Building Blocks of Sustainability
Skills he learned at Booth helped Chris Wheat, ’10, navigate unfamiliar terrain as he discovered his passion for tackling climate change.
- February 06, 2024
- Climate Change
Chris Wheat, ’10, says his Booth MBA was invaluable when he started off his career in consulting, and later when he pivoted to local government, where he worked for nearly a decade focusing on sustainability. In recent years, he’s made his way back to Booth, first as an executive in residence at the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, and later as executive director of the Stigler Center for the Economy and the State. Now he’s sharing his expertise in social impact and government with students as adjunct associate professor of strategy, teaching on climate change and politics.
When I applied to Booth, I wasn’t sure where I was going in my life and career, but I knew I needed a strong tool kit in order to get there. I thought that focusing in on business basics and building blocks could serve me well no matter where I went on my professional journey. And that’s come true.
After graduating, I took a job as a consultant and worked on projects involving the automotive, dairy, and financial services industries. I enjoyed the work, but I knew early on that it wasn’t for me.
Then I got an email from a friend and former Booth classmate: then-Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration was looking for a consultant with an interest in government and politics. I always thought I would go into government; I just thought that it would be much later in my career. But I ended up joining the mayor’s office a little over a year after Booth.
I was part of the mayor’s internal consulting team, called the Innovation Delivery Team, which took a data-driven approach to policy design. One of the first projects I worked on was Retrofit Chicago, helping coordinate energy efficiency programs across Chicago. One initiative made Chicago the first city in the country to include energy-use data on home listings. I also did economic analyses leading up to Chicago raising its minimum wage in 2014 to $13 an hour. It involved a lot of number crunching, and I relied on the quantitative skills I picked up at Booth.
During the first year of the Trump administration, I served as the city’s chief sustainability officer and senior policy advisor. I helped develop policies in response to the federal government’s new environmental position and organize cities around ensuring their long-term commitment to climate issues. The North American Climate Summit I organized brought 50 mayors from around the world, plus former president Barack Obama, to Chicago to discuss climate-related work they were doing in their cities.
When I started in the mayor’s office, I was not an expert in environmental sustainability, but I was able to use ways of thinking and processing information I learned at Booth to make up for my lack of knowledge—a skill I continue to use today. Relying on that discipline-based education was helpful in navigating a world I didn’t necessarily know much about. Ultimately, I become the mayor’s chief of policy.
“Climate change is an economy-wide issue, which means the solution set has to be an economy wide one as well. For a lot of business leaders, being well versed in that world is going to be important over the next several decades.”
One of the nice things about working in local government is that the feedback loop is immediate—you see the impact of your successes and mistakes quickly. Now my work has shifted, and I’m the managing director of policy and government affairs at the Sustainable Cities Fund based in Chicago.
Cities can be capacity constrained around climate and equity issues in communities. Often, there are soft costs associated with getting projects, initiatives, and legislation done, and we try to fill those gaps. We make grants and work alongside local governments and community-based organizations to support and enable climate action. For example, we wouldn’t fund a solar farm, but we’d help its technical partners or groups educating the community about its existence.
We measure success not only in helping cities reduce their carbon emissions, but also in helping them develop jobs and create opportunities for communities that may get left behind by the transition to a green economy.
I’ve also come back to Booth as an adjunct professor. Currently, I’m in my second year of teaching the Political Economy of Climate Change. I took a different path than a lot of my classmates did who went into the private sector. Given my work in government and politics, I see the role of management education slightly differently.
A lot of business school courses center around the firm. In my class, I try to help students think about the perspectives of the various actors and stakeholders—lobbyists, voters, researchers—trying to influence climate-related policy, as well as the policymakers trying to influence people.
The course helps students who may ultimately lead a firm themselves understand where their company sits in the broader ecosystem of current policy questions. Climate change is an economy-wide issue, which means the solution set has to be an economy wide one as well. For a lot of business leaders, being well versed in that world is going to be important over the next several decades.
One thing that’s really stuck with me in my policy work is something I started doing at Booth during job interviews that I continue to this day. I write ATDQ in the top corner of the paper I’m taking notes on. It stands for “answer the damn question.” It’s a reminder to be laser focused on the question and the problem you’re trying to solve.
—As told to Deborah Lynn Blumberg
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