Graduate students often find themselves pondering big questions about their future. Do I ultimately want to work in the private or public sector? Where will my work have the most impact? How do I apply what I am learning in classes to the real world? There is no one better to provide insight to these questions than someone who has been in our shoes. I sat down with Kim Lundgren, a UEP alum and the founder and CEO of Kim Lundgren Associates, Inc. (KLA). She also happens to be my boss. We discussed her path to founding a consulting firm helping local governments combat climate change and create more sustainable futures, the importance of equity-based climate action, the influence of a UEP education, and more.
MP: Can you share a couple highlights of your career path before starting KLA?
KL: One of the most significant moments that led to me getting into the climate change arena happened while I was at UEP. I had been working in the hazardous waste field and I really did not enjoy it. I remember going into Julian [Agyeman]’s office so frustrated with my work there. He told me he just heard that the City of Medford needed someone to write their climate action plan. He gave me their contact information, I reached out to the City, I interviewed, and they pretty much hired me on the spot. This was literally 2000, so I didn’t know what a climate action plan was, but I figured it out. That job was a key pathway for me building my own business because I was hired to build something that nobody had done before, which became a theme for every job after that. I wrote the first climate action plan in Massachusetts. I built a whole new department in Medford—the Office of Energy & Environment. At ICLEI, I was hired to build a whole new regional office in Boston and then went on to build all the regional offices around the country. At VHB, I was hired to build their Climate & Energy practice. My pathway always entailed me building something from nothing. It really set me up to have my own business and have the confidence to do it because I look back on it and realize I have always been doing it.
“I 100-percent would not be where I am today if I didn’t go to UEP. It completely changed my outlook, my perspective, and it connected me to that key job in the City of Medford that was the foundation for all of this.”
MP: What made you ultimately decide to start your own company?
KL: That was kind of just a no-brainer for me. You know I am a rule breaker most of the time. I am an ask-for-forgiveness-not-permission person. Having worked in government, non-profit, and for-profit consulting, I had a really good balance of the different perspectives and how to work with them. But in every job, I was hindered by a ceiling—whether it be a boss, politics, or profit margins. I realized that to be able to make this work impactful and stop climate change, we can’t have those kinds of limits. To create something new, I needed the space to do that and that was the real reason I started my own business. To create a more sustainable future for all of us, we need to think outside the box, so we need that top opened. We can’t be constrained. I knew I would start a business that had that top wide open.
MP: For those who aren’t familiar with KLA, can you describe the mission of the company?
KL: KLA almost exclusively partners with local governments to help combat climate change and create more sustainable communities. We do that through climate mitigation and adaptation while making sure to bring everyone along for the ride. Equitable engagement and strategic communication about this technical problem is really central to what we do.
“To create a more sustainable future for all of us, we need to think outside the box.”
MP: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
KL: Having been in this field for 20 years—working in a city when no one knew what climate change was to now—has been pretty amazing. For me it’s the impact we can have. If we are working in a city and a mayor has a lightbulb go off and she is all of a sudden ready to lead and take action, that’s huge. It could even be an individual: maybe we connect with a climate denier and we bring them into a conversation that helps them see that the things they care most about will be completely disrupted or destroyed by climate change. We get them thinking differently about this issue.
The other thing I would say is working with my team. Just having that brain trust and being able to powwow. I am much better when I am able to feed off other people’s ideas and work together.
MP: What do you see as the most challenging part of working in the private consultant sphere?
KL: Dollars. My whole thinking in running a for-profit business is that climate change needs to become an important enough issue for people that they become willing to pay for it. Once they do, we know that they value it and are really serious about taking action. But the challenge there is that you’ve got to keep bringing in the money. At the local level, governments are paying for climate action planning, but they usually aren’t paying enough to be able to do everything the way we know it needs to be done to have its true impact.
MP: What advice would you give to students and early professionals weighing the choice of working in the public or private sphere?
KL: I think both are valuable. I am a better consultant because I have been in our clients’ shoes. Which you try first really depends on the opportunity. You need to think less about whether it is public or private and more about what the opportunity brings you. You could be in a great public position and have a terrible boss that isn’t a mentor and isn’t helping you professionally. You could have that same experience in the private sector. Ultimately, public, private, non-profit—you are always going to be working with humans, so I think the situations are the same. Other factors folks can be thinking about as they are weighing opportunities is where does this get me? What can I actually be learning? Will you be in a position where you are just going to be doing the same thing all day or does it have more diversity that allows you to dip your toes in different places? What kind of upward potential is there? That is all more important than what kind of organization it is.
“If you are driven by your passion, it doesn’t matter where you are working.”
MP: What are the biggest lessons you took from UEP into the rest of your career?
KL: Believe it or not, when I came to UEP, I was all on the environmental side. I was an environmental science major and was all about protecting the planet and animals, and was like: “Forget humans! They’re the worst. We are ruining everything.” I really had that mentality, but UEP 100-percent gave me a focus on the importance of humans and seeing social disparities and inequities. One of the things I am most proud of is how the climate field—and KLA in particular—is using climate action planning as an opportunity to address structures of discrimination and inequities. Especially in a small town, we can address so many issues at the same time and help people understand how it is really important to do that. That is such a huge win. I think I would have eventually gotten there, but UEP got me there sooner.
Another thing I can credit to UEP is that it gave me a lot more confidence in public speaking. I hadn’t done much public speaking prior to that, and in high school I literally had teachers making fun of me, so I questioned my ability. I ended up taking a news reporting class at BU and it helped me communicate this very technical topic to a general audience. I’ve never claimed to have the best vocabulary and I always saw it as a flaw, but honestly, I think it helps me communicate better with the general public about climate change. I know more of the words now, but I can also tone down my conversation and have a natural, easy dialogue with anyone about climate change without making them feel stupid. You don’t need words that have seven syllables! We have to meet people where they are.
MP: How have you stayed connected with other UEP alums in your professional life?
KL: I’ve stayed pretty well connected with other UEPers. We have four of us on a team of 12, so that’s pretty good. Everywhere I turn in this field are other UEPers. The practical visionaries piece really spoke to me and still does. Once I learn something new, I want to go apply it immediately. Anyone who is attracted to that model is someone I would do well working with.