How do you take opportunities and experiences early in your life and use them to shape your career so you can make an impact? And how important are the relationships you form along the way?
On this episode, Wade Crowfoot, California's Secretary for Natural Resources, takes us through his curvy journey from early roles as an intern to where he is today, leading 19,000 people responsible for natural resources across California. His fascinating story is full of insights and lessons that extend far beyond government and politics. Spoiler alert: strong relationships make a big difference.
Meet the Guest
Wade Crowfoot, California Secretary for Natural Resource, was appointed California Secretary for Natural Resources by Governor Gavin Newsom in January 2019. As Secretary, he oversees an agency of 19,000 employees charged with protecting and managing California’s diverse resources. This includes stewarding the state’s forests and natural lands, rivers and waterways, coast and ocean, fish and wildlife, and energy development. As a member of the Governor’s cabinet, he advises the Governor on natural resources and environmental issues.
Wade has over two decades of public policy and environmental leadership, with expertise in water, fisheries, climate and sustainability issues. He most recently served as chief executive officer of the Water Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropy that builds shared water solutions for communities, economy, and the environment across the American West. In that role, he developed innovative partnerships among a broad range of partners including agricultural leaders and environmental conservation groups.
Prior to joining the foundation, Wade served in Governor Jerry Brown’s Administration as deputy cabinet secretary and senior advisor to the Governor. In that role he led the administration’s drought response efforts and spearheaded several of the Governor’s priority initiatives to build California’s resilience to climate change. He previously served as West Coast regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund and a senior environmental advisor to then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, where he helped to lead many of Mayor Newsom’s nationally-recognized environmental initiatives.
Wade received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1996 and earned a master’s degree in public policy from the London School of Economics in 2004, where he graduated with honors.
A native of Michigan, Wade grew up spending his summers outdoors. Now, he spends his down time camping and hiking with his wife, Lisa, and their young daughter.
Beth Davies, host: Welcome to Career Curves where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are. I'm your host, Beth Davies.
Today we're joined by Wade Crowfoot, who in January, 2019 stepped into a huge job when he was appointed California Secretary for Natural Resources by Governor Gavin Newsom. As a member of the governor's cabinet, he advises the governor on environmental issues and oversees an agency of 19,000 employees charged with protecting and managing California's natural resources – its forests, rivers, coast, ocean, fish and wildlife. In our conversation, he shares how he developed his passion for this work and how we made bold moves to get where he is today.
I started by asking him what he does as the Secretary for Natural Resources.
Wade Crowfoot, guest: Well, it's still evolving. But essentially as Secretary, I'm leading an agency that's charged with stewarding California's natural resources. So as you said, that's everything from the crest of the Sierra to the ocean. We think about California as a very populous state, upwards of 40 million people. It's also a very large state, over a hundred million acres. A lot of that land is not developed so you can think of our agency as really caring for those natural places.
We include in our agency: Cal Fire, of course, folks know Cal Fire after the last couple of horrible wildfire seasons but they also manage the forest, so not only fire protection, but forestry; our State Parks system; our Department of Water Resources, which is the main water supply entity in the state; our Department of Fish and Wildlife, really charged with protecting nature; our Department of Conservation, which oversees fossil fuel development in the state; our Coastal Commission; our Oceans Protection Council. So it's quite varied.
Beth: It is varied. And everything that you just said is an enormous list of responsibilities. How did you get to know enough to step into a role like this?
Wade: I think that this is a huge job and I go home and tell my wife whenever she asks, "I think this is the best job I'll ever have", but it can be an overwhelming job. And it was certainly overwhelming to consider what I would be leading initially.
But I think that's where professional growth happens, which is finding confidence in yourself to actually take on and put yourself in a position to have jobs that you need to prove yourself in. I know plenty of people that limit themselves because they say, "Oh, I could never do that job because I don't know every single aspect of that job." Very few people do but it's really having the confidence in yourself, not only to think you can do the job, but then articulate your confidence to the person that would be hiring you.
