Our guest is Ryan Drake Lee, a Senior Principal at Keystone Strategy. He is an experienced leader and problem solver focusing on Technology Strategy, Digital Transformation, and Operational Excellence.
A native San Franciscan, Ryan was influenced early on by his father towards business and economics and was exposed to a diverse student body and international experiences and cultures. Some of those experiences shaped his youth and outlook on the world.
In this episode, Ryan shares what it was like going to one of the most prestigious historically Black colleges, why he pursued an MBA, and his extensive professional career.
Ryan also talks about his passion for environmental sustainability, climate change, and social justice and how those areas of interest have come into play with what he is currently doing at Keystone Strategy.
On the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the lives of Black Americans
“I think HBCU has played a pivotal role in the landscape of academic institutions and what they provide to different populations of people, that intense focus on the Black American experience, and refining their academic and campus life, programs, and how they create opportunities and make partnerships with businesses for employment and others institutions for cross-disciplinary learning, and how they’re trying to create different channels and pipelines to getting access to diverse talent, specifically black Americans. So, I think the role that HBCUs play is immensely important and I’m happy and privileged to have been a part of it.”
On pursuing an MBA even when he already had a successful professional career
“What I observed as a young professional joining McKinsey was pretty much almost a formula. And the formula was, do a few years as an analyst, go to a prestigious graduate program, right? Probably an MBA, maybe a public policy degree program or a law degree, and essentially, come back to McKinsey, and in a few years, you’ll be a partner and you’ll essentially be rich and be able to ride off into the sunset. I know now that life is not that simple and lots of things have changed, but quite frankly, I was convinced that was the formula and the path to success or at least part of what I aspire to have in terms of a career. The way people would look up to partners and admire their ideas and the power that they had and how people would automatically be quiet as soon as they spoke – that looked attractive to me. I also knew that as I was leaving my analyst time after two years at McKinsey, I felt like I would have been in the ivory tower. I’m pushing paper, I’m making slides and Excel. And it was like, let me go see what it’s like, you know, get your hands dirty at the ground level. Which is what drew me to be a volunteer consultant at TechnoServe and go work at the ground level, literally, in developing countries. I really enjoyed that but then also, let’s be honest. I wanted to have a good living and make a good living and earn some money. So, it was clear that I wanted to go get an MBA.”
Thoughts on climate change
“From an economic standpoint, I feel like climate change is really a resource allocation challenge, right? We’re not allocating the right resources to the right technologies. We have solutions to lots of the polluting challenges that we have. They’re just not economic enough to deploy at scale. So, it’s an economic challenge to solve many of the challenges and problems we face.”
On managing his professional career and tying it with the things he is passionate about
“What comes to mind for me is, I continue to think of the double and triple bottom lines. I learned about that at Haas. First bottom line being your business bottom line, right? What’s your dollar profit? Your second bottom line being your kind of social impact, right? What is the impact of the business that you do in the communities where you do it? And then your third bottom line is around the environment, right? What is the impact to the environment? I often think about how can we try to aspire to more of this circular loop economy where we don’t have this linear economy where you kind of extract natural resources out of the ground, turn them into something consumable, that is then consumed and then sits in a landfill forever. How do we make this more of a circular loop so that things are sustainable perpetually?”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Chris: Welcome to the OneHaas Podcast. I’m Chris Kim. Today, we have Ryan Drake Lee, Senior Principal at Keystone Strategy. Ryan is a Haas MBA alum and an experienced leader and problem-solver focusing on technology strategy, digital transformation, operational excellence, and litigation support. Ryan’s experience includes a diverse set of industries, including technology, retail, consumer-packaged goods, airlines, oil and gas, and telecommunications. Ryan, welcome, and great to have you on the show today.
[00:35] Ryan: Thanks so much, Chris. Glad to be here. Thanks.
[00:38] Chris: Absolutely. Ryan, we’re super excited to have you on the podcast. One of the first questions that we typically start or connect on these podcasts is really just to talk about your early life. And did you always know that you would be as successful as you are today when you were, maybe, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and just a young student and a young person growing up in this area?
[01:02] Ryan: Thanks for the question, Chris. I can’t say that I did. I will admit that I was born and raised in San Francisco. I went to a bilingual school from K through 12, French American International School. So, at an early age, I was exposed to diverse student body and international experience and cultures. I’d say some experiences that shaped my youth and outlook on the world were certainly cultural exchange programs that I was fortunate enough to participate in—going to Paris, France and having exchange student come to my house in seventh grade and eighth grade, as well as fifth grade. I skipped that one. And then, also, having a similar cultural exchange trip to Tahiti in 10th grade. So, all of those experiences really opened up my mind and my aperture to the world.
And I’d say, early on, my dad was an influence on me in being drawn towards business and economics. We used to read the Wall Street Journal together. And I was influenced by that. And he would point me towards business articles and topics of interest of his. And then I pursued an international baccalaureate education in high school offered by French American. So, took economics classes. And I still remember my economics teacher from IB named Bruno Barrows who really opened up my mind to just basic econ principles, supply and demand, and really, the study of choice. I became interested in economics as the study of choice and behavior, and just seeing how that discipline played out in lots of choices and decisions and how the world and economies work. So, that’s a little bit about my early education.
