Interview with Dawn James, Global Director of Industry Strategy - Energy & Sustainability at Microsoft
What does it take to lead sustainability initiatives for a Fortune 500 company like Microsoft? I spoke with Dawn James about this as well as her career journey from creating predictive models for water management to energy and sustainability strategy at Microsoft. We also spoke about Microsoft’s latest sustainability initiatives, designed to cut its carbon emissions by more than half by 2030; Dawn’s work with Greentown Labs; & Diversity in Clean Energy (DiCE), an action-based coalition involving Duke Energy Corporation, Microsoft, T-Mobile, & Kroger. Thank you, Dawn, for sharing your insights, including why self-care & advocating for yourself are essential when it comes to progressing in your clean energy career.
Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Dawn James. Dawn is based out of Houston, Texas, and she’s the director of global industry strategy at Microsoft. Welcome, Dawn.
Dawn: Thank you. Great to be here.
Catherine: I’m really excited to have you join us today. I know we met in New York at SEIA event a few months ago, and you said that you’d be open to doing this as your schedule got a little clearer. And so I’ve stayed on you. And I’m excited about it.
Dawn: Excited to be here.
Catherine: I wanted to thank you, again, congrats as well on recently being recognized by Duke Energy, for your outstanding contributions and sustainability, innovation and solutions, as well as being named a 2022 Women in Smart Energy award winner. So tell us a little bit about yourself in your current role.
Dawn: Yeah, absolutely. So as you mentioned, I’m director for industry strategy, I focus on energy and sustainability, which is in line with my background. In the role, I focus on aligning business and industry challenges to solutions. And these solutions span the entire Microsoft portfolio, I focus on customer innovation in the energy space, I do a lot of work and energy transition. And then I also focus on sustainability. And as you know, stability is just just a really broad topic. So I focus I look at its challenges around ESG sustainability. And then different caveats up there from there. I focus on energy, but I also, in some of my previous roles, looked across all of our prioritize sectors, and was doing a lot of customer work with sustainability within manufacturing, health care, so I’ve been able to kind of expand myself since I’ve been here at Microsoft and learn a lot, and then also really see how sustainability is applied across the board across different sectors, across a lot of different business challenges. I work across Microsoft, we have kind of a one Microsoft mission. So I work with our enterprise, commercial industry team for energy, I partner with a lot of our key stakeholders, I work with our engineering and our business groups there, as well as our global partner solution group. And I helped to scale motions and plays across our portfolio and be able to serve our customers around digital maturity, looking at their sustainability roadmap, and how do we digitally enable that. And, also, one of the things I really love doing is the work around innovation in the space so we know we’ve been in the space for a long time. Sustainability isn’t new to the business sector, to the commercial side. However, what we’re doing now in this in this 2022, it feels new, what is new, so there’s so much going on so much energy, in the innovation in the startup side of things, and then also the reinvigoration around some of the renewables, which is why we met at SEIA. And so I love really looking at this new space that’s kind of emergent merging around the business of sustainability.
Catherine: Yeah, yeah, no, it definitely feels like there’s a nice fresh air. And super exciting it is. So we’re going to try and make the air fresher. Hopefully.
Dawn: That’s the idea. That’s the idea.
Catherine: So I know you studied geology in college and previously worked in water resource management. Did you always plan to work in tech and sustainability? Like how did you make your way into your current role?
Dawn: No, it definitely wasn’t the plan when I went to college or there right after I left that it wasn’t really thinking about it in those terms. I’ve always had a relationship with tech for sure. I’ve always been good at picking up applications and I did numerical modeling. I was always very strong in the sciences and in math. And so when I worked, you mentioned water resources. When I worked for the USGS, and water resources management, I did a lot of subsurface water modeling, numerical modeling and how it tied to different environmental challenges. Now on that side of things, it was more from a knowledge base and more of like an a scientific type of study that we did. A number of studies that have been published works that I’ve done with the USGS. However, when I moved into the energy sector, one of the things that I was really looking at was how to transfer some of those skill sets from the numerical modeling time to how do we model reservoir systems. And it was interesting when I first started working in energy, that was the thing that when VP at an EMP company, he pulled that out of my resume, I didn’t have energy experience putting, so you’ve been doing all the subsurface modeling for water, this is just a different type of fluid, it’s the same similar physics. And it turned out that the work that I’ve been doing in numerical modeling was really the back end of you know I worked just with running algorithms through a compiler, doing the pre and post processing by hand using Excel and separate those. But we did all of our pre and post pasta processing ourselves, but when I came into the energy sector, there were applications that performed all of those type of running of algorithms where you didn’t have to actually do it by hand. And so I actually knew a lot more about being able to run those applications than I thought I did. And so being able to do geologic modeling for oil and gas energy industry it came second nature. And I learned really, really quickly, and that BP was right. He brought me to the company, and I picked it up because obviously, I have a very strong geoscience background. And I knew modeling. And it was just looking at different fluids, similar physics.