Beth: When you think about that piece, "articulating it so that others could be confident", is there any secret sauce for how you do that?
Wade: I think it's a combination of passion and organization. My experience, because I've done a lot of hiring too, is there are folks that have a lot of passion but they're not very organized in what they're bringing to the job. And then there are folks that can be very organized in articulating why they should do the job, but you just don't feel the personality come through. So I think it has to be equal measures of passionate and organization. And if it works, it's both compelling and pretty cogent.
Beth: Of course, you also had to have experience to get here. So what I'd love to do is rewind and learn and find out about all the experience that you've had that got you here, even going all the way back to your childhood. Tell me a little bit about where you grew up and were there any seeds in Wade as a young boy and Wade's family that ended up leading you to where you are today?
Wade: I think that the seeds were planted early for me. When I was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan my parents were educators. My mom was everything from a high school teacher to a preschool director. My dad was a university professor and then later an administrator and he ended up becoming Dean of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan. So, one could say the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. But it's been a long and winding path to get here. I didn't leave high school with an ambition to do what my dad did. Far from it.
For me a really a formative experience that led me to the environment was spending a month every summer in Northern Ontario. My family, with another family, bought a small cabin on a lake in Northern Ontario. No running water or electricity. Me and my sister and my parents actually spent a month up there every summer. Everything from picking blueberries to fishing to hikes in the woods. You name it.
In fact, we're in my office here in Sacramento and it has a bunch of nice glossy photos of California, but there's one photo of Northern Ontario, which is quite faded at this point. And that is the sunset over Loon Lake. That has been my inspiration over the years.
Beth: From your family, were there messages in terms of the role that work and career should play in your life?
Wade: Well, I watched my parents work pretty hard and my dad actually worked very hard. One cautionary tale he told me when I grew up is, "Don't work as hard as I have worked because at times it's been much." So I think I was raised with a really strong work ethic and an expectation that I would go to college and then have a productive career. And in retrospect, I'm really thankful of it.
Beth: As you were graduating from high school, did you execute on that plan to go on to college? And where did you go and what did you study?
Wade: Yeah, I did. I was fortunate to go to a high school where the default was to go to a four year university. I ended up going to the University of Wisconsin.
Beth: And what did you major in?
Wade: I majored in political science. I always thought that I wanted to be involved in politics and I had a weird sort of crystallization of that. When I was in elementary school, we got taken downtown in Ann Arbor to a Walter Mondale rally where he was with Geraldine Ferraro running for president. I was taken by the whole pomp and circumstance. They push the little kids up front and I got to shake Walter Mondale's hand which was, I still remember, kind of a soft, wet handshake. But in any event, I came back from that really fired up and I had Mondale - Ferraro stuff on my wall for years.
Beth: What were you thinking would be your goal and your plans in that political arena as you were studying?
Wade: Well, I was a typical kid that thought I was going to be an NFL superstar, like a lot of 12 year old boys, and then when I shifted my mind to politics, I wanted to be the President of the United States. So there was always that thought about being involved in politics as an elected official but obviously didn't materialize that way later in my career
Beth: We often ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. And, of course, they only know what they see, which as it goes to politics would be the elected officials and yet there is this whole other world of political offices, like the role that you're in now. Do you remember when it was that you learned about these types of roles and this type of work and it started to capture your spirit?
Wade: That's a great question. Even to this day, some of my friends ask me, "Are you ever going to get into politics?" because they don't really understand that in a job like this where you're helping to run a state agency, that you are involved in politics. But for me, I think I learned that politics was bigger than being an elected official during my time at Wisconsin. Madison is the capital of the state of Wisconsin, so I actually interned at the Economic Development Agency and had a really interesting mentor who unveiled the world of government well beyond politics.
Beth: One of the big things I know folks early in their career will say is, "I want a mentor." Do you remember how you got this mentor?
Wade: Well, it was somebody that I worked for. I think one way to get a mentor is to do a job at your work and have somebody take you under their wing. I know I'm most attracted to mentoring the people who I really identify great potential in. And so I think I worked really hard at the Economic Development Department and the person I was working for took an interest in my development and was able to quietly but consistently support my interest and curiosity in state government.