[02:40] Chris: For a lot of Haasies or folks who are interested in coming to Haas, typically, they’re coming later in life for the MBA program. And maybe, they haven’t seen the Bay Area, and it’s changing. You had a really early awareness in terms of economics and how business works, even as a kid. As you reflect back on how much, maybe, the Bay Area has changed or how, maybe, it hasn’t changed, what has it been like for you to see it, not just as a kid but within that purview of business and economics and all of the transformation that’s happened in the year since?
[03:10] Ryan: It’s a great question. There’s a few trends at play that I find quite interesting. I actually wrote my high school paper on rent control as a policy in San Francisco. And my parents owning a home in San Francisco and having multiple tenants, I saw some of the challenges of being a landlord and a property owner and the challenges and restrictions that come in those types of policies. So, housing is a topic that I’ve observed how it’s evolved in San Francisco and the Bay Area and the challenges we have around homelessness and affordability and access to housing. And so, I don’t think that has actually changed much. I think we still face the same challenges that we did when I was growing up. They just have become a lot more acute, with general population growth and the economy growing and there being a lot of demand and attraction to the Bay Area.
And so, as I think about that in the more recent trends related to the pandemic, and now, remote work, and San Francisco being one of the, I think, last metropolitan areas in downtown financial districts to see return to office happen and what that’s doing to the city as a core and as a place that people occupy. It looks very different downtown. I started going back to the office on Mondays and Tuesdays back in September when things were optimistic and promising, persisted through that even through the Omicron wave in January and Feb. And so, trends that I see shaping the Bay Area are definitely around housing, allocation of land and space, transportation, overall economy. Those are some interesting trends that I pay attention to and read about and track for the Bay Area and for San Francisco.
[04:46] Chris: Got you. Ryan, one of the inflection points for a lot of folks is going to college. And you were on the West Coast, and you made a huge travel to, maybe, the other side of the US to go the East Coast and really going to, I think, what most people consider one of the most prestigious university, historically, black college and university at Morehouse. Could you talk about what was your thought process in terms of how did you decide where you wanted to go to college and what was in your mind? And what was that experience like when you made the trip over and landed in Morehouse?
[05:14] Ryan: Thanks for the question. I’d say there’s lots of intersecting ideas and momentum forces that delivered me to Morehouse College, if you will, for my college experience. I’d say it starts with the college application process where I know that I applied to nine schools. I was first accepted to UCLA with no financial aid. So, it was a little bit of a double-edged sword in that happy to be accepted, but no financial aid still made it a little bit challenging. It’s quite challenging and, perhaps, out of reach. The second acceptance I got was to Emory University in Atlanta, also with no financial aid. So, things were looking a little tricky for me. And then I got six rejection letters in the mail in one day.
[05:58] Chris: Oh, my gosh.
[05:59] Ryan: And I was quite devastated, I have to say. I remember crying and really feeling like my future was quite dark and in a bad place. And then Morehouse College, being Morehouse College an HBCU, I wouldn’t be an alum at one of those institutions if I couldn’t also poke fun at the fact that they were late in getting their acceptance letters and responses back to people. But I was accepted. And I earned a full academic scholarship. So, for me, it was almost a no-brainer to end up at Morehouse College. I also had a couple elder classmen and good friends of mine that I had known from French American who were at Morehouse.
So, I had visited Morehouse previously on a campus tour and slept on the floor of a dorm room in Graves Hall with one of my classmates and friends from French American, and really loved it. And so, when I arrived into Morehouse, came with my dad and my sisters, moved on to campus, I have to say I was super excited. But also, there’s culture shock for me. Coming from San Francisco, diverse small place, moving to the South, this is 2000, this is pre-Obama years, and so, there’s still racial tension. And quite frankly, I’m mixed race. My dad is black. My mom is white. My dad’s from New York City, Harlem. My mom’s from Elkhart, Indiana. They met in Chicago. I will tell that story. Showing up into Atlanta, I’m still little bit a tweener. I remember being called red on campus. That’s some of the terms that black folks call lighter skin people. You can be called red or even yellow, high yellow, depending on what your complexion is.
And I also had experiences showing up in the cafeteria on Sunday morning not wearing church clothes. And the class was saying, “Hey, it doesn’t look like you went to church this morning. Can I ask you about your relationship with God?” And there’s still culture shock moving from the West Coast down to the South and to Atlanta and even being an HBCU, it was mixed emotions sometimes for me as a mixed race individual. But ultimately, I was welcomed and embraced. And I’ve got lifelong friends and had excellent experience. But there’s certainly a transition. And I’m happy to be an alum of an HBCU and Morehouse, in particular, and all of my time on the Atlanta University Center, the AUC campus, with Clark and with Spelman and Morris Brown as well. I love my experience there. And I think it shaped quite significantly who I am today and my own self-identity and connections to people in place and history.
