An Intimate Interview with Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) 1 Hotels Fellows Jock Gilchrist and Vanessa Perkins

Apr 07, 2021 • Views -

Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) is a national, nonpartisan group of business leaders, investors, and professionals from every sector of the economy who advocate for policies that are good for the economy and good for the environment. The 1 Hotels Fellowship at E2 is designed to support early to mid-career businesspeople who seek to tackle pressing environmental issues through independent projects that are good for the economy and good for the environment. Six selected fellows will receive $20,000 each for their projects and work with E2 staff and advocates to design and implement them for the 2021-2022 program cycle.

ProFellow founder Dr. Vicki Johnson recently had the opportunity to speak with two E2 1 Hotels Fellows about their experiences.  Jock Gilchrist was a Fellow in 2020. He is currently a Policy Analyst at The Climate Center and a Research Fellow at Natural Capitalism Solutions. Vanessa Perkins completed the fellowship in 2018 and is an energy efficiency consultant in Chicago and the founder of Community Charging, an Illinois non-profit that seeks to fill public electric vehicle (EV) charging deserts in Chicago and promote electric vehicle EV education. 

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

First, I want to know a little bit more about each of you, so we can share with the audience, your background. So I’m going to ask each of you first, tell us a little bit about your professional and even academic backgrounds leading up until the time that you applied for the award. And Vanessa, if you want to start, we’ll start with you.

Vanessa Perkins:

Sure. So I am in the field of clean energy sustainability. I studied climate change energy in school and wanted to have a job in the energy efficiency field. And so I moved to Chicago in 2017, working with a utility energy efficiency program, where I would go out into the community and do site visits to look for energy efficiency opportunities. This actually inspired the fellowship because of that customer engagement. I had to drive for work around the Chicago land area. And so I was looking at used electric vehicles because they were very affordable, and I wanted to drive electric to benefit from the lower maintenance costs. And then that made me think, “Oh, I can’t own one because I have street parking and nowhere nearby in my community to charge affordably.”

And then that led to my thinking about this project that just kind of formed in my head, before I learned about the E2 fellowship, which was, why doesn’t every neighborhood have a neighbor that can provide charging, or why don’t some of the sites that I’m going to look for energy efficiency consider putting up EV chargers, as well locally. So that’s kind of how I was inspired by the energy efficiency work I was doing with the utility programs to then apply to the E2 fellowship with the community charging project.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Oh, fantastic. And how long were you working in the field before that in this particular area?

Vanessa Perkins:

I think a year and a half.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Year and a half. Okay, great. Jock, tell us a little bit about your background leading up until the fellowship.

Jock Gilchrist:

Sure. So in college I studied neuroscience and then for a couple of years after I graduated, I was in the healthcare world. And then around my mid-twenties, I pivoted to climate change. And I think that was 2017. I started working for a climate change nonprofit in California and loved it. And we were really policy-focused and my interest is in the policy side of things. And so I really loved working there and that inspired me to apply to grad school. So I got a Master’s in Climate Policy from Johns Hopkins and moved to Colorado. And currently, I just finished the Master’s Degree in December. So I was doing the Master’s throughout the E2 fellowship.

Currently, I’m working as a Climate Policy Analyst. Regarding the E2 fellowship, I was a fellow in 2020, I applied in 2019, and my topic area was regenerative agriculture. My interest in that came from working at an organization here in Colorado called Natural Capitalism Solutions. And the founder of that, Hunter Lovins, is a huge advocate for regenerative economics and regenerative agriculture. So that’s what sparked my interest, and yeah, I was fortunate to be able to explore that further through the fellowship.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Oh, fantastic. Well, let’s dig in on the projects that you proposed. Maybe the projects changed a little bit once you were on the fellowship, but what did each of you initially propose? I think Vanessa, you mentioned a little bit about your project, but what did you propose in your application back in 2018?

Vanessa Perkins:

Sure. I am a builder or like to make things happen, like, physical things happen. I originally proposed building charging stations in neighborhoods in urban residential Chicago that don’t have them. They would be privately owned and leverage the sharing economy so that local EV drivers, renters, neighbors could use them. Then the scope changed when I had the fellowship to more doing a feasibility analysis and conducting surveys and learning more about, thinking a little bit more about the design, what technology we have currently, what technology we can anticipate. It kind of created a roadmap and a spatial analysis survey results that showed, yes, go forth, community chargers would be very beneficial and there was a huge opportunity for it that could actually be implemented pretty cost-effectively.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Great. Jock, tell us a little bit more about your project, what you proposed, and maybe if it changed at all. Tell us a little bit about that.

