Cofounder and Chairman Emeritus, The AES Corporation
As a Mormon missionary in Wisconsin, Roger Sant enjoyed working with
Native Americans. Innately curious, he liked spending time with the people,
getting to know them, and helping them improve their lives. What
he didn't feel comfortable doing, however, was proselytizing. "Part of my
role was to convince them that I had 'the truth.' That was hard for me
given my respect for all viewpoints," says Sant, whose admiration for
Mormon values remains strong despite having left the church in his 30s.
While telling people
what to do might be
considered part and
parcel of leadership,
especially when running
enterprise, Sant's quiet style is more
Socratic. "I like grappling with ideas, not
dictating what should be done," says the
BYU graduate, who found HBS's case
method to be an ideal learning process.
"So often I left the classroom with a completely
different perspective than I came
in with," he recalls.
Sant's career path led him through a series
of finance positions in the Bay Area
before he moved to Washington, DC, for
a two-year stint at the Federal Energy Administration.
That position fed his growing
interest in energy and environmental
issues and led him to launch a think tank
focused on how to shift energy investment
to bring about more energy efficiency. Eager
to put his analysis into practice, Sant
and a partner founded Applied Energy Services
(later called The AES Corporation) in
order to try out their "least-cost energy"
strategy, focusing on minimizing the cost
and the environmental impact of energy
services such as heat and light. "Cogeneration,"
a technique that simultaneously
generates electricity and useful heat, was
one of those promising practices.
Sant and his partner initially raised $1.1
million with the help of family and friends,
which was enough to build a $275 million
power plant in Houston, Texas, in 1983.
That facility brought the company the
recognition it needed, and by 1988, AES
was the largest Independent Power Producer
in the United States. The company
then expanded internationally, buying and
bringing efficiency to some previously
nationalized power plants and utilities.
Over the years, as Sant's business grew so
too did his personal commitment to society.
When AES went public in 1991, Sant
and his wife, Vicki, launched The Summit
Foundation and a related fund at DC's
Community Foundation to support issues
they believe in, primarily empowerment of
women and girls, ocean conservation, and
sustainable cities. Organizations that have
benefited from their involvement include
numerous Washington-based nonprofits
as well as health organizations in Mexico
and Central America, the World Wildlife
Fund, and the Smithsonian's National
Museum of Natural History, where 7 million
visitors tour Sant Ocean Hall annually.
The couple, who will soon celebrate their
45th wedding anniversary, work together
on the foundation and are joined by their
four children and spouses, who are increasingly
taking over the reins. Beyond
the foundation, the family supports the
arts in Washington through the National
Gallery of Art, the National Symphony
Orchestra, and The Phillips Collection.
Working side by side with his children,
says Sant, is not only a joy but also an
education. When asked what he hopes
to pass along, Sant turns the question
around. "I'm the one who is learning from
them," he observes. "I love seeing how
they think and what they have to offer."
While Sant's accomplishments are many—business leader, philanthropist, husband,
father, grandfather (to six)—what
might be most remarkable is his ability
to merge all aspects of his life into a
cohesive tapestry. Having channeled
his passion for the environment into an
enormously successful business, he then
began to use his business skills to help
What's important to Roger Sant is doing
something that matters, but that doesn't
mean he isn't going to enjoy the journey.
Whether he's bringing cleaner energy to
the world, advocating for environmental
sustainability, or chairing the board of a
museum, one of his key principles is to
have fun. By fun, he explains, "I don't mean
partying. I mean the kind of fun that comes
from working together to solve problems."
Photo by Susan Young