Paul Augustine leads Lyft’s efforts to reduce its environmental impact-including commitment to 100% electric vehicles by 2030, renewable energy procurement, environmental reporting, and policy advocacy to accelerate EV adoption and fight climate change.
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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so honored to have with you today, Paul Augustine. He’s the head of sustainability for Lyft. That’s right, Lyft, L-Y-F-T. Welcome, Paul, to the Impact Podcast.
Paul Augustine: Thanks so much for having me, John. It’s an honor to be here.
John: Hey, Paul, you’re doing some very important work, obviously, at Lyft, and we want to get into that in a little bit. But before we get into that, I’d love for you to share with our listeners and our viewers the Paul Augustine backstory. How you even got here, and what your journey growing up leading to this point in your career really look like?
Paul: Sounds great. I’m going to take you way back, I’ll take you back a previous generation, actually.
Paul: So, my dad grew up as one of 13 kids in rural India on a farm. When he came to the US, he settled in Buffalo, New York, and brought a little bit of that farming to Buffalo. We grew up with fruit trees and vegetable gardens. I spent a lot of time outdoors. In the beautiful buffalo summers, as well as the famous snowy winters, I was outside. And so, I just developed this love for nature and appreciation for all that we get from nature. So, fast-forward to college, when I entered college, I knew that I wanted to set myself up for a career in which I can help the world and improve people’s lives. Initially, I thought that was going to be medicine. And then two courses actually changed my career trajectory. So, first was an intro to environmental engineering, and I kind of fell into this course by accident. But as I learned more about the environmental challenges that we were facing, and the technology solutions that were already out there, I got really excited. And then I took another course in environmental policy and law, and learned about the large-scale impact that policy can make in our environmental issues. So, I studied environmental engineering and economics, and then went on to grad school to focus more on climate and energy issues. And then coming out of school, I went to the federal government and worked as a presidential management fellow for the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Senate Energy Committee on climate policies and air pollution programs. I was there for about 3 years. And then I saw that the investment community was actually putting money to work in solutions on the ground to reduce emissions and joined RNK capital, which, at the time, was one of the largest investment firms focused on green commodities. So, I started there as a trader, and traded a large portfolio of carbon credits, renewable energy certificates, emission credits. I’m also invested in carbon offset projects. I was there through the recession, which wasn’t the best time to be working in Wall Street, to be honest. But there was one bright spot in the environmental markets, and that was California. California was starting its greenhouse gas cap and trade program. And so, a recruiter reached out to me from Southern California Edison, the large electric utility. They need someone to help build out their carbon trading strategy, their carbon trading desk, and work on the policy side as the rules were being developed. And it was just the perfect opportunity for me. So, I moved over to California, sunny California, and I helped build out the carbon strategy for Southern California Edison. I also got to work on renewable energy and electric vehicles to some extent. From there, I went to Chicago, and worked for a consulting company, consulting to utilities throughout the country on different topics, including community solar, utility of the future policy, and smart grid deployment. I did that out of Chicago for 2 years, and then moved to San Francisco for 2 years. And as a consultant working in San Francisco, I was travelling every week down to Arizona. I would come back every week and talk to my wife about the week. And the highlights for my week were usually the conversations with my Lyft driver. I took between 4 and 10 Lyfts every single week for about a year and a half. And it was really this deep connection to the Lyft drivers and learning about their stories and the different walks of life that they were coming from. Talking to the veterans, talking to folks that needed flexibility to take care of a loved one, college students looking to earn money to pay for school, and a lot of retirees whose spouses told them that they needed to get out of the house and talk to other people. I had already been following Lyft as a company because of its values. And the connection with the drivers was really what brought me to Lyft, as well as the opportunity to make a large-scale impact in terms of transportation emissions.
John: First of all, I want to unpack a little bit of your past and then we’re going to go into Lyft. So, a couple things, back in rural India, what were your grandparents and relatives farming back there?
Paul: Yeah. This is fresh in my mind because I was just there at the farm that my dad grew up on. They had a variety of crops. The cash crop there was rubber. They also had coconuts, pepper, and host of other things as well.
John: Does some of your relatives, brother, sisters, or cousins take over the family business that are still in it?
Paul: Yeah, my uncle is still there running the farm.
John: And what had dad become? When he moved you guys to Buffalo, what was dad’s profession?
Paul: Dad became a doctor.
