Finding Community in New York City’s Energy Scene
I never thought the first person I would meet at an energy event would be a freelance graphic designer. But over the course of one evening, many of my preconceived notions about the field and its champions were proven wrong.
When I arrived at the recent Young Professionals in Energy (YPE) social event and board meet-and-greet at a restaurant in Midtown East, I expected to see a bunch of finance bros. The actual turnout was a lot more varied and encouraging.
The New York chapter of YPE had a number of board positions open, and as an energy policy and finance master’s student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) who will be working in energy finance in New York after graduation, I figured it was high time to meet fellow energy enthusiasts outside of the graduate student bubble.
After years of working at Tesla and being an active participant in the San Francisco Bay Area’s energy community, I had plenty of ideas about how finance-focused the event would feel and the types of professionals I would meet.
At first, the venue fit these notions. It was a strategic choice—a prime location to ensure as many (energy) finance bros as possible could attend after work. I was mentally prepared to talk to attendees who were more concerned with financial returns than they were with knowing the difference between a megawatt and kilowatt.
As I made my way to the back of the restaurant and spotted the YPE group, I immediately noticed the disproportionately high number of men in attendance and was glad I could improve the ratio.
There were a lot of khakis and vests in the room; clear indications that prospective YPE members from the financial sector were there as expected. The men in casual jeans and hoodies took me back to my California days in tech; these were the start-up engineers. And then there was a mix of very well dressed women and some men who had accessorized themselves for external facing roles—possibly the policy leaders.
The event as a whole had a “no frills” vibe; people were there to talk energy. I went to put my coat down and bumped into Amelia, my first and most unexpected encounter of the evening. Of all the potential jobs I expected to discuss that night, freelance graphic designer was not one that came to mind.
Amelia told me she enjoyed using her graphic design abilities to promote social causes: a good reminder that energy truly intersects with every job and issue out there. Amelia was a first-timer at a YPE event, which she nervously admitted before expressing her interest in social justice.
I also spoke to a former board member for YPE. While she had to leave the city and therefore drop her board position, she was back in New York and interested in “reclaiming” her position (her words, not mine).
Next, I turned to a Danish American who worked with the commercial team at Ørsted, a famous multinational Danish power company. We discussed Varun Sivaram, a clean energy expert previously serving in the U.S. Biden-Harris administration who had just visited Columbia University before the holidays and had shortly thereafter left the federal government to also work for Ørsted.
The conversation was a familiar one, a spillover of my energy policy discussions at SIPA. I began to see how YPE could become a centering community in a very fast-changing industry, especially after my approaching graduation.
Afterward, I met a fellow Columbia student, Phoebe, who had found no energy comrades at the business school and was genuinely ecstatic to learn about SIPA’s wealth of energy offerings and community. And then there was Charlotte, a member of Con Edison’s policy team who had just left the D.C. think tank scene—a welcome change of pace, I’m sure.
Meeting Mei Poon was my most memorable moment; I was particularly excited to meet a woman who had been long involved in New York’s energy community. From her, I learned tidbits about the growth and evolution of this organization. She worked with Charlotte on Con Edison’s policy team and had been a member of YPE’s executive board since 2016; she seemed like a veteran to me.
From Mei, it was refreshing to hear that not only has the chapter grown but also the percentage of women had increased from 40% to 60%. That the two board members I met that evening happen to also be Asian women was additionally encouraging.
I had gone to the event that evening simply to see how a sample of New York’s energy community compared with the Bay Area’s and whether participation in this organization would be of personal interest. I learned that maybe—just maybe—the energy community here was more representative of how energy connects to a diverse set of industries ranging from design to finance, unlike my experience with California’s tech-focused energy scene. I even left thinking about applying to join the board.
Bhavya Jha is a second-year M.P.A. candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She has worked in the energy space since 2017, from Tesla in California to Europe as a Fulbright-Schuman Research Scholar.