We had the good fortune of connecting with Mark Bernstein and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mark, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
I perceive risk from the view of an optimist. Despite all the bad things that happen around us, we can continue to find something positive to look forward to. And I am a technology optimist as well, in that I see technologies playing a role in helping create a better environment. I think some of that comes from Star Trek – watching the original series as a kid (actually in reruns as a kid) – where it seemed to me that technology was the enabler of a better world. But to achieve that we need to take risk. Now when I look back at Star Trek – the risks they took were pretty silly – and they brought them on. I’ve tried not to create risk unnecessarily. That all said, for me, taking risks means not being afraid to try and do something different. My whole career has been about trying to make our lives more sustainable, and I tried to do it playing different parts. Whether it was being a professor, or working in the White House, or motivating change in the financial industry, it was a risk to take on each challenge. Not a physical risk, but career risk. Even then, compared to others, it wasn’t too risky – I had other skills I could fall back on. I do work with others who take much bigger personal and financial risks – young entrepreneurs – who have brilliant cleantech ideas, and put their time and money into building something that will do good for the world, and hopefully succeed as well. Now I am taking a new risk. I have co-founded a non-profit to work to inspire people to take action on climate change through projecting a positive, technology optimist, cleantech vision of the future. For decades the messaging has been about fear and urgency, and it isn’t working. We need to inspire people about how cool the future can be. And we are going to do it through video games and immersive experiences. Coming into this venture, other than having played plenty of video games, I knew nothing about the industry. Could a nonprofit succeed in the businesses? Could we build games that people will want to play and still provide a positive message about the future? Could we get people to support us? We believe so and have just launched our effort at Earthshot to get more people engaged and excited about the future and what their role can be in shaping that future.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I like to think I don’t fit easily into any of the boxes people want to put me in whether it is my career, or my personal life. I am an environmentalist at heart, I believe in the power of the government to make change, but also in the power of markets. I use data, statistics and science for making decisions, but how they are used, is an art. It’s not just facts and figures, it is about people, gut feeling and emotion too. And one size does not fit all. There are different solutions for different situations, driven by culture, by geography, and other factors.
I’ve done a pretty good job over the years at looking at the future and ‘predicting’ likely outcomes. Some people do that solely by statistics and date – forecasting things like the future of oil prices, or which technologies will emerge, or how policies will turn out. I’ve done it by understanding the stats and data, but it isn’t just mathematics (coming from a person with 2 degrees in math), it is about a more nuanced understanding about other factors with can shape the future and how they interact.
As I have said – I have taken on different roles in my career – though sustainability and the environment were always the underlying theme. I have been lucky. Some changes were accidental, and some were planned – but I tried to always put myself in the right place at the right time to take advantage. Entering something new is never easy, and the key for me when starting in a new place was to look, listen and learn. If I didn’t understand, I asked. Lots of people like to be asked and then are more inclined to help. But I also always spoke up when I thought it was necessary. I didn’t speak, just to speak, but when it meant something important, I wanted my position heard (in a nice way most of the time).
I have enjoyed every stop I made, but I suppose spending time in the Clinton Whitehouse was one of the highlights. However, the work I did that had the most impact on me was time I spent in Africa, Southeast Asia and Europe – working on renewable energy and environmental policy. This was mostly early in my career but shaped much of what I have done since. I learned about other cultures, I learned about how not to try and put a square peg in a round hole, and it expanded my insights.
Even though what I do doesn’t seem like it, I think of myself as an artist. Taking complex problems and finding solutions, creating consensus among people with different viewpoints and being able to take these complex issues and solutions and then make them understandable to a broad audience takes imagination and is an art form. It is painting a picture using words and visuals.
And with all the experience I have, I am now doing this at Earthshot. We want to present a different narrative on climate change, and excite people about the future and get them to take action. We want to excite peoples’ imagination and inspire them to make change happen
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
most fun, interesting, exciting people, places or things to check out? LA is so full of a diversity of things, and that fits right into who I am. I don’t fit into a clear box in my personal life either. Everyday we will start out to get coffee at an independent coffee shop. There as so many in town and we will stop on our way to wherever we are going. For perspective – I live in Koreatown – so we will radiate out from there.
