2022 WWD Young Pros: Sri Vedachalam, ECT Inc.
Name: Sridhar Vedachalam
Company: ECT, Inc.
Titles: Director, Water Equity and Climate Resilience
What is your greatest personal accomplishment to date?
As a first-generation immigrant, there are many challenges to living and raising a family here. Establishing and maintaining meaningful connections between my two kids and my extended family in India has brought me joy and a sense of accomplishment. My kids are bilingual and can communicate with grandparents and if not fully, they can somewhat relate to my experiences of growing up in a different time, place, and culture.
List some of your professional accomplishments.
I recently left the Environmental Policy Innovation Center where I co-lead the Water Program. At the time I was hired to lead the program, EPIC was a fledgling organization and we had a single grant for the water program. Since then, the program has grown tremendously, adding six full-time staff (and growing) and an annual budget running into a few million dollars. The program is nationally recognized and increasingly sought-after by government agencies, philanthropic donors and partner organizations. It was true teamwork and I was glad to play my role in growing the organization.
I came to the US as a graduate student and there comes a time when you run out of student and then work visa and have to find a more permanent way to live here. I needed a green card, so I could continue to work here. I self-applied for a green card using the toughest category (which is colloquially called the Einstein visa) based on my water policy expertise. Apart from water sector leaders, I was also able to get support letters from my local Congress member (Republican) and a state Assembly member (Democratic) who had used one of my papers in her work. I was quickly approved for the card, allowing me to stay here and continue to work in the water sector.
What has been your most memorable project?
Soon after my PhD, I was hired to join the New York State Water Resources Institute at Cornell University. Within a week, my boss suggested I attended the annual conference of the New York section of WEF to meet people. The conference was in the Hudson Valley, about 3 hours from Ithaca. The day I was about to leave, she forwarded me an email about a town hall about 30 miles away from the conference venue just as an FYI. I attended 1.5 days of the 2-day conference, and skipped the last half day to attend this town hall. It was on a proposed desalination project in the region. I simply took notes and wrote it down for my colleagues and shared internally. The more I thought about the issue and gathered more information, I was intrigued about it. So, I wrote it up more formally and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. It was published in the journal “Desalination” and very soon played a pivotal role in the middle of a fight, despite the paper taking no sides. A local Assemblymember found my paper and cited whole paragraphs in her letter to the state Public Service Commission. The paper was cited a couple more times by other legislators, prompting a response from the company that proposed the desalination plant. The Assemblymember even wrote a strong letter for support for my green card application, stating that my analysis of the project was an important factor in the PSC eventually ruling against construction of the plant. I got an early taste of the policy fights I was about to witness and sometimes be a part of later.
What did you do before entering the water industry?
I trained as an engineer, studying undergraduate in mechanical engineering in India and then worked for a year at Larsen & Toubro Ltd, India’s largest construction firm. I did not see a future in the construction industry for myself and applied to graduate school in the US to study mechanical engineering. But a quirk of events (see one of the later answers) got me interested in the field of environmental studies and particularly on the social science and policy aspects of water and I applied to do my PhD in environmental science.
What was the biggest lesson you learned when you entered the water industry?
When I entered the water industry, first as a PhD student and then more formally post-graduation, I encountered peers who were far ahead of me, having studied environmental science in their undergraduate and having grown up spending time in lakes or beaches, volunteering in 4-H, or internships in labs and other organizations. I had none of those privileges. I grew up in the second largest city in the world with little to no natural areas. What I lacked in scholarly knowledge, I made up through perseverance and over time. Growing up in a water-stressed country also gave me a perspective few of my peers had. I found a compassionate group of people who were principled and driven and were ready to welcome me – a novice and a total outsider by all means.
How do you expect your generation will influence the water industry?
Every generation has its challenges and its strengths. My generation’s greatest challenge is the unforgiving economic and political environment – the Great recession, COVID, multiple wars in Asia and Europe, extreme wealth inequity, and political polarization. For good and bad, these will leave an imprint on the workforce, their expectations, and their contributions to the sector. My generation’s strength lies in resilience in the face of adversity, the wealth of knowledge and tools available, the growing diversity of the workforce, and the sheer ingenuity with which they create new ideas, tools, and practices.
What are your aspirations for your water industry career?
If you had asked me this question two years ago, I would’ve said I aspire to be the first Indian-American to lead the EPA Office of Water. Sadly – strike that – delightfully, Radhika Fox beat me to it. I say in jest, but people like Radhika pave the way for me to achieve even greater heights than I can imagine today.
In what extracurricular work activities would you like to be (or are) involved in?
I serve as an Editor for Global Water Forum (https://globalwaterforum.org/), a UNESCO-sponsored resource for evidence-based, accessible, and open-access articles on freshwater governance.
What are your hobbies?
I consume a ton of political news (ever since childhood) and random facts, cook frequently, LOVE doing dishes and cleanup, and spending time with my kids.
What is your hidden talent?
I am predominantly left-handed, but can write and do a number of tasks with my right hand.
Tell us a "secret" or something about you nobody knows.
I’ve gotten lost twice: once as a 5-year-old in a train station in India and later as an adult in the Shenandoah National Forest. No serious harm or injury occurred and I am here doing this interview.
What volunteer work do you do?
I am on the advisory board of Water Hub, a water communications nonprofit that works with a variety of advocacy and movement organizations. I also volunteer on task forces set up by the Great Lakes Commission and the Virginia Health Catalyst. Last year, I was on an EPA work group to recommend revisions to the Consumer Confidence Report Rule.
In what ways are you involved in your local community outside professional work (organize fundraisers, youth group counselor, etc.)?
Until a few years ago, I was very active with the group Association for India’s Development, where I served as a chapter president in Columbus, Ohio and was on their Executive Board. In the early years, that involved organizing fundraisers and channeling funds to verified organizations in India, but later years were focused on organization building and volunteer retention. Kids and then COVID made it difficult to sustain my involvement, but I hope to get back into actively volunteering with the group again.
My family is active in a multi-faith group and one of their core tenets is community service. Once a month, I pick up home-cooked meals from volunteers (including our house) and deliver food to a homeless shelter. We also order nonperishable essential items like clothing, soap, diapers for kids, etc. to be delivered to the shelters. We do several environmental projects like river cleanup, removing invasives, and planting saplings on the banks of local streams.
What are your passions?
Ensuring water access to every person on the planet is of course a passion that drives me. I also recognize that water access is one of the many elements of a meaningful and healthy life, so I am constantly thinking about all other aspects of life like wealth inequity, political reforms, education, etc. I make myself available to young water professionals, offering my insights and connections to help them succeed.
Describe a memorable moment with family or friends.
In 2019, I went on a work trip to Youngstown to host a roundtable of community leaders. At the time, my kid was 3 years old (My second kid was born just a month later). I couldn’t explain the purpose of the trip in its entirety, so I briefly mentioned that I am going to check the water over in Youngstown. When I returned three days later, I had forgotten this conversation, but the first question my kid asked me was if everyone was receiving water in Youngstown. I was glad to see the same empathy for strangers in him that I expect in myself and hope for in others.
Who has been your greatest personal (or professional) influence and why?
I became interested in environmental issues after meeting with environmental activist Nity Jayaraman in India. Until then, I had a fairly limited view of environmental issues and did not think it impacted or included me. But meeting him and learning about his work gave me a different perspective. He and his organization train community members to test water and air samples to detect pollution, meticulously take notes, and organize campaigns for pollution remediation. The human element in this story really impacted me and made the issue real for me. I wanted to learn more, prompting me to seek a PhD in environmental science to give me enough time to get acquainted and become an expert in this area.