Beth: Were there any other internships or roles that you had during college that shaped where you are today?
Wade: Oh, a ton. I was a Page at the Capital in Wisconsin and so you're basically a glorified errand runner. So that was pretty interesting. One, to know that I wanted to do something more substantive than carry around envelopes, but also to see politics in action. I did a bunch of engaged research in Madison, both in the Milwaukee public school system and in a small town called Stoughton, Wisconsin. So I kind of put myself out there.
The great thing about internships is it's a great opportunity to learn. I would always suggest that people try different things at that stage in their career.
Beth: It's an opportunity to learn about the work, but also an opportunity to learn about yourself and it's so important that people are doing both. What were you learning about yourself as you were doing these internships?
Wade: It's a good question. I mean, you're certainly not that self-reflective in college, right? You're trying to figure out where the party is and how to maintain decent grades. To me I was just following what I was interested in. So it was less about padding a resume and more about just exploring. So I think I was learning that I was really attracted to what I was calling Public Policy, which is how to use government to make people's lives better. And I wasn't doing any environmental stuff at that point.
Beth: As you're coming to the end of college, what was the plan that you were formulating for yourself?
Wade: Well, that is a winding road too. I took a semester off during college and a friend had been gifted a Volkswagen bus and so we took off across the country and traveled around. It was an epic, 6-month camping adventure. Saw the country, but got out to the Bay Area and was mesmerized. And knew I wanted to get back.
Beth: You mentioned that when you were doing these internships, the natural resources hadn't factored in yet. When did that come in?
Wade: It's a really good question. I went out to San Francisco and became a temp. That's the way I made my money, as an office temp.
Beth: During those six months?
Wade: Yes, and I interned with an entity called SPUR – San Francisco Planning and Urban Research. I was really focused on urban economic development at that point. And then that really led me into the second job. So really my professional interest in the environment didn't happen until almost a decade later.
Beth: So, you graduated from college and what was the first job that you got after college?
Wade: So I was working at an economic development consulting firm, so it was a small entity that was advising. The work I was doing was advising cities on economic development projects. I also spoke Spanish at the time because I'd spent time in Costa Rica. So I got to work on some private sector development projects in Latin America as well.
Beth: And do you remember how you got that job?
Wade: Yeah, I got it an age-old way: through family connections. My sister had been at the Chicago office of that company for four years and basically turned me on to the fact that there was a San Francisco entity. I had done the work at SPUR, that local economic development entity, so I had some relevant track record and they brought me in for my first job.
Beth: One of the things that I sometimes find is that our early bosses end up saying things that stick with us, informing our careers or even our identity as a working person. Was there anything you remember from your time at Economics Research Associates? Anything that was said to you that had that kind of impact?
Wade: Boy, it's a great question that I have never been asked and I'll say a lot of wisdom imparted, right? First office job. Learning professional norms. Having senior partners take you under their wing. I don't think there's any quote that I would stick on a wall, but we were doing some great travel to Latin America and one of the partners was complaining about it and I said, "That's crazy. Why would you ever complain about this international travel?"
And he said, "Someday, you'll have a family and the work-life balance becomes like an existential threat to your happiness." And I thought that was one, such a downer and two, it was like too intense. And so I thought, "Oh, that guy's crazy. If I get to go to a resort town in Mexico, I'm never going to turn that down." But of course, now almost 30 years on, I'm faced with those challenges like so many others.
Beth: At this point, you are a father, right?
Beth: And so after the 2+ years, you did decide to leave, why did you decide to leave this particular job?
Wade: Well, I was kind of drawn to the politics and this wasn't political. There was a guy in San Francisco who was a local pollster named David Binder and he was doing surveys and focus groups for political candidates, but he also was really into San Francisco politics, so he'd give these little public presentations at Democratic clubs. And of course me being eager, want-to-be political junkie was following him around. Shook his hand once. And I ended up at a party that year in Oakland, like an artist party at a loft in East Oakland, and I ran into the coolest woman who worked for this guy, David Binder. And I swear to God, that night she said, "Hey, you seem like you might be interested in this. Would you ever want to work for David Binder? I'm going back East to school.