John: Okay. That’s why you were sort of headed towards medical school[?].
Paul: Yeah. There was a little bit of pressure from him. My older sister did help. She also went into medicine. So, I had to have a lot of long conversations with my dad about other profession.
John: And that’s sort of normal, right?
John: That’s normal. That’s a normal thing. And you’re very humble, obviously. But when you talked about your formal education, which got you on this wonderful trajectory… I just want for our listeners and viewers to understand, you went undergrad to Yale, then masters at Columbia.
Paul: That’s right.
John: One of the greatest institutions in the United States. But what it set you up for, really, the education is you’ve had a very versatile career and really got to touch so many areas in the sustainability field that made you so qualified for this wonderful position that you now have.
Paul: Yeah, I was really fortunate to have a lot of really great professors and mentors over the past couple of decades, including, while I was at school that helped shape the trajectory of my professional life.
John: Yeah, good for you. Good for you. What a wonderful connection to connect with the drivers, and that leads to this. That’s such a great storyline. But it’s so true, though, because really, we connect with brands in different ways. And to have such a great experience on a week-by-week basis, not just one unique anomaly of a driver, so many wonderful experiences leading you to really fall in love with the brand, and making you want to be a part of that brand. That’s a real great storyline. I like that a lot. I don’t hear that a lot, actually. I don’t hear that a lot. So, talk about now, what year did you get this wonderful position of head of sustainability at Lyft? And were you the first head of sustainability there?
Paul: I was not the first head of sustainability. So, my predecessor, Sam, joined Lyft in March 2018, and then I joined Lyft about 6 months later to build out the sustainability program. And I have stuck around long enough to take the reins over and build this into a broader and more comprehensive sustainability program.
John: [inaudible] interested, it was relatively speaking compared to GM, or compared to Pepsi, or Gillette, Lyft is a relatively new brand. It’s part of our new generation of brands. So, creating a sustainability program, laying the groundwork for sustainability from your perspective, and all the great things that have informed you, which your experience was vast. How do you go about doing it? What do you use as benchmarks, to really create a program that matches the company’s values and DNA, but also takes what you were informed by historically, and you get to lay that into that and leave your stamp on it as well?
Paul: Yeah, I think there are a couple pieces of context with regard to the company that helped refine what our strategy was. So, first, I just want to mention that Lyft is a founder-led company. Our co-founders are still here leading the company forward.
Paul: And they cared deeply about sustainability, both of them. Logan, our CEO, comes from an environmental and transportation planning background. And John, our president, comes from a hospitality background and was deeply inspired by green cities course that he took. And so, when they founded Lyft, sustainability was part of their reason for founding Lyft. They believe that reducing single occupancy vehicles on the road was an integral part of creating this sustainable transportation future and transforming cities, to be built around people and not cars. And it’s actually embodied in Lyft’s mission, which is to improve people’s lives with the world’s best transportation. And so, it’s been embedded within who the company is. It’s just part of our fabric.
John: Right. Well, axiomatically speaking, as you just said, that’s a great point, Paul, being part of the shared economy, itself, is a sustainable business model.
Paul: That’s right. That’s right.
John: Right, that makes sense. That makes total sense.
Paul: I have the great platform where the company was founded in part[?], based on this ideal of developing more sustainable transportation futures. Basically, I came in to help develop something more tangible and concrete in terms of the strategy for sustainability.
John: Understood. How much latitude are you given? Is it pretty much a piece of blank canvas, and you and Sam just start to paint, and make it come to life, and build it from the ground up?
Paul: So, the thing that I love about Lyft also is that we do have to prioritize ruthlessly. And so, when we think about the impact that we can have, we’re focused on transportation.
John: Right. Understood.
Paul: There are a lot of other pieces to how we approach sustainability, including external reporting, some of the traditional corporate sustainability work. We have a hardware footprint because of our micro mobility program, so developing sustainable end of life[?], as well as product design approaches. But the biggest impact in terms of carbon and other emissions is from vehicles driving our platform for rideshare. And so, we’ve been very focused on getting to a fully electrified platform.
John: If I’m not mistaken, when I read through your materials and other information about all the great work you’re doing at Lyft, your goal, if I’m not mistaken, is to have everything fully electrical by 2030?
Paul: That is correct.
John: Wow. It’s already 2023, as you and I know, years go by kind of fast.
Paul: They do.
