The Climate Leaders Program for Professional Students at Harvard is a student-led, faculty-advised program for Masters and professional students across all Harvard graduate schools, developed in partnership with the Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE). This program provides students with a hands-on opportunity to engage with others across Harvard who share a professional interest in climate-related work, to mentor one another in their development as practitioners, and to develop professional skills and relationships that support their future careers. In 2022-2023, three HBS students were welcomed into the program, Daniel Tong, Henry Tao, and Jenny Gao, and we spoke with them about their experience.

Tell us a little about yourself and what your interest in climate related issues are.

Jenny Gao: I’m originally from the Seattle area and grew up tending to the backyard vegetable garden with my parents and going to national parks with my family, so I have always had an appreciation for nature and the environment around me. I started my career as an investor at Bessemer Venture Partners, focusing largely on early stage enterprise and consumer software businesses. But in addition to my interests in tech and startups, I have also always been passionate about politics and government. In 2020, I left my VC job and joined the Biden-Harris Transition Team, before continuing on to join the White House team after inauguration. I spent the first year in office preparing the President’s daily briefing book, which meant I helped coordinate and review every briefing and decision memo that President Biden read. This job gave me comprehensive insight into all of the biggest issues facing the nation. And more importantly, it crystallized for me how almost every issue, whether it’s national security or immigration or healthcare, all had climate implications and required climate considerations. So, for my next role, I joined the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and worked on a climate and energy policy portfolio. Through all these experiences, I’ve learned how important it is to apply systems-level thinking to climate issues and solutions.

Henry Tao: I grew up on a small farm in the middle of China. Reflecting on my childhood experience, I've always been passionate about sustainability and preserving the environment. I started my career at a global agribusiness company where I had the opportunity to work with farmers in Europe, the United States, and Southeast Asia. Later, I transitioned into venture capital investing, specifically focusing on tech startups across the Agri-Food value chain. Through these experiences, my interest in climate-related issues grew, particularly from an agricultural perspective.

Daniel Tong: I am Brazilian, grew up in São Paulo, and majored in Chemical Engineering, even though I never worked in the space. I started my career at J.P. Morgan in investment banking, covering Latin America, and later moved to Cosan, a large Brazilian energy and infrastructure conglomerate, where I was working on natural gas and renewable projects before HBS. Currently, I am exploring many areas inside the climate space and mostly interested in the energy transition and hard-to-decarbonize sectors.

What inspired you to apply for the Climate Leaders Program?

Jenny Gao: I was motivated to apply because I wanted to engage with students from other grad schools and hear about their experiences around addressing climate change. Climate change is such an interdisciplinary issue that I thought it would be very valuable to understand perspectives from other industries and disciplines. It’s also nice to get out of the HBS bubble every once in a while.

Henry Tao: I was motivated to apply to the Climate Leaders Program for two main reasons. Firstly, I wanted to expand my knowledge into other climate verticals, such as energy, transportation, and construction. I saw CLP as a unique platform to collaborate with future leaders from diverse backgrounds. Secondly, I wanted to learn how to address climate challenges from non-business perspectives, such as public policy, climate advocacy, and climate justice.

Daniel Tong: My interest in climate change grew during the RC year and after my summer internship at FirstElement Fuel, a hydrogen cleantech start-up in California. I wanted to know everything that was being discussed in the space. No better opportunity than to meet people working in climate and from different grad programs around Harvard. The multi-disciplinary aspect of the program attracted me since climate change is such a broad topic.

What are some of the benefits of joining the program?

Jenny Gao: One of the main benefits is getting to have dinner with interesting practitioners, advocates, and policymakers – from the former First Lady of Costa Rica, who spearheaded the country’s national decarbonization plan, to the NYT Travel Editor – we get to engage with a variety of people all thinking about climate issues. There have also been a couple workshops that are interactive and have focused on functional skills such as negotiations. These have been great because they have been tailored with a climate lens, so for example, the negotiations one was paired with a discussion with the lead UK COP negotiator.

Henry Tao: The CLP provides unparalleled networking opportunities. As an HBS student, I rarely had the chance to connect with students from other schools. Through CLP, I was able to meet a diverse group of individuals with unique experiences, intellectual curiosity, and a shared commitment to addressing climate challenges. Additionally, as a student-run program, CLP allows every member to shape the learning experience and drive topics of their interest.

Daniel Tong: No doubt is the people you meet. People from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds, all working towards one objective. Not only from a networking perspective, but also personally, I made life-long friends that are very special to me. Speakers are also a great resource from the program – people from the university, government, civil society organizations, private sector.

What was the most memorable part of the program for you?

Jenny Gao: The Harvard Forest retreat was a highlight – it was really great to escape from campus to the Forest for the weekend. We were able to engage in this amazing tour to learn about all of the exciting research work happening at the Forest. It was also a great way to launch this cohort and have extended discussions about what we wanted to get out of the program and how we could help each other with our respective climate work and journeys.

Henry Tao: The team launch at Harvard Forest was a definite highlight! Being immersed in nature, participating in team-building activities, and engaging in thoughtful discussions about climate change with my peers was an unforgettable experience.

Daniel Tong: Definitely the retreat we had at the Harvard Forest. It was a shared moment to bond with each other and reflect on our individual work towards climate. It was also special to walk around the forest, connect with nature, and see so many academic field research and experiments.

Authors at the Harvard Forest.

How do plan to use your career and experience at HBS to help create a more sustainable world?

Jenny Gao: It’s been great to take a step back throughout this HBS experience and take the time to grapple with this exact question. Tackling climate issues requires an immense amount of work to be done across both the public and private sector, often times working hand in hand together, and I’m sure I will continue have different answers at different stages of my career. I am currently exploring what type of impact I can have as an operator within climate tech startups. But, in the medium or long term, I could see myself returning to the investing side focused on climate or back in a public sector / government role.

Henry Tao: Moving forward, I plan to continue working in the climate space, either as an investor or by joining a growth-stage climate tech startup after graduation. Through my experiences with BEI and CLP, I've realized that addressing climate change requires more than just technological advancements and capital funding. We need a business model that can incentivize engagement across sectors and communities. I hope to not only push technological advancements, but also ensure the social engagement of vulnerable members of society, such as farmers.

Daniel Tong: After graduating I will go back to Brazil. I believe the country has enormous potential to lead emerging markets into the new green economy. HBS has opened my eyes to the world and all it’s possibilities and complexities. It was also a moment for me and my wife to understand how we want our family and careers to grow. Now, I wish to continue my work in clean energy and help develop my country towards a more sustainable future with less carbon.