And I mean, it was like, what are the chances?
Wade: So that was just dumb luck.
I started working for David Binder and actually, if I want to think about one moment that really set me in the direction of working in politics and government in California, it was working for David Binder.
Beth: What was it about that role that set that in motion?
Wade: Well, he was a great boss. Probably the best boss I'll ever have. Super supportive and just opened the aperture in terms of watching elected leaders in California. He brought me up to Sacramento, for example, when he was doing polling for the Democratic Caucus. At that time it was speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and so we got to be in rooms talking about politics. He was just a mentor. He just really opened my eyes to that and helped me build some relationships in San Francisco politics that I ultimately utilized for the next step.
Beth: How did when it was time to leave that role?
Wade: It's a good question. So almost the end of 1999, some of the people I met through that job encouraged me to run for this local part-time political office leading the Democratic Party, called the Democratic County Central Committee. So I decided to run for it. And this was outside of work, so I could do this and still have the job doing the polling and focus groups. So I ran for it and won.
And I met some other activists. Two of the activists got themselves elected to the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. So when one of those folks got elected he asked me to join him as his essentially policy chief. So that was a perfect time to leave and I left with the boss's blessing and then went to work at City Hall.
Beth: Two questions about that, both the parting conversation and then also the decision to join. How did you manage that conversation? Do you remember with David? Here's this guy who's introduced you to all these people, taking you all these places, and now you're saying, "I'm moving on." Do you remember how you managed that conversation with him?
Wade: No, I don't specifically, but it would have been an easy conversation because he was pretty unconditionally supportive, and I'd watched people that had worked for him go and do other things and ultimately he was about supporting us personally and our happiness.
Also, I've never been somebody that feels like I need to be at a job for an extended period of time. So I, I think it was this opportunity as well. What I saw was a great professional opportunity that I just needed to seize.
Beth: And that was the second part of my question exactly. What was it about this opportunity that was making it something you had to seize?
Wade: Well, this was heady times in San Francisco politics. The city had just shifted to district elections. I was part of a political movement, a so-called Progressive movement. And so this was a time when a lot of new leaders were coming into City Hall. I was really interested in the public policy. In other words, how can we use government to help people? And so while the work with David Binder was interesting, it was really politically focused – how to get people elected to be consequential. And now I had an opportunity to work with a local elected official to try to do that ourselves.
Beth: So you're still in your 20s. At this point, how did age help you or hinder you?
Wade: Well, I think being a legislative staffer is a young person's job because it's kind of a day and night kind of deal, and you benefit from really developing relationships with other staffers. If you go across the street here in Sacramento to the Capital, you'll see a lot of young people. Not a great job on the work-life balance and really benefits from socializing, building your social network with the people that you work with. So I actually think age was, was beneficial in that case.
Beth: You mentioned earlier that your father had said, "Be mindful of work-life balance." Was that in your mind at all and were you recognizing how long you were working and the absence of work-life balance at that point?
Wade: Not really because I was working hard and playing hard. I was single in San Francisco so I would go in on the weekends, for half a day on a Saturday and it wouldn't be a big deal.
Beth: How many years were you with the City and County of San Francisco?
Wade: I was in that job, working in the legislative branch, for about two and a half years. I made a decision at that point to go back to grad school. It was pretty late. I was a 30-year old person going back to grad school. It's not that I necessarily needed it to progress in my career, but I wanted it.
Wade: I was ready to have an experience outside of San Francisco and ultimately I used the opportunity to actually live abroad. I went to grad school at the London School of Economics in London. And another chance opportunity brought me there, which is, I'd been thinking conventionally grad schools in the U.S. and I had an intern at the time who said he had just applied to like eight programs in England. I'd always been impressed by the London School of Economics from afar. It has a prestigious reputation. I thought, "What the heck. That would be amazing."
