MBA alum James Parle on Presidio’s impact on his professional pursuits in entrepreneurship, cleantech, sustainability consulting, and his long-term passion for climate advocacy.
Thank you so much for sitting down with us, James! Can you walk us through what you’re up to and how you landed your current role?
I’ve worked as a self-employed consultant for the last three or four years. I do sustainability and cleantech consulting, although I didn’t really set out on my career path to become a consultant. It was kind of circumstantial. After graduating from Presidio, I co-founded a company called Muir Data Systems, which focused on software that helped manage renewable energy assets more efficiently. I ran with that company for about five years and ended up picking up consulting work on the side, so my path to consulting started organically. It’s been a good fit. The work is a mix of entrepreneurial and startup activities but has a bit less inherent risk than founding a company from ground zero, which requires significantly more investment.
Can you tell us a bit more about some of the types of companies that you’ve consulted with?
One of them is a large energy company focusing on reduced-impact heating and cooling systems using heat pumps with low global warming potential refrigerants. Trying to get broader heat pump adoption in the U.S. and looking at new technology in this emerging frontier is just one example of the type of work happening at this organization. I also do sustainability consulting in the semiconductor and life sciences sectors. This work involves sustainability program management and development; very high-level development of internal sustainability programs while maintaining existing efforts. There’s much more to it, but those are two critical facets of my work. The cleantech side of my consulting is more technical with a sustainability spin, while the sustainability program management work has been much broader and more programming-focused, i.e., trying to steer large life science and semiconductor company’s programs in a favorable direction.
When you say “cleantech,” can you unpack that for those of us who aren’t as familiar with the terminology?
They are technologies that have some element of reduced environmental impact. So, for example, in wind energy, wind turbines are typically seen as part of cleantech. They don’t have zero impact but less impact than burning coal or natural gas. Cleantech is somewhat broad, and I think its boundaries have changed a little over time. Ten to 20 years ago, cleantech was very energy-centric, but now people are putting new angles on it, like electric cars and in some cases, new services being classified as cleantech. It’s a whole different situation.
So how did you initially discover Presidio? And what solidified your decision to attend?
Initially, I went to school for mechanical engineering, and I interned a lot at various aerospace-focused companies and became particularly interested in cleantech and efficiency. The first company I joined out of school was AeroVironment. They had a long history of clean technology and high-efficiency projects, like the EV1 electric car for General Motors and the Gossamer Albatross plane that was pedaled across the English Channel. A very progressive company with a really cool history. While working with AeroVironment, a small, back-room drone project blossomed into an enormous defense contract. The company transitioned away from cleantech projects to producing tens of thousands of these airplanes. I understood why they did it, but I reassessed my values and decided to leave the company after a few years. Although I had a job I knew I could continue with, I felt a lack of fit, so I joined a clean tech startup in the Bay Area focused on renewable energy. I worked there for a couple of years, and during that time, I grew increasingly concerned about climate change and sustainability. Incidentally, back then learning about these topics required a trip to the library.
I started wanting to make a broader impact and do something more high-level, more entrepreneurial. When I was considering MBA programs, I started with conventional ones. I drove to Stanford Graduate School of Business, walked the halls, and talked to people; I was trying to gain boots-on-the-ground experience. I asked people within the program what they knew of cleantech, and the answers I kept getting were, “It may be an interesting investment opportunity, but we really don’t know.” I was by that point passionate about sustainability, and I thought, “No one has any language here around this being an imperative.”
After talking to a friend who had attended Stanford, she said, “Have you heard of Presidio?” I went up and met with some Presidians, and the rest is history.
It sounds like you’ve had a long-standing dedication to pursuing career opportunities that align with your values.
My mind tends to hone in on the big picture, and my initial thinking years ago was, “If this is real – if climate change is what it appears to be – then there’s nothing bigger. This is the story of all stories.” This sat very differently in my mental hierarchy. If you don’t have a substrate to live on, it trumps every other aspect of life.
Can you tell me a little bit about your experience as a student at Presidio and how it prepared you for the work that you’re doing now?
