Students interested in pursuing a career in energy and environmental sectors networked with seasoned energy professionals and Harris School of Public Policy alumni at the inaugural Harris Energy & Environment Career Summit last week. There to share their perspectives during the six-hour event were representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy, Argonne National Laboratory, West Monroe Partners, the Chicago Park District, UChicago Urban Lab’s Energy & Environment Lab, ASRC Federal, Nissan, Davies Consulting and GE.

Sponsored by the Harris Energy and Environmental Association and the Harris Career Development Office, the event was highlighted by a student/employer lunch session that featured a discussion with Tracy Woodard, director of government affairs at Nissan North American, and Deb Frodl, former executive director of GE’s Ecomagination. The talk was moderated by EPIC Executive Director Sam Ori.

In the discussion about their career paths and major developments in their respective industries, both Frodl and Woodard stressed that a policy background is valuable in the private sector. In Woodward’s world, for example, Nissan interacts with government on more and more issues central to the company’s products, from emissions and safety requirements to tax incentives for purchasing electric vehicles (EVs).

“I think government affairs continues to be an integral part for companies, and it’s continuing to grow,” Woodard said.

For Frodl, GE was seeking to innovate in tightly-regulated industries such as electric power, rail and aviation.

“So, clearly, whenever you’re doing transactions with the government, government relations team members help us greatly,” she said.

Frodl spent 28 years at GE, starting in finance at GE Capital. She later took on several C-Suite roles like chief commercial officer and chief marketing officer. In 2005, she was tasked with launching a gargantuan undertaking: GE’s Ecomagination. The program was a public commitment to innovate in clean tech – everything from jet engines and wind turbines to LED lighting and smart software. GE invested $15 billion in the first 10 years of the project.

Frodl said the Ecomagination team envisioned half of the projects centering around federal policy changes in energy and climate, and the other half in clean tech. The policy changes never came, but Frodl said GE’s public commitment was similar to a major government policy change. Some “early bets” like hybrid locomotives and investing in a lithium-ion battery startup flopped, but the commitment led to future success, rallied shareholders around a common cause, and nudged the rest of the industry toward the future.

Woodard and Frodl said companies look for a well-rounded skillset and knowledge base in their government affairs hires, who are tasked with navigating a complex web of regulations, stakeholders and challenges. In essence, government affairs departments are tasked with distilling technical information to a digestible format for policymakers, Woodard said.

“We are looking for people who are engineers, people in the data/technical space, people who are lawyers,” she said. “Speaking, communication skills, and a broad swath of general knowledge are big. I always like to say I’m an inch deep and a mile wide in my knowledge base.”

Like Frodl at GE, Woodard was tasked with ushering through an ambitious, company-wide initiative. In 2008, Nissan America’s CEO declared to the company, “We’re going to be the leader in mass market EVs.”

For that to become a reality, Woodard’s team must continue to advocate for policies that will hasten the widespread adoption of EVs in America. The consumer tax credit for buying EVs was spared in the federal tax bill in January, but range anxiety and a lack of charging infrastructure remain. Despite the challenges for the market overall, Nissan has prospered. The company’s mass-market EV, the Leaf, is the best-selling EV in the world.

Woodard’s rise to the top government affairs position at Nissan North America came about in part because she lobbied on behalf of the company for Smith Johnson & Carr, the Nashville firm where she spent nearly eight years. Before that, she worked in the Tennessee legislature. To her surprise, Woodard said she works on a more diverse set of issues at Nissan than she did during her time in government.

“You get to go bigger with the private sector,” she said. “I’m involved with more issues than I was at the statehouse.”

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