Andrew Lee; Founder, Esper, Inc. ; Advisor, Creative Action Network
Interviewee: Andrew Lee
Founder, Esper, Inc.
Advisor, Creative Action Network
Interviewer: David Corsar, NWFAndrew is a Founder of Esper, Inc. and an Advisor to the Creative Action Network. As an NWF Fellow, Andrew focused on the installation of moisture sensors to decrease irrigation and identify malfunctioning sprinklers across the 57-acre Claremont McKenna College.
David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as an NWF Fellow help shape your career?
Andrew Lee: Well, currently, I’m an entrepreneur. I have a company called Esper, and what we do is we take your calendar and turn it into a chart, so that we measure time in a company similar to how we measure finances. So, we’re taking a problem – time management – and solving it with technology. In a way, my fellowship helped nurture my future in tech entrepreneurship.
With the fellowship, I was very focused on water conservation. The idea was that we could install moisture sensors around Claremont McKenna to measure how water was being used, so that we could then shut the water off and reduce wasted water. It was one of those things where you could see that there’s an obvious problem - water being just completely spilled all over the place - and my professor asked me, “well, is there a non-obvious solution to this problem?” Most would have said we need to stop watering or to alter the watering schedule, and I thought we could use these moisture sensors, which were a new technology, and use them to automatically shut off the system. And that was something that was sort of anathema to a lot of facilities work because they just didn’t realize it was an option.
DC: What was the top thing that you learned in your professional development at NWF?
AL: There was the obvious things with the Campus Ecology Fellowship and still remember fondly my volunteer work in New Orleans with NWF. I was also able to host a number of climate webcasts for NWF. At that time, I found out that I really enjoyed being on camera, so that’s fun, though I haven’t done anything in that regard in a while.
But in terms of my professional development, while I feel like I learned some skills, I mostly felt empowered. I think a lot of people have experienced this - where you realize that you can take an idea and make it possible. The first time that that happens, it’s so empowering to do so.
DC: What are you up to these days?
AL: So, I’m the Founder and CEO of Esper. I spend most of my time as a venture-backed CEO, dealing with investors, trying to find interesting solutions to the problem of how you measure time in organizations. You’re a busy CEO; you only have a little bit of time; how you spend your time is really important – for example, the meetings that you take and the meetings that you don’t take. So, those are the things that I’m focused on right now.
On the side, I’ve helped my friends at Creative Action Network. They’re a global community of artists and designers making art with purpose, in particular, their most recent campaign -See America focused on leveraging their community to re-imagine the National Parks. Amazing work really and every purchase supports artists and causes, so 10% of all See America proceeds supported the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), an independent, nonpartisan voice working to strengthen and protect our nation's natural, historic and cultural heritage.
It all relates back to the work I did with NWF and Campus Ecology is that back then, I would have this crazy idea, and I’d hope it’s being used by people. Turns out, that’s exactly what startups and projects like this are. These projects and my day job seems to provide a pretty good benefit; there are some customers, and I’m trying to find ways to continue making that more useful and helpful.
DC: What would you say is your personal mission? One of the aspects of being an NWF EcoLeader is to declare an EcoMission. To think about one’s strengths and interests are and what sector they see themselves making a difference in, and to distill that down to a personal mission statement.
AL: So for me, the thing that’s motivated me has always been the same. I care a lot about the world of efficiency; I think that the environment and economics are not diametrically opposed. In fact, they work well together. Efficiency to me is basically when resources are used with minimal transaction costs; when overall utility can be provided, and that includes the environment. When we have negative externalities, it’s bad for society; it’s bad for the world, and it’s not a long-term view. I think about time very similarly to how I think about the environment and natural resources. Human beings are wasting a lot of their time. Every single time that a person goes to a meeting, and it’s not scheduled in the right place, or if they’re wasting their time doing other things, then that resource of time is being wasted.
I think my goal is to make sure overall net utility is provided to the world. There’s so many ways that we can do that; it’s a very broad goal. Now, I spoke out a ton about water conservation in the western United States, and it turns out that 10 years ago, I was very prescient to point out that this was a very big problem. Clearly, water is still a really, really big issue, but I think people aren’t solving it in the right way. I think that market solutions could be really interesting, to price it accurately, so that a number of places would then conserve water. It’s a question of how do environment and economics work together, and how can we promote overall utility?
DC: What motivated you to begin this path?
