Let them know that their voice can be heard, and they can have a real impact. When millions of young people from the next generation insist on change, it will happen. As tomorrow’s leaders, children are already influencing the decisions of those who hold the power today by advocating for the issues they care about.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Downey, the president of Harmony Fuels, the first carbon neutral heating fuel company in the United States. Steve is a “technology guy” who started his career at the Department of Defense developing data encryption devices and then was responsible for helping develop patient identification and hospital workflow solutions during his time with Siemens Healthcare. In 2008, he joined Shipley Energy, Harmony Fuels’ parent company, serving as chief technology officer.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It can only be contributed to luck. Over 17 or so years, I was designing, deploying and selling technology solutions to the Department of Defense, civilian agencies, and later, healthcare institutions. I traveled 80% of the time and was tired of telling my kids “goodnight” over the phone. There was a local energy company hiring for a chief technology officer, and my first thought was, “I know nothing about energy, I’m thoroughly unqualified for this job, but what’s the worst that could happen — they don’t call me back?” 11 years later, and I’m somehow a veteran of the energy industry, and we’ve launched a subsidiary — Harmony Fuels — that we believe can make a real impact on climate change.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
Harmony Fuels is based completely on sustainability and environmental stewardship, and our mission is to help address the greatest risk to our way of life on this planet: climate change. The division was created to provide homeowners with the energy they need to heat their homes in a way that is less harmful to the environment. We’ve found that while consumers want to live more sustainably, it can be challenging and overwhelming to make changes. For single family homes in the northeast, the cost of replacing oil and propane furnaces is astronomical and unrealistic. As the only carbon neutral provider of home heating fuel in the US, we make it attainable for consumers to reduce their carbon footprints by offering the opportunity to purchase carbon offsets to balance out the environmental effects of heating their homes.
The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Take accountability for allowing the climate crisis to reach the pivotal point it is at today.
- Educate your kids. Make sure they understand the amount of carbon that’s produced from shipping goods and services around the world. Carbon offsets have become increasingly popular in the e-commerce space, as more and more people order products with fast shipping windows.
- Demonstrate how everyday choices matter. For example, compare and contrast the carbon produced by shopping within the predominant model at supermarkets, big box stores or warehouse clubs, versus buying locally produced products. Eating local and seasonal foods can lower your carbon footprint since food produced out of season is typically imported.
- Show your kids the effect the climate crisis has on people. Make sure they understand the number of people around the world who will be displaced if we do nothing. For my generation, the greatest threat to the world was a nuclear holocaust. For our kids, it’s widespread famine, displacement, lack of water and more from climate change. The Australian wildfires are a harrowing example of how the climate crisis is impacting the well-being of millions.
- Let them know that their voice can be heard, and they can have a real impact. When millions of young people from the next generation insist on change, it will happen. As tomorrow’s leaders, children are already influencing the decisions of those who hold the power today by advocating for the issues they care about.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Perfect is the Enemy of Good: We don’t need a few people doing sustainability perfectly. We need everyone doing it imperfectly. There is no silver bullet solution to balance climate change. It’s going to take individuals and businesses making incremental changes to reduce their carbon footprints. If we’re all making progress in our own ways, then that’s a movement toward sustainability for everybody. And all those things add up.
- If You Confuse, You Lose: It’s not the brand with the best product but the best messaging that dominates a market. As a technology guy, this is something I wrestled with early in my career. I thought all it took to succeed was to have the best software on the market. But if the best software is marketed in such a way that confuses potential customers — it’s going to fail!
- Obligation or Opportunity?: That meeting I was asked to attend, that I didn’t think was necessary. That networking event my boss dragged me to, but I didn’t really feel like going. If you look at these things as obligations, you’re not going to get anything out of them. Once I started looking at every interaction as an opportunity, things really took off in a positive direction.
- Stay Humble: It’s impossible to achieve success without having your feet planted firmly on the ground. Never being too big to do the small things that need to be done helps build a culture of humility, and it’s so important in leadership roles.
- Think Big; Start Small; Move Fast: This is actually the title of a very inspirational book I read years ago, co-authored by a team from the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation. Mayo’s innovation process starts by asking the question, “Will our actions have the potential to profoundly impact the experience and delivery of health and healthcare?” Transformative innovation is an evolutionary form of innovation built on an undivided focus on the customer and customer experience.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have great mentors along the way. Joe Camaratta, my former VP at Siemens, has been a great mentor and friend. Joe helps me see the larger picture and challenges the way you think about things. Joe also has a way of helping and encouraging you that really lifts you up and makes you feel as though you can accomplish anything. Because of that, when he sends me a book to read, I read it. Now I like biographies and don’t really read many books about business, but if Joe sends me one, I read it because I know it’s going to help me.
The owner of Harmony Fuels’ parent company, Bill Shipley, has also been a great mentor. Bill encourages you to both take risks and also have the courage to always do the right thing. There have been times where a PR firm we used was very concerned about us getting into a particular business and the potential for a PR issue. I discussed their concerns with Bill, and he said, “That’s their job to warn us, and if we’re scared then we shouldn’t do it, but we know what the right thing to do is.”
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would want to inspire a kindness movement because it benefits the greatest number of people and positively impacts everyone — not just those at one end or the other of the socio-economic spectrum. Kindness helps our mental health, physical health, relationships and so much more. It encourages us to volunteer and help those in need. But how can we inspire a kindness movement? How do we get people to understand that they’re key members of the global community, not just their local one?
Today, if you watch the news or go on social media, you see there’s a level of nastiness that often comes from a lack of understanding of people who are different from us. Those with different backgrounds, citizenships and religions are demonized and attacked as the enemy as opposed to being viewed as someone interesting and unique. These are our global neighbors, family members and friends. They coach our kids in softball, serve in churches, mosques and synagogues and take care of us in the hospital and hospice.
People aren’t the enemy, hate is. When we are exposed to different people, cultures and ideals, then we’ll stop demonizing. All US-born citizens should spend two to three years living in a part of the country vastly different from where they grew up. Those from the coasts should go to a small town in the Midwest, those from the Midwest should live in a big diverse coastal city. I’ve lived in both areas and have an appreciation for both.
Beyond that, I would love to see everyone spend a year between high school and college living and volunteering abroad. Living in a country vastly different from your own and interacting with people different than yourself broadens your world view. All of these things would promote a better understanding of each other and improve the overall level of kindness we seem to be losing.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
A former CEO I worked for said, “I would rather make 10 decisions and have seven be wrong than make none and have every one be right.” The point: to be successful you have to be willing to take risks. Educated, measured, risks. I’ve followed that mantra for my entire career, and I have made the most of my opportunities.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!