Adding value to the energy market
Sustainability is often top of mind for entrepreneur and philanthropist Rick Tallman ’85, MS ’93. For the past 15 years as founder and partner at Renova Capital, a Denver-based private equity firm that invests in renewable energy assets, Tallman has worked with dozens of companies to bring new sustainable technologies to market. And through that process, he has focused on ensuring his business not only supports these new products but also has a positive impact on the environment and society.
“That’s my little contribution to getting through the energy transition,” Tallman said.
We sat down with Tallman to hear a little more about his approach to running a business, sustainable development and the challenges he’s overcome along the way.
Mines Magazine: Much of your work has been centered around supporting sustainable development and new energy technologies. Why is this work important to you?
Tallman: When I was trying to decide to go back to grad school and get a technical degree after leaving the Army after the Persian Gulf War, I talked to Frank Schowengerdt, who was the dean at the time. He pulled out a chart that showed the human population and how it’s grown without constraints for the last 100 million years. Now, in the course of a couple generations, everything that humans are about is going to be challenged, because we have to change and work against our human nature, to flatten the curve and get society to a place where we can live with restrained resources. He said it was the mission of Mines to provide the technical leadership to get through that curve and get us on a new trajectory as a society. And that really struck me.
Then I was taking a class from Keenan Lee, and he laid out climate change. He put a decision matrix up on the board and said “Either global warming is real or it’s not, and either we do something about it or we don’t. And in three of those cases, we’re better off. If we work to clean up our air and water, we’re in a better place. But in the last case, if it’s true and we don’t do anything about it, we’re in serious trouble.”
That hit me like a ton of bricks. I just decided at that point that I was going to use my technical degree and my knowledge from Mines to work in those areas.
MM: Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Tallman: I feel like an entrepreneur is, in simpler terms, a problem solver. And the key to success as an entrepreneur is to really understand the problem you’re solving, and the bigger problem you solve, the greater value for your company and your investors.
The good news is, if you’re looking to be an entrepreneur, there’s lots of problems to be solved right now.
I also feel like the solutions aren’t just purely technical. They’re cultural. They’re political. And it’s only by bringing all those things together where it satisfies everyone is when you’ve got an idea that’s going to work. That’s my approach.
MM: What challenges did you face—and perhaps still face—as an entrepreneur in this field?
Tallman: The biggest challenge is the status quo. Getting people to change their minds about how things are done is really challenging, and it’s not for the weak of heart or the impatient. It takes time and persistence.
When I first talked to J.P. Morgan about banking a solar project, I was literally laughed at. At the time, they banked coal and natural gas, and that was their whole power portfolio. Yet, five years later, they announced a complete reversal.
So for me, it’s not a matter of making things happen, but trying to have a good view of where things are going. And if you can really think realistically about where we’re headed and separate all the noise from the facts, a lot of times the path becomes clear. And if you follow that path and believe in it, things will come around.
MM: You have embedded corporate social responsibility practices into your companies. Why is this important for your business goals?
Tallman: I run my companies on a triple bottom line. We keep track of our financial success, and we also keep track of our environmental success and the success we have socially. It’s really understanding how the business you’re starting or the product you’re selling is not only going to make money but how it’s going to impact or improve society and the environment. At the end of the day, you’ll make more money if you pay attention to how you’re impacting the environment and society. Smart business pays attention to those things.
You also have to think about it from the very beginning. You have to ask the hard questions of what impact is this product or company going to have, positive and negative. It goes back to understanding the problem you’re solving and the value you’re creating by solving that problem and