity to verify if Fuqua discourse carries to conversations with industry professionals. At the event, a space opened at a private dinner for capital providers to meet the most promising startups in attendance. Rather than maintain the intended balance between investors and executives, an event organizer granted the benefit of “right place, right time,” and invited me to be the only student attendee.
Fortunately, I was seated beside two Duke alumni, displacing my prevailing imposter syndrome with comfort. Our shared experience paired with Fuqua’s persistent clean energy discussion left me confident to speak freely without making a fool of myself. Assimilating with the upper echelon of climate leadership while new to the industry, as I did at Cleantech Forum, shifted my climate impact timeline closer to graduation than the original goal of “by 2050.”
Speaking with Meaning and Packing My Clean Energy Toolbox
Fuqua Executive in Residence Chris Wedding triggered my interest in climate solutions that remove and/or upcycle atmospheric carbon dioxide by sharing industry research from the Circular Carbon Network (CCN) through his weekly climate newsletter. Less than six months later, I secured a fellowship with CCN, where I co-authored the annual report that spawned my passion for carbon removal and utilization technologies, as well as managed the largest public database of companies, investors, and NGOs leveraging them. With my foot in the door, climate opportunities cascaded.
Aware of our climate tech experience, Chris approached an MEM/MBA classmate and me with an idea to direct environmental donations to pre-commercial carbon removal technologies. This classmate was at the center of the clean energy brewery banter that led me to Fuqua a year earlier, so I knew that, through friendly debate, we’d assemble a well-informed strategy to address Chris’s idea and that we would do so in a relaxed setting.
Over a weekend of skiing, we came up with a plan to create Terraset, the first entity to pool tax-deductible philanthropic capital to catalyze high-quality, permanent carbon removal projects. We helped execute that plan, leading to more than a million dollars donated in the organization’s first year.
After publishing the circular carbon report and while working on Terraset, I was invited to join two dozen corporate, nonprofit, and government carbon technology thought leaders at the Carbontech Leadership Council’s biannual summit. We gathered to select the next cohort for the Carbon to Value Initiative’s startup accelerator, engage with successful companies from the previous cohort, and identify mechanisms for greater cross-sector project collaboration. Emboldened by my climate publication, fellowship, and nonprofit, I felt a sense of belonging at this summit that, at Cleantech Forum, required the support of friendly Duke alumni to achieve.
Developing a Captive Audience as a Climate Journeyman
That summer, I was hired to help lead commercial development for Global Thermostat, one of the three companies that invented and pioneered direct air capture (DAC), a technology to separate and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I was the company’s only representative at some of the industry’s most prominent gatherings, including a Washington, D.C. convening of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s DAC Advisory Council, two senators, and Department of Energy leadership. In Zurich, Switzerland, I attended Climeworks’ DAC Summit, the world’s largest DAC industry gathering, where I met with the CEOs of four out of five of Global Thermostat’s largest competitors.
These experiences culminated in the nation’s highest officials affirming Global Thermostat’s technology at the unveiling of the nation’s first commercial-scale DAC plant. To a room of around one hundred colleagues, media, industry leaders, and me, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi and Colorado Governor Jared Polis applauded our achievement and spoke of the optimism that our milestone provided, with Pelosi adding that this day would be a defining moment in society’s victory over climate change. With their encouragement, no doubt remains that I’m on track to achieve my pre-MBA career goal of leading the fight against climate change.
Shaping a Greener Future
In the moment, it seemed as though I decided to attend Fuqua on a whim, but in reality, I had the most important information of all—that having fun didn’t come at the expense of education. Rather, each catalyzed the other. Fuqua students match my energy for a carbon-neutral future. I can talk about the physics, policy, or role of emerging climate technologies, and I am met with genuine curiosity, relevant first-hand experience or an informed debate.
I’ve learned just as much while whitewater rafting and snowboarding with classmates as I have through our curriculum. Because my learning has come in a relaxed setting, I’ve been at ease discussing the energy transition from the program’s outset. The brilliant clean energy nerds of Fuqua equipped me with the knowledge and confidence necessary to add value to any climate conversation, and, in turn, propelled me to a position of influence that I expected to spend my entire career attempting to reach.