Jock Gilchrist:

My project did end up changing a bit, but what I proposed was essentially a research project and a video on regenerative agriculture. My motivation for that was it’s a very exciting field because it’s really just in the last year or two, there started to be a ton of state-level policy activity, and more activity at the federal level. To be fair, this is something that indigenous land stewards have been doing for generations, so it’s not new, but it’s coming into sort of mainstream attention. I wanted to basically try to synthesize all that information, and I’m kind of a researcher in my training, and I wanted to summarize the benefits of regenerative agriculture. There are so many, all backed up by science. I also wanted to put the sort of unique E2 perspective on it, which is, this is also good for business. This isn’t just an environmentally smart idea. 

The goal was to produce a research paper summarizing the business case and exploring mechanisms to drive its adoption through the markets and through government policies. The part that changed was that I did not end up doing the video. It got to be that the research paper was a way bigger beast than I expected it to be. It just took a huge amount of time and effort to produce, and so I let the video go. There are good videos out there and I wasn’t sure I could really add a ton of value by doing another one. 

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Oh, interesting. So through the fellowship, you kind of figured out what was going to work. I should mention, yes, that with this fellowship, because it’s a project-based fellowship, it’s something you were doing part-time because you were a full-time student, and Vanessa, it sounds like you were working full time during that period. So this is like an added thing that you’re doing with this project award. So kudos for fitting this in, into your free time. 

How did you work with E2 and their partners to execute your projects? What sort of mentorship and support systems and resources do they provide beyond just the $20,000 award?

Vanessa Perkins:

I’ll go first. Having the resources of E2 and NRDC and professionals in, for example, the electric vehicle space and the clean energy space vet my project and act as support has been great. As you talk to people and survey people, especially back in 2018, there’s a lot of misunderstandings about the technology, for example, and there’s a learning curve with it.  Having experts to fall back on to help counter some of the thoughts that I might encounter about this not being a good idea and helping drive the design of this potential community charging project was really helpful.

We were working full time. The scope was reduced, but it was still a ton of work. Being able to easily connect to people to ask for help as-needed or easily connect to someone who could also just be a cheerleader for you, and not just vet you, but also be like, that’s awesome, keep it going, even when you’re kind of burned out and tired, was really helpful too, through the mentors and through the connections through to E2.

Jock Gilchrist:

I had a similar experience, a really, really positive support network through E2. So Susan Nedell is my sort of regional E2 advocate, and I had monthly meetings with her. She was just super helpful in fleshing out ideas and talking about what’s feasible, as my project was sort of morphing over the course of the year. Bouncing ideas off her was awesome. And every E2 fellow has a regional advocate that they work with. 

I was also really, really fortunate to have a really good E2 mentor and that was Paul Zorner, an agronomist. He’s got years of experience working in the business side of agriculture. He’s also a professor, and so he also knows the technical stuff. I could ask him questions about soil and stuff. He was hugely helpful in introducing me to other people that he thought I should talk to. Some of the most valuable parts of my fellowship, I would say, came from the connections that he made. So that mentorship experience was really invaluable. 

There were other people in the E2 network that I came into contact with that were all great. The E2 team, Gail Parson and Marcus Rodriguez, are super helpful. They paired each fellow with an NRDC contact and I worked with Arohi Sharma, and she was also great. I can’t speak highly enough about all of the support from these people that I received.

Vanessa Perkins:

Jock, you’re in the Rocky Mountain region, right? That’s your E2 chapter?

Jock Gilchrist:

Right.

Vanessa Perkins:

I want to add on the really great thing. I’m in the Midwest region and so Micaela Preskill is my E2 advocate for that region. And what’s really great about it–and she also did an awesome job–

is having those regional connections made, which is really helpful too, especially from the electric vehicle stance where adoption is very strong on the coast, still in progress on policy and adoption in the Midwest. Having that regional connection was very valuable.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Great. I want to ask all of you about the experience of applying to this fellowship. How did you prepare for your applications? And is there anything that you know now that you wish you would have known during the process of applying? And I think a lot of candidates would be interested to hear this.

Jock Gilchrist:

I can jump in here. I think my application–maybe this is sort of unusual–felt pretty straightforward. And I actually, I think I mentioned this to you, Vicki, but some of your tips on ProFellow were really helpful to me as I put together a good application. I was pretty happy with how it turned out. 

One thing that I felt was important was really framing the importance of your project, maybe telling a bit of a story about why this is meaningful to you and making it clear how you’re going to add value. Being able to help take a step forward in that field or add something of value to it, making a case for that sort of in advance, I think is an important thing in the application.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Definitely.

