Founder and Former CEO, SunEdison, CEO, The Carbon War Room
Some people say Jigar Shah is a visionary. In 2003, he started one of the first successful solar energy companies, SunEdison, by figuring out a way to make solar power profitable. Last year, he sold the company for $200 million.
Today, Shah is the CEO of the Carbon War Room, a global entrepreneurial initiative that embraces battle metaphors and operates in a state of emergency to reinvent the “brand” of climate change. Up to now, he says, “climate change has been synonymous with sacrifice, but it is the largest wealth creation opportunity of our lifetime.”
The Carbon War Room is depending on Shah to forge a path into the uncharted, post-carbon world by drawing on his visionary capabilities.
But he insists that his knack for generating workable ideas for the future is nothing supernatural—he’s just “obsessed by infrastructure,” keenly observant of arrangements and connections. It’s the way his brain works, he says: “I tend to have the ability to be a better systems thinker than most people. When I see three or four different things happening, I can tell how they will manifest themselves in the future.”
Plus, he likes to roll up his sleeves and get his feet wet.
Born in India, Shah moved to Sterling, Illinois with his family when he was one year old. He describes Sterling as a “very weird and amazing place” to grow up, a small farming community of 15,000 people. It used to be the home of Northwestern Steel and Wire, the seventh largest steel mill in the United States, and according to Shah, the mill brought a lot of wealth to the community before it shut down in 2001. But Sterling was also largely sustained by farms that employed migrant workers who comprised one-third of the town’s population. From this vantage point, he says, “I saw the industrialization of the country and I got to know the agricultural side really well. I saw a little bit of everything.”
Shah’s interest in solar energy was born in this spot. And he credits the cultural and economic influences of his early environment for shaping his plain-speaking, practical approach to getting things done.
“That’s my Midwest sensibility,” he says. “A talker isn’t really worth a lot. My thing is, if you can see something, you have to be able to articulate it. If you can’t, maybe it’s useless. If you can see it and articulate it, you have to do it in a fashion that people can actually follow. If people can’t act on it in a way that’s material, then you’re not really successful.”
Manifesting the vision often means trying something 40 different ways, he says, changing tactics every week until something works. The best entrepreneurs will not only take a risk around their salaries, but around their reputations as well. For his part, Shah says he has been ridiculed by some very smart people about his solar energy ideas, but he knows the facts speak for themselves.
“You have to maintain the courage of your convictions, to keep saying something when people are laughing at you,” he says. “It’s not about people respecting me—it’s about people respecting solar.” He brings this tenacious resolve into the Carbon War Room. While he admits there are some “peaceniks” out there who recoil from the war metaphor, Shah defends it: “War is not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s a thing.” A war room is a place of rapid response, he says, an antidote to the “sinister” tendency we have of trying to make change without showing up. But, he says, “That’s what war is—real individuals taking real, concrete actions along a battle plan and actually executing on it. It’s really doing the work.”
And revolutionizing energy use will take decades of “backbreaking” work, he predicts. Change may come fast and furiously in the IT world, but to Shah’s way of thinking, innovation is not an endpoint. “Infrastructure doesn’t change because there’s a superior product, but because there’s a superior ground game that makes that product acceptable.”
Changing the ground game is where Shah excels, and now his efforts have deeper repercussions than ever before. The Carbon War Room has taken an urgent approach to the G20 goal of reducing global emissions to 44 gigatonnes per year by 2020.
“We’re not even close to that trajectory,” Shah says. “At SunEdison, I was not responsible for solving climate change, or even for the solar industry. I was only responsible for making a good return for my investors. You can actually make a huge difference for your investor and not make a bit of difference in the world. At the Carbon War Room, I have to make a gigatonne scale of difference.”