[08:22] Chris: The conversation around HBCUs has really been elevated, especially with folks like even our own vice president, Kamala Harris, being an HBCU alum. Could you, maybe, comment a bit about that and how you’ve seen that change, and maybe, your thoughts, even, on how that conversation has really become part of the national conversation as to why these institutions exist and their importance in our society?
[08:43] Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. I think a little bit of history white folks may not know, HBCUs were essentially established because of exclusionary policies. African-Americans and black folks were not allowed to enroll in public universities or private universities. So, this was created out of a gap in the market, if I’m to choose an economic term to describe the social practice that was happening. Now that they exist and they have produced such excellent leaders, thinkers, contributors to American society, culture, academics, business, etc., and we have to say Obama breaking that glass ceiling brought more light and attention to HBCUs, Kamala Harris as well, as you mentioned, being a Howard alum. I also have to say that MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife, who has proved herself to be an amazing philanthropist and charitable individual, giving away her wealth and targeting HBCUs and lots of other institutions in her giving, I think, has also brought attention.
I think HBCUs play a pivotal role in the landscape of academic institutions and what they provide to different populations of people and that intense focus on the black experience, the black American experience, and refining their academic and campus life programs and how they create opportunities and make partnerships with businesses for employment and other institutions for cross-disciplinary learning, Morehouse with Georgia Tech and the dual degree program for engineering. And that connects back to, I think, even Google, and maybe, some other institutions and how they’re trying to create different channels and pipelines to getting access to diverse talent, specifically, black Americans as well, because they’re left out in the technology space. We can’t overlook the fact that the term that exists is called “Silicon Valley diversity.” There’s broad diversity, and then there’s Silicon Valley diversity, which includes Asian populations, but still doesn’t quite include black or brown Latino population. So, I think the role that HBCUs play is immensely important. And I’m happy and privileged to have been a part of it and to say that I’ve got many friends and colleagues and contacts and acquaintances across the spectrum there.
[10:56] Chris: Ryan, you were already very successful early on, even finishing your degree and graduating. How did you navigate the post-college experience before you came to the MBA program? And what was that like transitioning from being an undergraduate student and then now becoming a professional in the industry? What was that like for you?
[11:15] Ryan: Thanks for the question. I have to say it was pretty smooth for me. I think that I was always drawn to business. I knew I wanted to work in business. I was not particularly the creative type. I always say you don’t want to hear me sing. You don’t want to really see me dance. I can’t play instruments. And so, that means that it was not work or effort for me to read the business pages of the newspapers. I had a subscription to the WSJ in college, probably because some institution funded that and that was one of the people that signed up and said “I’ve read it.” And my roommates would poke fun at me because I was the guy who read the Wall Street Journal in the dorm room. And it’s like, who is this person? Because that was always of interest to me. I was curious about how the geopolitical landscape worked, how people made decisions, how people in power in particular made decisions, and what’s the business and econ incentives behind their motivations? Economics, at the end of the day, is the study of choice and the allocation of resources. And that impacts all of the decisions that humans make in our collective society.
That’s the backdrop and context for, I was active in seeking out internships during the summers between years. I spent my first summer of internship between freshmen and sophomore year actually being a personal assistant to the CEO of a company called MCA Events who puts on and produces all of the AIDS walk fundraisers all over the country. I think those are still a thing. I have to admit I haven’t been tracking that as much recently. Then my second summer between sophomore and junior year, I was fortunate enough to intern at Goldman Sachs in the equities rotational program. And I was building my professional experience, again, exposure to those types of industries and business environments and office environments and cultures, and learning how people communicate and observing how people behave and conduct themselves. There’s so much that you could learn through osmosis of just observing if you’re an intent, active observer, which also has implications to how things work now in the remote world where people are not in offices. But I won’t go down that tangent. And my third summer between junior and sophomore… I’m sorry, junior and senior, I was fortunate enough to earn an internship with McKinsey & Company.
And so, I ultimately decided to start my professional career after graduating as a business analyst at McKinsey. And really, it was because, one, I had seen the valedictorian of two classes ahead of me go to McKinsey and was inspired by that individual who seemed to have everything figure it out to go work at an institution like McKinsey. Furthermore, I’d say, being a consultant allows you exposure to a variety of industries and functions. And so, you get to see different industries, how they operate, what are the incentives, and lots of functions which are consistent across industries, but then have their own nuance, flavors, and differences in how they’re applied, if you will.
So, being a consultant gives you opportunity to taste the flavors of industries and functions. And so, for me, I was also fortunate enough to get an offer from McKinsey for full-time employment after graduating. And so, I had an awesome summer between graduating Morehouse in 2004 and then going and joining McKinsey. And so, that summer actually backpack-trekked by land with my cousin from Cape Town, South Africa to Nairobi, Kenya by land, with paper maps, free smartphone. So, we spent about 90 days on land and sea and boat and bus and hitchhike back of the truck and all of it on that trip. So, I had another really transformational experience for me as a person and individual. And it opened up my eyes to all these economic opportunities and to how the misallocation of resources and, perhaps, corruption in some governments prevent basics like electrification and transportation. I used to think of the three pillars of productive modern economies, which were electricity, water, and transportation. So, electrification, irrigation, and transportation is how I thought about them. So, that was very exciting and very shaping in my outlook on life.
