In order to transition to a greener and cleaner future, businesses must lead the way by committing to 100% electric mobility, thus sending a strong signal to society that the transition is happening !

Falgun Patel, our next pathbreaker, Senior Project Officer – Energy Transitions (India) at Climate Group’s India office, engages with Indian businesses on electric mobility adoption & targets, by supporting implementation of their e-mobility plans and building strategic partnerships. 

Falgun talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his experiences working at a large solar and energy storage business, a smaller start-up like setting and a couple of nonprofits in this journey so far, that has broadened his perspective of the complexities involved in dealing with climate change.

For students, our environmental challenges are much deeper than we can possibly imagine, and the solutions need to be as creative as they are technical !

Falgun, what were your early years like?

I grew up in Mumbai. In school, I always enjoyed learning math and science. Our school used to host book exhibitions, where almost each year I’d buy encyclopedias and read them cover to cover. My parents, who both met during their university days studying B.Sc., certainly encouraged all my early interests across subjects – from history to space research to biodiversity to electromagnetism. But learning about energy and machines excited me the most. Remote controlled vehicles were my favorite toy segment!

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BTech in Mechanical Engineering from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavans Sardar Patel College Of Engineering and MS in Mechanical Engineering (with Leaders in Sustainability, Graduate Certificate Program) from University of California, Los Angeles.

My approach has always been to not restrict my interests/learning to one specific topic or theme, but to always keep an open mind. My choices have always been a strategic mix of generally broad and selectively niche.

Since I was good at math and physics in school, pursuing engineering became a logical progression for me. I chose Mechanical Engineering since it seemed to be a versatile and evergreen area: it has adapted itself quite well to changing times, integrating excellently with emerging trends such as electronics, automation and computing. I received this education through a Bachelor of Technology (BTech) degree in Mechanical Engineering from Sardar Patel College of Engineering (SPCE), Mumbai.

In my third year of engineering, I felt that my education and experiences thus far had lacked diversity in perspectives. That’s when I decided to pursue higher education from the USA to get some international exposure and learn about the current technology trends in sustainability and energy from developed markets, and to bring that knowledge back to India some day. 

I applied to a dozen colleges during my final year of BTech, and fortunately got into a Master of Science (MS) in Mechanical Engineering program, as well as a Leaders in Sustainability Graduate Certificate program from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). A course on ‘Smart Grids’, and another on ‘Business and Environment’, seemed particularly interesting to me.

What were the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

The Mechanical Engineering department at SPCE had a college racing team, run mostly by second, third and fourth-year students (sophomores, juniors, seniors), that participated in vehicle design, fabrication and racing competitions organized by Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), India.

The prospect of working on a real-life project and practically applying classroom learning excited me. I ended up volunteering with the racing team since the first year. Instead of enjoying days off on weekends or vacations during term breaks, we spent our time interacting with seniors and learning about how they built all-terrain vehicles and formula vehicles from scratch. 

These interactions helped me learn several technical aspects such as the theory, calculations, software and manufacturing processes involved in assembling a car. Additionally, it also helped me gain some business knowledge: marketing the benefits of the project to internal approvers at the department/institution, raising funds from sponsors, understanding and managing project costs, teams and timelines. Over the years, this proactiveness helped me transition from volunteering to being an active contributor to the 25-member racing team, to then lead the 40 member racing team as Team Captain during my final year of engineering. The automotive sector, and transport overall, became a topic that I couldn’t learn enough about.

Adding to this, during my third year, participating in one particular internship at a coal-fired power plant turned out to be a defining moment for me. We had learnt about energy cycles and boilers and turbines and theory on all kinds of energy equipment in our engineering textbooks. However, seeing all of this equipment, its scale and emissions made me ponder about the impact of coal-powered energy generation on the environment and our planet. 

I made it a personal mission to learn more about climate change, sustainability and decarbonization technologies in energy and transport, and contribute to the cause through my skills and knowledge. Through my Masters degree in Mechanical engineering, a graduate certificate program on ‘Leadership in Sustainability’, and my professional journey so far, I have done exactly that, and hope to continue to do so.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Pursuing higher education is expensive. I was fortunate to have my parents’ support to secure the requisite bank loans. I’ve been told that breaking down complex concepts into simple and understandable information is one of my strengths. Utilizing this strength, I earnt Teaching Assistantship positions during two out of three quarters of my tenure, which offered a substantial scholarship and stipend to make my higher education much more affordable.

