Lisa Lillelund can barely contain her pleasure as she explains her job as director of sales at Proterra Powered, an industry leader in the design and manufacturing of heavy-duty vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions.
A battery technology company, Proterra Powered is part of a string of national and global businesses Lillelund has either operated or managed. “I launched the sales division, which sells the technology to other OEMs like Thomas Built Buses, with their school bus, and Van Hool, with their coach bus. They also manufacture their own battery-electric transit buses. So I’m in the medium and heavy-duty electric vehicle space.”
Lillelund traces her enthusiasm and passion for sustainability to Charlevoix, where she spent her early years appreciating how unique and special her surroundings were.
“I was born in Ann Arbor, but my German father was a ski lover who wanted to be close to Boyne Mountain, and he moved us up north to Charlevoix when I was 5 years old,” she recalls. “Charlevoix had a really big impact on me.
“You grow up surrounded by (the) beauty of the water — Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan, and the woods, and the beautiful four seasons. You’re outdoors all the time, skiing in the winter on Mount McSauba, and then in the summer we did the 4-H sailing class, and you just get a love for nature and the things you love and want to protect.”
Lillelund attended school in Charlevoix from kindergarten through her junior year in high school. The following year, she attended Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School (formerly Kingswood School) in Bloomfield Hills as a senior boarder. During that time, she began to appreciate the generational contributions her family had made to advancing society.
“We didn’t have a lot of AP classes in Char-levoix, so many of my friends were going to the community college in Petoskey,” she says. “My mother knew about Kingswood from growing up in Birmingham, and my grandmother, Alice Wessels Burlingame, was a columnist for The Birmingham Eccentric newspaper for 32 years with her gardening column, ‘Down to Earth.’
“At Bloomfield Hills House, on the grounds of Cranbrook, she founded the Garden Auxiliary of volunteers, which is still going strong today, nourishing the beautiful gardens at Cranbrook.”
When the time came to pick a college, there was really only one choice for Lillelund. “The University of Michigan played a big role in my family,” she says proudly. “I’m a third-generation alum.”
Although choosing a college was easy, it took Lillelund a while to figure out where she wanted to focus her energies for a degree.
“I probably had four different majors,” she laughs. “I started out thinking maybe (I was) good at math, and then I decided I didn’t want to do that, and I thought psychology, and then law. When you were a liberal arts major you had to take a foreign language, which I think is incredible, so I took German.”
One of her instructors encouraged Lillelund to take her junior year abroad.
“He said there was this beautiful program in Freiburg, which is in the Black Forest,” she says, “and he said, ‘Lisa, it’ll be life-changing, you’ve got to do it.’ Today, kids only go for a semester, but back then you did a junior year abroad for 12 months, and you really got immersed — language, the culture. You even start dreaming in the language. It’s just really cool.”
The experience also reinforced Lillelund’s awareness and penchant for respecting and caring for nature.
“It was wonderful to see how other people live, and how mindful they were of electricity and gas and food waste and different things, and it put a different lens into my world,” she says. “From that moment on, I never looked back. I had a global mindset that the world doesn’t begin and end in America. I went back to my senior year and couldn’t wait to just graduate and get back to Europe.”
As planned, she graduated and then landed a job in Dusseldorf at Hitachi Metals, a Japanese company, soon after her return to Germany. “I started as an import clerk and then was promoted to sales, one of the first women at this multinational company, helping to sell their automobile parts in Germany to customers like BMW. I loved it. And I got the bug of business,” Lillelund says.
Within a few years she was back in the United States, in San Francisco, working in sales for an export company with a large portfolio of international customers.
“Then I went to get my MBA in Arizona, at the Thunderbird School of Global Management,” she says. “I heard about it in Europe, and at the time it was the top international business school in the country. To get in, you needed to have lived overseas, everybody spoke at least two languages, and I felt like I found my people: They all had this international mindset, loved business, and loved to travel and see the world.”
Lillelund not only earned her MBA, but also met her husband, Mads, a Dane from Copenhagen — and almost immediately found her next job with Cybex International, a manufacturer of medical testing and training equipment.
“I was recruited out of Thunderbird for that job,” she says. “I spent two years at their headquarters in New York and then moved to Brussels, Belgium, and opened up the European headquarters, where I was managing director of Europe for six years, managing the business in 16 countries. It was awesome. I felt like I was so lucky; I was getting paid to explore the world.”
Lillelund spent eight years at Cybex before leaving voluntarily, because she and Mads wanted to start a family. “I wanted to be home more if I had young children,” she explains.
Over the next dozen years, while raising two sons, Lillelund utilized her business experiences as a consultant and a writer — “taking after my grandmother, Alice.” The family hopscotched around the globe — from Brussels to Dublin, then on to New Jersey and Massachusetts. During their peripatetic journey, Mads managed to launch Mango Networks, a data networking company that manufactured equipment he designed. Soon after the launch, Lillelund signed on as head of operations.
“Within two years my husband got recruited to be CEO of another company, and I transformed Mango Networks into my own environmental communications company. I ran it for 10 years, advising businesses and towns and resorts on how to be more sustainable,” she says. “For instance, I would recommend an EV charging station for a town or a business park, or electric vehicles or buses.”
During that time, Lillelund also made a strong connection with her roots in Michigan.
“I rented a branch office in Detroit at TechTown in 2015” and “discovered Proterra and was suggesting their electric bus would be great for some of my clients,” she says. “And the next thing you know, I met with them and they ended up offering me a job in 2018.”
The new position meant yet another move for Lillelund, to Proterra’s headquarters in Burlingame, Calif. — a location with a significant connection to the Lillelund family.
“Burlingame is named after Anson Burlingame, a distant relative of ours who also went to the University of Michigan and was known as a fighter for human rights (and) an abolitionist who campaigned for Lincoln,” she says. “He was also Lincoln’s appointed ambassador to China, where he created the first treaty to acknowledge the rights of Chinese citizens, known as the Burlingame Treaty.”
When Burlingame died in 1869, Mark Twain penned a glowing obituary, praising him for, among many other noble qualities, his sense of diplomacy: “In every labor of this man’s life,” Twain wrote, “there was present a good and noble motive; and in nothing that he ever did or said was there anything small or base.”
Following in her family’s footsteps, Lillelund utilizes her own sense of diplomacy, enthusiasm, and dogged determination as she pursues her goal of making a positive impact on the environment, specifically the school bus market.
“Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation accounted for 29 percent of the U.S. emissions in 2019,” she says. “The U.S. school bus fleet of around 480,000 yellow buses is the nation’s largest public transportation fleet, carrying around 25 million schoolchildren, on average, on a daily basis. A 2018 report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that converting U.S. school buses from diesel to electric would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5.3 million tons per year — the equivalent of taking about 1 million cars off the road.”
Lillelund is especially excited about the progress she’s made on sustainability in her home state. “Michigan’s the perfect place to have a lot of this innovation happen,” she says. “I was really proud that it was one of the first states in the country to devote its round one (VW settlement) funding exclusively to electric school buses. We were fortunate to partner with DTE Energy to provide special grant funding to Ann Arbor public schools. They have four buses, and Roseville has two. It’s especially rewarding for me to have zero-emissions, clean transportation for children.”