Aaron Feng, BA’18, champions the environment within finance, oil and gas industries
By Amy Wolf
Yalun Aaron Feng, BA’18, has long been fueled by optimism and a sense of challenge in his quest to build bridges between business and environmental advocacy.
While a Vanderbilt undergraduate, the Wuhan, China, native and environmental sociology and political science double major launched a social enterprise company that made fully biodegradable plates out of tree leaves. He also led an initiative that brought a dockless bike sharing program to campus for a time.
After Vanderbilt, Feng earned a master’s in environmental management at Yale University. He jumped into the banking and finance world in New York City, engaging clients on sustainability topics like carbon markets, sustainable and impact investing, and carbon capture, use and storage.
“The environment and sustainability are all about change—and in our world you have to be in all different places to bring that change,” he said. “I really appreciate my time in the finance industry because I got to understand more of the profitability-driven mindset and how to push for something. Maybe not everybody in the room agrees in this moment. But we have to figure out how to reconcile the wide range of stakeholders and push them toward something that will help make positive change.”
LEANING GREEN ON OIL AND GAS
Now Feng is taking on another challenge in his quest to find social and business solutions to help the environment. He’s working with storied nonprofit the Environmental Defense Fund, known for getting the pesticide DDT banned and convincing McDonald’s to eliminate its use of Styrofoam.
Feng’s steep challenge is to find ways for the oil and gas industries to be greener.
“The big puzzle with the energy industry is how do we influence business regulation in the direction that we think is important for the earth when (industry is) fighting science,” Feng said.
Here’s where his unwavering optimism comes in.
“I see really clear potential where I can dive deeper into an industry and have a really prominent role to play,” Feng said.
“I encounter people who are visionary and want to change things within the oil and gas industry, within the shareholders. These activist investors don’t hold that much money or assets, but they can push the industry to invest heavily in things like hydrogen and carbon capture technology.”
VANDERBILT FOR LIFE
Feng said he is still close with a core group of friends he met at Vanderbilt. They reconnect regularly in cities around the country.
“We help each other to navigate the world and then we share experiences,” he said.
The friends even started a virtual book club.
“We’re reading this book called Money, Possessions and Eternity (by Randy Alcorn), talking about how money and materialism can be harmful for our soul and our life. We have read several books together since COVID. And I am very thankful for these relationships and my time at Vanderbilt,” he said.
HOW DOES YOUR VANDERBILT EXPERIENCE HELP YOU TODAY?
“I would say two things impacted where I am today. Vanderbilt created a space for me to take risks. I feel like that openness of my classmates and my teachers and the whole school to my crazy ideas was so impactful. They were open to listening and providing feedback. They were open to letting me try things.”
“The second part, and part of why I’m so passionate about the environment, is that my time at Vandy really shaped in me the desire to give back to society. Volunteer trips like Alternative Spring and Winter Break encouraged me to be really intentional with what I can do to help others. We were fortunate to go to Vanderbilt and have opportunities. I think using that privilege and power to do something good for the world is very important for me.”
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD DONE DIFFERENTLY AT VANDERBILT?
“I wish I could have gotten to know more people outside of the Vanderbilt bubble and then explored and experienced more of Nashville, because I don’t know if I will have a chance to live there again.”
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE STARTING THEIR COLLEGE SEARCH?
“Take risks and figure out what you’re truly passionate about. I think sometimes you have to go a little outside your comfort zone and face something that might be intimidating, but it could be one of the most rewarding experiences.”
“I think the second piece of advice I would give is keep learning and absorbing from people you admire, and always ask for advice. There’s no standard pathway to success, so learn from others and then push yourself to go further.”