And I think that was influenced by classes that I’d taken at Morehouse College called the Economy of South Africa, taught by Professor Ross, I remember. And he was an influential econ professor of mine at Morehouse College, opened up my eyes to different parts of the world, and wanting to visit there, and then ultimately getting to spend a lot of time there thereafter.
After I left McKinsey, spending two years as a business analyst, I decided to go volunteer and be a volunteer consultant for a company called TechnoServe, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that focuses on small business building in the countryside. And so, I was a volunteer consultant for TechnoServe in the Mpumalanga province in the east part of South Africa for a year before joining Haas. I actually did all of my Haas applications using a dial-up connection in South Africa. I had to drive two hours to a dial-up connection. And I would write my essays on paper or my laptop and then drive to this dial-up internet cafe, deal with the scratchy sounds, and upload my essays into the MBA Haas platform, and do that over a period of weekends to actually complete my application.
[16:24] Chris: One of the questions I get a lot from folks in my own personal journey—and I imagine maybe you have gotten it. You studied economics and French at Morehouse, and you had worked at an amazingly successful firm like McKinsey, you had traveled the world and really seen, probably, more than most people would dream to see in a lifetime. Why go back to the MBA? I get that question a lot. And I’m sure a lot of folks also get that question. What was your motivation to apply to an MBA program in general? And then how did you end up deciding to apply to Haas versus, maybe, any of the other programs that are out there?
[16:55] Ryan: Sure. It’s a great question. I have to say that, look, what I observed as a young professional joining McKinsey was pretty much almost a formula. And the formula was do a few years as an analyst, go to a prestigious graduate program, probably an MBA, maybe a public policy program, or a law degree, and essentially come back to McKinsey. And in a few years, you’ll be a partner, and you’ll essentially be rich and be able to ride off into the sunset. I know now that life is not that simple. And lots of things have changed. But quite frankly, I was convinced that was the formula and the path to success or, at least, part of what I aspire to have in terms of a career and the way people would look up to partners and admire their ideas and the power that they had and how people would automatically be quiet as soon as they spoke because they were so interested and hung on every word that came out of their mouth. And that looked attractive to me.
I also knew that, as I was leaving my analyst time after two years at McKinsey, I felt like I would have been in the ivory tower, pushing paper, making slides and Excel. And it was like, “Let me go see what it’s like get your hands dirty at the ground level,” which is what drew me to be a volunteer consultant at TechnoServe and go work at the ground level, literally, in developing countries. So, I really enjoyed that. But then, also, let’s be honest, I wanted to have a good living and make a good living and earn some money. So, it was clear that I wanted to go get an MBA. And it allowed me to boomerang back to San Francisco, reconnect with other old friends, and have a new experience in the Bay Area and in San Francisco as an adult, if you will. I left after high school at age of 18 in 2000, and then came back in 2007 and ’09, because I ended up leaving again and going back to McKinsey in Atlanta. But Haas embraced me and welcomed me with open arms. I had a great experience on campus. I actually think I valued those kinds of smaller class size to be able to connect with people and make close friends. And also, just being close to home, it felt good. At that time, I actually lived in my mom’s house, the house I grew up in, which meant that I was a little bit more removed from the Berkeley campus as others. And actually, in retrospect, I should have spent more time on campus connecting with people instead of retreated back to my old stomping ground with high school friends and things like that in San Francisco. But hey, it was a great experience all around, nonetheless.
[19:19] Chris: What are some of the lasting memories you have from being on campus and your experience, actually, in the MBA program?
[19:26] Ryan: Sure, absolutely. Look, there were so many great experiences. A, the Haas campus is beautiful. It’s amazing. No matter where you live in Berkeley, you’d think of the clock tower at Haas as a landmark. You can see it from many places. It’s a sprawling beautiful campus with lots of green space and open space. So, just simply being around the Haas Pavilion and that building up at the top of the hill right next to the law school. It has great memories for me, just sitting on the steps and hanging out with people. Going to Tuesday night, TNABL, as we used to call it, Tuesday Night at the Bear’s Lair, for beers and sports talk and March madness and any of this stuff. TNABL was awesome, going to some of the intramural sports with classmates, and watching them play rugby, going to soccer tournaments, going up to Tahoe with classmates for ski weekends when we rented houses during the season were just amazing great experiences and lasting memories.
So, I’d say the campus is huge, and you can get lost along all the buildings. Berkeley has ranked top 10, top five, number one programs across so many disciplines. I also remember quite specifically how there was freedom and liberty to take some credits from other departments. So, I took a class on energy infrastructure finance law school. I also took classes from Dan Kammen in the, I think, physics and energy resources group department around energy exchange and climate change and those types of topics. So, I really appreciated that you can cross-register in different departments. It’s just a beautiful place, a nice little enclave, then a city that still very much feels like an academic institution university campus. And it’s just all around magical, in my opinion.
