Connecting with Colby

Alumni12 MIN READ

Laney Brown ’90, a senior executive with Avangrid, returns to campus to lead a Jan Plan course about sustainability in the energy sector

Laney Brown '90, the first vice president in charge of sustainability for Avangrid Inc., views her Colby education as the foundation of her success in building sustainable large-scale enterprises.
By Bob KeyesPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
February 15, 2024

Laney Brown ’90 sees her career as something like a snowball rolling downhill. With each rotation along the way, she builds momentum and picks up new talents.

As the first vice president in charge of sustainability for Avangrid Inc., Brown uses skills related to adaptability and creative problem-solving that she began learning at Colby to help the energy company focus on its sustainability goals while becoming more efficient and entrepreneurial.

“I have always liked working in areas that are developing or starting up and need to be figured out,” said Brown, who has been in her senior sustainability leadership position at Avangrid for almost three years. “And this position has all the elements of a startup—what are our goals, what is our strategy, and how do we build operations to achieve them?”

Her prior experience includes building a fiber optic network in the Baltic Sea region, selling renewable energy in Texas, and helping Central Maine Power, a subsidiary of Avangrid, roll out smart meters to residential customers. Common themes among those enterprises were their massive scale and scope, the necessity of figuring it out along the way, and their bold audaciousness. There was nothing simple about any of them.

“The areas that I enjoy the most—at Colby and in my career—are the opportunities to learn and understand different perspectives and then effectively synthesize and communicate them,” she said. “I think a liberal arts education has been the foundation to becoming an effective cross-functional translator, communicator, and critical thinker.”

Laney Brown listens to a pitch by Jan Plan students on corporate sustainability.

An American studies and English double major with a minor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Brown has always viewed her Colby education as the foundation of her success in whatever business she has ventured into.

“When I left Colby in 1990, the country was in a recession, so I just hoped I could find a job,” said Brown, who lives near Portland, Maine, and is married to Thomas Shyka ’89. “I thought I would go into publishing since that seemed like a good career option for an English major. I started working as an administrative assistant in a small telecommunications technology company. Because it was a small company, I said ‘yes’ to any work that needed to be done—I wrote software manuals, designed labels for hardware, and managed their chip inventory.”

This experience gave her the confidence to try anything new, and she has been saying “yes” to new opportunities ever since, including accepting a Colby invitation to help lead a new Jan Plan course based on her area of expertise in the energy sector.

Giving back to Colby

After participating in remote career-building sessions and visiting campus to talk about her work, Brown returned to Mayflower Hill for a Jan Plan independent study global-experience course about the principles and practical applications of sustainability, or environmental, social, and governance investing, also known as ESG. ESG investing refers to standards socially conscious investors use to evaluate a company’s behavior and screen potential investments. It measures how a company operates in regard to the planet and humankind.

Universities and business schools across the country are teaching sustainability principles, and Brown wanted Colby students to have similar opportunities. She worked closely with Alison Beyea, executive director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs, and Yang Fan, Colby’s Todger Anderson Assistant Professor of Investing and Behavioral Economics, to develop the course work.

Yang Fan, the Todger Anderson Assistant Professor of Investing and Behavioral Economics, helped develop a Jan Plan course with Laney Brown about the principles and practical applications of environmental, social, and governance investing, or ESG.

Fan said the Jan Plan course evolved from the reception students gave Brown when she spoke about sustainability during one of her campus visits. “We had a big turnout, and the students asked a lot of very good questions,” he said. “They really related to her, and this was a topic they were very interested in.”

Fan served as faculty adviser, developing the curriculum and delivering the material on campus with Beyea, while Brown arranged for students to use Avangrid and its parent company Iberdrola as a case study and for practical experience. 

The curriculum was a mixture of group and individual work, with assigned readings, videos, group discussions, and guest lectures in person and remotely. After two weeks of campus study, the students spent a week in Bilbao, Spain, Iberdrola’s headquarters, where Brown arranged 12 one-hour meetings with the executives whose work focuses on sustainability.

In preparation for presentations back on campus, the students interviewed the executives about their ESG strategies and examined the company’s goals and strategies related to net-zero carbon emissions, corporate governance and best practices, ESG financing, inclusion, and diversity. 

The students were Zoky Zhou ’24, an economics and environmental studies double major; Koto Yamada ’25, an economics major with a concentration in financial markets and an environmental studies minor; Zane Schiffman ’26, a government major with a minor in economics; and Leila Iredell ’26, a global studies major and economics minor.

Offered in partnership with Avangrid and in conjunction with the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and the Economics Department, the course was designed to bridge the theoretical ESG framework with real-world applications. At Avangrid, “We say ESG+F. We use the ‘F’ to demonstrate financial value. We think the work in ESG+F has long-term financial value from the shareholder perspective,” Brown said.

After returning from Bilbao, the students presented their findings at Ostrove Auditorium before an audience of students, faculty, senior staff, and industry experts, including those representing Avangrid.

Brown was front and center.

Laney Brown, Yang Fan, and others listen as students make their pitch after two weeks of campus study and a week in Bilbao, Spain.

“When the students presented their final project, I was blown away. Not only did they understand all the material in three short weeks, but their presentation and responses were nuanced and strategic. I think the students and the course were far beyond any of our expectations,” she said, adding that Avangrid and Iberdrola have a history of working closely with colleges and universities and that she has supported similar coursework at Yale University.

Fan was impressed with Brown’s level of commitment to the students, to the outcome of the course, and to the College as a whole. “She made it so the students could hear from the people who have been in the industry and who have been working on issues related to clean-energy transition from the beginning. It was inspiring,” he said. “It was obvious that she really cares about the kids.”

Brown thanked Colby for welcoming her back and praised the College for its willingness to take on new and emerging topics. “Developing and launching this course with Yang and Alison was incredible. It was extraordinarily rewarding to see the students grow and learn. I am also really grateful for the support from my colleagues in the United States and in Spain,” she said. “They could not have been more encouraging and genuinely engaged in the students’ learning.”

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