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Powering futures by giving back

UND Engineering alum Steve Martin reflects on American Indian roots as owner of thriving energy startup in Africa

Steve Martin
UND alumnus Steve Martin and his wife, Arzu, in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo provided by Steve Martin.

UND alum Steve Martin has always welcomed challenges and changes.

That mindset and his passion for environmentally friendly energy, including renewable energy, have taken him all over the world.

Martin, a 1989 graduate in mechanical engineering, co-founded KS Energy, a power generation and asset management company in Botswana, Africa.

Martin, who lives in Turkey, returns to campus next week to give the keynote talk for Time Out Week, the annual conference at UND that delves into important issues in American Indian culture. The talk is set for 10 a.m. Friday, April 20 in the Memorial Union Ballroom.

He will come bearing gifts: He is offering three internships in Botswana to American Indian students.

It’s key to experience another culture, Martin said.

An enrolled member of the Chippewa nation, he grew up in Devils Lake away from his father’s Ojibway tribe. His parents were the “resident grandparents” and camp counselors of the UND Indians Into Medicine (INMED) Summer Institute.

“They loved INMED with all their hearts, and it was the most passionate thing they did in their lives,” Martin said. “The students were family to them, and INMED was a big part of their life.”

Martin said his father, who spent 35 years working for the railroad, didn’t like to travel much and never flew. His mother earned her nursing degree when she was 50, graduating at the top of her class.

“Their only goal was to see all five of us graduate from UND,” Martin said.

And they did. Martin earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1989.

Steve Martin in his office at KS Energy. The jacket in the background is a family heirloom that has been passed down for generations. The talking stick in front of Martin belonged to his parents. Photo provided by Steve Martin.

International experience

He began working for Energizer, the battery company, which offered to send him overseas.

“I didn’t say no,” Martin said. “I was challenged growing up and in my culture to welcome challenges and changes, and I have that North Dakota work ethic.”

“Once I started traveling, I’ve never stopped,” he said. “I’ve had opportunity after opportunity.”

Offered a job with a large corporation that manufactures acrylic fibers and textiles, he resigned from Energizer and flew to Turkey.

“I didn’t want to say no because of fear,” Martin said.

A few years later, General Electric offered him a job working with power plants. Martin developed projects all over the world, and by 2000 he led GE’s energy business in 19 countries, focusing on all of GE’s energy portfolio including thermal power generation and services, nuclear, hydro, renewable, oil and coal power.

In 2005, he left GE, and he and two partners built a startup energy company, KS Energy.

“I thought, ‘I’m 40 now, and have done relatively well,’” Martin said. “If I was ever going to be an entrepreneur, it seemed to be the right time. It was hard to leave a secure job, but I didn’t want to wish I’d done it.” The first project was a $220-million power station in Pakistan.  By 2007, KS Energy was building power stations in Africa.

Today, KS Energy is a power generation and power plant management company that’s active in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Benin, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria. The company is on the forefront of energy production in the developing world, focusing on renewable energy.

Mark Kennedy and Steve Martin connected in Istanbul last year. Photo provided by Mark Kennedy.
Mark Kennedy and Steve Martin connected in Istanbul last year. Photo provided by Mark Kennedy.

Remembering roots

Martin wants to offer a similar experience to today’s UND American Indian students in the area of renewable energy as well as mini-grid power generation.

“I started thinking about this a couple of years ago,” Martin said. “I wanted to give back to the community. If I would have had a chance while in school to go to a welcoming place, it would have benefited me.

“I’ve spent half my life away – 26 years in the US and 26 years away,” Martin continued. “I feel that distance. There’s a voice inside my head that says don’t forget where you came from. This is something I can do to make a difference.”

Two of the engineering interns will work with KS Energy in power generation. The third internship would be at the De Beers and Government of Botswana JV diamond mine in Botswana, working in water management. Martin will provide housing, transportation and a stipend, as well as a trip to a game reserve. The UND College of Engineering & Mines will cover flight costs.

Another catalyst for Martin’s gift to his alma mater was a chance meeting overseas between Martin and UND President Mark Kennedy. The two enjoyed each other’s company and conversation about their common connection to UND.

“I am thrilled that Steve Martin has responded so warmly to my invitation over a beverage we shared in Istanbul last year that he stay engaged with his alma mater,” said UND President Kennedy. “His life story is clearly one of a UND Leader in Action. His generosity will help others follow in his footsteps.”

Home at UND

Martin said his time at UND was a good experience. He was originally going to play hockey at another school, but broke his foot the first week of school. So he decided to follow his other dream: being an engineer.

“I went to see the secretary (the now-retired Joyce Medalen) in the mechanical engineering department, and the then-chair, Don Naismith, invited me in,” Martin said. “I told him my story. I must have looked pitiful. I was on crutches and had no hair with a fresh buzz cut from the National Guard.” Classes had already started, Martin continued. “Dr. Naismith did everything he could to help. It was the last day to add a class, and he added me. UND felt like home.”

It was a tough start, at first, Martin said, about entering the engineering program a couple weeks into the semester.

“I had no place to live, and was driving from my sister’s home in Warren (Minn.),” he said. “Sometimes I lived in my car. I had no loans or grants.”

But he liked the classes and quickly fit in.

He joined the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity and played intramural ice hockey, where his team won the intramural championship all four years. He was a leader in the UND Student Senate.

He still follows UND hockey and football.

Martin hopes the internships will benefit students and encourage them to travel abroad.

“Be open to challenges,” he said. “Always treasure the work ethic you’ve learned, and stay true to those values from North Dakota. One of UND’s greatest assets is the very practical knowledge of engineering.

“These internships are not about benefiting us. It’s about benefiting students. I want to give back to the community.”