Building Green Business
A profile on Joseph Lassiter
By Dan Morrell
At the Rialto movie theatre in his hometown of El Dorado, Arkansas, eight-year-old Joe Lassiter fell in love with the ocean. What began that day with the Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea—the Jules Verne classic—led to a deckhand job on oceanic research vessels at 14, and three years later to Lassiter’s matriculation at MIT as an engineering student. He went on to earn three degrees at MIT, eventually becoming an assistant professor in the ocean engineering department, studying the economic and environmental consequences of offshore oil and gas development. He was on-course to be a lifetime academic—just as his mother had always imagined.
But in January 1976, he decided to spend a sabbatical at semiconductor test-equipment maker Teradyne. He figured he’d be back on campus by the fall. “And then, twenty years went by,” says Lassiter. He focused on building new businesses during his nearly two decades at Teradyne, eventually leaving in 1994 to join the founding team of telecommunications start-up, Wildfire Communications. When Lassiter started teaching entrepreneurial finance on the HBS faculty two years later, he again had short-term expectations that proved instead long-term; this year will be his 16th at HBS.
But the environmental awareness that characterized his youth was reawakened about a decade into his time at Harvard, beginning with a 2005 case study of a California winery. While examining the company’s business plans, he noticed that its long-term strategy called for switching the type of grape it grew due to anticipated changes in the local micro-climate. Interest piqued, he started reading about climate change research and the growing investment in clean technology and renewable energy. “I discovered that a lot of the conversations were the same ones I had been involved with in 1974—issues around energy security, about the risks of catastrophic events, and [about] forecasting the effects of climate and ocean activity. I felt very comfortable [with the area], and I’ve been doing more and more work here ever since.”
As he began to write cases on biofuels and electric car manufacturers, his students were bringing him related ideas for field projects on photovoltaic cells, wind energy, and even new ways to produce oil and gas. In response, Lassiter and Professor Forest Reinhardt developed a new Building Green Business course, which they began teaching in 2008. Today, that course, known as Innovations in Business, Energy and the Environment, is taught by a team of HBS and SEAS faculty.
What he sees in the classroom and in his case studies are the kind of useful ideas, he says, which run counter to the idea that business and the environment must have an adversarial relationship. “People need to understand that enterprises—be they for-profit or not-for-profit—are mechanisms for making change in society,” says Lassiter. “It is often easy in academic circles to see [the issue as relevant] to just science and government, and forget that there is this institution called business, which is also a player...In the end, to solve problems as dramatic as the ones we face, we’re going to need action by government, action in the scientific community and sustained action by the business community, or we just won’t get rapid, efficient change that the world demands.”
This article has been adapted from Environment@Harvard, Volume 4 Issue 1.