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Becoming a green VC

David Mount built a career as a green investor using people skills, analytical know-how, and scientific knowledge gained from his joint MS Environment and Resources/MBA degree program.

By
Danielle Torrent Tucker
October 5, 2017
David Mount speaking on a panel at Climate One at The Commonwealth Club.
David Mount speaking at a panel titled "Can the Internet of Things Be Green and Safe" at Climate One at The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco July 2016. Photo credit: Sonya Abrams

When venture capitalist David Mount started graduate school at Stanford in 2006, he thought he knew how to find his ideal career. By the time he finished a joint MBA/MS Environment and Resources degree program at the Graduate School of Business and the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth), his attitude had changed.

“I went in ranking three areas of my job search a certain way: First, I wanted to be in an industry that I care about. Second, I wanted a meaningful functional role. And the third consideration was the people,” said Mount, MS ’08, MBA ’08. “I had it backward. I now say, ‘Start with a focus on working with high-integrity people that you like, that help you grow.’”

Mount’s education with Stanford Earth’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) exposed him to a diverse community on campus and shifted his perspective about the importance of working with the right people. The experience, he says, was foundational to his success over 9 years as a partner with the Green Growth Fund at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, and more recently with G2VP. A large part of his work in venture capital is building relationships and identifying people with complementary strengths.

Becoming a green VC

Mount joined the Green Growth Fund in 2008, focusing on growth-stage technology companies that apply emerging technologies to industry to drive efficiency in the global industrial economy. The $1 billion fund has invested in industries such as transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and energy. Representative investments from a portfolio of dozens of companies include Proterra, an electric bus company; Farmer’s Edge, an agricultural analytics company; and OSIsoft, a time-series database company that handles industrial Internet of Things data.

“All of our portfolio companies are always looking for good people, and I try to find ways to connect those people and to be a conduit,” he said.

Investigation and patience

As a professional investor, Mount leverages both his ability to judge potential growth and knowledge of the field to make informed decisions that impact a lot of people, both personally and financially. He may meet with 200 companies to find just one investment that can spearhead an emerging technology or drive technological advances in a traditional industrial field.

“You try to meet everybody that you can and to keep track of everything that you can,” Mount said. “Eventually you find the right combination of exceptional team, market opportunity, and technical differentiation. Then, you try to convince these great teams to work with you.”

He is constantly seeking points of intersection between technology and industry. For example, there have been numerous advances in computer vision and drones, so his team may research which companies are using computer vision in agriculture, or drones for mining.

“We find those intersection points, and then we go meet with as many of those companies as we can,” he said. “It is a lot of fun, and highly variable; some of these companies work well and some of them don’t work at all.”

The path to an energy career

Mount first started working for an investment firm in 2003, when he joined Bain Capital Credit in Boston out of college. He worked in traditional energy areas, such as oil and gas and petrochemical investing. He learned the fundamentals of finance, including financial analysis, debt and equity securities, and restructurings.

From high school through the three years that he worked with Bain Capital, Mount narrowed his interests, thinking about what he considered the world’s most relevant issues. Energy kept resurfacing as something he thought was important, and the impact of 9/11, which occurred when he was in college, held a constant presence in his mind, he said.

“Geopolitically, energy is this massive force that sits beneath a whole bunch of economics, diplomacy, and geopolitics,” said Mount, who earned his undergraduate degree in political science from Yale University. “I thought it was something that I needed to understand further, because at that time – particularly in the early 2000s – there was so much global geopolitical instability and uncertainty.”

MS in Environment and Resources

Mount had the foresight to know which areas he wanted to study, and his path was backed by a bit of luck: While he was working on his MBA, Stanford Earth expanded E-IPER from a dual to a joint degree program for business and law students, enabling them to receive credit for overlapping classes through both programs. Mount opted to participate in the first cohort of joint degree E-IPER students, completing his graduate education in two years, rather than three. He holds an MS in Environment and Resources from Stanford Earth, and an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business.

If I was in a room with an engineer or scientist who wanted to steamroll me, before I took the E-IPER program I was an easy target.

“It was midway through my first year that it became possible to actually do this joint degree,” Mount said. “It was just a handful of us, and then we got to know a whole bunch of folks in the engineering department who were taking field trips to power plants and working in labs measuring solar output and doing shading analysis and building model homes, like a model passive solar home – all these things that I hadn’t gotten a chance to do in undergrad that I absolutely loved.”

Mount knew he wanted to focus on early-stage investing in advanced technologies and sustainability-related businesses, and he relied on E-IPER to expand his scientific understanding of energy systems.

“I was able to get enough of a foundation in the subjects to be able to have the confidence to ask questions,” he said. “That might sound trivial, but if I was in a room with an engineer or scientist who wanted to steamroll me, before I took the E-IPER program I was an easy target.”

Mount recalled how his education taught him not to focus too much on one piece of the puzzle, and instead consider the whole supply chain. Working in energy systems is complex and multi-staged, and that breadth of perspective is critical, he said.

“In a role like this, when you’re meeting with technologists all the time, you have to keep intellectual humility. You are never going to be as smart or as deep in any technological field as anyone you meet with, but you should have enough familiarity that you can say, ‘OK, I’d really love to learn more about this,’ and then you go from there.”

Soft skills

As a venture capitalist, Mount’s success depends on building relationships. He sources new companies, makes investments, and helps his investment portfolio companies succeed by connecting them with new customers, helping them hire employees, and offering his financial expertise.

“You need a general curiosity to go and learn about what people are working on,” he said. “And you have to be able to believe in a company’s vision – all these companies are trying to do things that are really hard, that are statistically impossible.”

Another important soft skill Mount uses on the job: Patience.

“What I’ve learned is if you try to force things, they often don’t work out,” Mount said. “Or you can get yourself in trouble by thinking that a company is ahead of where it is or by trying to wish something was different than it was, or people were different than they were.”

Mount’s personal values also drive his commitment to the field of sustainability. His motivation for work is spurred on by the social dimension of sustainability, including the imbalance between the impact of climate change on developing versus developed economies.

“I am grateful to be able to work in a field where successful investments can also lead to successful progress toward sustainability,” Mount said.

From the bonds he builds at the office to the effects his investments could have on our future, Mount always measures success by his impacts and interactions with people.

“Generally, all of the companies that we partner with try to do their work sustainably, or do more with fewer resources,” he said. “Ideally, you work with teams that you can also be proud of, people who act and respond and treat each other well and respectfully – that’s the goal.”

David Mount lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and four children. He is a member of Stanford Earth’s Advisory Board.