BEI is delighted to bring you this mini-series on HBS alumni tackling problems related to water and climate change. Emotional and visible connection to a topic is key to driving action. There seem to be few issues and topics that conjure up greater personal connection and emotion – to family, to place, or to community – than water. We hope these stories showcase a range of ways in which some alumni have connected their bond with water to action in the business world. Thank you for reading, and please share your stories with us at! – Lynn Schenk, BEI Director

Climate Story #19: Nicole Neeman Brady (MBA 2008): The Critical Role of Business in Tackling Water Challenges

“Water is a human right. It’s shocking that the United States did not sign on to the 2010 United Nations Proclamation on Water and Sanitation, but California did.” – Nicole Neeman Brady

Nicole Neeman Brady is a passionate advocate for businesses to engage in water innovation and governance.

Since her graduation from HBS in 2008, Nicole has been at the forefront of the interrelated water and power industries. For nearly five years, Nicole served on the Board of Commissioners for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the largest public utility in the United States with more than $6 billion in revenue, some 12,000 employees, and, arguably, the most complex water system in the world. She left that position in March 2024 and continues to focus on sustainable water and energy solutions in her ongoing board capacities.

Steeped in the knowledge of what does and does not work in the quest for safe, reliable, and affordable drinking water, Nicole has been working to overcome the repeated challenges that governmental agencies face when addressing numerous, imminent water crises. She commented, “We are not running out of water – we are running out of cheap, plentiful, reliable and clean water.”

Nicole puts the challenges into five buckets: (i) Scarcity and Variability, (ii) Quality and Pollution, (iii) Infrastructure and Needed Investment, (iv) Innovation, and (v) Fragmented Regulatory and Governance Issues.

Pointing out the need for unified oversight similar to the Department of Energy, she said, “If I had a magic wand, I would create a centralized U.S. entity to tackle water issues. There is no Department of Water. Instead, we have numerous disparate entities all regulating different aspects of water. For example, we have the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This poses structural impediments to coordination and progress and creates lots of headwinds to providing unified oversight and direction-setting for water.”

For those who are interested in finding solutions, Nicole recommends Stanford Professor Barton H. Thompson’s new book, “Liquid Asset: How Business and Government Can Partner to Solve the Freshwater Crisis.” Like Nicole, Thompson noted the historic power of the energy lobby and the power missing from the water lobby. The energy sector, Thompson said, “ dominated by private companies that are developing new technologies and implementing them with public support. Between 2001–14, governments in the U.S. provided about $8 billion of funding to develop new energy technologies; in the water field, it was $28 million. If we want to know how to solve water challenges, we can look at what the energy sector has done.”

Nicole feels that the United States could, and should, emulate the excellent water examples of Israel and especially Singapore in creating offices with the specific task of promoting water innovation. “Singapore has roughly the same GDP as just Los Angeles alone. Yet, since 2002, the country has spent over $670 million in over six hundred water projects throughout the world.” Nicole added, “I have been advocating for a similar water hub in the U.S. to address things like plastics contamination in water, smart irrigation, and advanced water treatment. The U.S. has a water innovation deficit and we are not solving our own problems.“

Nicole was not substantially buoyed by the Biden administration’s May 2024 mandate that municipal water systems remove six synthetic chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems from tap water. PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances) are better known as “forever chemicals” and at a minimum, the EPA’s cost of compliance is estimated at $1.5 Billion per year for water utilities.

“PFAS are not uniformly painful issues for all water systems,” Nicole said. “For example, Los Angeles already exceeds the compliance standards set in May by the EPA.” Instead, Nicole worried that the new regulations ignore PFAS or other contaminants in bottled water and other drinks. Somewhat in jest, she said that she had proposed “that we set up billboards in Los Angeles with the message, ‘LA Dept. of Water and Power - Serving Plastics-free Drinking Water for 100 Years.’”

With limited governmental progress, Nicole emphasized that our collective freshwater crisis needs private efforts. She believes businesses have a pivotal role in addressing these challenges. “By leveraging their resources, expertise, and influence, businesses can drive significant positive change.”

As an experienced impact investor and entrepreneur in a series of water-related companies, Nicole has high hopes about “the business of water.” She serves as an advisor to Climate Story #18 Tom Ferguson’s Burnt Island Ventures and the water accelerator, ImagineH20. She agreed with Tom’s list of water industry investment opportunities: "sanitation, water pipe repair and replacement, wastewater treatment, increasing access to and efficiency of irrigation, utility control and monitoring software."

She added “leak detection,” “water treatment,” and “infrastructure” to the list and noted, “our aging infrastructure struggles to efficiently deliver clean water and manage wastewater, necessitating significant investment in modernization. The truth is, we are trying to solve these 21st century problems with 20th century technology and 19th century laws.”

While hopeful about the future, Nicole admits that there are many structural obstacles that need to be addressed, notably, “the barriers that hamper the flow of private funding into water tech, most notably low rates.” She added, “The availability of money isn't the issue. It’s the lack of reasonable pricing for water that impedes progress. Keeping water rates low has been great for affordability, but it has been at the expense of innovation, investment and advancement.” She warned that “Until we start viewing water as an asset instead of an expense or input, we won’t get the public interest.”

Asked how or when the American public might begin to demand more and more effective water solutions, Nicole fears that it will take “a catastrophic event.” She pointed to the 2017 Oroville Dam tragedy where heavy rains in California caused major dam spillage and forced the evacuation of some 180,000 residents. And, more recently, how millions in Mexico City could run out of water next month on “Day Zero.” “While these events alert people to the water crisis, they are localized events and not close enough to home. We have not had a real conflict about water, but when that happens, people will pay attention.”

Yes – Nicole has identified myriad challenges as governments and businesses try to ensure steady supplies of clean, affordable water. But, she is optimistic about the potential impact of business involvement and rate reform in getting us the solutions we need. “We have the tools and the talent. Now, it’s about commitment and action. Together, we can ensure a sustainable water future,” she stated.

Nicole concluded with a call to action: “We must rethink how we regulate and use water. Businesses have a crucial role in this transformation. With their innovation and leadership, we can overcome the water challenges we face today.”

About the Author

Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. She and Bonita C. Stewart (MBA 1983) are co-authors of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” as well as a series of groundbreaking proprietary surveys, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©.