First leader of Stanford’s new climate school grew up with a coal stove

John Doerr, chairman and co-founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield, left, and Arun Majumdar, dean of Stanford University’s Doerr School of Sustainability, during an interview on an episode of Bloomberg Wealth with David Rubenstein in Stanford, California, US, on Friday, July 22, 2022. Venture capitalist John Doerr invested early in Google and Amazon, but passed on Tesla Inc. It’s one of his biggest regrets.

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Arun Majumdar is the first dean of the new climate school at Stanford University, the first new school the prestigious Silicon Valley-based university has opened in 70 years.

The school, officially called the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, is named after the leading financial donor, renowned investor John Doerr, who made a $1.1 billion gift, the largest in the university’s history. 

Silicon Valley is internationally recognized as an innovation hub, and it is also a very wealthy area with relatively mild weather. It’s a world away from the populations being hardest hit by climate change — namely the poorest and most vulnerable populations in low-income countries and otherwise disadvantaged communities, which, ironically, have contributed the least to the problem.

Building a successful climate school that both educates people and scales up technological solutions in its accelerator arm requires thinking beyond the bubble of Silicon Valley.

“The first thing we need to form — we are forming right now — is a global network of partners. And it’s for us to listen to what the real issues are and not predict what the issues are sitting in Silicon Valley,” Majumdar told CNBC in an interview from his office on Stanford’s campus earlier this fall.

Majumdar’s understanding of the importance of a global perspective for the climate school is also personally informed. He grew up in India, where his mom cooked on a coal stove on the floor of their house for the first decade of his life.

Majumdar came to school in the United States and later was tapped to launch a DARPA-esque program for energy innovation in the United States during the Obama administration. He was also a professor, did research, and worked at Google for a stint before eventually getting the opportunity to lead the launch of the Stanford climate school.

Arun Majumdar, dean of Stanford University’s Doerr School of Sustainability, during an interview on an episode of Bloomberg Wealth with David Rubenstein in Stanford, California, US, on Friday, July 22, 2022. Venture capitalist John Doerr and his wife donated $1.1 billion to Stanford University.

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A coal stove and a fridge that shocked

Majumdar was born in Kolkata, India, in 1963, and grew up in New Delhi and Mumbai.

“My mom used to cook on a coal stove,” Majumdar told CNBC. His dad was an engineer working for the government and his mom was a scholar of Sanskrit, and coal was simply what middle-class families in India in the 1960s and 1970s used to cook. It was clearly causing pollution — you could see the smoke — but at least it kept some of the mosquitoes away.

“It’s the mud stove with coal in it, and there is air to flow, and you burn it and you make your rotis and chapatis and other stuff and curries and all of that,” Majumdar said.

Arun Majumdar’s mother cooking over a coal burning stove in India.

Photo courtesy Arun Majumdar

Majumdar remembers when the family got access to liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, in the mid-1970’s.

“That was a big deal,” he told CNBC, not only because it is less polluting than coal, but also because his mom could put a stove on a table and stand to cook, instead of crouching. Coal stoves are too hot to put on a table.

But then the “big challenge” was to get LPG fuel cylinders, which were rationed.

The family had a refrigerator, “but it wasn’t very well wired,” Majumdar told CNBC, and the door handle would give the family electric shocks if they weren’t careful. Wearing rubber-soled flip-flops would protect them from shocks, but they often forgot.

They had a car, but it used to break down frequently. “We learned how to fix things, and push the car to get it started,” he said.

All of this technical machinery that needed to get fixed was a learning opportunity for Majumdar, who says he was always a tinkerer. He would open up the telephone and sewing machine and put them back together again. “So I used to be the handyman at home,” Majumdar said. “I was the fixer at home.”

Arun Majumdar when he was young in New Dehli.

Photo courtesy Arun Majumdar

LPG wasn’t the only thing rationed when Majumdar was younger — so was food.

Majumdar grew up during the Green Revolution, which was a period during the 1960s and 1970s when innovation in agriculture drastically improved crop yields. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in genetics and plant breeding that led to the development of “a high-yielding short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat.”

Borlaug tested his wheat strain in Mexico and then took it to India. “India went from a food importer to food exporter because of Norman Borlaug,” Majumdar said. “And you know, I wouldn’t be around if it was not for Norman Borlaug.” 

