Personally we are all going to be impacted by climate change in one way or the other, and professionally its our obligation to contribute to reducing the potential impacts of climate change in the future. 

Sudheer Ballare, our next pathbreaker, Sr Sustainability Program Manager at Cumming Group, estimates the greenhouse gas emission contributions from different industry sectors, and works on climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies and plans.

Sudheer talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about realising the significance of environmental sustainability while working at the corporate sustainability department of L&T which raised his interest on the nexus between transportation and the environment !

For students, we have only one planet, its our duty to do what it takes to keep it sustainable, healthy and green, for the future generations !

Sudheer, can you tell us about your background?

I was born in Nagpur, but my early upbringing was in Srinagar. My father used to work as a Civil Engineer in Bhabha Atomic Research Center and received a transfer in 1992 to Mumbai, where I continued my schooling in the Atomic Energy Central Schools till HSC. My mother is a homemaker but has played an important role in shaping my career by always supporting my decisions. 

Thanks to my father, I was always attracted towards Civil Engineering and decided to pursue my Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering from Mumbai University. 

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

I did my Bachelors in Civil Engineering (2003) from Mumbai University followed by Masters in Environmental Engineering (2007), Mumbai University.

I also completed a Master of Science in Transport & the Environment (2012), Newcastle University, United Kingdom followed by a PhD in Civil Engineering (2020), University of Illinois at Chicago, United States

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I have always been influenced by the State of California which has established itself as a leader in tackling environmental issues innovatively.

Experiencing the Mumbai floods during July 2005 made me understand the impact of climate change and increased my interest in investigating climate change and providing solutions towards climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Moreover, I was never inclined to pursue a design desk job. After doing my masters in Environmental Engineering, I worked in the Oil & Gas industry as an Environmentalist and then joined a large Indian business conglomerate in their corporate sustainability department. During this time, I realized that I wanted to work on new things as well as continue to increase my knowledge. This led me to pursue another Masters in Transport & Environment from Newcastle, UK. 

My inclination towards research led me to first become a Project Research Associate at IIT-Bombay and then pursue my PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago. During my PhD, I also interned with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and after my PhD, I became a post-doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland. Currently, I am working as a Sr. Sustainability Program Manager for a specialty consulting firm providing services in climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

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?

I was never inclined to spend my day behind a desk doing a routine activity or task and only contributing to a specific stage of a project. I have always been motivated to solve unique challenging problems through innovative ways which have a wider impact. This thinking is responsible for my career trajectory through academia and the industry.

I have received several scholarships and awards during my career.

  • Institute of Transportation Engineers Illinois Section Graduate Student Scholarship, 2019
  • Outstanding Paper Award for Best Presentation at 11th International Conference on City Logistics, Dubrovnik, Croatia · Jun 2019
  • University of Illinois at Chicago George Krambles Transportation Scholarship Award — 2018
  • AMEY Award for the best student for MSc. Transport and the Environment course 2012 at Newcastle University, United Kingdom

I started my career as a Technical Sales Engineer with Degussa GmbH in India, providing solutions to the construction industry focusing on large infrastructure projects. 

Working in the field after my Bachelors, made me realize that being a graduate wasn’t enough. This led me to pursue a master’s in Environmental Engineering from VJTI, as I was always attracted towards this specialization under Civil Engineering. 

After my first Masters, I worked as an Environmentalist for Global Industries Offshore LLC to ensure environmental regulatory compliance and provide environmental training. 

Later, I joined the corporate sustainability department of Larsen & Toubro, where I led multiple projects like carbon footprint mapping, greenhouse gas accounting, sustainability reporting etc. While working with Larsen & Toubro, I became aware of how important environmental sustainability was for the industry and how this field was evolving and becoming prominent. Therefore, I took a study break to pursue my 2nd masters in Transport & Environment, as transportation sector is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for climate change. After my masters, I returned to lead several sustainability projects for Larsen & Toubro.

