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Cullen Alum Named to Forbes 30 Under 30 - Energy List
Maggie Griffin
Shiv Bhakta (’17), a chemical engineering and economics graduate, has been named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 Energy list thanks to his work with a solar energy startup.
Shiv Bhakta (’17), a chemical engineering and economics graduate, has been named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 Energy list thanks to his work with a solar energy startup.

When Shiv Bhakta (’17), chemical engineering and economics major, graduated from high school in small-town Cypress, Texas in 2012, his next move was to enroll at the University of Houston. Being a first-generation college student, he wasn’t sure what to expect or how to maneuver the sprawling UH campus. Fast forward to 2024 and he’s just been named to one of the country’s most prestigious lists: The Forbes 30 Under 30 - Energy list of business and industry figures.

“The funniest part of this award is that you don’t even know that you’ve made the list,” Bhakta said. “It’s just quietly announced. My friend sent the announcement to me, and I had no idea!”

Bhakta’s recognition came for his work in a startup venture, Active Surfaces. He and his business partner Richard Swartwout started the company to sell solar panels to businesses. Their unique selling point is that their product is more durable and 100 times lighter than traditional panels — and it can be printed and smoothly unrolled onto a building's roof, like a solar yoga mat.

“My partner is the technology guy, and I am the business guy who recruits talent and raises funds,” Bhakta said. “We only met last fall and started the company earlier this year. It’s been a whirlwind of a year, too. It’s the first time I’ve worked with a startup — just me and him — and it was quite an adjustment from my earlier experiences working at Exxon and DOE (Department of Energy).”

Even though the product had been well received by the business world, the company still needed operating capital. Active Surfaces entered a startup competition at MIT and won first place.

“That helped with our funding,” explained Bhakta, “and we’ve entered other competitions and won prizes there. We’ve raised $300,000 in non-dilutive funds so far, and we’re also raising venture capital. The level of autonomy in a startup is wildly different than my prior experiences in the public and private sector, but we had to set our own direction for everything — marketing, legal, sales and the like.”

Bhakta feels that perhaps the best result from these competitions is being able to network and brainstorm with the other contest winners. “It’s about who you know and how you interact with them,” Bhakta said. “Networking is everything, and these people are some of the very best minds in business today.”

Bhakta learned that lesson early. As a first-generation, low-income student at UH, he was working 20-30 hours each week to help fund his studies and was unable to attend networking events that would help him reach career goals. That all changed, however, when he received the Brookshire Scholarship.

“The Brookshire Scholarship gave me the aid that alleviated the financial concerns and allowed me to spend more energy getting my work done as well as taking part in activities that would play a role in my future,” Bhakta said. “The scholarship led me to have more time, which I spent with campus recruiters, and I developed connections on LinkedIn. That networking ended up with me getting hired at Exxon. I wouldn’t have had the energy to maintain those relationships without the Brookshire.”

Bhakta says that another transformational experience at UH came from participating with a dance team. “This was traditional Indian dance called Roarin’ Raas, and we started as a very small group,” he said. “We went from just entering the circuit the year before I joined to winning a national competition in 2014. The small, scrappy team that won big demonstrated perseverance against the odds — very much like a startup business.”

But, Bhakta does not feel like a successful businessman — yet.

"I’m working at a lean startup in the early days, where instead I could have taken a corporate MBA job and made multiple times the money. But it’s nice to know that if you’re a first-gen, low-income student, you can still hold your own and even outperform the big guys. That you can build something that can matter. It’s a testament to how anything is possible through hard work. Just find what speaks to you and then do it.”

Bhakta currently lives in the Boston area, where he is completing a master’s in engineering and an MBA at MIT. He returns to the Houston metro area often to visit family.

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