Beth: Yeah, if I'm going to go to grad school. Let's do that.
Wade: Let's do it in London.
Beth: And what did you study while you were there?
Wade: Well I studied essentially public policy and international policymaking, and it was an incredible experience. If I had advice for younger folks, it's spend as much time as you can when you're young outside of the country and doing things that are harder to do once you're so-called settled. I studied with 35 people and we were from 22 different countries. So the education, in grad school, was less about the classroom and more about my classmates.
Beth: Oh, I can only imagine the perspective that you got from them.
You said you went to grad school, not because you needed to, but because you wanted to. As you look at your career now, do you think that there are doors that opened? Or is it still in that camp of, it was a good thing to do, but not a necessary thing to do?
Wade: I can't point to any single job I've had and said, "Boy, I would not have gotten that job without a graduate degree." But having grad school from a well-recognized institution has been helpful in terms of rounding me out as a candidate.
Beth: At this point, did you have an ultimate, clear career goal for yourself?
Wade: No, and I also didn't have an ultimate personal goal for myself. I was single. I went to London. I thought about staying outside of the country for a while. I was open to anything.
Beth: So then you graduate and what was that any thing that came next?
Wade: So I talk about, "Aah, I'm going to go live outside the U.S." and what I found is that it was actually hard to get a visa in the EU and hard to find a job that would get you a visa. So I came back to San Francisco and I was focused on international governmental consulting. I had done my graduate research in Mexico City, so was kind of excited about maybe a Latin American connection, but interestingly, I got sucked back in San Francisco politics.
It had just been the "Winter of Love" in San Francisco when Gavin Newsom stepped up on gay marriage and, for like five minutes in San Francisco, all the politicians were getting along. There was a vacancy working for the newly elected mayor, Gavin Newsom, as his liaison to the Board of Supervisors, that local legislative branch where I had worked. So it was a really interesting opportunity and some of the folks I worked with, when they heard I was back in town said, "Hey, you should join." And that was a step up in terms of responsibility and career.
Had you asked me if I would be returning to city government when I went to London, I would have said no. But the timing worked out and it was a good opportunity.
Beth: So you're working for the mayor. How long did you work in that role?
Wade: Well, I worked for the mayor for five years. I switched roles but...
Beth: That type of a role means that it's bound by the election and your job is going to end when his term ends.
Beth: How does that factor into your career planning and even just into your life planning?
Wade: Well, I'll tell you, I have never once thought about my career beyond my nose. I know that sometimes folks get advice around, "Look down and figure out what you want to be doing in 25 years." Rare is the person I've met that actually has done that.
And so for me, mayors are elected in four year increments. Four years seems like a long time. So from my point of view, maybe I'm risk tolerant, but I've always thought, "Boy, I'm not sure I want to be in a job for more than four years." And I also feel like in my line of work, if you're working for an elected official, there is a chance that you're going to have a set of skills and relationships that transfers to other jobs fairly easily, so it's actually a good investment in your career, even if it's time limited.
Beth: Did you consciously then during your time in the mayor's office work on nurturing those relationships or is that just the nature of the work anyway?
Wade: I wish I could say I did, but it's the nature of the work. One of the things I've learned over the years is career trajectories are built on relationships. Most of the jobs that we get never got on monster.com. They are filled before one would ever even have to publicly notice that. So in retrospect, those relationships that I built ended up becoming really helpful, including the one with Gavin Newsom, considering that he's Governor of the State of California.
Beth: Another question for you about working in the mayor's office before we move on. You mentioned that you had a number of roles for the mayor. How does that work when you're in the mayor's office in terms of shifting roles within an administration? How do those opportunities come and how do you get picked for them?
Wade: Well, sometimes the opportunities present themselves because people move up the food chain or they leave and then you're in an opportunity to be in a different position and sometimes you make those opportunities.
Beth: Tell me more about that.
