Interview by Howie Rhee ’04, with contributions by Vivian Chung, Lee Barnes and Michelle Zhu.
Duke I&E: Tell us about your time at Fuqua. What did you study and what were you involved in?
BP: I was very fortunate to have found such a good fit with Duke. In 2003, I had been working at JP Morgan for 3 years, was recently promoted to Vice President, and elevated to head of our small trading desk. I applied for a leadership program inside the company where they accepted 30 of their most promising employees and sponsored them for MBAs and supported them in any way they could. If it was money, you got tuition. If it was time off, you got additional paid leave for part time programs or your seat saved if you decided to go full time. If you needed both, you got both. It was amazing and I was sad to see the program discontinued as part of cost cutting.
The opportunity cost of leaving a banking job at the time was too high for me to consider a full time program, so I only looked at part time programs. That was when a colleague of mine, Warren Rabin, told me about his experience with GEMBA. I was immediately intrigued and loved what I saw; the long history of distance learning with the tools to support it; the commitment to provide a full MBA curriculum instead of a watered down executive version. And of course, the culture of Team Fuqua. At the time, Fuqua had recently launched their CCMBA program, based roughly on the GEMBA program though aimed at a slightly younger demographic. I always love checking out new things, so that was where I headed.
I have to admit that I wasn’t convinced of the value of an MBA. Having worked in the fast paced world of Wall Street for 7 years, I thought that most of the curriculum sounded like common sense. But the key value for me was actually forcing myself to sit down and take the time to read through the theory and research on topics like marketing and leadership and organizational design so that you didn’t feel left out of the conversation as senior managers would always refer back to these things. It helped teach me the lingo of management and gave me a foundation on which to stand as well as a piece of paper that told people, “Hey! This guy actually has a set of skills that can be applied in most business situations.”
Over the course of 20 months, I flew 6 times to Durham for our intense residencies, once to Seoul and once to Frankfurt. I didn’t see my friends in Tokyo, where I was living at the time, for most of this period because I was heading home Friday and Saturday nights to attend lectures and then spending weekends working on projects. But I didn’t mind at all because I had made a whole new set of lifelong friends that I really enjoyed connecting and working with. I also remember a funny time at one of the residencies when we were covering corporate finance, a couple of my classmates were struggling and couldn’t even figure out the right questions to ask, so I held an after hours session for them in the common area of the Thomas Center and did the best I could to help them out. And let’s not forget the epicenter of CCMBA social life, the Thomas Center Bar. When the work was done at 10 or 11pm, we would gather until they kicked us out because we were all so happy to spend time with each other after months apart. Never forget the power of convening.
Duke I&E: Your degree is in Chemical Engineering, but the majority of your experience lies in Finance. Was this a conscious decision or did you not have any intentions of having a career in engineering?
BP: I am an accidental banker. Growing up in Hawaii in the 80’s, my high school was 70% ethnically Japanese and Chinese and at that time, everything great in the world came out of Japan, especially if you were a teenager. All my friends were at least part Japanese. You had video games, manga, and of course, ridiculously cute J-Pop idols. I never had a chance to go to Japan so it was on the earliest bucket list I ever made, I just had to see this land of milk and honey. Every summer I returned to Hawaii working for an engineering company writing environmental impact statements and they offered me a job right out of college. I accepted but asked that they give me a year off with my first destination being Japan. I lined up opportunities there to keep me busy, teaching English, engineering internships etc. but one weekend, a friend who had graduated a few years earlier than me, rang me up out of the blue and said he would be at a job fair in Boston that was all about recruiting for positions in Japan. He asked if I could come up and interview and check it out. It was an easy train ride up, so I went. He also worked for Goldman Sachs.
I had no idea what to expect at the Disco International Career Forum, but what I got was more than I could have imagined. At 7am on a Friday, before the fair opened 30 minutes later, 6,000 students were lined up in the freezing November cold of the Boston Harbor Convention Center and when the doors opened, it was utter mayhem. I made my way to the Goldman Sachs booth and because my friend had reached out to me, he had secured an interview slot. I went in and after three 45-minute interviews, they had verbally offered me a job. Now while I would like to think I was special, what I didn’t know (and Malcolm Gladwell would probably smile at this one) was that in 1996, this was the peak war for talent between Wall Street and Silicon Valley and they were snatching up whomever they could that had any kind of technical degree. The banks offered cash and training programs. The startups offered equity and T-shirts. All I could see were my student loans, so I took the cash. That’s how I ended up heading to Japan as a banker and falling in love with the place and the job and the rest is history.
Duke I&E: You currently work for The Energy Excelerator. Tell us about the company.
BP: The Energy Excelerator is a non-profit late-stage accelerator that recruits the best clean energy entrepreneurs to use Hawaii as a test bed for their ideas and provides them money, networks and mentors. We only focus on commercialization and do not fund further research, so your widget needs to be done before you come to us. We have two tracks, an earlier stage track we call Go-To-Market and a later stage track we call Demonstration and the key difference between the two tracks is whether or not you’ve sold your product, i.e. have customer traction. For Go-To-Market companies, we provide $75,000 for the team to come to Hawaii and follow a Steve Blank-inspired customer discovery program that helps companies really hone their value proposition and product to close that first sale. For Demonstration companies, we will provide up to $1,000,000 in cost share on a demonstration project that is meaningful to the State of Hawaii, meaningful to the project partner, and helps propel the company to the next level. We ask for a small amount (currently 1%) of the company’s equity as a donation in exchange for the support we provide.