John: It really does that. So, 7 years sounds long in one respect, but actually, isn’t that long. So, how are you working towards that very bold and virtuous goal?
Paul: There are a number of ways that we’re approaching this. First, we know we can’t do this alone. We know there is a broader systemic change that needs to happen. One area that we’ve been focused on has been on policy. So, advocating for the policies that are going to help the entire economy, switch to electric vehicles. And we’ve seen a lot of progress at the federal and state level just in the last couple of years. So, we’re really excited about that. Another area that we’ve been focused on has been the rental program. Currently, most EV models are 40 plus $1,000, which puts them out of reach for many Americans generally, and many Lyft drivers. So, one thing that we have focused on, in terms of an easier access point for drivers, has been a flexible weekly rental program that we have called Express Drive, and onboarding EVs into that program. And then, another area that we’ve been focused on, and I’m really excited about the fact that we were able to launch some new EV offerings in December of last year to help get our drivers into EVs, including an incentive for drivers in certain markets to drive EVs. A charging discount for public fast charging, and then a discount for home charging infrastructure.
John: Wow. So, let’s unpack that a little bit. These are bold goals, and these are great landmarks that you’ve created to make this goal a reality. When you go to bed at night, and you lay in bed, and you’re thinking about the path ahead, what keeps you up? What’s the biggest sticking point in these issues to actually making this reality by 2030?
Paul: There are a lot of challenges that we need to overcome. Seven years is a very short timeline, and it does keep me keep me up at night sometimes. We we’re essentially trying to overcome some of the biggest challenges in transportation. This includes 100 years plus of marketing that equates car ownership to freedom. And also, 100 plus years of folks getting comfortable with using gasoline to power their vehicle. It’s going to take a lot of effort in order to change personal behaviors and comfort with this new technology. The thing that excites me, though, is we’re working on the ground to solve for wide scale adoption of EVs. In order to be successful in meeting our goal, we need to bring EVs to everybody. This is an equity challenge that we’re facing. When I look at the demographics of our drivers, over 70% of them identify as minorities, and nearly half of our trip starter end in low-income communities. So, these are the people and the places that have been left out of the EV transition in the broader clean tech transition. I’m excited about the fact that we have to work on democratization of this technology. We need to find ways to provide access to these expensive vehicles. This includes the rental program that I mentioned. We need to provide access to EV charging in areas that haven’t received charging to date.
John: It’s interesting. And going back to what you just said, given that we’re [inaudible], we both come from immigrant roots. Not only [inaudible] was only a car equate to freedom, it also was one of the trademarks of success of actually making it here, whenever the American dream used to be that was one of those checkmarks that okay, home, car, et cetera, colored TV, whatever that list was or used to be, it was. But you bring up a great point about equity, is America as a whole, both federally and on a state-by-state basis, moving fast enough on a policy basis to help you, as a private enterprise, achieved your goals?
Paul: It’s never fast enough. But I think the progress that we’ve started to make, especially at the federal level with the Inflation Reduction Act, moving forward last year, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act moving forward is going to be huge in terms of supporting EV adoption, and access to charging. There’s a lot more that needs to be done. What we’re trying to do as Lyft, we have a lot of data, and we’re trying to support smart decision-making from the government in terms of where is their demand? Where are drivers going to be? Where do they live in a way that protects the driver data, but also helps inform decisions in terms of where billions of dollars of public money is going to be invested? We’re trying to partner with governments in order to help accelerate this transition to electrified future and make sure that public money is getting the most bang for the buck.
John: That’s a fascinating issue. Since you have such a great reputation of having worked on both sides of the aisle, actually all three sides of the aisle. What I would call three sides, finance, as a public servant for the government, and now for a company, a for profit company. Are you being called upon by government officials to inform them like DOE and DOT to give them feedback before they come out with their final decisions on how things could be better if they approach their legislation or alter their legislation that they’re contemplating? Are you one of those key people that they talk to on a regular basis?
Paul: There’s a lot of public stakeholder engagement going on right now, as the implementation rules are being said. And so, we are trying to engage directly to help inform and provide insight, because we have been working on this electrification journey for years now. We have a lot of on the ground experience and lessons learned, which we do try to share with policymakers.
John: As a competitive advantage, sustainability can be a powerful tool. Paul, is it a competitive advantage over your competitors to announce this kind of bold vision and begin executing on it, as compared to any of your other competitors who might not be that forward thinking?