Catherine: But how great is that, though, that you didn’t have to be the one doing the convincing, that I can do this. He was like, I see this, you can do this, let’s go. That’s awesome.
Dawn: Absolutely. And I think that that’s one of the things about my career in some, in some instances, it’s me pushing and saying that I can do this, and I want to do it, do it. And then it’s other times where someone has said, I see something in you. Yeah, let’s give that a shot.
Catherine: A mix. Yeah. So Microsoft has so much going on when it comes to sustainability. Most recently, with its launch of the Microsoft Sustainability Cloud, as well as Carbon Call a new initiative, Microsoft announced with Climate Works Foundation and over 20 other organizations, what sustainability work are you most excited about to work on at Microsoft, and why?
Dawn: Well, it’s hard to whittle it down. Because I love being in this kind of innovative space I sometimes I say that it feels like being in the wild, wild west a little bit. Things just kind of happening, organically doing things for the very first time, and then trying to solve very difficult challenges. One of the things I enjoy about working with Microsoft is that we have a very clear core mission around sustainability, it gives us a clear direction from the top down, and everyone can talk to our mission, no matter what role you have, sustainability is everybody’s job. That’s one thing that I love, it doesn’t matter if sustainability is in your title or not, there’s something that you can contribute tangibly, to helping Microsoft board its mission, which at the core is around for Microsoft to do better, the planet has to do better. So there’s a real passion around purpose aligned values and tangible impact. So at the core I know that when I speak about it, I can get passionate about it, because that aligns with my values, right. So it’s something that I really care about. And so part of the core mission is around inclusivity, having holistic, and eco system type solutions, that is including the entire sphere of influence that Microsoft wields, which it empowers us as employees. And then it also helps us to really go down this journey with our customers with our partners to reimagine the world in a more inclusive and sustainable way. So that’s like the main thing that I’m very excited about. And I think the things that I tend to spend a lot of time on, are really these tech based solutions around the decarbonizing question. I think if you ask them next week, it’ll probably be something else. Because I’m always doing something new, which is one of the reasons I love my job, I get to do it all the time. But that’s what I’ve really been talking with a lot of our customers about and really having these beautiful ideas, holistic, inclusive, equitable, but then also the engineering, the science, the innovation around some of these technology based solutions. I’m a true believer that it’s going to take all the solutions, all hands on deck today. But it’s very enlightening to see so many organizations, especially in the energy sector, and I’m including utilities, power utilities, oil and gas mining, that are all in around decarbonization, looking at what are the core business challenges. Looking at: what are the existing infrastructure, core solutions and organizational type of operations? How can we apply innovation to those areas? How can we start applying decarbonisation efforts to products and solutions? How can we reimagine revenue streams, business models, right? So then when I work with energy companies there’s a lot of talk around direct air capture CCUS, carbon management systems, battery storage, hydrogen, and there’s just an incredible; I sit on the board of Greentown Labs, as well as the largest green tech incubator in the United States. And there is just incredible innovation in the startup space, and being able to talk to entrepreneurs graduates of the corporate world, and just the ideas that people are coming up with, and then being able to have a juggernaut like Microsoft to be able to be able to reach out across their sphere of influence to be able to enable these types of solutions is incredibly exciting.
Catherine: Yeah, it really is. That is one of the things that’s most exciting about what’s happening now is that it involves all of us. There isn’t one answer. It’s not like, Okay, everybody that’s useful; that’s so exciting. It’s that all of us play a part in it, like all the technologies. We all can get involved and have a full dance card. So I wanted to talk a bit about environmental justice. Something I know that you’re very passionate about. Can you give us some specific examples in ways that Microsoft is making serious and real commitments in terms of racial equality as they build their environmental pledges.