Wade: Well, I'll say, my favorite job working for Mayor Newsom was a job that I ultimately pitched him on. The Mayor had an adviser on public safety, one on public health, one on education, but he didn't have one on the environment. He had helped build the Department of the Environment, which was led by a guy named Jared Blumenfeld. So he had a leader of a department, but he didn't have somebody in the mayor's office to actually help move the agenda forward.
So, Gavin Newsom being who he is, got reelected and said, "Look, I'm open to suggestions you have about how we can optimize our work." So I wrote what I call a Jerry McGuire Memo, if you've seen that movie. It's like a manifesto about what we need to do. And I said, "We need an environmental advisor to really help you and Jared move this agenda forward and I should be that person."
Beth: How did he respond to that?
Wade: He was open to it and built a position and then I filled the position.
Beth: Do you remember what the timing was between when you pitched it and when it happened?
Wade: I think it was pretty quick actually.
Beth: And was this now your first foray into natural resources and environment?
Wade: It was. I'd studied environmental policymaking in grad school, so as I was having these experiences, I was thinking, "Gosh, this is something I care a lot about." And then when I worked for Mayor Newsom, I was always really excited to work on the environmental stuff, but I couldn't focus entirely on that. So really, developing that position and then asking to serve in that role was the first time I was working full time on the environment.
Beth: And it's really a job that pulls together then these two passions that you have: politics and the environment and natural resources.
Wade: Yeah, it was. Now that I'm thinking about it, it does but I didn't think about it at the time.
Beth: At some point it is time to leave the mayor's office. Did you leave when he left? Is that when that came to an end?
Wade: No. Mayor Newsom ran for governor. I looked around and I said, "Well, I've been in San Francisco government now eight and a half years and while I love San Francisco, I want to work in places that are not just San Francisco city government." I had become, at that point, experienced in that. So I realized, actually I made a pretty conscious decision, that I needed to go out and get broader experience. I actually decided to make a transition outside of government.
Beth: And where did you go?
Wade: I went to a a non-governmental organization called the Environmental Defense Fund, which is a big national environmental nonprofit. And that was great because that opened my eyes to a broader set of public policy than just urban environmental policy. It was based in San Francisco, but it was focused across California and the West.
Beth: So it seems like that was broadening you in a couple of ways, both taking you outside of San Francisco, taking you into a broader California, but also strengthening your muscle around natural resources and the environment.
Wade: Totally, and environmental policy because those groups exist to really advance environmental policy through government. And so when I worked for Mayor Newsom, I was working for a decision maker and then working for environmental defense fund, I was working for an advocate that was seeking to constructively influence decision makers. So it was just a different position to do the work. In retrospect I think it's really helped me in my career just to have that different perspective.
Beth: What did you learn from these two different but related roles about your own strengths, your own passions?
Wade: That I'm very much of a generalist more than a specialist. I like working across topic areas and my strength is in the tactical nature of public policy making and integrating new political considerations with responsible public policy.
And you learn a lot by failing. At the EDF, we were up here and lost some big bills and made some mistakes. But, all the while, building my confidence that this was an area that I was increasingly comfortable in.
Beth: And how long did you stay with them?
Wade: Well, another, two and a half years. The transition there was interesting. EDF was considering the next governor's election and it was Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman running for office. EDF is a 501(c)(3). In other words, we weren't endorsing candidates, but we were trying to infuse in the gubernatorial campaign that year a focus on environmental policy. So in the course of that, I got to know folks that were working on those campaigns and got to know the folks that were working on Jerry Brown's campaign, and really came to personally connect with them.
So fast forward, Jerry Brown gets elected to be governor and environmental groups were putting together a proverbial list of environmental leaders that could be considered for the administration. And they asked me if I wanted to be put on the list and I said, sure. Then, through a series of conversations, about six months into the administration, I got asked to join the Brown administration, which was a big change and one back to government. And one that I accepted.
Beth: So of course on Career Curves, we like to acknowledge these curves and it's an interesting story how you're talking about these curves from policy groups and then into city government or policy groups and then research groups and then into state government. What did you do then in the governor's office when you were working with Jerry Brown?