Paul: So, I’ll say that when we made this commitment to 100% EVs back in 2020, we made this commitment because we wanted to drive our competitors forward. We also wanted to be a catalyst for change for other private sector entities. So, including industries that we aren’t participating in, auto manufacturers, rental car companies, and others. We wanted to create this path for others to follow. So, what I’m really excited about is that our largest competitor followed our lead a couple months later and made a similar commitment. And now, it’s basically a race to the top, not a race to the bottom. And so, we’re excited. We’re not scared or disappointed that this is not a competitive advantage for us within our industry. We’re excited about racing to the top, and doing what’s best for our drivers for the communities that we serve and for the planet.
John: I love that because Paul, and for those listeners and viewers who just joined us, we got Paul Augustine with us today. He’s the head of sustainability for Lyft. To find Lyft and to find Paul and his great colleagues and the important work they’re doing with electrifying, whatever, making their whole fleet electric by 2030, you can find them at www.Lyft.com. You’re a new breed of leader though, Paul. The leaders in business used to be Game of Thrones. It used to be zero-sum game. But you’re that new breed of leader that leads by being inspirational and aspirational in hopes that others, both direct competitors and others in adjacent or not adjacent industries, follow because you realize, and obviously, you’re brilliant enough to realize that it’s not a zero-sum game. We all live on one planet. Nobody wakes up hoping that they drink waste[?] water or breathe waste[?] air than they did the day before. Everyone wants their children and grandchildren to have a better planet than they had. And that’s wonderful that your inspirational leadership paid off by having both a direct competitor and others start making similar commitments. And that’s part of a new generational type of business leader, and I really applaud you for that. That’s a wonderful way to be because so many other people see business still as zero-sum game of thrones. If they’re doing better, that means we’re doing worse. And that’s not the reality when it comes to sustainability or circular economy, or really, making the world a better place.
Paul: Yeah, John, I think that is one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned from my career, between working in government nonprofits and different private sector industries, is that we can’t look at each other from a competitive standpoint, or from a cynical view of each sector, we really do need to work together in order to solve these issues. Transportation is the biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. If we’re serious about addressing climate change, we have to decarbonize transportation. And we have to do it quickly. I, frankly, having been in the space for a while and you as well, am concern. I’m deeply concerned about where we’re headed in terms of the climate. I studied climate science, almost 20 years ago, and some of those climate models are coming into fruition, where we’re seeing tens of billions of dollars of damage, extreme weather events. If we don’t move with a sense of urgency, and work in partnership and collaboration, we’re just not going to meet the goals of stabilizing the climate.
John: Yeah, I agree with you. I mean, just an order of magnitude for our listeners and viewers and my sake, how many cars does Lyft have on the road? I want to understand how big and monumental getting everybody into EVs by 2030 really is.
Paul: Yeah. So, we’ve got, again, over a million vehicles active on platform. We’re also not just a rideshare company, we operate the largest micro-mobility platform in the country. We operate bike share in major cities, as well as scooter share. And so, the transition that we’re trying to catalyze here is not just shifting people into rideshare. What we’re trying to catalyze is getting people out of personal car ownership into other low carbon modes of transportation, which includes shared bikes, shared scooters, transit, as well as clean rideshare.
John: That’s wonderful. That’s tremendous. What does the future of transportation look like, Paul? Like you said, not only with regards to just scooters, bikes, and cars, give us a little glimpse on what you foresee things are going to look like by 2030 and beyond.
Paul: Yeah. It’s interesting to see just talk to young people these days. And I think the mindset, getting back to our earlier discussion around car ownership, the mindset has changed. Younger people, some of them, don’t feel a need to get a driver’s license. Owning a car is sometimes seen as more of a burden than a benefit. And I think we’re going to continue to see these trends. And where it leads is basically a transportation future, that is shared, electric, and multimodal. I believe Lyft is leading the way in this transformation by offering a convenient alternative to car ownership, by investing and in expansion of electric vehicles, by operating and expanding shared bikes and scooters, and linking everything together in one app.
John: In one app. Wow, that’s exciting. That’s exciting. Are apps a big part of the future of Lyft in terms of technology? Interrelating technology, both the technology in our hand with transportation, is that going to get to continue to be a connective tissue between the future of transportation and getting us more motivated to get out of ownership and into the shared autonomy?