Dawn: Yeah, so I mentioned some of our core mission. And a part of Microsoft’s core mission is around environmental justice and equity. And we are committed to addressing racial racial injustice, and inequity within the United States, specifically targeting Black and African Americans targeting underserved communities, LGBTQ women so we’ve been really focused on how to improve the lived experiences. And I think that’s really important. It’s not just how do we have something to announce right here and there, but it’s projects that have true impact to communities and the communities that employees come from. Right. So I mentioned that every person within Microsoft, whether or not you’d have standalone your job, if you have a passionate about it, there is a space for you to work and same thing around environmental justice and equality and equity, racial equity, there’s a number of initiatives that focuses on multi year pillars and being able to kind of push tangible action in progress, right and then we have milestones and dates that that So an example is Microsoft work with volt energy, which is a black owned solar company.
Catherine: He’s a friend of mine. He just had a little baby!
Dawn: Oh I didn’t know! So his company Volt Energy, we entered a PPA with Volt Energy. And we have a commitment to be using 100% renewable energy by 2025. And it’s not just Microsoft other organizations as well have these types of commitments around renewable energy as part of their net net zero carbon goals, but being able to infuse equity and environmental justice in that. So making sure that we’re purchasing, putting out some of these PV engaging in these PPAs, with black owned, underserved communities and organizations that actually serve the communities are part of the communities. And this is really showing how we infuse this kind of twin mission between yesterday, and environmental justice, racial justice, and being connected. And this is one of the things too, that I mentioned that when, when we’re when we’re looking at how corporations now are entering this kind of new age around sustainability, because it’s in all of our phases, we’re all I don’t think there’s any person on the planet that is not being affected in one way or another. As we move forward. It’s not just about okay, all hands on deck, but it’s also about transparency, and making sure that we do that we make these changes moving forward in an equitable way. And this is just one of the tangible solutions where Microsoft purchased 250 megawatts of solar power, from Volt Energy, to power one of our data centers to help reach our pledge, and then we’re continuing on with that. And continuing we have certain goals within our vendor Code of Business Conduct and how you make sure that we are diverse across which vendors we choose and how we choose them. And there’s several initiatives that go into that same with our partner network, where we have certain outreach programs, not just for who’s supplying Microsoft, but then also the impact that they provide to the communities. We have a philanthropies department as well. And I personally have done quite a bit of work with them, where we kind of bridge this gap between the commercial side of the business, and also how we sponsor and support minority owned businesses.
Catherine: Yeah, that’s just really great Dawn. I’s so exciting and the two really just lend themselves so nicely to each other. The environment and social justice. I want to talk about DICE. Next, which again, is in that Diversity in Clean Energy. I know that you’re a member of the DICE advisory board. Can you talk about the impact DICE is having in the organizations involved with this initiative?
Dawn: Sure. Yeah. So we’re getting off the ground we’ve been together for, I would say, about a year. And I think that DICE is an example of just an amazing effort that starts from an idea. Amy Bond came up with the idea from T Mobile and work with Cheryl Comber from Duke Energy. And really, we saw a problem and it’s something that we hear this question sometimes, or the statement, made by organizations while we would love to hire more minority owned, women owned, but we don’t know where to find them, where are they. So I think that those of us that sit in these groups, were waving our hands and we’re like, we’re here. But DICE, I think, is a concrete way that, I wouldn’t say eliminates the need for that question. But it makes it harder for that question to keep being asked. So it’s really just driving towards a more diverse, inclusive equitable practice around sourcing supply chain and supplier selection. So just like I mentioned Microsoft, we have a mission around being more diverse, especially around our supply chain, and across our clean energy value chain, to meet some of our goals. And we have equity built into that we have used Volt Energy as part of DICE and DICE’s coalition. And Microsoft is also funding through our tech for societal impact. We’re funding the database that’s being built out to house the diverse suppliers within the DICE coalition. And then we are looking to create visibility for these diverse owned businesses, through changing that status quo, and streamlining the process for being able to be included in corporate initiatives. So this is the place where corporations can come be members, and also diverse owned businesses can come and be part of the database. And within Microsoft, it’s gotten a lot of support. So we have some senior level support in our executive suite, which is wonderful. It’s great. It’s one thing for me to be really passionate. And it’s another thing when you see senior executives, get on board and really support and help out. So it’s been a beautiful journey, it’s continuing. And I just love that it is action based. It’s an action, we’re moving forward. We were working with Microsoft, along with Duke Energy, Kroger, T Mobile, GE. And we’re really looking to kind of bring together a unique set of perspectives, between utilities and corporations to give visibility to diverse businesses within the clean energy sector.
