Sitting Down with Nadeem Sheikh

1. We know it’ll be hard to sum up your professional journey to date, but could you tell us about what you did before joining PVG?

I’ve been extremely lucky. For the last 15 years, I’ve been involved in launching and scaling new products and services that reduce society’s impact on the environment. My interest in working on climate was sparked by my brother Imran, who joined Rocky Mountain Institute and worked with RMI founder Amory Lovins, who’s now known as the “Einstein of energy efficiency”. Amory’s work convinced me there were fundamentally better ways for society to use energy that were great business opportunities, could meet our environmental imperatives, and improve the quality of life for everyone.

After business school, I joined McKinsey and jumped at the chance to help a few partners build out the Firm’s Sustainability practice, which was just getting started.  It was a fun, exhausting, and wild ride—I worked with clients all over the world (I remember a day trip to Dubai from San Francisco) while also getting a chance to do something entrepreneurial inside a big firm.  Most of my time was spent working on improving residential energy efficiency and charting a path for the commercialization of electric vehicles.

I loved the work at McKinsey, but being in San Francisco, I was feeling FOMO and wanted to experience working at a startup. One of my clients introduced me to Dan and Alex, the founders of Opower. Opower makes software that uses utility data to help consumers understand energy-saving opportunities in their homes and was a pioneer in using behavioral science to convince people to take action.  Many of the largest electric and gas utilities in the US—and later the world— became customers of Opower. Among other things, I was put in charge of launching Opower in Japan after the Fukushima disaster and also ran a pretty diverse international business that served customers from Great Britain to Malaysia. We took Opower public and later sold it to Oracle.

After that, I came back home to the US and joined Lyft to build out the self-driving vehicle program. I know, you might be thinking—how does this fit in? First, the founders of Lyft are just fantastic guys— they started Lyft because they saw this opportunity to reshape cities by eliminating the need for people to have a car —instead of owning your own car that sits there 90% of the time doing nothing, why not share the ride? I immediately saw that their strategy could create benefits for consumers and the environment. Most folks don’t realize that over the lifetime of a car, roughly half of the total carbon emissions are related just to the manufacturing of that car. So, imagine a world in which fewer cars are needed because we’re sharing them—there’s a huge environmental (and cost) benefit right there. And, if you could build an electric self-driving car that gets tired or needs a break, you’re taking even more cars off the road; not to mention, now the car is fueled by renewable energy. I was really excited about figuring out how to bring this to market. 

After a few years, even though we had achieved a lot of the goals we set out, one thing was out of our control—self-driving cars were taking longer to develop than we initially expected. Similar to what Uber did, Lyft decided to sell the self-driving car program—Toyota bought it for $500M. Consequently, I went to work at Toyota, which was interesting as well, but with two little kids at home, a working spouse, and COVID still making life difficult, I decided to take a sabbatical from work and become a full-time dad. After taking some time off, now I’m here!

2. What drew you to PVG given all the things you could have done next?

The work and the people. 

As I got to know PVG and its clients, I could see that the firm’s work with climate-focused companies could be a real force multiplier for climate impact. Rather than joining one startup, I could use my experience to help a lot of companies develop, scale, and fund promising new ideas. I saw that the firm has a real depth around strategic finance, pricing, and quant work that I thought was pretty critical because so much of our energy transition involves atoms, not electrons.

The team here punches way above its weight and reminded me immediately of some of the smartest, highest-performing teams that I’ve been part of in the past. People here seemed focused, driven, and hard-working but also eager to make a mark on the world while being kind to one another. It felt like a “work family” that I wanted to be a member of. 

“…It’s mostly not about software, but rather the gritty work of swapping out machines with cleaner ones and building things in new ways—all of which is going to take trillions of dollars of capital, gathered and deployed in the right way.


3. When you were at McKinsey, much of your work focused on residential energy efficiency—are there any industry trends that have shifted significantly since then? And, what would you say are the major drivers behind those shifts?

Back then, we were more focused on reducing energy consumption in a home.  At Opower we were excited if we could reduce energy consumption by 3-5%. This was achieved by installing more efficient devices, changing consumer behaviors, eliminating waste, and improving the construction of a home. All of these things are still important today, but new and cheaper technology is changing the game.

I think now we’re more focused on the opportunity to get consumers to change the kind of energy they are using in their house, rather than just using less.  Thinking back 10 years, governments might have focused on improving the efficiency of natural gas water heaters being installed. Now we’re focused on replacing it with an electric heat pump water heater. We know that with natural gas, propane, and fuel oil, we don’t just need to be using less of them, we need to stop altogether. So we need to switch out the machines that use fossil fuels in a house with ones that use electricity as fuel.  Improving efficiency is still important, but electrifying everything is going to be the best way to capture efficiency and really impact emissions.

One thing that has surprised me is the progress on building codes and standards.  They are a huge lever for improving the efficiency of and decarbonizing our building stock and governments at all levels, but they haven’t moved nearly as far and fast enough as we need them to. They’ve also become politicized; sensational stories about regulators wanting to “take away your gas stove” have made it harder to enact reasonable regulations that help everyone and set our buildings up for success for the next 50-100 years.

4. You’re clearly a leader in the transportation industry, do you have a favorite climate-focused transportation company?

I’m going to plead the fifth on this one. There are so many entrepreneurs and innovators bringing amazing ideas to market right now, that it would be unfair to pick out just one. From electric long-haul trucking to electric urban air mobility, there is a lot to look forward to in the next few years. A lot of this innovation is coming from China, too. As I mentioned earlier, as autonomous driving technology begins to mature, this can also enable new kinds of services that also enable climate impact.

5. What’s the one up-and-coming technology or product trend that you’re most excited about in the sustainability space?

I’m not an expert on this, but I’m excited about the renewed interest in nuclear energy. For lots of reasons, nuclear energy has fallen out of favor, but there is real innovation happening right now. On the fission side, there are safer, smaller and cheaper designs for power plants that can be deployed safely and quickly—I know the DOE is interested in supporting these projects. Many of us have probably read in the news about the exciting developments in fusion; it’s not just a few governments working on this now, but startups as well. I think carbon-free nuclear baseload power will need to be an important component of our overall energy system.

6. At PVG, we love taking turns to share our favorite media of the week (e.g., podcast, book, article)—what’s the last book you read or great podcast episode you listened to?

I just finished “Outlive” by Dr Peter Attia. The premise of the book is that modern medicine has learned a lot about how to extend lifespan, but isn’t great at extending health span—the number of years we are healthy enough to do the things that make us happy. Diet and exercise are, of course, big ones, but the thing I’ve thought about very differently after reading his book is the importance of sleep—not just the quantity but also the quality.

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