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Alumni Portrait: Cathy Zoi Th'85
Mar 25, 2020 | by Catha Mayor Lamm
Cathy Zoi Th'85 is currently Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of EVgo, working to build a nation-wide network of fast-charging stations for electric vehicles. Her interest in resource management began as an undergraduate studying geology at Duke and lead her to a master's program at Thayer School's Resource Policy Center. Established in 1978 by Dennis Meadows, the Center focused on strategic assessment of natural resources through applied system dynamics and modeling and eventually moved to Dartmouth's environmental studies department.
Since being at Dartmouth, Zoi has held a variety of senior executive positions in the energy industry, academia, non-profit sectors, and government, including serving in the Obama Administration as Assistant Secretary and Acting Under Secretary at the Department of Energy. Prior to that, Zoi served as: CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection; Group Executive Director at the Bayard Group (renamed Landis+Gyr Holdings); Assistant Director General of the New South Wales (NSW) Environmental Protection Agency in Sydney, Australia; CEO of the NSW Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA); Chief of Staff on Environmental Policy in the Clinton Administration; and a manager at the US Environmental Protection Agency where she pioneered the ENERGY STAR Program.
In 1985, Zoi earned her MS in engineering sciences from Dartmouth.
Zoi's appreciation for the natural environment started early. "When I was a kid, I got on a plane and flew across the country," says Zoi, "and I remember flying over The Grand Canyon and looking at the geology from above thinking, 'That's so magic.'"
That fascination stuck and as a geology major at Duke, she, like most of her classmates, went to work for an oil company in the "Exploration Department." Says Zoi, "I think it was 1982 and at that point I was looking in South Dakota and Texas and all we were doing is punching dry holes. And I thought, 'This is sort of silly. We need to come up with a different sort of energy future. Why not figure out a way to tap into infinite resources like the wind and the sun?'"
Zoi then began researching her options and she "discovered this very, very cool quantitative methods resource policy program at Dartmouth."
The program director, Dennis Meadows, flew her up for a weekend. "He basically sold me on the program—how I would be equipped to help solve the world's biggest resource problems after I finished. He also sold me on Dartmouth itself. I had never been there before and I spent this weekend and it was clear: 'Okay, this is where I want to go.'"
Requirements for the two-year master's program included not only courses in applied quantitative methods, but also a course called "Professional Communications," and one where "we were looking at the way regulations get implemented," which included a field-trip to Washington DC. "Some of my colleagues were asking, 'Why do we need to do this?' Because we need to persuade people that they're going to have to tackle these problems! And I totally got that. I was on board."
Zoi came away from Thayer with a deep appreciation of the importance of an integrated multidisciplinary approach to problem solving with a foundation in engineering. The combined skills of systems analysis and communication have been "central for everything I've done," says Zoi. "And I've had this lovely privileged career where I've been able to apply that problem solving and that communication in every kind of sector.”
"It's been a dream ride and I'm proud to say we're making progress."
With a wide variety of career experiences under her belt, Zoi has this advice for up-and-coming Dartmouth engineers: "I encourage them to do a tour of duty inside of government doing policy, particularly if they’re thinking about clean energy and the transformation of our energy economy—because policy really matters. From R+D investments to tax incentives, well-designed government policies can accelerate market development, make economies grow, and help solve global problems."
The global problem Zoi chose is the solvability of the climate crisis where she has focused her own energy for decades. In 2016, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation began to exceed those from the power sector. "Everybody had been thinking transportation was just too hard a nut to crack," says Zoi, "and I thought, 'No, it can't be too hard. I'm going to join that team and help make solutions happen.’ And at EVgo, we're building EV charging stations across America to accelerate the transformation to clean transportation.
"We humans have the intellectual and creative capacity to invent technologies to solve the most pressing problem facing us, which is climate change. Unfortunately, some of the government policies supporting innovation have been rolled back.
"With that said, there's so much momentum. The private sector innovation that has already taken hold working in concert with supportive states and local governments—that gives me optimism and hope."
Zoi acknowledges that most of the EVs purchased in America so far have been in California. "So while the majority of EVgo’s chargers are in California, we’re growing fast and are already in 34 states. Over 100 million Americans live within a 15-minute drive of an EVgo charger today.” In fact, EVgo’s footprint includes chargers in both New Hampshire and Vermont.
In terms of future growth for her company, technology is on her side. "What's happening is that cars' batteries are getting better and better. EVs can charge more quickly and go further on that charge. The EV sector is moving at breakneck speed."
Zoi conveys a similar optimism when considering the career potential of current Thayer students and recent graduates. "As CEO, I'm always looking for the kinds of engineers that Dartmouth turns out—multi-disciplinary engineers that are quantitatively strong, that understand the fundamentals of the scientific method and looking at data, and that fearlessly face large challenges and learn from failure. Those things, plus the ability to integrate that knowledge with lessons from other sectors and to communicate effectively, make them ready to take on the world's biggest problems."
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