Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Washington State University
Dividend - Fall 2019 Graduate Education

Executive MBA Supports Leadership in Renewable Energy Sector

Story by Sue McMurray • Photos courtesy of Renewable Energy Group, Inc.
Aaron Leatherman

What happened in Vegas in 2004 when Aaron Leatherman (’19 EMBA) celebrated obtaining his undergraduate degree may have been fun, but it was nothing compared to what happened on his flight home. After a random conversation about Leatherman’s interest in biodiesel, his seatmate gave him a tip to contact John Plaza, a commercial pilot turned entrepreneur with a fledgling startup in Seattle.

Following that tip gave Leatherman the wings to carry out his dreams of reducing the world’s dependency on fossil fuels.

Leatherman impressed Plaza with his work ethic and his undergraduate capstone project focusing on the feasibility of biodiesel in the Pacific Northwest. Drawing from that material, Leatherman developed a business plan that attracted angel investor Martin Tobias. Once initial funding was secured, Leatherman became the first employee of Imperium Renewables (formerly Seattle Biodiesel) and helped develop and optimize their unique production process. Within 18 months Imperium raised over $100 million to build the largest biodiesel plant in the United States. Leatherman manages the plant located on the Port of Grays Harbor in Hoquiam, Washington.


In 2015, Renewable Energy Group, Inc. (REG), the nation’s largest biodiesel manufacturer, acquired Imperium Renewables. The facility’s deep-water port allows products such as vegetable oil, biodiesel, and glycerin to be transported internationally in bulk, reducing costs and improving global access, says Leatherman.

The West Coast’s leadership in developing public policy on low carbon fuels have created strong domestic markets that drive demand for feedstock and increase glycerin supply (a byproduct of biodiesel), both of which can be sourced from and sold to Asian countries, he says.


“REG supports continuing education,” says Leatherman. “While I lack an engineering degree, I am proficient in the operating practices of the company. It made more sense to me to get an MBA that would further my business and leadership knowledge.”

Leatherman chose the WSU online Executive MBA program over others in the Pacific Northwest because of its high level of flexibility and rank as an accredited business school. He didn’t have to travel, and his tuition fees—paid in part by his company—would ultimately contribute to the state of Washington.

“I’ve been in leadership my whole career, but the EMBA program, especially Fred Peterson’s class, teaches you about being a good leader and how you can pass it on,” says Leatherman.

Leatherman says EMBA capstone and international instructor Velle Kolde helped him develop new professional networks and gain a deeper understanding of global business during a study abroad experience in China. Leatherman is also in the process of determining the viability of his EMBA capstone project that proposed refining upgrades at REG Grays Harbor.

“The best thing about my EMBA program is that it allowed me to know myself better and discover I’m happy being an intrapreneur and a leader within my organization. I don’t have to own a company to be fulfilled professionally.”