How a one-time actor went from playing David Bowie to advancing EVs at DNV
J.R. Killigrew, head of EV business development for North America at DNV, on the confidence to master career pivots, why relationship building is key to his role and emerging opportunities in the fast-growing EV space.
Like so many working in the impact sector, J.R. Killigrew’s career hasn’t followed a straight line.
Before landing an impact role, he spent time as an actor, even portraying David Bowie in the 2009 movie "Watchmen," dabbled in investment banking and tried his hand at real estate — all before realizing that his passion is helping organizations work toward a more sustainable future.
Now as head of EV business development for North America at risk management and insurance company DNV, Killigrew has evolved into a subject matter expert on everything from renewables and climate change to greenhouse gas accounting accounting and, of course, transportation electrification.
In this interview, he shares the skills and traits that have allowed him to carve out such a diverse career and his advice to anyone looking to make a start in the fast-growing EV sector. The transcript was edited for clarity and length.
Shannon Houde: It’s fair to say you’ve had some pretty major pivots in your career, such as the move from acting. What do you think that’s taught you?
J.R. Killigrew: Trust yourself, and be confident. People will come across a lot of different decision points in their careers and in their lives. And I think deep down in your heart and soul, you'll always know what's right. I’ve had some ups and downs and lefts and rights, but at the end of the day, I landed in the right spot. Acting was a fun moment in time, and I've gone through a couple of other evolutions in my career. I had an economics degree from Pitzer College and was trying to go into investment banking, then stumbled into real estate in southeast Florida and had an epiphany that I wanted to be an actor. But I made the transition [to the impact sector] because I wanted to kind of be on the right side of history
Houde: In your role at DNV, tell us a little bit about what you do day to day.
Killigrew: Effectively I'm overseeing strategy and business development for the North American EV practice. A lot of the day-to-day has to do with working with my colleagues as well as current and prospective clients. And this is across our EV practice, which includes implementing EV programs, doing EV evaluations and market studies, creating integration analysis. Essentially helping organizations that are trying to understand the impact of EVs on the grid, fleet electrification, technical due diligence — a term that's used where DNV specifically works with institutional investors — as well as market entrants in the transportation electrification sector.
It varies day to day, but I’m either speaking or engaging with prospective clients about potential bids or opportunities or working on marketing and engagement strategies to help bring the DNV brand to market more effectively. At DNV, we are constantly looking at and submitting proposals too. We're doing a fair amount on electric vehicle tool development right now, creating a suite that's able to go to market and be effective in terms of all the changes that our clients demand.
Houde: Given that, are you seeing any trends in the environmental space around similar roles that aren't necessarily doing the technical environmental job but something more core to business development?
Killigrew: Yes, I’d say especially in the EV sector. That’s definitely the case for a lot of the charge point operators, the people that develop the infrastructure and a lot of the consulting firms — particularly in the transportation and electrification space. There’s a need for it because it's all about networking and relationships. Companies want to be able to find people that have extensive networks, and are trusted by clients and are able to open doors for them. I definitely see that as a real market opportunity for people.
The most important thing if you're going after a business development role is to focus on the quantifiable metrics of what you have done to advance revenue or advance participation. For example, I had to go out and recruit essentially most of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties to join the Central Coast Community Energy (CCA). I was part of the community choice aggregation movement in California. I realized that my work in partnership with the CEO allowed us to almost double revenue in 18 months. Examples like those really help you pitch yourself as a business development strategist for roles. And I think a lot of companies are looking for that these days.
There are a lot of opportunities in the EV space more broadly right now. In particular there are a lot of utilities that are going to be hiring up pretty expansive EV program implementation teams. So that’s something to check out.
Houde: What would be your advice to those looking to get into the EV sector? What qualifications or resources should they take a look at?
Killigrew: I would say the more education the better because the marketplace is so competitive. There’s a lot of focus on the impact sector, and there's a lot of people who want to get into it. So, any way in which you can differentiate yourself is key. Education itself is important but it’s also about how to translate that education into your work.
For those interested in this space there are also a lot of good resources that you can engage with, such as the Association of Women and Water, Energy and Environment and CharIN, which is a global association with a lot of great public resources. For those who just want to learn about EVs in general, evadoption.com is a good platform to tune in into and then of course, GreenBiz has a transportation electrification channel that is great to engage on.
Houde: What do you think are the skills that are crucial to being effective in your role?
Killigrew: The first one may sound a little vague but in the consulting world I think you have to be very persistent. You also have to find that balance of being both humble but proactive at the same time. But then it's all also about collaboration and networking, and establishing yourself as a trustworthy and proven entity, not only as yourself, but as a representative of your company. Relationships are huge, especially in the EV market right now. We're doing partnerships more and more, as opposed to standalone, in going after bids or opportunities. Once you establish those partnerships then people will come back and say, hey, I heard about this bid, or I heard about this opportunity, do you want to join in on that? So, it’s about finding that sense of self confidence that will radiate into your collaboration and networking.
Houde: In what ways do you find networking and building those relationships has been impacted by a post-COVID world in which more connections are virtual?
Killigrew: We were pretty effective at doing everything remotely. We were able to hit our targets and really grow our practice. I think this year it’s going to change a fair amount. I’m heading to a conference in New Orleans, and I've been invited to potentially go to Detroit in a couple of weeks. So, my guess is that [in-person networking] will start picking up again, because as much as the virtual environment is great, face-to-face still is a critical thing, especially when you're talking about these big contracts and proposals. A lot of the clients want to meet you face to face and feel comfortable with you.
Shannon Houde is an ICF certified career and leadership coach who founded Walk of Life Coaching in 2009. Her life’s purpose is to enable change leaders to turn their passion into action and to live into their potential — creating scalable social and environmental impact globally. To follow more stories like these, join Shannon for Coffee & Connect where she interviews sustainability practitioners every month to learn more about what their "day in the life" involves.
This article originally appeared on the Greenbiz Purpose & People column and can be viewed here.