Tyler Norris ’06 returned to campus to give a talk to students, and came across a poster of his own face in the halls.
After a decade of being away, Tyler Norris ‘06 recently made his way back to NCSSM from New York City to speak with students on public service and energy policy. Though not yet 29 years old, they are fields Norris knows quite well. His list of accomplishments to date include receiving a Presidential appointment to serve as an advisor to former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, being recognized on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, and being named both a Truman Scholar and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper. In 2016, he coauthored a Foreign Affairs essay that Bill Gates called “one of the best arguments I’ve seen for why the U.S. should invest in a clean energy revolution.”
Today, Norris serves as a director at S&P Global Platts, a leading market intelligence consultancy, where he coleads the firm’s analysis and services covering clean energy technologies.
Such success at such a relatively early point in one’s life surely must be borne of a well-thought out plan.
Not necessarily. Norris’s path from the small town of Fairview, North Carolina, to his current job in New York City is more a story of evolution and opportunity than careful planning and check-lists.
A Big Outdoors Kid
The rural community of Fairview, where Norris grew up with his mother and father and sister, is about 20 minutes southeast of Asheville. The family had just enough property to have a few pigs and cows and honeybees. And of course, the landscape was inspiring, particularly to a kid drawn the natural world around him. “We had the beautiful mountains there, so I’d always be out doing something,” Norris says.
Dirt and sunshine and wind and rain weren’t his only interests, however. He was also intrigued by the scientific and mathematical explanations that explained the characteristics of the physical world that Norris enjoyed so much.
“I definitely was a science geek, a math geek,” Norris says. “I was lucky to have a father who really supported my curiosity growing up. We’d walk through, you know, little science problems of how far was the earth from the sun, just kind of for fun, and he always made it a fun thing to do. And I remember building ham radios with him.”
For a kid like Norris, life in Fairview was idyllic. He did well in school, had good friends, participated in sports, and continued to explore the outdoors and contemplate the properties that defined it.
One thing Norris was not contemplating, however, was the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. It was not on his radar. At all.
Enter Norris’s mother.
“She was always really committed to me getting a good education,” Norris says. “She always mentioned that, ‘Hey, you should keep this in mind when you get older, it’s a great school, you can focus more on the math and science side.’ I didn’t want to leave. It’s hard to leave your friends. It’s four hours away, you can’t get back [easily], not being able to get a car, I mean, there’s all these little things. But she encouraged me to apply, and I did, and I’m so grateful it worked out.”
Middle of the pack
By his own admission, Norris did not particularly distinguish himself at NCSSM. Like many students, he did better in the courses that interested him the most, but he didn’t stand out. Instead, he blended in, made new friends, and continued to investigate the options that NCSSM provided.
It was at NCSSM where Norris’s future self truly began to take shape. Physics with John Kolena and AP Environmental Science with Jon Davis resonated with him. So, too, did an International Relations course. And it was a Mini-Term project on creating a sustainable future, led by Marion Brisk, that ignited Norris’s passion for energy policy.
“That Mini-Term experience was very informative,” says Norris. “We went and visited a wind farm and some other sites. And there was a lot of [international] concern at that point, actually, that perhaps we were going to see a peak in global oil production. So there was a lot of interest in how that would impact our relationship with the Middle East and foreign policy. So I ended up seeing energy as this nexus between international relations on one hand, economic development, environmental issues, climate change, all these things kind of brought together, and also the physics interests related to that because it’s inherently linked.”
An Altered Course
His experiences at NCSSM led Norris to enroll at Johns Hopkins University, where his intent was to focus on international relations and foreign policy. In the midst of his time there, Norris was presented with an opportunity to join the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank focused on energy and the environment. Though it would require taking a break from Johns Hopkins, Norris accepted the challenge. For the next year and a half he performed energy technology and policy analysis.
Evolving personal interests eventually led Norris to transfer to Stanford to study Public Policy. Upon graduation, he assumed the next few years of his life were fairly certain. “I thought I’d stay there in California,” Norris says, “do the Silicon Valley tech thing that most people do when they graduate.”
An unexpected opportunity once again presented itself. Norris’s work in energy policy had gotten him on the radar of the United States Department of Energy, and a former colleague at the Breakthrough Institute who clearly recalled Norris’s passion for and competence in the field, had recently accepted a senior role with the Department. What resulted was a Presidential Appointment for Norris to join the Department, where he served as an advisor to former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.
“When I got the call, I mean, of course I’m going to do this,” says Norris. “Absolutely.”
As a special advisor at the department, Norris’s portfolio included overseeing finance and technology commercialization initiatives across $10 billion in programs. He also played a key role in President Obama’s $4 billion Clean Energy Investment Initiative. All of that, at 25 years of age.
But he longed for more substantive work, longed to delve more deeply into the nuts and bolts of bringing new technologies to the marketplace. So, he eventually moved into the department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, where he could truly engage with his passion.
“The guy that brought me in said that there was no other place you can come in at this age and have this level of access or potential impact on large-scale programs,” Norris says. “I just hoped that I could have some positive impact here and there on a couple of pieces. What I was really interested in was, one, supporting more technologies to be commercialized out of the labs and trying to get more venture capital to support what the department was doing, and then, two, to support manufacturing. The whole point there is to boost the U.S.’s competitiveness in manufacturing of both clean energy products, but also making our factories more energy efficient so they can compete more effectively with international competitors.”
Path to the present
Norris’s path to the present has certainly been shaped by a willingness to be open, adaptable, and responsive. New directions that seemed uncertain at any particular moment made perfect sense after-the-fact. Tentative plans and reasonable assumptions about the immediate future gave way to explorations of unexpected avenues. It has worked quite well for him so far.
Norris’s current position at S&P Global Platts is something of an anomaly, however–he may have actually foreseen this position, if only vaguely. “I always assumed I was going to leave policy and leave D.C. and go private-sector,” Norris says. “And I am doing that, and I enjoy it, it’s a good experience. But it’s hard to leave [policy] behind and get rid of that bug.”
And of course, there’s always the pull of home. His family, with whom he is close, is still in North Carolina. He feels a certain responsibility to give back to the state, as well. “This is part of the whole point of a school like NCSSM, right?” he says. “I have a lot of respect for people that have gone off but then ultimately come back to their home state to contribute, whether it’s starting a business or running for office or doing whatever else they can to contribute.
“We’ll see how it evolves from here. I mean, ultimately, what’s guided me was a sense of purpose and mission-orientation, and I was lucky enough to find an issue-area that I felt fired up about and got lucky enough to come across some opportunities that I was prepared for.
“We’ve got a lot of challenges as a country,” he adds, “but I feel like, when you can see the next generation,” such as he saw on his return to NCSSM, “you say, ‘Alright, maybe we’ll be in good hands.’ ”