Vanessa Perkins:

One thing that I think I told you already is that the scope of my project was reduced. And so when you think of this fellowship that is meant to support you part-time in addition to what you’re doing full time. It’s important to think of the scope of the project and how you can still do a good job and make something that’s scalable and meaningful with the time that you’re given. If I had thought a little bit more about the scope and some of the skills needed if I were to do a bigger scope or had more time, if I were to do a bigger scope versus a smaller demonstration project, that could be very meaningful and scalable, but it could not have been done well within the constraints of the fellowship.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Yeah. Absolutely. Feasibility is important. And it’s a $20,000 award and it’s something you’re doing part-time, but luckily you get the support of the whole organization. So, that’s really important. And I liked what you said, Jock, about really honing in on the social impact that you’re going to make as a fellow and then ongoing. You know, one thing I always tell candidates too, is to really hone in on what’s the mission of this organization and of the fellowship. What do you think is the mission of this particular fellowship program now that you’ve experienced it?

Vanessa Perkins:

I guess for me, what I saw this as was an opportunity to show how your project should showcase business opportunity and financial opportunity as well as environmental benefits and environmental opportunity and community resilience. And again, E2 emphasizes that what’s good for the economy should be good for the environment. In thinking of a project, I was also thinking about job creation opportunities, local job creation opportunities, job training opportunities, the ecosystem that it would affect, salespeople, used car markets, and then also other benefits like climate change, but also air pollution impacts, cost reduction. I think pulling some numbers together too, from both of those sides–environments and economies–was really helpful and what I interpreted the fellowship’s purpose to be.

Jock Gilchrist:

Yeah, I was thinking something similar. Like what’s really unique about E2 is they’ve got this dual focus on good for the economy, good for the environment. Traditionally those things are kind of disparate or they’re held separately, but really they’re not. I felt like the point, part of the point of the fellowship was to support young professionals who have good ideas that sort of marry these two areas of the world that need to be working together with projects that are promising and exciting. 

There’s no way that I would have been able to pursue something like this without the support of E2. It gives an opportunity for people with good ideas in this field to execute it. And that’s not really, I mean, speaking for myself at least, I wouldn’t have been able to do that without this fellowship. So I think it really gives an opportunity for these ideas to come to life.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Oh, I love that. And that’s actually a perfect segue into my next question. We know what the impact is for supporting these projects on the wider community and the stakeholders, but how about for each of you personally, what did you get most out of this opportunity that you feel is going to benefit you and your careers in the long term?

Vanessa Perkins:

I mean, the network is amazing. Like you just said, Jock, the E2 network, the NRDC network, and the people that they touch, is so beneficial long-term. And also, for me doing this project and doing this fellowship also made me more aware of policy and the importance of staying up to date quicker, better, and faster to think of the policy context of my work and set goals accordingly. I think just having the network and also the experience too, of thinking of a project, revising the scope, adapting to change, checking in with experts, and having that mentorship, that vetting, was hugely beneficial to my confidence as well, and just identification as being entrepreneurial and being capable of being entrepreneurial. So yeah, I will definitely take that away from this fellowship.

Jock Gilchrist:

Building on that, I totally agree. It was definitely a confidence-building experience, and a lot of that comes through the E2 network, people that are there to support you, and the contacts and connections that I made through these projects. There are so many people, so many interesting, accomplished people that were willing to speak with me. I think being a fellow maybe opens a door a little bit to having conversations with people. So that was super valuable. I think that will continue benefiting me. There was also the opportunity to make the final product, which was a report. It’s meant to be a policy-relevant report. So my hope is that it’s able to influence and support policymakers and advocates who want to see regenerative agriculture expand rapidly. Just having the opportunity to make a contribution like that is really meaningful too.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s awesome. I’m glad to hear that. I think what a lot of people get out of a fellowship experience is a network that is so beneficial throughout a career. What are the two of you doing next or doing now, or what are you working on? And it doesn’t have to be related to this fellowship. I’m just curious to see what you as professionals are embarking on. Go for it, Vanessa.

Vanessa Perkins:

Okay. I am still working in the energy efficiency space as my full-time job, but we can see now renewables, energy efficiency, EV with a lot of policy in Illinois. A lot of policy we’re in we’re just seeing all this coming out at the federal level. These are all going to be connected. And so with this established E2 network and E2 experience, I am actively engaged with E2 still and doing whatever I can to kind of keep up with EV charging technology, electric vehicle models, and regional policies that are happening in Illinois. I’m really excited about the Clean Energy Jobs Act that is supposed to pass in Illinois that will actually have EV access for all components to help boost equity in the electric vehicle space as well. Also, outside of work, I’m now building the community chargers with EVmatch through the Keeling Curve Prize, which is really cool.

