Laura Sees Green

September 17, 2015

Text by Charlotte Gaeng

swissnex San Francisco Associate Director Laura Erickson is taking on a new, green challenge. Formerly the Head of Administration and Finance, she will now manage the sustainability strategy for swissnex and use her expertise to strengthen and empower our sustainability programming and partnerships.

Sustainability might be a trendy concept, but Laura considers it a necessity for an organization that cares about research, education, and innovation.

That’s one of the reasons she enrolled, in fall of 2011, at the Presidio Graduate School and earned her MBA in sustainable management.

Now, she’s using her expertise to launch SAFT – Energy Startup Solutions for 2050. The SAFT challenge invites startups to apply under three main themes: smart cities, distributed generation, and energy efficiency. Laura takes the stage in Switzerland at the SwissECS (Energy Climate Summit) to announce the competition along with partners Impact Hub Fellowship and Impact Hub Zürich.

We sat down with Laura to ask her more about her new role, what it means for swissnex, and what motivates her:


Q. Why did you decide to start the “green MBA” at the Presidio Graduate School?

A. I was motivated by the school’s reputation for excellence in sustainability curriculum. You talk about sustainability really in every class, from accounting to product development. I had taken a Managing Innovation course at Stanford earlier that year and at some point I realized that sustainability will be the driver of innovation, if it’s not already. It will be because it has to be.

I was also interested to learn business fundamentals, which I had never studied even though I always performed those functions at work. I figured that a green MBA would be a wise investment in the future.

Q. What is challenging with this new job? What is new?

A. Everything is different! So far, the main difference is that I’ve gone from financial and administrative work that is mostly reactive and concerned primarily with preserving value in the long-term, to prospecting and collaboration work that is proactively attempting to create new value.

The challenge is to define a simple definition for what sustainability means for swissnex San Francisco in particular, and for the Swiss-US relationship at the macro scale.

I mean, sustainability has relevance for literally every discipline in existence. So focusing is a challenge because there are so many different types of projects that we could pursue under “sustainability”. For the time being, I’m focusing on system-level innovations with the greatest potential to radically transform business as usual, so I’ve been concentrating on energy, finance, and leadership.

That’s where SAFT comes in. It’s a startup challenge to get entrepreneurs in Switzerland to be an important part of finding solutions to climate change.

Q. swissnex is moving into Pier 17 next year, surrounded by the water. Does that weigh into your thinking on sustainability programming?

A. Yes it does. I came across a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) showing that by the year 2030 there will already be regular intertidal flooding due to climate change in the waterfront areas adjacent to Pier 17.

The tangibility of climate change kind of came together for me after that, realizing that our lease goes through 2025 and the scientists have been shown to be conservative in their forecasts, so maybe we’ll even see that evidence during our tenancy.

Knowing that we have an ideal window at Pier 17 to the rising waters and a reputation for hosting important conversations for society makes me believe that swissnex San Francisco can play an important role in advancing sustainability.

Q. What else are you working on?

A. It’s too early to say for sure but I’m hoping to create a forum for learning and research exchange about the food-water-energy nexus. That term refers to the highly interlinked nature of those three critical resources and represents a transdisciplinary way of approaching knowledge creation and use.

I’d also like to establish a fellowship for researchers and practitioners in the sustainable finance, or impact investing space. And there will also be more actions linked to entrepreneurship and helping leaders tap into the internal and external resources that can sustain them to make responsible decisions. I did a first project along those lines earlier this year with the Collaborative Leadership Lab. In other words, there’s more to come.