Interview with Miles Braxton, of Goldman Sachs Renewable Power Group
What are some specific ways we can bring greater diversity, equity & inclusion to the clean energy industry? I spoke w/Miles Braxton of Goldman Sachs Renewable Power Group about his exciting new initiative, BlackOak Collective, which brings together advocates & Black & Indigenous people of color working in sustainability for networking, mentorship, job opportunities, education & more. Miles was awarded the Leadership in Green Power Education Award from the EPA & CRS, & the JEDI Champion Award from CELI for his efforts in diversifying the clean energy candidate pool. BlackOak Collective is the latest addition to these successful efforts.
Catherine: I’m Catherine McLean, CEO of Dylan Green, and today I have with me Miles Braxton. Welcome Miles!
Miles: Thanks for having me Catherine, I’m really excited.
Catherine: So Miles is an analyst at Goldman Sachs, in the Renewable Power Group there. And he’s also the co-founder of BlackOak, which he is going to tell us about a little bit later. So introduce yourself Miles, tell us about your career to date.
Miles: Yeah, it’s definitely felt longer than a two and a half year journey, for sure. I’m Miles Braxton, I graduated from University of Virginia in 2018 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Science. I started my career in clean energy, I knew I wanted to get involved early on. I transitioned from my first job to a developer based out of DC, called Soul Systems, where I was an analyst and associate there with the business development team. And now working on BlackOaks’s initiatives and balancing that with my full time job at Goldman Sachs.
Catherine: I want to talk about your career journey to date because you’ve given some really interesting stats on LinkedIn and you’ve been very vocal about how hard it was for you to get into the industry. And how you’re really trying to help people your age get into this space. Tell us a bit about that and how you’re trying to help these folks.
Miles: Yeah, so we’ve always been advocates of getting more people who look like me, more people of color, black people into sustainability fields, environmental fields, actually, clean energy with kind of the momentum we have politically right now. There is just a lot more opportunity than there was two years ago when I was trying to break into the industry. I was very fortunate to have a lot of internships, albeit unpaid, throughout my college career, and really got experience within the field. And started off as a fellow making $15/hour, but knew that, hopefully, it would pay off in the long run. And just given the trajectory of the industry itself, I think it will, but very adamant about getting more BIPOC candidates at least in candidate pools of corporate organizations who are centered around environmental fields. Because we look past the bottom line, at who climate change is first in directly affecting, typically it’s low to moderate income and people of color. So, I think, people who look like me should have a stake in our environmental future as well.
Catherine: Is that what BlackOak is?
Miles: Yes, so BlackOak Collective, it’s a collective of black professionals and advocates in environmental fields, and we do a few things. First of all, it stands as a networking opportunity, because there are not a lot of us in the environmental fields, so every chance we have, whether that’s across sectors, whether it’s someone working in clean energy insurance or finance and someone who’s on the development front, or doing ESG data collection stuff, we want to foster a collaboration between those groups, because we think that that is only going to add value to other professionals in different sub sectors of the environment. So that’s first of all, then we also work with corporate groups, different solar developers across the DMV area, different whether it’s clean energy finance or different sub sectors of the environment, conservation, ocean conservation, things like that, and work with them to diversify their candidate pools by hosting recruiting events for their organization. Panels where their employees get to speak to our members about what is the Virginia Conservation Network, who we are happy to partner with as our first partner, which is exciting. So, things like that and we just really want to get more exposure to our members and black professionals, young professionals seeking to break into the field.
Catherine: I think that sounds like a great initiative. And I just want to go back quickly to what brought that about for you, like what your career journey was like. You have been vocal about things like working with recruiters, applying for jobs and not getting feedback. Can you talk a little bit more about that experience?
Miles: Yeah, sure. It was definitely a rough patch for me, coming out of college in 2018. I applied for a lot of positions, it was coming up on when I was graduating, it was like May 21st and I still didn’t really know what I was doing after college. Between, probably, November of 2017 and graduation I had applied for 72 different positions and had only heard back from about 12 of those. So, just getting to May, through those seven months was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m gonna be unemployed. I’ve worked really hard for this degree but what do I really have to show for it, if I don’t have a job?” And a lot of my colleagues, who are on the engineering side, and in computer science, they’re getting these six-figure offers, like right in their sophomore and junior years. So it was just really stressful dealing with that. And out of the 12 that actually replied, I was only given about 4 interviews. And at that point I said that, I know that clean energy is something that I want to get more experience in. So I’m willing to do either like an internship or fellowship, but I did not have an initial full-time job coming out of college. And that was definitely humbling for me but also allowed me to share that message with everybody else, like: “Hey, it doesn’t always work.” You know, the ideal scenario is you know what you’re going to do after graduation but there is a route of just sticking to what you’re interested in, building your skill sets, and being able to relay those to the next opportunity. Yeah, that was humbling for me but it was definitely an opportunity. So out of the 72 places that I applied, I had 2 job offers and they were both coming in around $15/hour. So I was living with my mom at the time and commuting to Herndon, Virginia from Prince Georges county, so it was like an hour and a half commute to and an hour and a half back, and kept that up for about 6 or 7 months or so before starting at Soul System. Yeah, it’s definitely a journey.