Catherine: That’s wonderful. So what advice or what advice do you have for others looking to follow in your footsteps? What advice would you give to those looking for impactful mentors, women focus sustainability networking groups, or anything else that like helped you enter and succeed in the world of sustainability?
Dawn: Yeah, one of the things that I think about that has been pivotal for me, is leaning into what makes you unique. I think that when you really understand your skill sets, and what you love to do, and you bring those things together, and then you embrace that within your personal story, it makes you uniquely qualified to do whatever it is that you focus your mind on. And leaning in to that uniqueness. sets you apart from other people. I think that that’s been something that’s been very enabling for me, once I was able to really kind of find myself in a way, yeah. And then being able to look at my skill set, because that’s one of the things that it wasn’t easy, right? Like we kind of talked about a little bit before, sometimes it’s me rolling that boulder up the hill. And I would say 95% of the time, it’s me rolling the boulder. And banging on a lot of doors and waving my hands and saying, I’m unique, I’m unique and special, you know? And I can do it, I can do it, just give me a chance. And it’s not always up to other people to recognize your potential. Sometimes you have to absolutely toot your own horn and find a way to brand yourself. It’s a different kind of branding, the way I see it. The way I see it is just leaning into your authentic self. And yes, being intentional about your path. And then learning what makes you unique, and then leaning into that. Other advice, I would say is, it’s important to find your professional family, work family, finding people with that shared interests that shared passion communities, the forms, the different organizations and groups. And I haven’t a little methodology for that, as far as you know, finding people that you resonate with and people that you can laugh with, and are in your professional circle, and growing that. I would say also that it’s really important to watch what people do, not so much what they say, and don’t align yourself. aligned.
Catherine: Isn’t that the truth? I trust all people that are at the buffet bar. I like Dawn because she likes food. Two very important things to me and a friend. Right? She likes to eat and drink.
Dawn: You know me, I like my happy hours.
Catherine: We’ll give a shout out to EDPR New York. Office, it turned out was a good buffet bar.
Dawn: Oh, yeah, that was delicious. Yeah, so yeah, that piece of it. And then I think one of the things in this stage of my career is taking care of your mental health to take care of your physical health. I think that if I were to really look back on times, when I wasn’t as engaged in my career, I was just tired.
Catherine: Yeah. Yeah, well, you’re a mom, too.
Dawn: Yeah, there’s that. I’m a single mom. Yeah, that’s a big part of it is that it’s sometimes it’s hard to show up when you’re tired, it’s hard to show up when other parts of your life are not aligned so you have to take care of yourself, you have to take your time off, take your vacations, go to the doctor, right. And then do the things that set your mind at ease. And I think that learning that for myself has been very instrumental and how I show up every day so for me, one of the things that I’ve always meditated when I learned when I was very young, and I was like, I know, that’s something that I was studying how to be something special like you have a special time and a place in the pillow and I finally started leaning into meditation as an exercise, as opposed to something that you just do and have nothing to do. And meditation, yoga, exercise, drinking your water, it is a mantra for me, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t do that part that really settles where it’s not it aligns me where I’m not chasing the day, right? I’m content, I’m set and my mind is free. And that makes just a huge difference. And being able to solve problems, challenges that all of these very complex things that we’re thinking through complex problems and, and complex thinking that we’re that we’re doing every day, and just being able to show up just being able to show up as yourself being able to smile every day. I think that for me it is just if I were able to talk to my younger self or talk to my mentor, take care of your mental health. It goes a long way.
Catherine: Wear plenty of sunscreen.
Dawn: Exactly. Take care of your skin, it’s the only skin you have.
Catherine: Well, Dawn, thank you so much for joining us and I really appreciate all your advice. I think people are gonna find it really, really useful. So thank you so much.
Dawn: Absolutely. It was fun.