[21:06] Chris: That’s awesome, Ryan. I know, Ryan, we were sharing before we start recording, you’re super passionate about sustainability, economics, climate change, and social justice. Did you feel that Haas helped to cultivate that drive that you already had? What was it like touching on those topics, not just in the classwork, but maybe also in your exposure to other students or professors and faculty during your time at Haas?
[21:28] Ryan: Sure. It’s a great question. I think it definitely shaped my interest. It sparked and initiated my interest in climate change. I was there 2007 to 2009. If you recall, there was right at the… So, I was in school before the crash happened. And then it happened in 2008. And so, our classmates, we were facing one of the toughest job markets ever at the time. It was something where 90% of students—I may get this stat wrong—had job offers at the end of January. And in our year, only 60% of classmates had job offers, even by the end of March. So, there was a fair number of people going to entrepreneurship. But there were a fair number of people who, just jobs were thin and dry at that time.
But what was really interesting to me was joining the BERC Club or the Berkeley Energy and Resources Group, which really focused on climate change. Also, there was another oil crisis around that time. I don’t know if people remember. But gas prices had spiked back then, also, to above five bucks a gallon. I remember taking Dr. Severin Borenstein class on energy markets and utility pricing. It was very interesting to me, also connected back to the energy infrastructure finance course that I’d taken at the law school.
So, I start to be interested in the economics of climate change, because I believe that externalities, one of the biggest leakages in economic value chains, and the fact that we don’t price carbon as an externality and its tremendous cost and impact it has on the environment. And therefore, people in health, etc., and all the things that are too long to name were really critically important.
From an economic standpoint, I feel like climate change is really a resource allocation challenge. We’re not allocating the right resources to the right technologies because we have solutions to lots of the polluting challenges that we have. They’re just not economic enough to deploy at scale. So, it’s an economic challenge to solve many of the challenges and problems we face. Circular economies and producing goods that can be 100% recycled and reused like aluminum. Aluminum is an infinitely sustainable resource because it can be melted and reused infinite times at almost very little energy loss. It takes about 80% less energy to produce an aluminum can from an existing aluminum can than it does from virgin aluminum. So, if we can think about ratios and things like that for all these other materials that we use for human goods consumption, we can address some of the climate change challenges that we have.
[24:00] Chris: Ryan, your post-MBA career has really, for a lot of people, I think, would be considered a dream. Like you mentioned, you went back to McKinsey and had a lot of success there, and then further on got to do more, even bigger work, including doing things like working in renewables and working at Google before even taking on the challenge and the work that you’re doing today, which is really interesting strategy and economic consulting at Keystone. Could you, maybe, touch on a bit of what that journey was like for you, and then also what you’re doing today at Keystone, and what are some of the challenges and problems that Keystone is helping customers to solve in that area of strategy and economic consulting?
[24:36] Ryan: Sure, yeah. So, I’d say, to pick up where I left off before after my time at Berkeley, I have to say that one thing that I might’ve done differently is, as I said before, continue to taste the flavors of business. So, you get to do that in consulting. And as I got back to Berkeley campus, let’s go ahead and admit, I was probably a little bit lazy that I had this offer to return to McKinsey. So, it felt like, hey, I’ve got this golden ticket, if you will, to go back to a really prestigious job. And so, having that golden ticket in my back pocket, took a little bit of the aspiration that I could have had to continue to taste the flavors and learn as much as possible and be as exposed as possible to different employment options across different industries, whether that be more creative or in different functions or entrepreneurial or something like that.
Anyhow, I went back to McKinsey, continued to have great experiences. That’s where I had an opportunity to work in oil and gas, in safety and operational risk, and think about organizational behavior and design, very much influenced by my OB classes, my organizational behavior classes, at Berkeley and thinking about congruency models and how individual motivations and communication styles and spans of control, writing incentives and performance management policies, all come together to create environments where people make decisions. And how they make decisions in those systems are actually influenced by factors that we designed. So, that was quite interesting to me.
But anyhow, my time at McKinsey post-MBA was great. I learned a ton. But eventually, personal life came involved, meaning I had met somebody. I had met somebody that I was dating. And they lived in Europe. And I was trying to get transferred to different offices where we could be together. And it just wasn’t really working out. So, I also tell people that while we all want our career stories to be the hockey stick shape of just up and to the right always, life comes into play. And maybe, you don’t always tell employers this, but some of the career decisions you make are because of life consequences or life factors outside of that. So, I decided to leave McKinsey to move up to the Northeast to be together with my girlfriend at the time who was working in pharma who previously lived in Europe, and then had a job in New Jersey, where lots of pharma companies are in the US.