The impact of Borlaug’s work has stuck with Majumdar throughout his life.

“Research on issues that are scalable can change billions of lives. And that’s the message we want to bring to the school,” Majumdar said. “We need to find those Norman Borlaugs who can look at a problem and say, ‘I have a solution’ and take it all the way to scale.”

Arun Majumdar (the smallest up front) with his extended family in front of their home in New Delhi.

Photo courtesy Arun Majumdar

Looking for the next Norman Borlaug

Majumdar attended Mayo College, an independent boarding school in Ajmer, Rajasthan, India, which was expensive and “tough on my parents” to be able to afford, he told CNBC. But education was a massive priority for Majumdar’s family. His parents and their families were displaced when India got its independence from British rule in 1947 and the territory was partitioned. Majumdar’s parents and their families moved from what is now Bangladesh to Kolkata, “and they lost everything,” Majumdar said. “I was born in the ’60s. We grew up with the stories of what my parents went through.”

“They valued education because they lost everything when they moved during the partition, so to really get ahead in life, it was education,” Majumdar said.

After attending boarding school, Majumdar passed a rigorous entrance exam to attend the Indian Institute of Technology at Bombay, which he graduated from in 1985. He went on to the University of California, Berkeley, to get his master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. 

Arun Majumdar and his late mother at his graduation from the University of California, Berkeley, getting his PhD in mechanical engineering in 1989.

Photo courtesy Arun Majumdar

Majumdar was drawn to Berkeley in part because his dad had visited for telecommunications training and had loved it, raving to his family about Berkeley being some kind of utopia. Majumdar remembers his father saying, “If the kids ever make it, I want them to come to Berkeley.” His father passed away before Majumdar graduated college, “but his dream came true,” Majumdar said.

After taking several professorial gigs, Majumdar returned to Berkeley, where he ended up on the faculty for 13 years. When he was teaching at Berkeley, he was also doing research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where he met Steven Chu, who would go on to become the U.S. Energy secretary under President Barack Obama.

Chu tapped Majumdar to lead the DARPA-esque agency for energy, called ARPA-E, an acronym for Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy. “I was nominated in September; by my third week of October, I was there,” Majumdar said. He wasn’t anticipating the move and ended up staying in Chu’s basement for a week until he could find an apartment to stay in, he told CNBC.

There were three mission areas of the ARPA-E program: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy security and energy efficiency. The idea was to build the new energy industries of the future. In the early days, it was politically challenging.

“Anything new in Washington, there are people who support it, there are people who are trying to kill it. So we have to navigate all that. Now, of course, no one questions that it’s politically stable, but not at that time,” Majumdar said.

After leaving Washington, Majumdar took a job with Google for a year and a half to help create a program on providing access to electricity for the one and a half billion people who didn’t have electricity. Then he joined Stanford.

The lessons he learned at ARPA-E are helping form the foundation for the accelerator arm at the Stanford climate school.

“Jokingly, we call it ARPA-S for sustainability, because it’s all about impact,” Majumdar said. “In ARPA-E, we talked about scale, but not enough. In a climate world, in sustainability, if the solution — whether it’s technology or policy — if it doesn’t scale, it doesn’t matter.”

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

Photo courtesy Cat Clifford, CNBC

So far, the sustainability school at Stanford seems to be popular with students. For example, it opened a new class on sustainability with a limit of 100 students and it was filled up in 12 hours, which is “super fast,” Majumdar said. The anticipation, based on early indicators, is that sustainability will become as foundational to the Stanford ethos as computing has been.

Majumdar has a lot on his plate every day launching and growing the climate school now, but he hasn’t forgotten the days of his childhood.

“I grew up commuting by or traveling between cities in trains in India, which are run by coal engines — steam engines with coal. If it’s a 24-hour or even 18-hour journey, by the time you reach your destination, you’re black” because you are covered in coal smoke.

“So I don’t think people out here ever face that. So it gives me a perspective on the global aspects of this issue because there’s a huge disparity and diversity of backgrounds that people come from, and we can’t be monolithic in our solutions.”

Silicon Valley “could be an echo chamber,” Majumdar said, but he keeps a clear connection to his global experience.

“The people who will get affected mostly by sea level rise are not here.”

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