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Sustaining a Passion

As an undergraduate, Richard Navarro ’10, MS ’12, was the electrical lead for Santa Clara’s Third Place winning entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2009 Solar Decathlon, an international competition. Today, he leads Google’s sustainability efforts as E-Team Operations Integrator, with responsibility for the Bay Area, Europe and Asia. Recently, he shared his thoughts on how one led to the other.

Did you find your interest in sustainability through your involvement with Solar Decathlon?

There was always a part of me that cared about the planet, but my interest definitely accelerated once we got into the Solar Decathlon. I was learning on the job about so many aspects of sustainability, especially since it was such a hands-on project. It made the work I was doing feel more important, for sure. Without Solar Decathlon, the mindfulness around the impact that we have on our planet would not be as great as it is today.

After getting your B.S. in electrical engineering, you stayed on for the master’s program in sustainable energy and also completed a minor in science, technology and society (STS). Why did you choose to do that?

During my senior year I was hired by Google as a Green Consultant and exposed to cultures all over the world, working with folks from Switzerland, England, and many countries in Asia. I realized that what we do here in the Bay Area impacts the rest of the world. The STS minor has great courses focused on working with global cultures and how gender functions in the workplace, and just learning about how technology affects society. I knew I could get the technical stuff, but there’s so much more out there. One of my favorite classes was Building Global Teams. That one was fascinating for me. For about six months, I thought one of my colleagues from a different country wasn’t my biggest fan.  As I read through the course work and looked at the specific culture of that country it unraveled so much about our conversations and cleared up why [people from there] function the way they do. Being able to float in between cultures and different work styles is super important. No matter how “American” a global company like Google is, there is still a lot of local culture embedded. I totally respect that—and now I have a roadmap to help navigate it. Marian Stetson-Rodriguez, who taught the course, was so dead-on to all the roadblocks I was facing, and it was super helpful and relevant. 

After four years as a Green Consultant, you became E-Team Operations Integrator. What does that entail?

The lighter version of that is that I am a sustainability engineer on campus, and not just for the Bay Area but for Europe and Asia, as well. Basically, I work with facilities managers onsite looking for opportunities: How can we be more sustainable? What are the new technologies that can help run our buildings more efficiently? How do we avoid leaks and reuse water, how do we reduce waste? One of the big issues we’re focused on recently is inner air quality and examining how the indoor environment affects the Google employees. So, we’re looking at workplace studies, finding out how air quality and the amount of fresh air we bring into the space promotes health and well-being for our employees, because we find there’s a direct correlation. One of our primary goals is making sure you feel energized to work here, so by the time you leave at the end of the day, you’re not exhausted. You still have energy to be a parent, or have a life outside of work. As much as my role is in sustainability, it’s also in health and wellness. And that’s super challenging, but—especially as an engineer from Santa Clara—I’m used to solving big problems, to tackle them, to be curious. I’m constantly learning about new technologies, attending conferences that help support that work. 

It’s fascinating work because each and every one of our offices has its own different problems. In the Bay Area we need to be very cautious about rolling out new ideas or strategies because so many people will be affected, but we work with so many differently-sized offices. We have 50 headcount space in one location, and 6,000 headcount office space somewhere else, so we have the opportunity to work with different scales to see how solutions work and then determine if it’s something we want to roll out globally or in the Bay Area. It’s really fun; constantly piloting and then seeing what works, what sticks, what’s good for Google. It’s an amazing place to be; it’s great!

Sounds like you’re really fired up!

Yeah, I love it! There’s not really a day where I’ve left the office not smiling and thinking this is the coolest job I can think of. Especially around sustainability, where I wonder, “Where is this going to take me?” For me, it’s like a continuation of the Solar Decathlon. How do we optimize, how do we reduce our footprint, how do we reinvent something that’s been the standard and just push it to be something innovative? Google’s culture is to always innovate, always find new things, make it work. It’s exciting.

If I’d never joined the Solar Decathlon team, I don’t think I’d be here. Not just because of the connections it brought, but the experience was pure trial and error. We were making mistakes even during building and construction, changing things up. If I could help design and build a house without ever having carried a hammer in my life before that time, just imagine the possibilities, right? It definitely changed my life for the better in confidence and ability to experience new things.

Has there been one significant accomplishment at Google you’re especially proud of?

The LEED green building certification that I helped Google achieve comes to mind. It was one of the most challenging things because at the time I had no background besides the Solar Decathlon house in getting a green building certification out the door. It was a project that typically took two years, but we were able to do it in one. That was with me literally just learning on the fly, getting through each piece of the documentation, working with a number of teams and getting them to collaborate, getting them to think about sustainability and how it really applies to them. Getting certification for a building on Google’s campus which has an incredible amount of energy consumption—our engineers are not the typical office workers using one computer and one monitor; they are power users, so just the plug load is insane! Getting people to think differently…I felt like I had a huge effect. As someone who was fresh out of college, actually still in college, it was the hallmark project that really built another level of confidence. Taking what I learned from Solar Decathlon, bringing it to the campus here at Google, and then building a sustainability program on top of that—one that affects Google’s global operations—it’s crazy! That had a domino effect for how Google thought about sustainability for their operations. 

You’ve come back to Santa Clara to talk with students about your work. Why do you do that?

Honestly, I feel I owe so much to Santa Clara. I remember all the people who inspired me, and I want to be able to give back. I think it’s important to share the message about sustainability and inspire others to venture out of their comfort zone. The coursework and community I built at Santa Clara definitely shaped the kind of teammate I am at Google. One of my favorite resources was Dr. Shoba Krishnan, chair and professor of electrical engineering. She’s definitely had an impact on me and the way I approach things—the problem-solving and social aspect. Google is very important as well because they’ve allowed me to explore. I couldn’t have asked for anything better, going from Santa Clara to Google. It was like a match made in heaven!

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