And so, that’s what drew me to Tomra. I was actually headhunted… Tomra is a Norwegian company that focuses on industrial manufacturing equipment. They make high-speed belts with high-tech sensors on them, like x-rays, laser spectroscopy, cameras, different light sensors, so that they can sort materials in high-speed belts in lots of different applications. So, in mining, for example, it takes lots of water and electricity to process boulders that might have precious metals or gemstones in them. So, you basically put medium-sized rocks on high-speed belts, and you x-ray them and you sort out the ones that have diamonds and gold, and you don’t process the others. But I worked in the recycling part of that business where they use those sensors to sort recyclable materials in municipal recovery facilities or MuRFs, basically, the waste processors and handlers in those stinky facilities that you drive by as you’re leaving the city. Tomra has sorting equipment in those applications. And they also have something called a reverse vending machine, which is a machine that reads barcodes on beverage containers so you can get your nickel or your 10 cents back in deposit states. There’s 11 deposit states in the US. And there’s a handful of deposit countries.
So, my role there was focused on building loyalty programs on some reverse vending machines to get people to recycle more. And that role is essentially focused on understanding and dissecting what’s the value chain of a recyclable beverage. The aluminum example that I give you is that, look, aluminum, each can is worth about number of pennies. But if you aggregate those into a central location, it becomes economic to compact them into a cube and have a truck pick that up and have a truck drive that to a recycling facility and recycle that cube of aluminum that weighs about 800 pounds into virgin cans. And it’s more economic and environmentally friendly to do that than to let them sit in a landfill for the rest of human existence.
I learned a ton about the economics and value chains of waste facilities and waste in general and unsexy businesses like that. So, actually, it gives me a lot of the joy and satisfaction to walk through a MuRF, a municipal recovery facility, and see everything that’s happening and what technology they’ve got in place and how they’re sorting things, where trucks show up, and how they unload and load. I guess I’m a nerd about that stuff. So, that’s a little bit about my trajectory in those two roles.
And then, eventually, we got married and started to have kids and needs to be back close to family where we’d have some extra help because it definitely takes a village. And so, wanting to get back to the West Coast, I started seeking jobs there and trying to land basically a two-career geolocation move and buying a house and finding a housing in San Francisco in the Bay Area, almost impossible feats. So, we went about trying to solve that equation one variable at a time. First, my wife at the time, she found a job. Then, we were looking at housing. Then, we bought a house. We bought a house sight unseen, probably, like crazy people. To spend every dollar that you’ve ever earned on a property that you’ve never actually physically seen with your own eyes seems crazy. But luckily, it has worked out.
And then I was fortunate enough to get recruited by Google. And I joined their strategy and operations team and the mid-market ads business where I was basically focused on building go to market strategies for the 2000 ad sellers that managed about a billion dollars in revenue per week at the time. So, huge tremendous cross-functional global business where I was exposed to product engineering and a group called PSA, product and sales activation, that sits in between engineering and development, and the strat-ops teams, as well as legal and PR in the upper end, LCS. It’s called large client services. So, really, truly global experience or great experience in a global business that was growing way too fast for the base that it was growing from, just incredible.
So, learned a ton there. But then, once again, things are not always perfect as they might seem. And I unfortunately had a really toxic manager there, and was a pushed out of that organization, and had to leave. And I was fortunate enough to then also be headhunted and recruited—if you might catch the theme, I’ve been headhunted a few times—to come to Keystone. And so, people always asked, why did you go back to consulting? It doesn’t seem to be the natural path. People started consulting to use that as a springboard and then they go do other things. For me, I decided to come back because it was a smaller firm where I could join more towards the top third of the leadership hierarchy and have great opportunities to be a coach and a mentor to junior people, share my experiences. But then, also, what’s new for me and where I’m learning a ton is around litigation support. So, this is work that Keystone Strategy does, where we apply the triad of disciplines of economics, strategy, and technology in complex high-stakes litigation matters that might deal with competition, and competition for antitrust, valuation, tax, or IP matters.
So, we get to work with preeminent world-class experts, PhDs, on each of these topics, whether they’re computer science PhDs, economists, econometricians, statisticians, folks who have degrees in other engineering disciplines related to medical devices. And we work with them and support them as expert witnesses. And so, I get to learn legal proceedings. I get to be exposed to law firms and learn about how lawyers do their work and attorneys and legal procedure, and also, how to build robust logical arguments that are defensible in court, which are actually very different than building arguments and talking points in PowerPoint slides to deliver to C-suite executives, because let’s be honest, everybody, you can hand-wave your way if there was some assumptions in a PowerPoint slide with $800 million in opportunity upside at 6% CAGR growth rate if we do these four things that have these enablers and the slide looks pretty. And that doesn’t fly in a courtroom. You have to bring a different set of rigor and analysis and support and make sure that you’ve explored and exhausted every avenue of information because you have to be ready for cross-examination. “Why didn’t you look at this? And you could have looked at that, and you didn’t. And so, tell me why,” type of scenarios. And so, that’s a new space for me. That’s wide space for me that’s learning. And I’m having a great time.