Catherine: I just think, though, it’s so important for people your age, like younger people, and this is another reason why I really wanted to do this, it’s not just focus on senior leaders but focus on these up and coming junior leaders that are really trying to help others in their age range to get into this space. And it shows you that with grit and resilience you can make it happen. Tell me what made you decide to get into clean energy in general?
Miles: Yeah, great question. I talk about this a lot in interviews like this but I was really fortunate to have some good mentors. Starting off in high school, I had my math teacher, who was my math teacher from my sophomore year in high school to my senior year, was just fantastic. He had bought a Chevy Volt in 2011, which was revolutionary at the time, being one of the first commercial EVs. And everyday he would come into the classroom and write a tick on the board for everyday he didn’t have to purchase gas. At the end of the first quarter, there was a whole part of the chalkboard he couldn’t use because it was full of tick marks. I was like, ok this is pretty interesting not from a sustainability standpoint but just from a cost saving standpoint. So we started talking about that. And me and one of my close friends, William, would stay back after school and calculate, okay if there were 50,000 Mr. Stevens on the planet what would the carbon outlook look like in 2050? So those were things that I was fortunate to have mentors that planted those seeds early on and things that I was starting to think about. So when I got to college and saw that, clean energy is actually a thing, there are professors here at UVA studying photovoltaics, and things like that. I got involved with, I was fortunate to have a chance to be in the father of photonics lab, Dr. Mukhtar, at UVA, and worked in his lab building perovskite solar cells for about 6 months. So, I thought I wanted to work in a lab but after that experience, I didn’t think it was for me, I wanted to be on the other side. I’ve just had some really good mentors and experience and experts who have really shed a lot of light in the field. And it’s a win win too, because you can always get involved with something you’re passionate about but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s helping others directly. And I saw this as a mix to not only have an actual career but to, you know, the ethical impacts of clean energy just really stood out to me, and bringing cheaper energy, the cost implications as well, to bring cheaper energy to households to LMI households, to underrepresented minorities as well. So that is something that really stood out to me.
Catherine: Are there any organizations that you currently see within clean energy, that are doing a lot specifically around Diversity Equity Inclusion justice?
Miles: Yeah, I think there are, especially kind of given the summer we had last year with Black Lives Matter protests and demand for equality. Not only as Americans but in the workplace, I think we’ve seen a big shift in building out committees that are dedicated and revamping committees that are dedicated to these issues. To make sure that, there’s a budget for this, we’re not only recruiting and making sure we have the right, you know we’re getting the right candidates, but also sponsoring different organizations like the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, different things like that. I think companies are doing a much better job of building a responsibility task force that is given that responsibility. And one that stands out to me, that I had a chance to be on the committee, at that Soul Systems, they’ve done a great job of setting out budgets to donate to different organizations on an annual basis. And also get involved in mentoring and sponsoring mainly underrepresented minority students that are in high school, and in middle school to learn about clean energy. If you’re able to plant that seed early on, there’s no telling what that can sprout into, what those students can do with that.
Catherine: Yeah, and I think it’s great for those companies because it then becomes easier on those companies to have diverse candidate pools when we’ve planted those seeds earlier and earlier. Hopefully in 10-15 years it’s not so hard, it’s inherent, rather than having to go out and fight for it. So the last thing I want to cover is just how people can get involved in BlackOak? And how they can help? Do you need to be a minority? Can anyone get involved? Tell us more!
Miles: Yeah, great question. So, obviously our target for membership, we do want to help BIPOC professionals and advocates, black indigenous peoples of color, get involved and really transition into the industry and that doesn’t necessarily mean young professionals. Either they are young people in finance who work on the investment banking side, who want to work on the investment side of renewable energy. Or there are different transitions that we see that candidates have the skillset for but don’t necessarily have the networks to get exactly where they want to be, kind of pivoting into clean energy and sustainability environmental fields all together. So I definitely say that in terms of membership, in terms of partnership, a big part of our business plan and how we engage our members. We have different levels of partnerships, we partner with corporates and non-profits, to really just give more exposure to our members and potential members, and really accentuate. Our mission of bridging the gap in sustainable hiring. So, our corporate partners have a bunch of different faces, whether those are really small grassroots nonprofits, larger non-profits, even corporate clean energy development companies, and in other companies. Definitely a lot of perks for our partners as well having direct access to our members, our membership database, where you know they’re sharing information about their professional careers, their resumes, their experience, things like that.
Catherine: So these employers, these companies can advertise roles that they;re working on or internship opportunities, that sort of thing.
Miles: Yeah, and you know part of those packages is we’ll list opportunities that are coming from the employers, in our newsletter, and on our budding opportunities job board, that’s publicly available for everyone to see.
Catherine: And what’s the website? Give it a plug.
Miles: Yeah, blackoakcollective.org
Catherine: I like that name. It’s very powerful. I like it. Anyway, thank you so much for joining me today, Miles, I really appreciate it. I think that this conversation is going to help a lot of people who were in your situation who are trying to better themselves and stay positive, if you’ve given them some hope today.
Miles: Thanks so much for having me, Catherine.