Since my friend will be flying in, the best way to get over jet lag is to spend time in the sun so I am thinking we would start the first morning with a hike in Griffith Park, up to the observatory one of my favorite places in town (scifi/space of course). On the way there, we might stop at Muddy Paw Coffee in Silverlake, and wake up a bit in the back patio. We’d spend time in the observatory then walk back down and go have lunch at My Vegan Gold (yes I am a vegan, though I won’t force my friend to only eat vegan the whole trip).
In the afternoon, we might take a walk in a neighborhood. Most people don’t realize how much interesting architecture there is around LA. May start around Normandie Ave in Koreatown where one can see French style architecture – fake chateaus, but with interesting carvings, statues and other things that adorn the buildings. France in LA.
Then maybe dinner downtown – getting there by subway of course – maybe at the Perch to get a view of the city.
Time for some culture at the Getty and a touristy day. On the way there stop in at Good Good Bakery for some breakfast goodies and coffee. I like the outdoor spaces of the Getty almost as much as art, and my favorite us usually the photography exhibits. Perhaps have something to eat there and enjoy the view before heading to Venice to be a real tourist. Rent a couple of bikes, ride along the beach, check out the boardwalk and the people. Dinner at Plant Food + Wine. Then some music – maybe the Troubadour, EchoPlex, the Viper Room or someplace with a band we will like.
This will be a no-car day. Yes, it is possible in LA and we might start out late. Coffee at The Alchemist, then the subway downtown. First stop – the Last Bookstore getting lost in the upstairs warrens and check out the artists. Then over to Grand Central Market, and Ramen Hood for lunch. Up Angels flight, walk to the Library, check out whatever is on exhibit and it is a great interior. Then to the expo line to Culver City and the Museum of Jurassic Technology (assuming it opens sometime after COVID) which has an amazing collection of oddities and technologies. Checking out downtown Culver City, dinner at Sage Bistro.
Time to take me out to the ballgame – and head south – with an Angels game in sight at the end of the day. Yes out of the box – I don’t dislike the Dodgers or Dodger Stadium, but I find something different at Angel Stadium and who won’t want to see Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout? On the way there – Coffee at Coffee MCO then the Long Beach Aquarium. Enjoy the aquarium and walk around downtown Long Beach. Then off to The Congregation Ale House for some good beer before heading to the game.
Back to the outdoors with a hike in Eaton Canyon near Pasadena (getting coffee at Jones Coffee Roaster) then after the hike wander Colorado Blvd and maybe the Urth Café for lunch.
This evening will be West Hollywood – checking out the nightlife, starting at The Abbey for people watching and maybe some dancing. If we like what we see – maybe stay there, or hop to some other bars that makes West Hollywood famous.
The Last day
At this point, I should let my friend pick something to do so we play it by ear. In the evening perhaps we will go to a Rooftop Cinema movie event wherever it might be and whatever movie they may be showing. It’s the event and seeing a movie outside.
A couple of thing sI left out. Disneyland is a favorite of mine but didn’t want to spend the whole day at one place. Also didn’t make time for a play at some of the great venues in town – from the Mark taper Forum to the Geffen theater.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
This is a difficult question, because I have had quite a number of people over the years who have helped me, mentored, believed in me, befriended me and provided opportunities to grow and develop. I am grateful to all of them because that’s what it takes to succeed. People who are nice and caring, and I have tried over my career to do the same. There is one person, from the very beginning, my mentor, friend and professor, Stephen Feldman, who opened my eyes to environmental issues and how we can protect the planet and gave me a starting point to learn and a vision of the future that needed to collaborative and inclusive. He showed me the complexity of the problem, but the potential simplicity in the solutions. He taught me how to think differently, take risks, and not be afraid to stand up for your beliefs. He passed away much to young and his passing also shaped who I am today. As I said before, there are many others. It’s not only the people who encouraged me and who hired me, or worked alongside me, it’s also the students I taught that continue to inspire me with how they are changing the world. Its young people I meet enthusiastically creating new ideas and working for a bet