Going from Research to the PR and Business Side of Industry

Max Lenhoff
Maxwell Kushner-Lenhoff, Global Supply Manager, Battery Materials, Tesla

Like many chemistry majors, Maxwell Kushner-Lenhoff thought his life’s career as a research scientist was set in stone. As an undergraduate at Yale University, he had the opportunity to earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in inorganic chemistry. While a student, he conducted research in physical chemistry through the Harvey Mudd College Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, presented at ACS national meetings through Nalco and ACS travel grants, and completed an internship through the prestigious SCI Scholars internship program.

A pivotal conversation with former ACS President and Dow employee Katie Hunt at an ACS national meeting started Kushner-Lenhoff down a different path. “We spoke about my interest in trying to find a science-related job outside of R&D, and she encouraged me to consider Dow,” Kushner-Lenhoff remembers. Kushner-Lenhoff found a position as a Communications Manager at Dow, tackling activities across the communications spectrum, from research and writing to public relations and marketing. Four years later, he earned an M.B.A. and upon completing his business degree, landed a position with Tesla, Inc., where he’s able to apply his chemistry knowledge to the business side of the automotive and energy company.

What are your responsibilities at Tesla?

As a global supply manager for battery materials, I work to make sure that we have the highest performing and most cost-effective materials in our battery cells. Perhaps the best way to describe the job is as one part chemistry, one part negotiations, and one part operations. First, the chemistry, which involves working with cell engineers who perform tests to judge the quality and performance of various vendor materials. Then, negotiations, because once we find the material we want, it is necessary to get it for the most competitive price possible to keep reducing the dollars per kilowatt hour that Tesla has to pay. Finally, operations, because all of those battery materials have to be delivered on time and on budget to get them into the cells we use in our products.

What is your favorite part about this job? What’s a cool project you’re working on or are excited to work on?

My favorite part of being at Tesla is that each day is a new challenge and every project has a practical impact. For example, when I hear Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk come on the earnings call to talk about reducing the cost of our cars, it is nice to know that my work is playing a small part in that effort. Unfortunately, I cannot talk about specific projects, but I can say that they are quite cool: As the global market leader in electric vehicles (EVs) at the cusp of an EV wave, Tesla is always looking at the changing material landscape to understand the latest developments and maintain our competitive edge.

What types of projects are your currently working on, and what kind of impact could they have on the community/people/different sectors?  

Having come from the Dow Chemical Company, which supplies a number of materials to the automotive industry, being able to see the space from the perspective of an automotive company (called an original equipment manufacturer – OEM – in industry lingo) is quite exciting. At Dow, I helped the CEO talk about how our products would make an impact downstream. Now, I can see that impact firsthand. For example, new chemistry developments can enable longer lifetime and higher capacity cells that help us drive down the cost of longer range and longer lasting batteries in Tesla’s cars.

Do you have any advice for undergraduate students studying chemistry?

Finding a career you truly enjoy requires both inquisitiveness and the courage to share your vision. People often focus too much just on the search. Of course, it is important to talk to people to understand what drives them and how it might inform what you would like to do. However, equally important is sharing your own vision. In each conversation, share the characteristics you want in your eventual job. Perhaps you want to travel for work, perhaps you would prefer building financial models. Be honest with yourself and the people you are networking with and make sure to ask, “Who should I talk with next?” That way, you can keep the conversation going and eventually find a job that keeps you excited to come to work each and every day.