The one-liner is: Presidio was a blast. I was very involved while at Presidio. One of my overarching goals was to get my MBA while simultaneously looking for ideas to springboard into my own business. However, I also ended up involved with running the Clean Technology Club. I founded the Outdoors Club, which was very popular as it allowed students to enjoy one another’s company while immersing themselves in the natural environments they were working to protect.
My student experience was very busy. On the one hand, I’m trying to start a company; on the other; I’m mentally switching gears to help plan the next outdoor decompression hike. I was in C13, which was a large Presidio class with about one hundred students. My experience was fun and exhausting, leading to Muir’s formation and, eventually, to the consulting work we’re discussing today.
Is there a specific Presidio faculty member or course that stands out to you as having been particularly impactful for you and the evolution of your career?
The biggest impact was my capstone course. This is your final class that pulls everything you’ve learned and worked on together, and the challenge my cohort was presented with was to start a company. That class was definitely helpful and where I pushed the hardest to get Muir formed.
After graduation, I took a massive leap of faith and went full steam ahead with my startup. My capstone class played a significant role in that decision. I am grateful to everyone who helped support these company formation efforts.
What is it about Presidio and the work that they’re doing that makes you feel hopeful about creating change for the planet for future generations?
Times are challenging, to say the least. After graduation, I spent a lot of time emotionally coming to terms with the fact that change happens slowly. However, I think you can get down to business once you accept this and do what you need to contribute. If you’re perpetually worried, stressed, and trying to find your emotional balance with these topics, it’s tough to act. However, if you understand the challenges you’re facing and accept that progress takes time, you’re far more likely to reach the point where you’re excited to apply your skills and knowledge to make a positive long-term impact.
The key with Presidio is that the people are amazing. If you’re one of those folks worried about climate change and sustainability issues, the folks at Presidio will be in your quadrant 100 percent; one of the things that made me feel hopeful. I was lucky enough to be part of a very energetic cohort, and my classmates’ passion, energy, and resilience to endure and try to make things better for our people and planet made for a great student culture.
What advice would you give aspiring changemakers or people looking to enroll in Presidio or get into clean tech?
I would say that it’s an emotional journey, and if you’re ready to take the leap, then please do so. But also know that it is both rigorous from an academic and emotional standpoint. Presidio will force you to ask difficult questions about your values and peer groups. You’ll have thought-provoking discussions in the hallway that are very different than what you might encounter in a more conventional MBA program. I think that because of the unique nature of Presidio, students are encouraged to think about topics that many may have only dabbled in. Presidio will present you with some complex existential questions, whereas if you went to a conventional program and took a class or two with a sustainability spin, you wouldn’t have to work through these nuanced concepts near as much.
I would also say, if you’re going to spend the money and time, be completely engaged and try to get as much as you can out of it at all levels because you only get this experience once.
One last question: what comes next for you? Any specific career goals or a vision of where you’d like to direct your impact in the future?
I’m taking Pamela Gordon’s Management Consulting Skills for Sustainability Professionals course, and that’s been a great experience. Shout out to Pam for putting the class together! Pam has a ton of consulting experience. Before taking over PGS Consults, she ran her consultancy group for over 25 years. Working with and learning from someone like Pam is an excellent opportunity for Presidians, and many of my Presidio experiences and classmates have helped me formulate the idea of expanding my consulting efforts to join a team possibly. Right now, I work as a sole proprietor, so I can only bid on projects where I have the expertise. However, I’m interested in expanding my capabilities and joining a group where we could collectively pursue more interesting and impactful work as a team.
Presidio was very early to the party; they were 20-plus years ahead of other programs that are just now beginning to streamline sustainability in their MBA courses, and the demand for Presidian-type services is increasing at the highest rate I have ever seen. It definitely feels like skills and experience in areas like sustainable consulting, for example, are becoming normalized, which is a good thing. I’m excited to be a sustainability consultant right now.
Thank you to James Parle for sharing his journey as a Presidian change-maker! If you’re interested in learning more about Presidio Graduate School and how we can help you further your career in sustainability through our MBA, MPA, and dual degree programs, you can contact us today to find out more.