Alumna's Bright Idea Leads to Career Change
February 25, 2015
Julie McLaughlin, '13 (XP-82), hit a career high point in June, when she was named one of the top 10 energy financiers in New York by the trade publication Breaking Energy.
She had secured funding for projects ranging from a five-megawatt hydroplant in southern Chile to a 110-megawatt plant in Indonesia. Her network of industry contacts spanned the globe and she spoke often at industry conferences.
So why would she leave the corporate world to embark on a path less traveled? "My father always says, 'When things are going well is when you need to be the most paranoid and Booth gave me the confidence to take the risk,'" McLaughlin said during an interview from her office in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan.
In June 2014, McLaughlin struck out on her own as a freelance clean energy developer and financier, fast-tracking investments toward energy projects that she believes are overlooked gems. She senses opportunity in Latin America, a region she fell in love with a decade earlier as a Peace Corps volunteer.
"The timing in Mexico is fantastic," she explained. "Electricity prices are high for a lot of customers so you have the possibility of implementing solar projects without subsidies." Add to that the proliferation of manufacturing plants, and the future of solar energy looks bright. She and her business partner, the engineering heavyweight, The Vertex Companies, are raising $600 million to build a portfolio of solar projects that could generate 350 megawatts of energy and deliver returns within three years.
All of which makes for a promising first slide in an investor presentation. The devil lurks in the details. "If you don't know [a data point] within a five or 10 percent margin of error then you can turn an entire project on its head," McLaughlin said.
A number of dynamics can torpedo a seemingly sound solar investment in Latin America, including microclimates, local regulations, taxes, subsidies, and even topography. Chile's terrain, for instance, divides the nation's electric grid into two parts, one of which commands higher rates than the other, a crucial bit of information for a project's bottom line.
Fortunately, McLaughlin has a wealth of regional experience. "She's networked around the highest levels of Mexican business communities and the government," said James Bowen, McLaughlin's Mexican-based business partner at Vertex. "We wouldn't be able to do this project without her."
Her deep well of experience in the region began more than a decade earlier with her Peace Corps assignment in a rural village in Nicaragua. Roads were impassable during heavy rains. Water pipes ran dry for up to six days during the dry season, underscoring the region's lack of infrastructure.
After the Peace Corps, she worked her way through several clean-energy companies, eventually overseeing projects in Southeast Asia for the German utility E.ON. While living in Singapore, she paid a visit to Booth's campus. "I was so set on going to Booth that I didn't apply anywhere else," she said.
She enrolled in the Executive MBA Program Asia in 2011, and began what she describes as, "absolutely one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life." She logged 80- to 90-hour workweeks and learned the art of the business pitch. "Being in that environment where people are heavily criticizing your idea, and having to respond to it in a calm, neutral, and intelligent manner was a fantastic learning experience," she recalled.
To this day, she looks at every project through the eyes of a busy investor. "I've seen incredible companies or opportunities that are incorrectly communicated and they rarely get investors, even though if you look at the back-up documentation they should be getting investment," she said. "Learning how, what, and when to communicate is very important, and I learned that at Booth."—Dan Kedmey