AL: Because I was born and raised in Colorado, and my parents would take me to these public parks and our national treasures – our National Parks System. My mom and dad would always make us take cheesy pictures, and make a peace sign, and I felt like a tourist all the time, but there’s sometimes I didn’t like it as a kid because I thought I was too cool to be hanging out with my family. But now, there’s something about that experience that I look back fondly on. A lot of people think that technology is antithetical to the world of conservation, but I actually think that technology is probably the future of conservation. Just look at Pokemon Go!
DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in your career?
AL: I think it ebbs and flows a lot of the time. In my career, I look to a variety of people. There’s a couple different folks, certain CEOs and managers that I look up to. People like Andy Grove, who recently passed away, and was influential in starting Intel and found a way to be a really great manager.
In the world of environment and economics, I often look back upon the folks who created the Alaska Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQ) system. It was one of the first of its kind to use market economics to preserve a natural resource. And I still look upon that, and I think to myself, if we can do that, there’s something really powerful there. It reminds me of folks like Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize winning economist, on that particular solution.
The person who I’m thinking about right now isn’t directly related to either my career or the world of conservation. He founded the creative writing program at Stanford - Wallace Stegner. And he wrote this book called Angle of Repose, which is a tale that chronicles a family and how they went around the West, and it’s just this beautiful story. And it tells of a time when areas of the world were unexplored, and there’s still so much to explore, even if that is out in space.
But the person who really inspired me in the beginning was Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, but that’s because he was my home senator. He was certainly the one who inspired me to go into water in the first place. I worked on his campaign when he was Attorney General. When we were campaigning, he used to call my sister and me the Dynamic Duo. He’s just a really good guy who cares a lot about the right things.
DC: Have you had any mentors or career coaches assist you in developing your career, and how would you describe those relationships?
AL: As an entrepreneur, it often doesn’t feel like a mentorship relationship, specifically, because to me, everyone is a mentor. You can learn something from everyone. In the world of technology, there’s some individuals, good friends of mine that have been in successful startups.
There are some wonderful individuals in the Udall Foundation - that includes my home state representative, Mark Udall. He was a wonderful influence and an inspiration, really. But on a more personal note – someone who served more like a mentor – would be Anne Udall. She was awesome. She’s his sister and co-chair of the foundation, and she’s been wonderful in that regard.
From the Truman Scholarship Foundation, Andy Rich, and a number of the folks who were executive directors of the Truman Scholarship Foundation have also been helpful.
And then one of my friends who used to be a former startup partner, his name is Garry Tan. Gary’s been wonderful in his startup advice as well. It’s wonderful being able to be in so many different worlds – being in the startup world and be an advisor for the National Wildlife Federation and to be part of Campus Ecology, and to do all those things and then cross-pollinate from different areas; I find that really interesting.
DC: Do you plan to seek out opportunities to act as a mentor yourself?
AL: All the time. I think sometimes when people ask me a lot of questions, I just go ahead and turn it into a blog post, and say read this thing (laughs). I think the key to being a mentor, though, is not giving advice. In a funny way, I generally think that most advice is stuff you should already know. The phrase that comes to mind is: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Most great advice just needs to be timed correctly. The corollary to success is when preparation meets opportunity; advice is when a student finds themselves in need of a teacher.
DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability?
AL: I think it’s a good idea to go ahead and motivate individuals to instead of try to replace systems, you need to start by doing something small to improve an existing systems, then do a fifteen degree change on top of that. Soon enough, you’ll find that you’ve replaced the system. I don’t think that we do that enough.
For students, they should definitely read The Power of Habit. I would suggest a lot of books related to the natural world’s hidden economics. I would also suggest thinking like a startup. Instead of trying to think about the traditional solution, come up with some crazy idea. I think the thing that students forget is that the students and people in the professional world are the same people - the only difference is that one has a little more experience, and the other is given the latitude to be bolder. It’s kind of sad really, older people are given more power because of their experience, but they choose not to be bold. Young people want to be bold, but they lack the experience, so no one trusts them. If youth is wasted on the young, then experience is wasted on the old.
On a more concrete level, I would work on finding ways to use phones to engage with the outdoors. Instagram has the potential to make a giant impact for the world conservation because people want to be outside, and they want to take and share beautiful pictures. The smartphone in your pocket will be a supercomputer and it will be able to do things that need innovation. An example of a project like this is the Creative Action Network - just think if a bunch of people could get wireless access at ranger stations and upload their amazing photos. In general, one thing I’ve learned is that catering to our lesser desires to help our better interests is a really big opportunity. You know, like Pokémon Go.