Shining a Light on Customer Experience with Scott Nguyen, CEO at Bodhi
Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to another episode of The Solar Podcast. Today, Dave is talking with Scott Nguyen, CEO of Bodhi. Join us as Scott discusses his journey from Vietnamese refugee to Harvard trained PhD and how his new company Bodhi is helping solar companies deliver the digital experience that modern consumers expect. Let's get right into it on The Solar Podcast.
Dave Anderson (00:33):
Well, we're thrilled to have with us today, Scott Nguyen on the Solar Podcast. I'm Dave Anderson, the host, and I tell you, I've actually known Scott for a while being in solar as long as I have been. He brings a fantastic perspective, particularly on the residential side, but I think he's going to be able to offer perspective just generally on solar and where Solar's going, but has a fantastic background and upbringing starting as a refugee and then ending as a PhD. Well, ending, I guess more recently as an entrepreneur. And so I'd love, Scott, if you wouldn't mind just diving a little bit into your background and feel free to talk a little bit about your childhood as well. I think it's just a fantastic and fascinating story.
Scott Nguyen (01:09):
Yeah. Hey, thanks, Dave. Thanks for having me on the program. It's exciting to be here to chat with you. And man yeah, I guess you didn't know this, but I don't think many other people knew this as well. So I was born in Vietnam. Of course, my name, Scott, doesn't give that away, but I was born in Vietnam and so this was 1978. In 1980, there was a huge exodus of Vietnamese folks after the Vietnam War that were moving to different places. And so our family escaped from Vietnam by boat. So we were one of the boat people that you may have heard about. And my family escaped, wandered around in sea, got lost in South China Sea for a few days. And then finally actually got saved by a German oil tanker who picked us up and the boat was already taking in water.
And so it was pretty timely for us. And we went through the refugee, went to a refugee camp in Thailand for a few months and then to another one in the Philippines before we were able to be sponsored over by my dad's cousin who was already living in Austin at the time. So he came over to the US in 1975 with a lot of other Vietnamese refugees during the fall of Saigon. And from there, this is where I grew up. I grew up a Houstonian. And one of the first few things that when we came over, my parents actually back in Vietnam, my dad was a English teacher and writer and my mom was a elementary school teacher. But most immigrant stories, we came over to the US and just did whatever we could. And so they worked some blue collar jobs and raised a family of three. And so just with hard work we went through and I went off to college and in the end got a PhD in physics from Harvard.
Dave Anderson (03:21):
Which is incredible. So how old were you when you left Vietnam?
Scott Nguyen (03:25):
So I was two years old when I left Vietnam.
Dave Anderson (03:28):
Do you have any memories or recollections of the trip?
Scott Nguyen (03:31):
No, no recollections. But there's a story that my parents always tell that we were escaping under the cover at night and there was a story how since I was only two years old, my parents were trying to get everything ready and they actually left the house with my older brother and sister and forgot about me. And it was actually my grandmother who was staying behind who was like, "Hey, here's your youngest, you forgot about him." So that's a story that we tell because if not for my grandmother, I'd probably still be in Vietnam, I'd probably have a pig farm or something along those lines.
Dave Anderson (04:11):
Well, if ever there were a story that shows just the opportunity for someone to overcome circumstances, I think you're a fantastic example of that. It's a marvelous story from my perspective. So thanks for sharing that. And a lot of, I think, credit you probably would give to your parents and their willingness to do what it takes to support their family. And I can't imagine that it was really simple. I guess your father was probably somewhat advantaged when he arrived in that he was an English speaker when he got here, correct?
Scott Nguyen (04:44):
That's right. I think we had advantages, I think also just going through the refugee camps as well because of how well he did speak English. And so then me able to pick up jobs when we moved over and that helped him as well. So I think as growing up as a kid, I don't think I appreciated and understood the sacrifices that my parents made, but now I'm 44 years old now, got two kids of my own. It really does make a difference and understanding like what are these opportunities? Because one of the things I always talk about these days is that talent has no boundaries, but opportunities is where that's still pretty scarce. And so we are able to get here into the states and the land of opportunity is definitely true for us. And so I think that's an important aspect to always understand and appreciate.
Dave Anderson (05:43):
Yeah, absolutely. So I got to ask, have you ever been back to Vietnam?
Scott Nguyen (05:47):
Yeah, it's funny, I've only been back once, and that was back in 1996, so it was quite a while ago, and that was the first time I went back and that was an eye-opening experience. First time I got to see my grandmother, aunts and cousins that were living there. The place they lived at was a little bit on the outskirts, so there was very little electricity. So there's all sorts of stories that I have about having very little electricity, going out to get food every single day from the market because there was no refrigerator. And then what then happens when their monsoon season comes around and washes out all the rows so that the trip to the market is impossible. And then what do you do?
Dave Anderson (06:32):
Yeah, we've talked a lot on this podcast, how big of a difference to any society that electricity makes, and access to electricity is a really important thing. And I think we certainly center most of our conversations around what it means to electrify and to bring solar to the US marketplace. But there is a spillover effect. There are still just under a billion people in the world that don't have access to electricity. And the monsoon season in Vietnam, actually, I don't think they would actually even count in that statistic. So people that have limited access to electricity probably aren't even part of that statistic, but so.
Scott Nguyen (07:10):
No, that's true. Our house at the time, so back in '96, my relatives home had limited electricity, so just enough for lights and I think for the TV. But there was enough for refrigeration. Like I said, we were going out for food every day to the market. And was great there, it was like when we could do that, fresh food, fresh herbs, it was amazing food. But then when that monsoon season, that storm came, and I remember that day we couldn't go and we had nothing. There was really very little to eat and I was starving. And I remember what specifically was that my cousins who were about 10 or 12 at the time, they ran out into the field and basically caught a bunch of frogs, little tiny frogs, and that was what was fried up for our evening meal.
