By Rosana Francescato
If you’ve attended many cleantech events, you’re probably familiar with this scene: a panel of men, with maybe a token woman thrown in -- maybe not -- addresses an audience of mostly men. This scenario is so pervasive that it’s led to a number of pledges not to appear on tech panels unless women are better represented.
Women in Cleantech and Sustainability turned that familiar scene on its head at our recent event, the 2nd Annual WCS Talks. Twenty speakers -- almost all women -- gave a series of TED-style talks that inspired and illuminated.
Much of the audience was also made up of women, and some speakers were so accustomed to speaking to roomfuls of men that this made them a bit nervous. But thanks to a supportive audience and the warm welcome of our own Lisa Ann Pinkerton, who graciously introduced the speakers, nervousness soon gave way to an atmosphere of appreciation and sharing. For some, that even meant setting aside their prepared slides to speak more directly to the audience.
It was this atmosphere that surprised attendees the most. With presentations short and sweet, and speakers truly connecting with the audience, WCS Talks was not a dry conference, as some had expected -- but a day to get personal and talk about what really mattered.
We’re still feeling the buzz from our first all-day WCS Talks!
A sustainable venue for WCS Talks
It was fitting that the event was hosted by Google, which hosts Kati Kallins and Beth Sturgeon informed us has not one but five green teams. Google’s “unsung hero?” Data centers, the engines of the internet. Joyce Dickerson’s love for data centers came through in her talk, which focused on the innovations constantly happening to get Google’s to 100% renewable-powered. You might think that means solar, and in many cases it does. But you should expect the unexpected from Google. In Georgia, when you flush your toilet, you might just be helping to cool a data center!
Google prides itself on having been carbon-neutral since 2007, with data centers that use 50% less energy than is typical. As Kate Brandt told us, Google thinks big, with a plan to build the world’s most efficient computer network. And the company is the world’s largest buyer of renewable energy.
Solar is a women’s issue, women are a solar issue
Where do companies like Google get all that renewable energy? From companies like First Solar. According to Kathryn Arbeit, the company will be building entire plants next year dedicated to Google and others like them. No easy task, but Arbeit is undaunted by the difficulties, having experienced plenty in her work. She’s been told not to let a man reporting to her know he was being managed, and has been labeled as difficult when simply communicating clearly and directly. Arbeit has done well in solar despite that, but wonders why the glass ceiling remains, with key functions still dominated by men. She called on us all to ask, What can I do?
Solar was well represented at WCS Talks, and with good reason. Ani Rouskova of EOS Capital Advisors believes that solar has the greatest potential to take us off fossil fuels, which many think we must do by 2050.
Cynthia Christensen of Namasté Solar might agree, though she got into solar almost by accident -- after a bet she made as a pre-law student with a boyfriend that they couldn’t handle each other’s classes. That catapulted her into studying material science, which led to solar. Christensen spoke about the way Namasté is transforming not only energy but also business, with distributed leadership, co-ownership, and a culture of honesty and kindness. Could this be what happens when more women are in charge?
Could be. Erica Mackie of GRID Alternatives reminded us that women create solutions that look at the connectedness of everything. That’s important in an industry that should be for everyone -- in terms of both energy and jobs. What do we need for the solar industry to succeed? Diversity. How do we succeed as women in solar? For starters, we should realize that anyone and everyone can be our mentor. Mackie noted that because she “crowdsourced” her mentors, she’s done a lot of things that no one person would have advised her to do.
Fiona Taylor of SolarCity shared how re-learning to walk after having been told she’d never walk again taught her she could do more than she thought. As a manager, she tries to instill that belief in her team. She reminded us that everyone has doubts. “What would you achieve,” she asked us, “if mistakes were an acceptable part of growth?”
Embodying this spirit is Elena Foukes Lucas, who in just a year went from a low-level analyst at PG&E to co-founder and CEO of UtilityAPI. Her advice? “Show up. Take action. Know thyself. Be curious. Ask questions.” We all have a lot to learn, she said, but we don’t have to wait to know it all before taking action. As was true for many of the speakers -- and surely audience members, too -- her career path has not been a straight line, as she illustrated beautifully:
Ella Foley Gannon of Morgan Lewis echoed this with her quip about an early job at an Asian art gallery: “Of course, that’s why I’m an environmentalist today. I specialized in ancient Chinese furniture -- like most of you.” It was a law school lottery number for picking electives -- 499 out of 500 -- that led her to environmental law. She had hoped to learn “something useful like tax law,” but this happy accident led her to her true love, and now she’s an expert environmental negotiator at a major law firm run by a woman.