Education in the USA provided the flexibility to select courses that interested me the most, rather than following a pre-set syllabus. During the MS, I not only studied core courses such as Design and analysis of smart grids, Nanoscience for energy, Fluid dynamics, Mechanical design, but also picked up courses across other departments/schools such as Leaders in sustainability and Business and environment (at the Anderson School of Management – a course designed for MBA students). I also led an energy efficiency project at the Renewable Energy Association at UCLA, seeking LEED certification for one of the undergraduate residence facilities.

My plan was always to work in the US for a 3-year period (standard visa tenure for engineering masters students), recuperate my investments, learn from leading businesses in the US about their approach towards decarbonizing the energy and transport sectors, and bring those learnings back to India.

Luckily, I ended up getting hired at Tesla as an Incentives Coordinator – my first full-time job. Tesla was a truly model company for me, with a mission that aligned with mine: to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.

Tesla is well-renowned as the company that made electric cars cool. However, a quick google search will show “Tesla: Electric Cars, Solar & Clean Energy” as the first result. Tesla also has a huge focus on clean energy solutions, particularly pronounced after their acquisition of SolarCity. Tesla offers residential solar rooftop solutions (solar panels or ‘solar roof’), battery energy storage solutions for residential customers (Powerwall) as well as commercial or utility-scale solar and energy storage solutions.

To promote renewable energy, governments across the world offer incentives in the form of ‘credits’ for every unit of renewable energy generated. These credits can be traded: entities that can’t produce enough renewable energy buy these credits to offset their emissions. As an Incentives Coordinator, I was responsible for applying to state solar renewable energy credit (SREC) programs on behalf of Tesla or its residential solar and energy storage customers, and to collect/record incentives against renewable energy units generated. My role also involved interacting with multiple electricity utilities across the US to receive permission to operate solar and/or energy storage systems for residential customers.

Unfortunately, in my 11th month in my first job at my dream company, several teams from my office, including my own, were laid off. I did not have enough time to apply for a visa extension while being unemployed and decided to return to India sooner than I’d initially expected. This meant elongating the payback period of my education loan but contributing to India’s clean energy and mobility transition much sooner than I had anticipated.

A couple of months after returning to India, I applied to several jobs through job portals, LinkedIn and cold emails. One of these cold emails to a solar Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) company SolarSquare Energy got answered, and I ended up joining pretty much within a week of speaking to one of the founders. My official title here was ‘Pre-Sales Executive.’ The role involved doing basically everything before a solar project is won – working with channel partners on pursuing leads, conducting site visits for interested prospects, designing solar systems using software and simulations, calculating project costs, modeling savings for customers by comparing with current electricity expenses, presenting pitch decks and negotiating contracts with client leadership, etc.

To leverage my international exposure and also expand my professional interests to the transport sector, I joined the Climate Group next, which is an international non-profit. Here, I helped build our electric mobility workstream in India, engaging with several businesses, partner organizations and governments across the e-mobility ecosystem to raise corporate ambition on EV adoption.

How did you get your first break?

My peers pursuing their masters degrees spent 4-6 quarters to complete their programs. By taking a few extra courses, I was able to complete my credit requirements in 3 quarters. However, getting a job in the US for international students is tough, more so for freshers without work experience. I couldn’t find a job right out of college, even after applying to over 1500 positions over a 5-6 month period. I did not have too many contacts in the USA as a fresh graduate, and initial attempts to network didn’t bear fruit.

To make the most of this time, I decided to remotely volunteer part-time for One Community Global, a non-profit, on improving energy efficiency and designing a renewable microgrid for a concept sustainable-living village. This experience helped me contribute meaningfully to an initiative that I aligned with, and also helped me to continue developing my understanding on the sustainable energy sector while searching for the right role.

