October 19, 2009
Fellow of the Month: Aden Van Noppen
Aden was the Breakthrough Institute's first intern and helped formulate the idea for Breakthrough Generation. Aden is deeply engaged in development issues, particularly at the intersection of energy and poverty. Today, she is a Portfolio Associate at the Acumen Fund, a global venture fund that uses market-oriented approaches to deliver critical goods and services in developing countries.
How did you get involved with the Breakthrough Institute?
As a freshman in college, I read "The Death of Environmentalism" in an Introduction to Environmental Studies course. It really spoke to me so I contacted Michael and Ted. Three notes later Michael explained that they didn't take interns but he was willing to have a short call. On the call, I told him why I wanted to work there and why I thought their framework was so compelling. Michael agreed to give me the opportunity to be an intern and I started in the summer in 2006, researching everything from the relationship between income and happiness to perceptions of teenage pregnancy for the book, Break Through. I came back to Breakthrough for a second summer, this time with Teryn Norris, because the experience was so unique and engaging. We spent most of the summer on "Fast Clean & Cheap: Cutting Global Warming's Gordian Knot" until we had the vision for Breakthrough Generation and convinced Michael and Ted to let us try it.
Thinking back to the difference between now -- when the fellows double the size of the office -- and when I called Michael in 2006, it's great to see the progression of young people contributing to this organization and this field.
What have you been doing since your time at Breakthrough?
Immediately after Breakthrough I moved to India for six months where I studied Indian development, focusing on urbanization and migration as well as the connection between energy and poverty. When I got back to the U.S., I worked for a summer at a global development consulting firm called Dalberg, consulting for Acumen Fund--my current employer--and a coalition of similar organizations. Acumen Fund invests in social enterprises that provide critical goods and services to the poor, particularly in India, Pakistan, and East Africa. Our main portfolio areas are clean tech--meaning affordable clean energy, clean water, and agriculture--as well as housing and health. Following my work with Dalberg, Acumen hired me to work for them through my senior year at Brown to develop programs that tap into the energy and excitement around social enterprise and social investing popping up on campuses. Since graduating, I transferred to Acumen Fund's Portfolio team that makes and manages our investments in social enterprises.
How has Breakthrough informed the work you are doing now? Is what you learned still influencing the work you do today?
Breakthrough was truly foundational for me. There are a lot of things I could highlight but really, it was the focus on aspirational politics and human ingenuity and potential. Ultimately, it was this more positive frame that attracted me to the field I'm in now. I think there is a similarly optimistic framework behind social enterprise because it is grounded in increasing individual potential.
Breakthrough creates that "aha!" moment, especially for young people. Having that happen to me early in college was lucky because I've had a lot of time to process that and make plans grounded in that philosophy.
Do you have any long-term goals for getting more involved in climate,energy, and/or politics?
Energy is such a lynch pin for development and fighting poverty so I want to work at the intersection of those things. I don't know exactly what that will look like but I also know I want to work at the intersection of the different sectors - public, private, and social -- because a lot of the world's problems will be solved by the interplay of those sectors. I'm also a sucker for anything related to India so I see myself focusing on South Asia where there is an opportunity to make headway on energy challenges. It's another place where there is a lot of need but also so much opportunity - particularly regarding energy.
What advice or encouragement would you offer to current and prospective fellows?
Allow yourself to question your assumptions because that can be a difficult process but in the end its one of the most valuable things you will gain from this experience. That also goes for helping each other to question assumptions and questioning Breakthrough's assumptions. That will create a richer experience and fundamentally shift the way the fellows approach things.
And now's when "Halo" starts playing in the background.
What was your favorite aspect of working at Breakthrough?
I had the opportunity to work really closely with Michael and Ted and I think my favorite aspect was being able to learn so much by osmosis and being able to engage on a deep level with a set of sophisticated ideas and issues that will define our future. I feel really fortunate to have had that experience at a young age.
What book are you currently reading?
I'm reading two books, a non-fiction and a fiction. The non-fiction is called The Empire of Tea. It traces the global influence of tea production and it is a fascinating lens through which to see the influence of colonialism. Plus, I drink about five cups of tea a day, so that makes it a bit more personally interesting, but also depressing.
I also just started reading Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. It's beautifully written and touches on a lot of complex issues that relate to the nature of poverty in India.
I also always have the New Yorker in my bag. I feel like the New Yorker allows you to be a mini expert on something different every week. Plus, now that I live in New York the first third is actually applicable to me.
Do you have any intellectual or political role models?
Amartya Sen, a Nobel prize winning economist, redefined the way I think about development. He brought a whole new paradigm into the development field that is focused on increasing individual freedom, essentially a person's ability to live the life of their choosing, instead of on achieving strict numerical goals. "Individual freedom" can mean many things in differing cultural contexts but the main idea is increasing freedom and choice. That idea has become the foundation for the work I do. It's just a different way of seeing people, seeing the poor, and seeing opportunity.
What is your favorite thing about the Bay Area?
The balance between city life -- and all the resources that brings -- and natural areas, that allow you to escape the city. It's such a unique situation. I love New York, but the Bay Area is just a wonderfully balanced existence. It's only a matter of time before I'm back in the Bay Area -- I'll definitely live there one day.
Besides the Breakthrough Blog, of course, what's your go-to publication for climate and energy news?
I will definitely give a shout out to the NextBillion, which is actually focused on market based solutions to poverty but has a lot of interesting articles about energy, poverty, and the social enterprises trying to address both of those needs.
Disclaimer: Acumen Fund co-owns and manages Next Billion with WRI and the William Davidson Institute.
If you could offer future fellows one piece of advice about working in Oakland, what would it be?
Take advantage of all the produce. I would highlight the Lake Merritt Farmers' Market which is so fun, has the most beautiful produce, and kind of exemplifies the Bay Area -- so try to go before the end of the summer!
What is your favorite memory from your summer with BTI?
Going to Michael and Ted with the crazy idea for Breakthrough Generation and actually seeing it move forward. Teryn and I went into the summer of 2007 thinking we would be research assistants but we came out of it with this unexpected new initiative.