Berkeley universities

The first leader of Stanford’s new climate school grew up with a coal stove

John Doerr, chairman and co-founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield, left, and Arun Majumdar, dean of Stanford University’s Doerr School of Sustainability, during an interview on an episode of Bloomberg Wealth with David Rubenstein at Stanford , California, USA, Friday, July 22, 2022. Venture capitalist John Doerr made an early investment in Google and Amazon, but ditched Tesla Inc. It’s one of his biggest regrets.

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Arun Majumdar is the first dean of Stanford University’s new climate school, the first new school the prestigious Silicon Valley university has opened in 70 years.

The school, officially called Stanford Doerr School of Sustainabilityis named after the top financial donor, renowned investor John Doerr, who made a $1.1 billion gift, the largest in the university’s history.

Silicon Valley is internationally recognized as a hub of innovation, and it is also a very wealthy region with a relatively mild climate. It’s a world far from the people hardest hit by climate change – namely the poorest and most vulnerable people in low-income countries and otherwise disadvantaged communities, who, ironically, have contributed the least to the problem.

Build a successful climate school that educates people and develops technological solutions in its throttle arm requires thinking beyond the Silicon Valley bubble.

“The first thing we need to form – we’re forming right now – is a global network of partners. And it’s up to us to listen to what the real issues are and not to predict what the issues are in Silicon Valley” , Majumdar told CNBC. in an interview from his office on the Stanford campus earlier this fall.

Majumdar’s understanding of the importance of a global perspective for the climate school is also personally informed. He grew up in India, where his mother cooked on a coal stove on the floor of their house for the first decade of his life.

Majumdar went to school in the United States and was then asked to start a DARPA-esque program for energy innovation in the United States during the Obama administration. He was also a teacher, researched and worked at Google for a stint before finally getting the opportunity to spearhead the launch of Stanford’s Climate School.

Arun Majumdar, dean of Stanford University’s Doerr School of Sustainability, during an interview on an episode of Bloomberg Wealth with David Rubenstein in Stanford, California, U.S., Friday, July 22, 2022. The venture capitalist John Doerr and his wife donated $1.1 billion to Stanford University.

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A coal stove and a fridge that shocked

Majumdar was born in Kolkata, India in 1963 and grew up in New Delhi and Mumbai.

“My mom used to cook on a charcoal stove,” Majumdar told CNBC. His father was an engineer working for the government and his mother was a Sanskrit scholar, and charcoal was simply what middle-class families in India in the 1960s and 1970s used to cook. It was clearly causing pollution – you could see the smoke – but at least it kept some of the mosquitoes away.

“It’s the mud stove with charcoal in it, and it’s got air going around, and you burn it and you make your rotis and chapatis and other stuff and curries and all that stuff,” Majumdar said.

Arun Majumdar’s mother cooking on a charcoal stove in India.

Photo courtesy Arun Majumdar

Majumdar recalls when the family had access to liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, in the mid-1970s.

“It was a big deal,” he told CNBC, not only because it’s less polluting than coal, but also because his mother could put a stove on a table and stand up to cook. , instead of squatting. Charcoal stoves are too hot to put on a table.

But then the “big challenge” was to get bottles of LPG fuel, which were rationed.

The family had a fridge, “but it wasn’t wired very well,” Majumdar told CNBC, and the door handle would give the family electric shocks if they weren’t careful. Wearing rubber-soled flip-flops would protect them from impact, but they often forget about it.

They had a car, but it often broke down. “We learned how to fix things and push the car to get it started,” he said.

All those technical machines that needed fixing were a learning opportunity for Majumdar, who says he’s always been a handyman. He opened the telephone and the sewing machine and put them back together. “So I was the handyman at home,” Majumdar said. “I was the repairman at home.”

Arun Majumdar when he was young in New Delhi.

Photo courtesy Arun Majumdar

LPG wasn’t the only thing rationed when Majumdar was younger – food too.

Majumdar grew up during the Green Revolution, which was a period of the 1960s and 1970s when innovation in agriculture has dramatically improved crop yields. Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in genetics and plant breeding that led to the development of “high-yielding, disease-resistant short-straw wheat”.

