08 Apr 2021

Q+A with New BEI Director Lynn Schenk

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by Shona Simkin

Lynn Schenk is taking the helm as director of the Business and Environment Initiative (BEI), following Jennifer Nash’s recent retirement and after having served as BEI’s associate director for the past year-and-a-half. We Zoomed in with Lynn to ask about what brought her to this role and to HBS, her passion for the environment, and her goals going forward.

How are you feeling about taking on this role?
I am incredibly excited about this opportunity. This is a really exciting time to bring a problem-solving lens toward addressing climate change across all disciplines. There is now much more of a shared imperative for everyone involved to think about the problem they're trying to solve, how others are trying to solve it, and where they can fill a gap. I want everyone—faculty, students, and alumni—to run with this problem-solving lens and to see BEI as a thought partner and resource. We're here to help convene, develop networks, and to be thought partners as people go on their own climate journeys in a variety of sectors. I hope that we're seen as a support hub for all of the various stakeholders that we work with.

What’s your background?
I worked in structured finance for many years, focusing on infrastructure and energy project financing—both traditional energy assets and things like large scale solar and wind, and then on heavy infrastructure projects such as ports and toll roads. I also helped to start and syndicate what is called the Equator Principles, which are commercial bank lending guidelines and principles towards environmental and social justice standards. I then spent several years at the then newly-launched Clinton Climate Initiative, and worked with cities all around the world helping advise on financing options for projects that could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was a huge range of activities, and really fascinating!

How did you end up at HBS?
When an HBS alum with whom I had worked at Social Finance returned to HBS to launch the Impact Co-laboratory, we connected about the need for fresh cases for a new impact investing course. This rekindled a longtime area of interest—I’ve always found cases fascinating. After completing a series of cases, I stayed on to work on a variety of social impact-related projects at HBS, including supporting the events around the 25th anniversary of the Social Enterprise Initiative. I got to know the Initiatives through that work and from there I was hooked. I knew for sure it was the place I wanted to be. And, I knew I wanted to get back to focusing specifically on climate change. I got to know Jennifer Nash, and when she told me that there was an open role for an associate director, I jumped on it. I think I was the first application they received! I was really excited to officially join Jennifer and the whole Initiatives world; I thought it was a good fit and the right place to be, and I loved the people—a perfect combination of incredible and diverse intelligence and a ton of fun. I’m pretty sure job satisfaction in the Initiatives is as high as it gets.

What was a highlight from your time as associate director?
Planning and executing the March 2020 conference, Risks, Opportunities, and Investments in the Era of Climate Change, was a highly rewarding experience. We focused on getting HBS ahead of the game by having a timely and meaningful conversation that moved beyond any question of whether climate change is real. We framed it around risks and opportunities and brought together alumni and leading practitioners. On top of the whole platform and momentum that Jennifer and Mike Toffel built over the years leading up to this event, the convening paved the path toward so much of what we're doing now. COVID derailed some of its impact, as it shut down everything a week later, but from there we did a number of other talks, a SIP on climate finance, and many really incredible alumni have reengaged with BEI and the School to help with this effort in a meaningful way. It's really been an interesting intellectual flow, seeing how this type of convening led to a series of activities that will hopefully continue on, and continue to illuminate faculty leadership and expertise on this and related topics at HBS.

What are some of your goals as director?
Really to continue to amplify the relevant and great work that is being done by a number of faculty and alumni. To dive deeper into areas where have a lot of established expertise and traction, like climate finance, but also to amplify and connect more and more faculty to each other as they work on issues related to business and environment and climate change. I really want to establish a greater level of connection across the faculty to build off of each other's work, and to have a runway to dig deeper in their own research. There's a really exciting surge in interest among the faculty, which is reflected by a number of new Elective Curriculum (EC) courses next year that focus on climate—at least four, and potentially more, that are specifically focused on climate change, which is incredible. I want to do everything I can to facilitate the amplification, growth, and reach of that momentum.

Some of that will be with our Climate Rising podcast and finding new ways to communicate the content that we create through webinars and various convenings, and using a mix of virtual platforms and in person opportunities to come together around this topic. Maintaining an online connection allows participation from those who can’t attend in person.

Another goal is to connect with students more in person. We've had great relationships over Zoom but there's really a lot to be said for meeting people in person. I really hope to meet some of this year's Required Curriculum (RC) students and next year's incoming RCs in person and establish those relationships so that we can work with them more to develop more career opportunities. It's a big ambition to continue to define and highlight the range of career opportunities that are exploding in this space. I’ll continue to work closely with folks in Career and Professional Development, and will plan for our next associate director to focus on growing that aspect so that HBS will be a notable platform for career development in the sustainability space.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
I am an avid skier, both downhill and cross country, so I get out whenever I can. I do a lot of biking in the spring and summer, and like to hang out on a lake in Vermont and paddle around and swim as much as possible. Generally speaking, I am an avid outdoor activity person—that has driven so much of the value that I have for conservation and efforts to preserve the nature we have. A goal of mine is to finish hiking all 48 of the 4,000-foot mountains in New Hampshire. I try to bring my kids on as many of those journeys as possible—they do at least one per summer with me and my husband. I think they’ll appreciate that at some point in the future.

What is your favorite book and movie?
One of my favorite movies is Stand by Me. It opened right at the time when I was the age of the kids in the movie, and it hit that sentimental moment of middle school age. Now two of my daughters are in middle school and I think about that journey quite a bit. For books, I’m a big reader and there are so many recent books that come to mind, but really I always come back to the same one. I was an American studies major in college and I'm a sucker for basics—my favorite book is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I've read it probably five times in English and twice in French.

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