Wade: Well, I served in an adjunct entity within the governor's office called the Governor's Office of Planning and Research or OPR. I call it a combination of the state's environmental Think Tank and long range planning agency. I got brought in as Deputy Director there and we were working on a lot of different things. Everything from accelerating solar permitting to trying to develop strategies to reduce the miles that Californians drive.
About a year and a half into that I got tapped to come into the horseshoe, which is the nomenclature that's used for the nerve center of the Governor's office, and join what is the cabinet team helping to manage state agencies. And so I did that, and it was fascinating and a ton of learning experience.
One of my areas of focus was emergency management, so being the Governor's and the Governor's office point with our emergency management department. And that was during the California drought. So the California drought hits and I ended up essentially co-chairing the Drought Task Force, which actually lasted for three years along with the emergency management agency.
I didn't know it at the time, but that was really my baptism in California water, which then informed...
Beth: Or at that point "lack of water..."
Wade: Yes. So, that was incredible. I spent five years in the broad administration.
But then of course, the way it happens, life impacted my career. My wife and I lived in Oakland at the time. And when I got the job with the Brown administration, we had just bought our first home in the Bay Area. Saved up for 10 years. And so the timing wasn't right to move to Sacramento. So, believe it or not, I commuted back and forth.
During that time, about three years in, we had a little girl and the commute got really untenable. So after two years of that commute I basically resigned from the Brown administration to re-center in the Bay, much closer to what was now my two year old.
Beth: When you resigned, did you already have your next job lined up or did you take some down time to figure that out?
Wade: It's a great question. I had my next job kind of lined up. I had feelers, but the way it works in some of these government jobs is one, there are some prohibitions from seeking work while you're in those positions from certain entities, but then two, you're also just busy. These jobs are day and night. You're on your phone if you're not in the office, and so you don't have a lot of time to do that. In this case, I had like a couple of irons in the fire, but nothing nothing for sure. It turns out one of those irons in the fire actually materialized into my next job.
Beth: And so what was the next job?
Wade: I ended up leading what is a startup: a philanthropic foundation called the Water fFoundation. What was interesting is that fate of the California drought, got me deeply immersed in California water policy that ultimately made me a really attractive candidate to lead this startup foundation.
This was a learning experience for me, too, because I was going back out of government, back into the nonprofit sector, but a different area of the nonprofit sector. On the foundation side, you're providing impact by funding organizations like the one that I used to work for at the Environmental Defense Fund. It was interesting because it was really building an organization, like starting up an organization. So choosing a Chief Operating Officer. It had been incubated within an organization so bringing along some staff but then hiring new staff, establishing a Bay Area presence, etc. Had a ton of fun doing that.
Beth: Did you find there to be a big work culture difference between being in government and being in a startup like you were in and how did you manage that transition for yourself?
Wade: I would say this: one of the misperceptions of government is that people are just clock punchers.
Beth: They're not?
Wade: They're not. I was so revved up in terms of what I was getting done every day and how hard I was working, I had to take a breath and realize that the pace was a little bit slower.
Beth: I'm so glad I asked you that question because it's quite frankly the opposite of what I had expected you to say. So how long did you stay in this role with the Water Foundation?
Wade: About two and a half years. And frankly, I would have gladly been able to stay. Wanted to stay. We were on a trajectory of growth. We'd had the startup phase and really moving into a new phase of growth and impact. We had established an office in downtown Oakland, which was a bike commute from my home, tremendous colleagues, a lot of upside.
But Gavin Newsom was elected Governor and then I had the opportunity to take this job. I never thought I would be in a position to have a job with as significant impact as I can potentially exercise here. So for me it was a tough decision, but one that ultimately, in terms of my own ambition to have impact in the environmental space, was one that I just couldn't turn down.
Beth: There are a lot of people who are passionate about the environment now, for good reason, and passionate about climate change. Would you recommend government as a place for them to get involved and why?
