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Meet Ben Foster, Optony

VP Operations, Optony, and Joint Venture Board Member

By Duffy Jennings, Valley Vision Editor

When Ben Foster arrived at the University of Colorado as a freshman from New England, a sign posted next to the elevator in the student center caught his attention. It read:

“Taking the stairs will save energy.”

“That changed my perspective about energy,” says Foster. “It started me thinking about energy alternatives and what I could do in that field to make a difference.

“My grandfather, my uncle and a cousin all went to MIT to study engineering, math and science. I was a civil engineering major and I looked at schools in Toronto and Michigan as well as Colorado.

“Colorado has always been a place for environmental stewardship of the earth we live in. I fell in love with the people, the environment and the university there.”

Today Foster is vice president of operations for global solar energy firm Optony and a Joint Venture board member impassioned about renewable energy.

He has been an active affiliate member of Joint Venture’s Public Sector Climate Task Force since January 2010, serving on the Renewable Energy Procurement project’s leadership team and acting as its technical lead.  Since joining the board in March 2010, he has expanded his involvement in the organization’s initiatives by becoming a member of both the Climate Prosperity Council and Federal Outreach Steering Committee.

“Ben is a fabulous resource for information and he has played an important role on our project,” said Rachel Massaro, associate director of Joint Venture’s climate initiatives. “He has a unique ability to find possibilities where others see a dead end by utilizing his breadth of knowledge and his creativity.

“Ben is a real champion who understands the bigger picture but at the same time he is putting a lot of work into all the details necessary to make the project a success.”

Optony helps large-scale clients – countries, cities, corporations – to navigate the fast-changing maze of government regulations, economic drivers, industry standards and project best practices to develop and install solar energy systems.

“We are experts across the entire life cycle of solar projects,” he says. “Solar is changing quickly. There are always new policies and it’s a heavily regulated business. Independent buyers and investors are still under-educated and need help. Sooner or later everyone who is considering solar has to navigate the complex process of getting a project on-line.”

That “big learning curve in new technology” and policies that preclude some individual cities from acting regionally is where Joint Venture comes in, Foster says.

“Optony could see that Joint Venture was taking a leadership role in renewable energy. Lots of nonprofit organizations work on economic development advocacy, but this is the one area where Joint Venture is uniquely vital,” says Foster.

“Ben is a fabulous resource for information and he has played an important role on our project, he has a unique ability to find possibilities where others see a dead end by utilizing his breadth of knowledge and his creativity.”

“It runs projects that are tangible and will create a positive impact on the region. It’s very nimble and a catalyst organization to make things happen.”

Foster was born in Boston, the only child of a single mom, who raised him 40 miles north up the Massachusetts coast in Gloucester, the quaint seaport community on Cape Ann renowned for its art colony and deep-sea fishing, popularized by the film, “The Perfect Storm.”

Foster’s mother, Penny, ran a restaurant called the Dragger Inn, and later a small gift shop, Pen’s End, that stood on stilts above the rocks.

“My first job was waiting tables at her restaurant,” Foster says, “and in high school and college I worked summers there. I learned a lot about running a small business that way.”

He also developed a passion for cooking. “I love to cook what I call New England comfort food,” he says. “I make the best fish chowder you can imagine.”

When he graduated from the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado in 1990, his mother gave him a piece of paper bearing the name “Nick Orlando” and a Social Security number.

“This is your father,” she told him. Foster always had his mother’s last name and knew nothing about his father. His mother felt he was finally old enough to know more. “It’s up to you if you want to try to locate him,” she told Ben.

“I wanted to close the loop on this part of my life so I had a friend in law enforcement help me get his location and phone number,” Foster says. “I figured it would be important to meet him and understand who my father was.

“I called the number and a woman answered, which I wasn’t prepared for. I didn’t know what she knew about me or what to say. Finally, I just said ‘please tell him that Ben called.’”

“She said, ‘Oh, are you his son?’ So she knew about me. When my father called back I found out that I have a sister, Nicelle, and that they live in Palm Desert.”

Foster has kept in touch with his father and sister and visited his newly re-acquainted family often. His mother passed away twelve years ago.

“Ben always appears so calm on the surface, he’s a pretty organized kind of guy who takes in the bigger picture.”

Foster, who later earned an MBA in international business from Old Dominion University, held accounting and financial positions with home improvement retailer Hechinger and internet company InfiNet before joining the McGraw Hill Companies in 2003 as finance director of the Platts Research and Analytics Group in Boulder, Colorado.

From there he rose to director of business projects and later senior director of global customer operations for McGraw Hill Construction.

While living in Norfolk, Virginia, Foster was a volunteer teacher for Junior Achievement. "My program was 10 sessions each year for middle school students to help them understand business and basic economics while showing them real world examples of how they can use this knowledge," he recalled. "My favorite example was using a giant jar of pickles to help them look at unit costs of food and sales - and they each got to take a pickle with them for lunch!"

In 2007, Foster became vice president of operations for technology and information services provider 365 Media before taking his current position with Optony in January 2009.

“Ben always appears so calm on the surface,” says Peter Deppe, his close friend and former colleague at 365 Media. “He’s a pretty organized kind of guy who takes in the bigger picture.”

“On the personal side, what’s not to like?” added Deppe, now a senior software engineer with Wheelhouse Enterprises in Palo Alto. “We still hang out together, go to dinner, drink beer, the usual kind of stuff.”

Foster met Optony CEO Dr. PR Yu, also a University of Colorado alumnus, in Boulder and had become good friends since 2003. “When I was presented with the opportunity to work together in such a dynamic company and industry, I had to take it.”

As a rapidly expanding global business with operations in the U.S. and China, Optony gives Foster the opportunity to combine two of his other favorite activities – travel and languages.

“When I found out my heritage is Italian, I traveled to Italy a few times and learned Italian,” he says. “I can speak Spanish and some Mandarin, enough to interact in the market and get around.”

One goal he has had since high school is to teach someday.

“A good teacher can be exciting,” Foster says, recalling a fifth grade teacher, Mr. Fitzpatrick, who taught him that personal responsibility is a very important value.

“I would like to teach in the areas I know best, business management, energy and economics, perhaps at the college level.”

Where, no doubt, he will take the stairs to class.

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