Our program is funded primarily by the US Navy who wants to support the rapid commercialization of technologies to help them achieve their energy goals, and we also have support from the US Department of Energy and State of Hawaii. On the private side, we are supported by Hawaiian Electric Industries, Denso, Mathworks and Blackstone. In total we deploy about $6 million every year and our grant funding is expected to run through at least 2018. The Energy Excelerator receives almost 300 applications every year and we target 15 companies in each year’s cohort, split evenly between Tracks. We look for non-overlapping companies to our current existing portfolio and recruit for not just electricity, smart grid, and efficiency companies, but companies that work with systems that heavily impact the overall energy system like water, agriculture, transportation and security.
Duke I&E: Tell us what types of things your role entails. What are you responsible for?
BP: My title is Manager of Strategic Partnerships. In September of 2013, when the Energy Excelerator received it’s grant from the US Navy, it allowed the organization to step back and think more strategically. The decision was made to move to a 50/50 public/private partnership model by 2018. They needed someone to help develop a private money strategy and then execute it. It was a perfect fit for me. When I returned to Hawaii in 2013, I was working with a partner here and others on the mainland to raise a royalty-based small business loan fund. While we were successful in raising capital, it wasn’t enough to justify a regional office in Hawaii so I needed something else to do while that gestated in the continental U.S.. I continued to look for something that utilized my financial experience, was within the innovation space, and had a social impact. The Energy Excelerator position offered me the opportunity to do all that, with the added bonus of returning me to my chemical engineering/environmental science roots. It couldn’t have been a better fit.
We have had a lot of success over the past 18 months on the private side. We have three private money initiatives. The first is the equity that our portfolio companies donate back to our program. The second is corporate partnerships. In the past year we have welcomed on board 4 corporate strategic sponsors, Hawaiian Electric Industries, Denso, Mathworks and Blackstone which have contributed nearly $5 million in cash, services and products to our efforts. An investment fund to support both our program and our companies is the last piece. We are currently raising a $3 million proof of concept fund that should close by the end of March 2015 with an eye of scaling that to $30 million next year.
Duke I&E: Thinking back to when you were a student, were there things you wished you’d done differently to prepare for your career? And what did you do as a student that you are glad you did?
BP: I don’t think I would have done anything differently as a student because I loved my experience in chemical engineering and I was able to cross-list enough classes to fulfill my pre-med requirements and took as many finance classes as I could. However, I do wish I had one piece of advice which might have allowed me to make a more informed decision. Very often universities respond to the business community. Often, there is an innovation which creates a whole new industry that scales rapidly and quickly outgrows the existing talent pool. Industry then turns to universities to help provide the talent pipeline they need to keep growing. Universities then design new programs and new majors to respond to the call to provide really good candidates. I did not understand that dynamic and if I had known that, one of the questions I would have asked a university admissions officer would be, “What are your newest departments/degrees/programs, why are you setting them up, and what industry are you developing these pipelines for?” Understanding why a University is doing something is important. Very often by the time you matriculate, these will be the hottest fields to be in and your talent will be in demand. If these new programs are something you love, understanding why the world needs them, helps you to get comfortable that you will have opportunities even though you are taking a path few have traveled before.
Duke I&E: You’ve lived and worked all over the world, including time spent in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Hawaii. What has been your favorite place to live thus far and why? Would you recommend international job placement for current Fuqua students?
BP: Every place I have lived has been perfect for that stage in my life. I was 21 when I got to Tokyo and it was everything I dreamed and more. It was vibrant, diverse, and overwhelming. In a city of 22 million people, there is critical mass for any idea to have a following and people found each other through all the chaos. I can’t count the number of times I had to remind myself to go to sleep because there was always something to do with incredibly cool people at all hours. The city did not have a pause button. I also spent the first years of my marriage in Japan and it was also perfect because instead of exploring Tokyo, we began to hop on bullet trains and explore all the other amazing cities and towns that are in Japan. When we moved to Hong Kong, we now had all of Southeast Asia at our doorstep. Almost every Friday night we would head to Hong Kong International airport and fly off to a new city for the weekend. Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, mainland China, Taiwan, Philippines, Cambodia – I visited all of these places and had amazing adventures. And then after our two wonderful sons were born, Hong Kong came forward as a city of convenience. You don’t understand how densely packed Hong Kong is until you realize that you never have to walk more than 10 minutes to reach a doctor, grocery store, school, work or entertainment. When you have two kids under two years old, that convenience in invaluable. Lastly I have returned to Hawaii to raise my kids. There is no place like this on earth and I feel truly blessed to have grown up here and I want to provide my children the same experience. Blue skies, warm weather, the beach never being more than 10 minutes away, are all wonderful aspects of Hawaii, but more importantly it is the culture, the respect for nature and family and friends, that truly matters and the idea that we are all only one degree of separation apart working together to make this community in the middle of the Pacific work.
Duke I&E: Anything else you would like to share with students?
BP: Enjoy this time. I have never before seen such energy and resources being deployed to revitalize and expand the entrepreneurial spirit that America has always been known for but we forget from time to time when we get stuck in a rut of steady 2% inflation. The energy is intoxicating. Universities like Duke have incredible programs like DukeGEN and EDGE that let you major in determining your own destiny. You have maker bots and hackathons and incubators, all these things which have now gone mainstream to support this resurgence and wonderful things are happening. Keep the momentum going!
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Duke I&E @EshipAtDuke
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