It’s electric: MBA Capstone Consulting for The City of Portland

Joe Desmarais, Kristen Currens, Youlen Ghazalian and Nicole Spencer

I sat down with Joe Desmarais (MBA ‘20) to discuss his Capstone project with the City of Portland. The Capstone project is the culmination of all the learning developed throughout The Portland MBA, and it can serve as an important stepping stone in career preparedness and advancement. The work Desmarais describes in this interview is exemplary. I recommend it to current students seeking best practices for executing the Capstone and prospective students who want to learn about what this crucial project entails. 

Lowe: Let’s start at the beginning. How did your group form?

Desmarais: In November 2019, Youlen Ghazalian (MBA ‘20), Kristen Currens (MBA ‘20) and Nicole Spencer (MBA ‘20) approached me because we had worked together on some projects. They were focused on environmental issues, and I thought that sounded cool — I had never done any work in that space. Spencer was a real go-getter. She has a lot of contacts in environmental issues, so she was scouring these nonprofits and government organizations. 

We got our project from Professor Dave Garten. He had a contact in the City of Portland government who was working on transitioning their vehicle fleet to green technology to meet Paris Agreement goals and get to net zero by 2050. We thought that was a project we could work with. We got lucky the way our team was developed: Ghazalian and I are very technical, and Spencer and Currens are outgoing, good at outreach and have environmental backgrounds. I am an engineer by training. Government and environmental issues were completely new to me.

L: Can you describe the scope of your Capstone project?

D: We created a solution for the City of Portland to determine when the time was right to swap out their combustion engines for electric vehicles (EVs), how much it would cost, and what the projected availability of new technologies would be. The deliverable was a financial model, an emissions model and a projection for transition times. 

We gave the client three strategies for converting their fleet to electric by 2050. The first one was based on Portland being a market leader for sustainable operations. The next one was “status quo,” which assumed the City wouldn’t change the fleet until EVs are cheaper than combustion engines. The third one was somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. We also gave recommendations for challenges they would face and how to mitigate them.

We also took a lot of time to make sure that everyone was clear on our scope. All of us have worked in industry, and we have all experienced scope creep. Currens and Ghazalian in particular wanted to make sure that the scope was very narrow. Early on, the client made requests that were out of scope, and we had to be super clear about the parameters. We were lucky that we had an awesome client who gave us a ton of support on what we were delivering.

L: How did you end up sharing responsibilities?

D: Spencer was the primary communicator with our client and did all outreach to third parties. She fell into that role because she is great at it! She was also the only group member who wasn’t working full-time, so she had more bandwidth. Currens did most of the scope work and kept all of us in line. Currens and Spencer wrote most of the paper. Ghazalian and I have a lot of experience in project management, so we tag teamed over things that needed to get done. We also developed the final deliverable tool.

L: Why were you interested in this project?

D: We were looking for something that would be meaningful. We wanted to make sure whoever we were helping could actually make a difference. Also, we expected high client involvement, so we wanted our project to be a priority for them. And it had to be achievable — something we felt like we could actually do. We had other projects we were considering, but they were too ambiguous to set a clear scope or so small that we could have done them in a month. I was fortunate to work with people who had worked in an environmental field to really understand what the challenges were before we dug in deep.

L: How was this project related to your professional ambitions?

D: Well, now I am working for the client! That was a big surprise. I was employed throughout the whole MBA program in a totally different field — supplier-side manufacturing as an engineer. But after the project, I knew a lot about the client and was inspired by their leadership. And I obviously knew a lot about this project. I am now the City of Portland’s Green Fleet Analyst. I act as a consultant for the bureaus when they have to purchase new vehicles, all leading to a goal of 2050 net zero emissions. I am basically preparing the City for electrification and setting the tone. They have a huge fleet of vehicles.

L: What kinds of activities did you do to complete the Capstone?

D: The outreach portion was big. We had to figure out who to benchmark against. We talked with some other cities about what they had done for vehicle fleet electrification. When you’re in an academic program, people are more willing to offer their time and insight. 

We met with the client and asked hard questions. Sometimes they skirt around an issue and we’d need to make them commit. You can’t be afraid to admit when you don’t understand something in those meetings. And I had to do a lot of research to increase my domain knowledge. We had a great advisor, Bill Jones, who has worked for a long time as an environmental consultant and who has a wealth of information. 

We always fell back on the scope. For example, we would hear about challenges Portland General Electric could face, and had to just say that their challenges could not be our challenges on this project, and make a note of it in the paper. We drew the line at tailpipe emissions and considerations like that.

We also worked hard to set a tone of commitment and clear expectations early within the Capstone group. We knew there might be times when someone was having a down time, and we agreed we would help each other out. We were very open and frank. On the teamwork side, this is the best team I have ever been a part of in professional and educational work. Everyone was focused. We cared about what we were doing and we cared about each other.

L: What were some challenges that you faced? Were you affected by Covid-19?

D: We were lucky because we got started early. We had months of in-person meetings with each other and the client before Covid. We did a team building activity together actually. It was an escape room. I would recommend that for any new team! 

Once the pandemic hit, it probably made it easier in some ways, because we didn’t have to go downtown and park. By the nature of what we were delivering, communication by phone and email was easy. But getting our research done early helped make that possible. We had such a good game plan from the get-go. Our work structure was complete by December, and we knew exactly the path that we had to take. Once we got critical information from our advisor and the client, it was go time.

Another challenge was that my personal learning was a lot from the start. I probably have gigs worth of data on different resources. I don’t expect someone to jump into a project and know everything right away. You take the time to know enough and then reframe your perspective.

L: What did you most enjoy about this project?

D: This was a great team and an important topic. My teammates were all phenomenal. They made me want to do my best, and they were all so smart and organized. We were really proud of what we had. I like being able to give the client something useful and valuable. That made all the effort worth it. It also helped that the client was great and gave us so many resources. They weren’t afraid to bother their analysts to give us some special requested item. The client had to demonstrate they were invested, that is something we were really looking for.

L: What advice do you have for students who are preparing for their Capstone now?

D: Make sure you have a great team, and do a team building exercise. Trust with your teammates is obviously important, but also understand their strengths and where they can provide value. 

Garten gave us a guideline to have our schedule marked out until the end of the project. We constantly checked out progress and held ourselves accountable to it. I recommend being really firm on scope, making sure it is clearly defined and checking yourself against it.

Also, find a topic you are passionate about. We cared so much about what we were trying to accomplish, and that really helped. 

L: What would you say to someone who has to choose between a great team and an average topic vs an average team and a topic they are really passionate about?

D: Team over topic. Our team is what kept us together. The same thing is true for real life work. You do the work, you figure it out as you go, but your manager and peers can make it or break it for you. The Capstone is a great introduction to full-time work.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Karen Lowe is a 2020 graduate of The Portland MBA. She manages marketing and strategic partnerships for The Give Bin and writes regularly for Portland State’s Graduate Business Blog.

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