[33:10] Chris: Ryan, I think it goes without saying, one transition is hard enough. I know folks just trying to graduate then go into the workplace is difficult. But you being able to navigate all of those changes but also really utilizing that in compound in terms of effectiveness and impact is just truly, I think, a dream for a lot of us who hopefully will graduate and have such an amazing career and path. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on some of the areas that you said you’re super passionate about, especially around economics and maybe the future. What are some of the things that you see, especially in the current environment, that are really interesting for you? And how does that come into play with what you’re doing at work or your other areas of passion, as you’re thinking about, not just what’s happening today, but ways to impact the future? I know tons of Haasies are planning that and trying to see, how do I manage my professional career, but also tie these passions as well. How do you see that from an economics perspective and your work and your passions outside of work as well?
[34:03] Ryan: It’s a great question. What comes to mind for me is I continue to think of double and triple bottom lines. So, I learned about that at Haas. First bottom line being your business bottom line—what’s your dollar profit? Your second bottom line being your social impact—what is the impact of the business that you do in the communities where you do it? And then your third bottom line is around the environment—what is the impact to the environment, even more intangible than just seeing the impact on the people in the communities, the air and the water and the roads and what have you and the biodiversity?
For me, I often think about, how can we try to aspire to more of this circular loop economy where we don’t have this linear economy where you extract natural resources that are on the ground, turn them into some consumable that is then consumed, and then sits in a landfill forever? How do we make this more of a circular loop so that things are sustainable perpetually? So, that’s something that I think about related to business. And how can you essentially bring those concepts and ideas into a business vocabulary and vernacular so that you can convince stakeholders to think more broadly about those further spheres of influence?
So, from an economic standpoint, to me, it comes back to, as I mentioned before, externalities. How do we internalize some of these external costs so that we can take the true impact of business decisions into account? Because I believe that you can have a creative business that can grow with a triple bottom line where you’re actually counting a triple bottom line. And so, I try to think about, how can we get towards more of that type of thinking? How can we get to more of that type of accounting into our business decisions and analysis?
But it’s hard. And some people, I think it also depends on where you are in your career. You see, generationally, some folks are willing to take more risks than others because they’ve either got more or less time left on the clock in their career and what they’re trying to achieve, and whether or not they want to buy that second house with a boat and they just need to make their numbers this quarter or this year or this cycle, and they don’t care about this new idea of accounting for triple bottom line KPI measurements, etc. I find that to be interesting. I also just find it interesting in terms of how people interact in these different systems in the office dynamics and the power dynamics between management and labor and the intersection of all those economic factors on social decisions.
We’re all seeing now that, after the pandemic, there’s so much more to life than just working every day. And we know it’s not really the great resignation anymore. It’s the great reshuffling. People who have a new perspective on how they put value on their time, their energy, their relationships, and choosing to make changes and shifts towards better aligning how they value time, energy, and relationships in the work that they do. And so, I just find all of that. We’re at yet another disruption point. That’s an overused word. Everyone’s a disruptor. No one’s a disruptor. But the pandemic was a disruptor to the previous status quo of a lot of patterns and cadences in the way people approached life. And so, I find, therefore, we’re in a new beginning where lots of things are possible. We can experiment with new things. We can experiment under the, hey, it’s post-COVID, let’s try something new moniker or whatever you need to get yourself air cover. But we’re at a point of lots more experimentation in systems and how people work and allocate their time. And so, I find that interesting when I think about that.
[37:37] Chris: That’s awesome. Ryan, I don’t know if you have a specific organization or a cause that you’d want to promote to other folks. Folks in the past have either talked about specific schools or, in your case, maybe, something around climate or business empowerment. Is there any organization or cause that you think folks in the Berkeley Haas ecosystem should really pay attention to and, maybe, allocate their resources or their time to support as part of the greater efforts that you think are worthwhile?
[38:04] Ryan: It’s a great question. Look, I think sticking on theme for me, I direct my charitable giving every year towards three pillars. So, one is environment and conservation. I bring attention to the California State Park System and the National State Park System. I’m a donor to those organizations each year. I also think about education. And so, I value the educational opportunities I’ve had. And so, I also donate back to Haas. I donate back to Morehouse College and HBCUs and where I went high school as well, because I think it has served me well. And I’d like for those institutions to be able to continue to serve folks who have needs—who have financial needs— because I think they do a great job.
And then, I’d say, lastly, TechnoServe. I volunteered there. I worked with them. I also think that their impact is significant. I just got their email the other day saying that last year they were able to help 2.3 million… impact 2.3 million lives across their footprint in terms of lifting them out of poverty, giving them opportunities and access to employment and entrepreneurship and business and income. And so, for me, I tend to donate and have relationships with organizations or institutions that I have experience with. And so, those are the ones that I would suggest or raise attention to. But there are so many good ones. I tend to try to also follow along on the folks who’ve done the work in figuring out which institutions are good at putting their programming dollars to use. So, I know that there is a website out there that is like DonorsChoose or something like that. I’m probably misquoting it. But I think those are good ideas. I mentioned MacKenzie Scott. I think she’s doing good things. Probably, go find a list of the organizations she has donated to, and just follow along in her footsteps. Why? Because she’s already done the work in figuring out which institutions are good at what they do. And therefore, I’m not going to recreate the wheel on that. I’m going to trust those decisions.