Paul: Yeah, I mean this is another challenge that we face. Right now, if you own a car, it is very easy for you to just get the keys, hop in your car, and drive and [inaudible] if you need to fuel it. So, we need to compete with that. We need to have something that is equally reliable and convenient to that, and I think that is basically what we are developing here in expanding at Lyft.
John: With regards to sustainability, the macro vision of sustainability, Silicon Valley is a hotbed of wonderful and super smart folks like you. Paul, do you get together with other sustainability leaders in Silicon Valley, and share best practices as a whole outside of just the EV ecosystem, and just share best practices on sustainability and inspire each other with regards to share best practices?
Paul: You’re part of this sustainability community, and I think that’s one of the great things about sustainability professionals. We do try to share knowledge, lessons learned. It is a highly collaborative environment. There are a number of forums and groups that are pulled together by nonprofits. For example, we pull together a tech companies and others as well, where we have the opportunity to share lessons learned. And there are areas where we may not have the expertise because it’s not our focus area. And there are other areas, like transportation, where we are the experts. And the great thing about sustainability professionals is that we do try to share what we know in order to help meet this global challenge that we’re facing.
John: And every year, do you guys put out an impact, an issue report?
Paul: We do. So, that was something that we developed back in 2020, was our first report. We’ve been releasing our annual environmental social governance report since then.
John: What month do you typically put it out?
Paul: The last year we released it, I believe, in August. We will probably release it again in August this year.
John: In August, got it. Besides getting everybody electric on your platform by 2030, what else could you tease, share, or excite our listeners and viewers about what’s next for Lyft, Paul?
Paul: There are a couple other areas that we are focused on. One is providing data with business customers. Lyft has a number of business partners where they sign up for a Lyft business account, and let their employees use our services to get around. One key aspect of making better decisions on sustainable practices is better quality data. So, the Lyft rides are part of Scope 3 emissions. So, providing an easy way for our Lyft business partners to access that data will hopefully allow them to make better decisions in terms of their Scope 3 emissions. They will also be able to track how we’re doing in terms of decarbonizing our platform. It’s also part of our efforts to keep ourselves accountable and make the data transparent.
John: That’s really important. I find that one of the main tenants now of good responsible sustainability practices is radical transparency. So, you’re saying that if I was the Director of Sustainability or Chief Sustainability Officer Goldman Sachs, and Lyft was our chosen vehicle company to transport our employees, you’ll create a dashboard for us? So, I can have a daily dashboard to see what kind of usage we’re doing with Lyft, and time of the day, length, carbon emissions, and everything. All the algorithm points that we were interested in, in tracking Goldman Sachs or whatever company would be?
Paul: That’s right. That’s kind of where we’re headed in terms of providing that type of transparency. And I think that speaks to the broader conversation in sustainability reporting that[?] we need more consistency and transparency, especially with regards to the Scope 3 emissions.
John: And also, then, I have to report to my analysts, my c-suite, and my board of directors. So, you, giving me that dashboard makes it much easier. I don’t have to go chase that information down, and it’s not fragmented anymore in my company.
Paul: That’s right.
John: So, you’ll literally create a portal for that and make it really easy to track and then also report on. That’s brilliant. That’s brilliant. I love it. Well, that’s great, Paul. Are you finding that this position, you get to draw upon all your past experiences, like you said, and everything you’ve done in policy as a financier, as a public servant, as a non-profit, and now, as a for-profit business that’s really mission-based in many ways besides profit-based? And also, part of the greater mission is making the world a better place? Do you get the drawn all your experience on a daily basis?
Paul: 100%. Every iota of my experience and background somehow comes to use in my day-to-day.
John: That’s so wonderful. Well, I think they’ve picked the right guy because you definitely have all the right background to make this a reality. And we’re so grateful for your time today, and we’re so grateful that you and your colleagues at Lyft are committed to going electric by 2030. I think that is a bold and very virtuous challenge, but also goal. And I know you’re going to get there with someone like you leading the charge at Lyft. You’re going to get there. Paul, thank you. You’re always welcome back on the Impact Podcast to share the continued journey in EV and sustainability at Lyft, with our listeners and our viewers. And thank you for not only making the impacts that you would Lyft make, but thank you, also, for making the world a better place.
Paul: John, thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
John: This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and Impact partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.closedlooppartners.com.
John: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly disposed of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.