So the fellowship kind of let me design this potential pilot and design and think about what types of equipment technology would be ideal for small neighborhood hosts. Now, we have two community chargers built in Chicago, and we’re working on our third one. We also have an official map from the City of Chicago and Clean Cities Coalition of actual charging deserts, which is now like an actual term that people recognize is charging desert, which is what I was initially trying to do with the fellowship. It’s really exciting to see all this awareness now in Chicago and in the Midwest region.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That is exciting. I think I’m in a charging desert in the middle of Oregon here, so I’m excited to see your work come out to where we are. Jock, how about you?

Jock Gilchrist:

Sure. That’s really exciting, Vanessa. So, like I mentioned, I finished my Master’s Degree in December and my degree is in Climate Change Policy. I have a job as a Climate Policy Analyst, but the cool thing that is my organization has a big focus on major-based climate solutions and regenerative agriculture is a huge part of that. So we’re working on state-level policies to fight climate change more broadly, but also to advance regenerative agriculture and nature-based carbon sequestration. So I kind of get to use some of the knowledge I gained there.

And I also, maybe I should knock on wood, but I’m hoping, if a lot of things come together, to apply for a Fulbright this year. We’ll see if it ends up coming together, but this fellowship sort of was encouraging on that front. I have a background in research and managing research projects, so doing the independent sort of work of designing and executing a project is something I love. And especially getting international experience is something I want. So just sort of skimming on that. Beyond that, here in Colorado, there’s a lot of soil health policy activity going on and I’m involved in a couple of groups there and just trying to stay involved and move things forward on the policy level.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Oh, that’s great. I can tell that you both really leveraged your fellowship experience to get to where you are now. So, that’s just really good to hear. So I’m sure that if Gail and Marcus were here, they would be just singing your praises as fellows. So, that’s great. I’m going to wrap this up, but I just want to, is there any last parting advice that you’d like to give to applicants? The next deadline is May 15, 2021, and so people are working on their applications now. Any kind of brief parting advice that you would give?

Vanessa Perkins:

I think just doing the process of the application is kind of inspiring for yourself. It makes you think about something that you could be very capable with and be capable of and imagine yourself as an entrepreneur. I think they’re good questions and they’re good prompts. 

In putting together the application, I had to do some due diligence and research and learned a lot, after thinking I knew some stuff. Yeah, I would encourage you to apply and it’s a great opportunity. And even if you don’t get it, I think it’s just a good thing to do for yourself and think about. It’s always worth also just exploring being a member of E2 as well.

Jock Gilchrist:

Yeah. I’ll just second that, yeah. I don’t know if I have anything more to add beyond that. I think it’s just really valuable exercise to try to make your ideas presentable to other people, package them well, and really think them through. The application is super valuable in itself, and if you get selected, it’s a fantastic experience. So yeah, I would just definitely encourage people to go for it.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Great. Well, thank you both so much for taking time out of your schedules today to speak with us about the fellowship, your experience, the application process. I think this is going to be one of the biggest application cycles they’ve had yet. I think your advice that you’ve given is going to be really helpful for people moving forward. Thank you so much and good luck on your ongoing projects in this field. Thank you for serving us in helping communities build these sustainability practices.

Interesting in applying? Completed applications to E2 must be submitted by May 15, 2021 at 5:00 p.m. CST. To be considered, please submit a resume and fill out the questions in the application portal, describing your project, how it will advance environmental sustainability or clean economy policies, and how you plan to accomplish this project.

Jock Gilchrist was a 2020 1Hotels Fellow with E2. He is currently a Policy Analyst at The Climate Center and a Research Fellow at Natural Capitalism Solutions. He holds an M.S. in Environmental Science and Policy, with a concentration in climate change policy, from Johns Hopkins University. His previous research has focused on electric vehicles, theory of change, ecological rationality, and the psychology of social change. He is an avid musician and outdoorsman and lives in Boulder, Colorado.  

Vanessa Perkins is an energy efficiency consultant in Chicago and the founder of Community Charging, an Illinois non-profit that seeks to utilize existing infrastructure in residential neighborhoods to fill public electric vehicle (EV) charging deserts in Chicago and promote electric vehicle EV education. As a 2019 Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) 1Hotels Fellow, Vanessa leveraged her experience in energy efficiency outreach to research and design a model for a community-owned EV charging network based in the sharing economy. After assessing the need and opportunity for such a network, she teamed up with the peer-to-peer charging platform EVmatch to start building out community chargers (funded through the Keeling Curve Prize). Vanessa has lived in Chicago since 2017 (from California originally) is an apartment dweller and used EV owner (with street parking only). She enjoys playing music, spending time with friends and family (virtual or masked/outside/at a distance), and learning from other folks in the Midwest clean energy and environmental space (especially through E2!).

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