Another entertaining speaker was Sara Carroll of Swinerton Renewable Energy. She told a compelling story of succeeding in an industry where she was definitely a token woman. A sense of humor, she said, was key to her success. Affirming other speakers’ advice, she noted that she’s had to do a lot of things that she didn’t think she could do -- “but, thanks to Google …”
Speaking of tokens, we were treated to a real performer in our token male speaker, Nat Goldhaber of Claremont Creek Ventures -- who ended his talk with a song! Growing up with a mother who had a PhD in physics -- and both parents working to prove the existence of antimatter -- he learned early on that women can and do excel in all fields. He seemed bent on getting that message out to the rest of the world, and had the figures to back up his assertion that funding is flowing to companies with woman founders and CEOs:
Kim Kilday of Motiv Power spoke of her delusion that there were plenty of women in STEM fields. That came from the support and encouragement she got at a young age, and the environment she found herself in. Those experiences helped her pinpoint these key ingredients to incentivize girls to go into STEM: support at home, after-school programs, relatable peers, and strong role models.
When it comes to recruiting those women for cleantech jobs, Paige Carratturo of Enertech Search Partners is your woman. Like many of the speakers, she didn’t wait to have all the experience needed or for the timing to be just right to seize an opportunity. She saw that the cleantech market was not being served, and she jumped in. Change is scary, she acknowledged, but it’s no reason not to take action -- especially for women, who are well-prepared to handle change by puberty, pregnancy, and menopause.
That sentiment was affirmed by Cindy Thyfaut of Westar Trade Resources. “Sometimes when the world says no is the time to be creative,” she asserted. She challenged us to be adventurous, and to “have a goal that your adventure will change your life.”
The future is going to be awesome
With that kind of positive energy, we can imagine a great future -- one that will be realized with a broad range of innovative ideas. While some of the inspiration at WCS Talks comes from sharing wonderful personal stories, a good part also comes from seeing the depth and breadth of cleantech solutions happening all around us.
Here’s a cool one: Molly Morse of Mango Materials shared how her company uses methane gas to make biodegradable plastic. They’re solving several problems at once: 1) most conventional plastics are made from fossil fuels, 2) plastics don’t break down easily and are a major source of pollution, and 3) methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, is being emitted from all kinds of places. Using a naturally occurring bacteria that can digest methane, Mango Materials is creating a “bio-plastic” that will break down even in home compost. Morse is proof of her message to us: “You can build and create the future you really believe in.”
What’s the future of office buildings? Lindsay Baker of Building Robotics elaborated on how her company provides a human-centric approach to a mechanical problem, something she believes women excel at. Building Robotics helps commercial buildings (which waste 30% of their energy) respond dynamically to people (61% of whom are not satisfied with workplace temperature). By asking what buildings need to provide for people, they tackle the issue of energy efficiency from a new angle -- an angle Baker believes we can work on many problems in our world.
Also crucial for the future are energy storage and the smart grid -- the “greatest invention of the twentieth century” according to Christine Hertzog of Smart Grid Library. The recession taught her that much like the smart grid, she needed to be resilient to bounce back when the unexpected happens. So she wrote the Smart Grid Dictionary. Madeleine Houghton of Sunverge Energy relayed how her company’s energy storage system lets consumers use more of the power they produce onsite, get the peace of mind of backup power, and take advantage of time-of-use electric rates. The utility gets to aggregate and orchestrate all these houses across that smart grid we heard about. It’s a win-win!
Jessie Denver of Vote Solar also emphasized the importance of the smart grid. Google didn’t pay $3.2B for a thermostat, she noted. In the future, utility customers will have a two-way communication that’s never happened before. In the meantime, how can we engage the community in this cleantech revolution we’re all so excited about? Denver told the story of how her organization is making solar and EVs contagious. Using group purchasing models, they’ve helped people overcome the barriers of information overload and high upfront costs. With good policies to support the coming changes, she said, “The future is going to be awesome!”
We’re in this together - what will you do?
We can’t forget that the problems we’re facing are serious, warned Marianna Grossman of Sustainable Silicon Valley. “This scary story is not like a movie where you can walk out,” she said. “There’s no business case for a planet that’s not habitable.” That’s why her organization is helping businesses collaborate on issues they can’t solve by themselves.
Grossmann challenged each of us to ask, How do we make changes at the scale of the challenge we face? Collaboration is something women excel at, she added. That’s important, because we’re all in this together.
She left us with these words: "What will you do?"
For more on the speakers, see the WCS Talks event page.
Rosana Francescato is Director of Communications at Domino, an energy concierge service that’s helping millions of Americans get off fossil fuels and save money. She’s on the boards of Women in Cleantech and Sustainability and Everybody Solar. She’s been the top individual fundraiser at the GRID Alternatives Bay Area Solarthon six years in a row.
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