Still inclined towards research, I returned to Academia as a Project Research Associate at IIT-Bombay to investigate climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies for the city of Mumbai. My research at IIT-Bombay involved establishing the GHG (greenhouse gas) inventory for the transportation sector in Mumbai and estimating its impact on climate change as well as evaluating the impact of climate change on the transportation sector for the coast city of Mumbai. This was an international research project and was presented at the UN Conference of Parties just before the Paris Climate Change Meeting. This also increased my interest in conducting more research on the nexus of transportation and environment, and therefore I decided to pursue a PhD in the relevant field. 

I was fortunate to receive admission to the PhD program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I investigated the environmental impact of crowdshipping (Uber, Lyft etc.) and microhubs (Amazon parcel lockers) based delivery paradigms.

During my PhD, I interned with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where I worked on improving the regulatory emissions model by conducting data analysis on light-duty vehicle measurements. 

I currently work as a Sr. Sustainability Program Manager for Cumming Corporation in Los Angeles, California providing solutions towards climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was through the campus interviews conducted at VJTI, Mumbai.

For my current role, I was able to present my unique academic and industry experience to the team and was able to present the emissions-modeling skills acquired during my PhD, internship with the EPA, and the post-doc. 

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

Challenge 1: Keeping abreast of new developments in the field and acquiring new knowledge.

It is always difficult to be aware of everything new that’s happening in the field but that’s expected of me as a Sustainability Program Manager. I address this challenge by reading industry publications, listening to podcasts, attending conferences and industry gatherings, as well as seeking out and engaging with experts in the field.

Challenge 2: Maintaining a balance between research and industry

Due to my inclination towards research, I am attracted towards projects which have a unique innovation component. I address this challenge by using the kick-off meetings for the projects to present new and innovative ways of project execution to the clients and the respective stakeholders and gaining their buy-in for these approaches.

Challenge 3: Conducting effective stakeholder engagement

An ongoing challenge as a consultant is to get buy-in from all stakeholders during any stage of the project on an action or a direction related to the project. I address this challenge by taking time to build relationships and partnerships with all important stakeholders and then engaging them in a constructive way to receive approvals as well as incorporate their feedback.

Where do you work now? 

I currently work as a Sr. Sustainability Program Manager for Cumming Corporation in Los Angeles, California.

Cumming is one of the fastest growing providers of sustainability and program management services in the United States. Cumming’s team of qualified sustainability professionals have extensive experience providing sustainable program leadership, strategic planning, and energy and sustainability technical services, including circular economy, mobility, climate action and resiliency, GHG inventory reporting, green building certification, long-range energy strategic planning, commissioning, and ISO 14001 and 9001 auditors and implementation leads.

What problems do you solve?

I work on estimating the greenhouse gas emissions contributions from different industry sectors and preparing climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation strategies and plans.

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

The primary skills needed for this job are program management, stakeholder engagement, advanced data analytics, and emissions modeling. I have acquired these skills through a combination of education and work experience (on-the-job training). When necessary, I have also pursued industry certifications to validate my skills.

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day requires me to focus on multiple projects which are at different stages. During the day, I am involved in emissions modeling (calculations), writing reports, checking environmental compliance requirements, engaging with stakeholders, business development and reading up on new developments in the field.

What is it you love about this job? 

What I love about the job is that I get to do unique work that has a significant potential impact in the region/society. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work helps in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere, thereby reducing the potential impacts of climate change in the future. 

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

I was recently part of a team for Los Angeles Metro, where the team undertook an analysis to evaluate the individual Vehicle Miles Traveled and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions impacts of Metro’s planned capital expansion projects, service improvements, pricing policies, and strategic programs. The results of the analysis offer high-level insight into the relative impacts of Metro’s programs on GHG emissions only, as just one of many metrics that guide Metro’s investment decisions in order to meet the goals outlined in Metro’s Strategic Plan. This was an important and a unique analysis which could serve as a guidance from transit agencies around the world to estimate the GHG emissions avoided due to their services. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students would be to believe in themselves, build capability through education and experience, not be afraid to pursue non-traditional pathways to work and finally continue to learn and acquire new skills. 

Future Plans?

I aim to continue my journey to become a subject matter expert in this field and then split my time between consulting and academia. Consulting is important to be aware of the new developments in the field while Academia is the mode of sharing my knowledge with the next generation.