Malik Ismail ’12 strives to tackle climate change and improve access to electricity for millions of people.
What’s your journey beyond UCC been like so far?
I currently work in strategy at Google X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory, which invents and launches moonshot/“sci-fi-like” technologies (such as Waymo, Wing, Brain, Loon) to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. I focus on Tapestry, our electric grid moonshot (and one of Google’s major climate bets), building the company’s go-to-market strategy and defining its business model. Beyond X, I’m also the founder of Global Spark, a global education non-profit that mobilizes thousands of STEM students in social entrepreneurship. Starting in September, I’ll be pursuing my MBA at Stanford.
My journey to X (and the inspiration behind Global Spark) was a culmination of the various experiences I’ve had both at UCC and as an alumnus. I studied engineering science at the University of Toronto, majoring in energy systems engineering with a focus on renewable energy. I wanted to help to tackle climate change more broadly and also improve electricity access (thus unlocking banking, healthcare and education) for the hundreds of millions in the dark today.
However, what I thought was going to be a career in engineering took an unexpected turn during my last year of undergrad studies. I was in Zambia presenting my research on solar potential for the country and quickly learned that, while technology was important, the major hurdle to addressing climate change was rapid action and investment from the private sector.
So, after graduating, I joined the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where I spent 3.5 years working with CEOs of leading organizations on sustainability and climate technology, ranging from launching an electric vehicle business in Asia to designing a sustainable finance strategy for one of the world’s largest banks.
Did you always know you wanted to be involved in innovation and engineering?
I’ve always really enjoyed getting deep in innovative technology and understanding how it works, from the lines of code in software to the physics of new hardware. In Year 11, I had my first experience building a startup, and the thrill of everything, from designing the technology to sitting with patent lawyers, was unparalleled. While that company didn’t work out, the learning experience was unbelievable and acted as a bit of a North Star for me. From that moment I knew I wanted to always be at the forefront of technology, helping to build companies at the cusp of innovation. My focus then turned to figuring out which problem area I wanted to spend the early part of my career focusing on. I had two criteria: large societal impact (the ability to impact millions) and knowledge creation (shaping the innovation needed to advance a field).
As I went through my undergrad years, I realized that tackling climate change met those two criteria. If left unabated, it was going to detrimentally impact every life and economy on this planet, and it required entirely new technologies and business models to solve it. So that’s where I decided to focus in university and with internships — trying to get deep in understanding the technology driving the innovation. BCG was an excellent learning experience too, teaching me how to build a climate-oriented company, fund it, and take it to market. The combination of these two experiences eventually led me to Google X to work on cutting-edge technologies in the climate space.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Hands down, the potential for impact. Within two months of joining the team at X, we unveiled the moonshot at the White House Leaders Summit on Climate, where we heard numerous heads of state discuss the dire impact of climate change on their economies and populations. A few weeks later, one of our South African partners mentioned how they were “more worried about the electricity crisis than COVID.” Hearing this comment reinforced how devastating unreliable electricity is for many countries.
Being part of building a company that has the ability to change the trajectory of humanity’s biggest crisis and improve the quality of life of every human, while being supported by the resources and influence of Google, has been immensely rewarding. A couple of highlights for me have been our partnerships with Chile to accelerate their decarbonization by a decade and our work in South Africa to expedite the development of solar to reduce blackouts.
Do you have any advice for UCC students interested in STEM-related work?
First, find the problem spaces you’re passionate about and truly understand them — why they exist, the science behind them, what solutions have been tried in the past, where the cutting edge is. Talk to alumni working to solve them, read papers and watch lectures. Go deep and make use of all of the resources we’re fortunate to have access to as a community.
Second, spend time becoming multidisciplinary thinkers. The most successful leaders in STEM (especially in the startup world) are the ones who really understand the non-scientific aspects of a problem — the economics, the societal considerations, the policy implications. You can have the best technical solution in the world, but if it isn’t rooted in the reality of the populations you’re trying to serve, it won’t work. So meet with people from different walks of life. Learn about their journeys, their interests, and how they view the world.
How do you feel your time at UCC prepared you for your career?
UCC was foundational in so many ways. The liberal arts education (especially the IB) shaped my thinking, providing exposure to other disciplines that not only expanded my problem solving but gave me an appreciation of the diverse perspectives to consider when building a solution, which ultimately guided my path as an engineer. The school’s co-curriculars, especially debating, Model UN, WAC and Ontario Model Parliament, provided both an unparalleled opportunity to meet folks from different parts of the world and a leadership platform that gave me the confidence and conviction to start Global Spark. The lifelong friendships formed during UCC and mentorship from the faculty have been invaluable too.
Any other advice for students or recent graduates?
Never stop being curious. Curiosity is powerful — at X, I’ve seen that it’s the common denominator behind every single one of Google’s breakthroughs and many of the advancements in technology, medicine and business that have shaped our world. It opens your eyes to perspectives that change your world views and may open doors you didn’t know existed. Constantly ask questions, and go deeper than the surface level. If you’re curious about a career path, talk to alumni and learn about why they made the decisions they did and what they’ve learned along the way. If you’re curious about a technology, read about it and listen to podcasts and lectures. And then find experts and ask them questions. We live in a time when information and people are more accessible than ever, so really harness that opportunity.