[39:56] Chris: Ryan, we definitely appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation and to have you as a guest on the show. As per tradition, we tend to end with a lightning round, some really fun and fast questions. And so, if you’d be down for it, we’d love to go through some of them that we’ve prepped for today.
[40:10] Ryan: Oh, absolutely, please.
[40:12] Chris: First and foremost, as a Bay Area native, San Francisco native, one of the questions we always ask is what’s one of your favorite places to eat in the Bay Area? So, Ryan, what’s your recommendation for a place to get food?
[40:24] Ryan: You guys are good. To tell you, in high school, I wrote a book with my friend that we never published. It was called “San Francisco’s Top 10 for Under 10,” where you could get meal, tax, tip, and beverage for under 10 bucks. Unfortunately, with inflation, that doesn’t really exist anymore. But one of the places I’ll name is… Look, one of my favorite taquerias is Taqueria Cancun. It’s on Mission in 19th in San Francisco. Everybody’s got their favorite taqueria. And so, I know that that’s bound to cause some controversy. But for me, that’s one of my favorites.
[40:59] Chris: That’s awesome. Next question, what was one of your favorite classes that you took while you were at the business school?
[41:05] Ryan: That one is a hard one, I have to admit. So, I’m going to say it’s a three-way tie. I’m going to dodge the question and give three. And so, one of them is certainly organizational behavior. I’m forgetting the professor’s name there. It was a woman. But it was incredible. I just learned so much about how organizational design influences interactions and decisions and power dynamics, etc. And that was a discipline I wasn’t aware of. So, I’d say that one certainly. And then it’s probably the other two classes that I’ve mentioned, the Dr. Severin Borenstein’s energy markets class—I don’t know what the title of it is anymore—where we did lots of game theory around oil prices and oil production levels. We did a game theory exercise where we were all different OPEC nations, and we gained out different scenarios. That one was really interesting and very educational for me. And then the energy infrastructure finance class that was cross-registered at the law school. Opened up my mind to, how do you actually produce and develop these cross-state, cross-jurisdiction, cross-funding bodies where you have so many complex stakeholders with different incentives at play in different timelines? And how do you actually get that stuff built, specifically, power lines? They’re regulated by FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in the state of California by the CUPC, the California Public Utilities Commission, and funders, and consortiums of funders with debt covenants. And I didn’t know what a debt covenant was before that class. And so, I think that one was really educational for me as well.
[42:37] Chris: Awesome. And then two more questions. What’s one piece of advice or one that either you’ve received or that you give to folks, whether it’s a professional or personal capacity?
[42:48] Ryan: Good question. I would say, if I move out of the business realm for a minute, I’d say a piece of advice that I received recently was actually around emotional intelligence from my therapist. And it’s around creating and setting boundaries. I think personal boundaries allow you to love yourself and love others at the same time, which means you are able to communicate what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. And I think if I then translate that very personal emotional intelligence skill into the business realm, it means thinking about what are your personal boundaries around work? What are your personal boundaries around communication? What are your passion areas, and therefore, things that you really enjoy doing and want to work on? And maybe things that you’re less interested in? But if you can think about and reflect on what your personal boundaries are, it’ll make you more confident and self-sufficient and just empowered individual to communicate clearly, which I think increases understanding, and therefore, empathy, and therefore, collaboration and alignment overall. And so, that’s a piece of advice that I recently received that I would give to the others.
[43:59] Chris: And last question, Ryan, what’s one thing that gets you excited about the future?
[44:03] Ryan: One thing that gets me excited about the future. I think that people say technology or what have you in lots of different ways, applied in different ways and businesses. I think what gets me excited about the future is all the people in underdeveloped economies that are now being connected to us and the new oceans of ideas that I think we’ll be able to be connected to the already connected parts of the world and create new discoveries and new ideas and ways of doing things. We’ve still been operating under the Western civilization way of doing things for the past several hundred years. And I think, as globalization and connectivity and internet is coming about and costs are being lowered, so access is broadened to larger population groups, new things are going to happen. And I’m excited about that and what’s going to come out of the continent of Africa and Latin America and parts of Asia that are later in their development. That stuff’s exciting to me.
[45:00] Chris: Awesome. Ryan, it’s been amazing to be in conversation today, I just want to say. Thanks again for joining us on the podcast. And we wish you all the best in the future.
[45:10] Ryan: Thank you so much, Chris. It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for the invite. And this is my first podcast and it was a great experience. So, thank you for making it so.
[45:18] Outro: Thanks again for tuning in to this episode of the OneHaas Podcast. Enjoyed our show today? Please remember to hit that Subscribe or Follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate you giving us a five-star rating and review.
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