After applying to 48 different positions at Tesla through their Careers portal, I ended up getting interviewed (incidentally on my birthday) and fortunately got hired as an Incentives Coordinator – my first full-time job. The interview process for this role was quite straightforward – I received a call from HR first and answered general background questions; the next round involved speaking to the hiring manager who tested a mix of technical aptitude and fit.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: I didn’t get a job immediately out of college

Getting one’s first job is difficult. Personally, I didn’t even know the entire range of opportunities that existed for candidates with my background. What was helpful was being patient, resilient, applying to open positions relentlessly, and most of all, talking to as many people as possible to understand the ‘type’ of jobs available in my target industry. Also, I made good use of that downtime by volunteering at a non-profit, pursuing the role that I was looking for. 

Challenge 2: Getting laid off

Losing one’s job is tough for anyone, let alone for a young graduate in a foreign country with an educational loan to pay off and a visa that is about to expire. That too through no fault of my own, nothing I could control about management-level decisions at the company I so fondly looked up to. But I had to be resilient to bounce back and think long-term, rather than dwell on things outside of my control. It always pays off to have a plan B.

Challenge 3: Managing finances

I took a risk by returning to India, but I was rational and covered my bases. Recouping international higher education investments on Indian salaries is painstaking. Fortunately, by scoring teaching assistantships during my MS, the initial investment itself was quite reasonable. Moreover, I had saved enough money through my first job to have already paid back about half of my education loan, and paid the remaining half over the next couple of years earning from India.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

As Senior Project Officer – Energy Transitions (India) at Climate Group’s India office, I lead our work on engaging Indian businesses on electric mobility. My role involves developing market knowledge on electric mobility solutions in India (through reports, webinars, etc.), engaging with businesses to pursue long-term electric mobility adoption targets (such as EV100: 100% EV fleets and charging by 2030), supporting implementation of their e-mobility plans (through roadmaps, policy engagements, etc.), and building strategic partnerships. 

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

To achieve success in this role, skills such as strategic thinking, stakeholder management, project management, analytical research and effective communication are critical. The best part is that while working in this role, I get to interact with key decision-makers at India’s leading businesses as well as brilliant entrepreneurs developing innovative solutions in sustainability  for India’s electric mobility transition. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Working in a non-profit setting helps detach oneself from organizational pressures such as targets or revenues or sales, and focus more on impact of organizational actions on societal progress. Every time a company announces its EV100 (Climate Group’s initiative on 100% e-mobility by 2030) commitment publicly, I’m filled with a sense of satisfaction and purpose. By growing the EV100 initiative by convincing businesses to commit to 100% electric mobility by 2030, I help raise the demand for electric vehicles and send a strong signal to employees, customers, auto manufacturers and policymakers that the transition to electric mobility is happening now and businesses are ready to lead it. The world can decarbonize much quickly if key decision makers make the right decisions today – and my efforts in some capacity influences these decision makers to directionally lean towards building a net-zero emissions future.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Recently, I helped organize a workshop alongside the Government of Maharashtra, where Hon’ble Minister Aaditya Thackeray interacted with CEOs/Co-founders of Flipkart, IKEA India and Zomato on their EV adoption journeys. He announced the formulation of an action group of businesses facilitated by Climate Group to feed into Maharashtra’s EV Policy and suggest industry proposals for improvements. It is something that I am very proud of: to be able to impact accelerated electric mobility adoption at the highest levels through my work.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Society will project different versions of success onto you. Your peers or inspirations will continue showcasing their successes and perfect lives on social media. But not many tell you the number of times they experienced failure or rejections before getting that one ‘yes’ that changed their trajectories. So work hard in the shadows to fulfill your dreams and believe in yourself, since success doesn’t usually come without hard work and discipline.

Future Plans?

My life’s goal is to contribute to combating climate change. I’ve worked at a large solar and energy storage business, a smaller start-up like setting and a couple of nonprofits in this journey so far. I’d like to continue contributing to this mission through different lenses (consulting, solution-based startups, policy, etc.) to build a broad as well as deep understanding of the space, while contributing to innovative solutions in various, hopefully increasingly impactful, capacities. My hope is that every experience that I collect broadens my perspective towards the challenges and solutions to the massive and complex problem that climate change is.