With the long list of engineering leadership roles on Mothusi Pahl’s resume, you might assume that his academic background included a technical degree, perhaps a B.S. in engineering. In fact, he received his undergraduate degree in economics with a minor in mathematics at UC Santa Cruz and went on to earn an MBA from Yale University.
“I don’t come from a traditional engineering background; I’ve kind of parachuted into this industry,” Pahl said, emphasizing the fact that there is more to a person’s qualifications than their college degree.
Pahl is currently the Chief Commercial Officer of B3Bar Holdings, president of UAV Recon, and a UC Santa Cruz alumnus and entrepreneur in residence.
His inspiring and anecdotal talk “Spring Board: A UCSC Founder’s Path on Driving Change in Heavy Industry” on April 6 was the first of four events in Diverse Voices: Season 3, a professional speaker series featuring industry professionals, several who are Baskin Engineering alumni.
A swim down the river taught Pahl life-long lessons
Pahl began his talk with a story from his whitewater river-rafting guide days, a story he used to illustrate how his diverse experiences have taught him valuable life-long lessons.
In the spring of Pahl’s third year at UC Santa Cruz, he was searching for adventure and adrenaline, and decided to sign up for a whitewater river-rafting guide class. He imagined navigating big rapids and torrential currents from within the relative safety of the boat, and was surprised when he spent the first full week swimming, not rafting, the river.
Pahl’s instructor explained that when a raft capsizes, the clients are faced with having to swim the rapids, so it’s important that guides know how to navigate rapids without a boat to help their clients to safety.
“The exact words were, ‘In order to respect the river, you’re going to swim it first,’ and that for me has manifested in so many different ways over the course of my life. As a manager, even to this day, understanding what your customers and team are dealing with is key,” stated Pahl.
Pahl went on to raft over 3,000 miles of river, a challenging yet rewarding experience that taught him how to deal with constantly changing environments, how to manage different types of people, and how to be adaptable.
Engineering for good
After graduating from UCSC, Pahl spent four years as an investment banker. It was during a fellowship with Coro in San Francisco that he realized it was time to make a career change, as he was no longer enjoying the work he was doing.
Pahl applied to Yale University for his MBA and got in. Soon enough, he was traveling across the country to start a new adventure.
“Yale propelled me into the world of power engineering and heavy industry,” he said.
Pahl started at Cummins Diesel, where he led strategy and corporate development for the Power Generation Division. From there, he was transferred to a remote area in South Africa to manage retail power generation plants.
“I was helping deploy turnkey power projects for modular power stations. I found this to be an interesting niche and wanted to take it further,” said Pahl. “Social justice and environmental sustainability has been at the core of every project I’ve done in the heavy industry, from emissions control and more efficient use of hydrocarbons to reducing the number of trips that service personnel take to remote locations.”
With the experience at Cummins and the drive towards using engineering for good, Pahl then went on to co-found the company Ondaka, which he said focused on heavy industry and critical infrastructure data contextualization to help engineering and operations teams come to better decisions faster.
Pahl had never imagined going in the engineering direction, but he carved out a space in that industry for himself and went for it. “If I can do it, then there is no reason that people who know engineering a lot better than I did can’t do it,” said Pahl.
He encouraged his viewers to seek opportunity, be adaptable and willing to do what it takes to learn and grow, stay confident, and be open to different perspectives and ideas.
Entrepreneurship and innovation
When reflecting back on his career, Pahl paid tribute to his time at UC Santa Cruz. He said his undergraduate education at UCSC taught him to understand and respect multiple perspectives when making key decisions, an important aspect of his day-to-day job when interacting with different stakeholders.
Now, as one of two entrepreneurs in residence at UC Santa Cruz, Pahl is back at his alma mater helping students become the next generation of engineering thought leaders.
Entrepreneurs in residence work under the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development (CIED) and with the Silicon Valley engineering and technology community to establish internship, research, and career opportunities for UC Santa Cruz students and new graduates, as well as provide resources for ongoing success.
Together, the entrepreneurs in residence have created CruzX, an interactive social media platform for UCSC’s entrepreneurial community to network, swap ideas, and engage with one another because “success doesn’t come from a single individual. It’s a group effort. You find that strength in the network,” said Pahl.
To access the recording of this event and to find more information about the series, visit the Diverse Voices 2021 website. Tune in for the upcoming event, “Living on the Edge of Your Comfort Zone: Women in Executive Leadership,” featuring Kelly Harkins Kincaid on Wednesday, April 21 at 5 p.m.