Borlaug tested his strain of wheat in Mexico, then took it to India. “India has changed from a food importer to a food exporter because of Norman Borlaug,” Majumdar said. “And you know, I wouldn’t be here without Norman Borlaug.”

The impact of Borlaug’s work remained with Majumdar throughout his life.

“Research on evolutionary questions can change billions of lives. And that’s the message we want to send to the school,” Majumdar said. “We need to find these Norman Borlaugs who can look at a problem and say, ‘I have a solution’ and scale it.”

Arun Majumdar (smaller front) with his extended family outside their home in New Delhi.

Photo courtesy Arun Majumdar

In search of the next Norman Borlaug

Majumdar attended Mayo College, an independent boarding school in Ajmer, Rajasthan, India, which was expensive and “hard for my parents” to be able to afford, he told CNBC. But education was a big priority for Majumdar’s family. His parents and their families were displaced when India gained independence from British rule in 1947 and the territory was divided. Majumdar’s parents and their families moved from what is now Bangladesh to Kolkata, “and they lost everything,” Majumdar said. “I was born in the 60s. We grew up with the stories of what my parents went through.”

“They valued education because they lost everything when they moved during partition, so to really move forward in life was education,” Majumdar said.

After attending boarding school, Majumdar passed a rigorous entrance exam to attend the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, from which he graduated in 1985. He went to the University of California, Berkeley to earn his master’s degree and his doctorate. in mechanical engineering.

Arun Majumdar and his late mother upon graduation from the University of California, Berkeley, earning his doctorate in mechanical engineering in 1989.

Photo courtesy Arun Majumdar

Majumdar was drawn to Berkeley in part because his father had gone there to train in telecommunications and adored it, raving to his family that Berkeley was something of a utopia. Majumdar remembers his father saying, “If the kids ever make it, I want them to come to Berkeley.” His father died before Majumdar graduated from college, “but his dream came true,” Majumdar said.

After taking several faculty gigs, Majumdar returned to Berkeley, where he found himself in college for 13 years. While teaching at Berkeley, he also did research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where he met Steven Chuwho would become US Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama.

Chu tapped Majumdar to run the DARPA-esque agency for energy, called ARPA-E, an acronym for Agency for Advanced Research Projects – Energy. “I was nominated in September; in my third week of October, I was there,” Majumdar said. He wasn’t anticipating the move and ended up staying in Chu’s basement for a week until he could find an apartment, he told CNBC.

There were three mission areas of the ARPA-E program: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy security, and energy efficiency. The idea was to build the new energy industries of the future. At first it was politically difficult.

“Everything that’s new in Washington, there are people supporting it, there are people trying to kill it. So we have to navigate all of this. Now, of course, no one doubts that it’s politically stable, but not at this time,” Majumdar said.

After leaving Washington, Majumdar worked for a year and a half at Google to help create an electricity access program for the 1.5 billion people who didn’t have it. Then he joined Stanford.

The lessons he learned at ARPA-E help lay the foundation for the accelerator arm of the Stanford Climate School.

“We jokingly call it ARPA-S for durability, because it’s all about impact,” Majumdar said. “In ARPA-E, we talked about scale, but not enough. In a climate world, when it comes to sustainability, if the solution – whether it’s technology or policy – if it doesn’t scale , it does not matter.”

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

Photo courtesy of Cat Clifford, CNBC

So far, Stanford’s school of sustainability seems to be popular with students. For example, he opened a new course on sustainability with a limit of 100 students and it was filled in 12 hours, which is “super fast,” Majumdar said. The anticipation, based on early indicators, is that sustainability will become as fundamental to the Stanford ethos as IT has been.

Majumdar has a lot to do every day as he launches and develops the climate school now, but he has not forgotten his childhood days.

“I grew up commuting or traveling between cities on trains in India, which are powered by coal engines – steam engines with coal. If it’s a 24-hour journey o’clock or even 6 p.m., by the time you reach your destination, you’re black because you’re covered in coal smoke.

“So I don’t think people here ever face that. So that gives me some perspective on the global aspects of this issue, because there’s a huge disparity and diversity of backgrounds that people come from, and we don’t cannot be monolithic in our solutions.”

Silicon Valley “could be an echo chamber,” Majumdar said, but he retains a clear connection to his global experience.

“The people who will be primarily affected by sea level rise are not there.”