Dave Anderson (08:02):
Yeah, I grew up differently than that, to say the least. So anyway. So moving on a little bit further into your future from your childhood, obviously education is something that you probably would say defines you as well. You have an incredible educational background. So how was it that you landed in Harvard and what was it precisely that you studied while you were there?
Scott Nguyen (08:25):
I was a bit of a science geek, and so I went and studied physics and because what I wanted to do was try to uncover the mysteries of the universe. And going into grad school at Harvard, what I wanted to do was figure out what are all the underlying laws that govern how nature works, how atoms and molecules work? And so that's what I wanted to go into. And I did. So what I was doing at the time was really building up experiments to understand how atoms and molecules were interacting at really low temperatures right above absolute zero. And really my goal at the time, in my naive sense was if we could understand these interactions and actually start to control these interactions between Adams and molecules, maybe there would be completely different ways in which we can handle and control chemical reactions rather than just relying on pressures and temperatures.
And so I did that. And it was really interesting and it was great. But then as we continued along, there was a point in the time in my career in grad school, it was a six-year period by the way. Somewhere in the middle I started thinking, what else is out there? And this is when the various aspects of the social impact of... I remember very clearly I was reading a New York Times article about arsenic in water wells, and you think about it where in the US, we're trying to do all these advanced things, we've got this state-of-the-art technology, but there are still people in the world who can't have clean drinking water. And so that's what started changing how I started thinking about what I wanted to do. And so it was definitely from an environmental sustainability bant, which pre-precipitated from that arsenic story that I was telling you.
But then more broadly, at that time, this is around 2003, 2004, this is when climate change really started getting a lot more press and started to understand what was the situation with the climate crisis, but then how does clean energy really play a big role? And so as I was finishing up my degree, that's what I wanted to try to look into was what type of impact could I make in this whole clean energy revolution? And one of the interesting things was that I was academic, I was getting a PhD. And I remember talking to engineering professors and one engineering professor told me this, he said, "You can stay in academia, but if you really want to make a difference, you need to go out into industry because that's the place where they have enough money to make a real impact." So that's why I left the ivory towers and went into industry.
Dave Anderson (11:20):
So the natural transition for a guy that's starting to come around to this concept of climate and climate catastrophe and climate change is to go to work for big oil, right?
Scott Nguyen (11:30):
Yeah. That's right.
Dave Anderson (11:31):
How did that transition happen?
Scott Nguyen (11:33):
Yeah. I think what's interesting, this is like, and anyone that's listening, one's career is going to zigzag from one place to the other. And one thing that you realize is that you really don't know that much where you currently are. And after a few years you're going to know a lot more, but you still won't know enough. And so at that time, Shell Oil was one of the few companies that appreciated a PhD degree. And one of the opportunities that they gave me right off the bat was to explore various different types of technologies including renewable air technologies to be evaluated into their portfolio. Because like I said, in 2006 when I graduated, that was the heyday of Clean tech 1.0, right? So not only were the startups working on it, but all the big companies. Shell was putting billions of dollars into trying to see, to commercialize renewable technologies.
And so they put tons of money into buyer appeals, they had some solar work and they were doing a bunch of others. And so, one of the areas that I came in and looked at was some various alternative energies. And so I was able to scope out and learn tons of information, tons of on solar PV, concentrated solar power at the time, which both at that time was equivalent in price, if anyone can even fathom that. But yeah, I looked into quite a bit, did a lot of due diligence on nuclear power as well. So it was a great opportunity for someone that was young and didn't know that much about the industry to really pick it up. And because they appreciated PhDs, there was a lot of opportunity for me to learn.
Dave Anderson (13:18):
Yeah, I think another way of thinking about that would be companies, big companies even, their complacency can oftentimes lead to their extinction. And I don't think it's really well known that a lot of these oil companies, big oil companies are spending quite a lot of money and quite a lot of time and effort and resources toward trying to better understand other alternative energy sources. Obviously, oil is the primary focus for each of these businesses. And I would suggest and say that there is still a level of ignorance even in these companies in terms of how important in the impact that these renewable energy sources like solar and wind and other things, the magnitude of the impact. But to say that they're not looking into it or spending money on it or time on it, I think is also a little bit of an ignorant position to think about.
Scott Nguyen (14:03):
No, no, I agree. Because I think when you look at it from the amount of money they were spending was a small percentage of how much their capital spend was for sure. I think they're probably spending 40 billion on capital expenditures, but one billion of that was into renewable energy. And that's the thing where the percentage was small, but the absolute number was actually quite large. And I don't think people recognize that fact as well. But I think you're right. I think the other aspect of it is that from some of these, I don't think they necessarily understand the urgency of the problem. And so there's always this discussion about it needs to be a transition. Yes, there does need be a transition, but they also say, "Well, maybe it's not just renewable. It's all of the above." And I think that's where one gets this complacency where one doesn't get the sense of urgency that it is needed for us to be able to get out of that mess that we created.
Dave Anderson (15:06):
Yeah. And frankly, they have a obligation to their investor base to be able to return a responsible return. And most people invest in oil companies because of their position in oil. And to your point, it's more than just virtue signaling. I mean, there's material money coming into the industry from these water traditionally thought of as dirty energy or big oil. So it's material money that's coming into the industry that's actually helped to drive some of that change. And frankly, I'd love to see more of it. At some point though, you leave working for these big organizations and you make a transition into being more of an entrepreneurial role. So how did that happen or where did that come about?
Scott Nguyen (15:47):
The first one was just that first opportunity was just one of my old bosses at... I used to work for the chief scientist of Shell, and so he retired and essentially is like, "Hey, Scott, you want to come work for my new startup?&quo