Wade: Yes, I totally would. I think government, state government certainly but also all forms of government, have been pretty inaccessible to people that are just breaking into their career. In Sacramento, we're 15 miles east of Davis. There are environmental science majors that come out of Davis every year that are incredible and they often don't think about government as an exciting place to work because of these perceptions, these stereotypes about government.
Beth: Are there any other misconceptions you want to bust about government?
Wade: That it's hide-bound and a laggard. In many respects, it can be a leader. We're a big workforce. We're a big organization, we're 230,000 employees in the state of California. When you get companies that big, sure it's going to be difficult to innovate and make change, but I'll tell you my time in state government – which is now about six and a half years between Brown and Newsom administrations –I have found some of the smartest, committed, creative and innovative people and the ability to have impact is scaled. I, of course, have a ton of friends who are doing the advocacy work on the outside or the foundation work, and that's very important because it's an ecosystem and each of those organizations play their role. But, we're really crafting the regulations, the laws, the policies, the investments that are making, real changes on the ground.
So I just think, if you're somebody who wants to have environmental impact or impact positively on the environment, government is an excellent place.
Beth: I actually wish I had heard your story earlier in my career because I think I would have been more interested in government and policy making. I think there are opportunities here I just didn't even know about. So thank you for sharing your experience.
I've got four more questions for you. The first one is, what would you say is the smartest career move you made, whether intentionally or by accident?
Wade: Ooh, that's a tough one. I would say actually doing something I was very fearful of, which is running for that little, minor, part-time political office in San Francisco. I still remember it was Y2K 2000 and my friends had planned a big trip to Bali and I actually decided to eat the plane ticket costs that I'd already purchased because I decided to run for this little office and I was terrified of doing it. Mostly because, if you don't get elected, it's essentially perceived as failure. Anyway, I did it.
The reason why it was the smartest thing I did is not because I've become an elected official, but it really launched me on this path towards government. I never would have had the opportunity to go to San Francisco City Hall had I not formed the relationships that I did getting elected.
So I think it's doing something that I feared and that I was scared of, but ultimately, I did.
Beth: What about the flip side? If you could have one do-over, what would it be and why?
Wade: I would have joined the Peace Corps out of college. I remember at the time I thought, "Oh my God, two years. I can't commit two years of my life. I have to go find my profession," which in retrospect was foolish. The advice I give to young people now is one, I love exploring the world, but I don't do much of it. So I just think if life affords you the opportunities to get out of the country and learn, do it, and the Peace Corps is an incredible way to learn. As I've met people over the years, it's just shaped their lives even if they didn't end up doing that. And so I would have done that.
And then, the piece of related advice I tell people is, use your 20s to explore what you want to do. We are no longer in a paradigm where somebody joins a company and stays there their entire life. That is very much the exception to the norm. You see people jumping into law school right after undergrad because they know they want to be a lawyer or feeling great pressure to get that big, high paying job initially. I just think that's such a mistake. The 20s are such an opportunity to explore. What gets you up in the morning? What kind of work would you do if you weren't being paid?
Beth: What's one piece of career advice that you would give the younger Wade if you could go back in time?
Wade: Invest in relationships and don't do so when you're looking for a job, but really find people that you like working with and deepen the relationships with them. The best colleagues that I have, long-term colleagues in my line of work, are people that I really enjoy. At the end of the day, it's find people that you like working with and really build the working relationship and the personal relationship. To this day I am loyal to those people and if they call up and they have somebody that wants to do an informational interview or need a favor, I will always do it.
Beth: And then my last question, how do you define success?
Wade: Me, I define success by impact. It sounds a little cheesy, but we have a limited time on the earth, right? And I think outside of loving your family and being loved by your family and friends with our professions, if we're lucky enough to do something we care about, we should measure our success by the impact we can create.
And so, like I said, I think that this is the best job I'll ever have because I never thought I'd have this much authority to have impact. And now I'm really holding myself accountable for going out there and making some of that impact.
Beth: Thank you so much for your time today. There's no doubt that your story will have impact on the folks who listen, so thank you so much.
Thank you. It's been fun. A trip down memory lane.
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