Posted by Elena Foukes Lucas
One year ago, I was the lowest-level analyst at a Fortune 200 company. Now, I’m a co-founder and CEO. Two catalysts began my year-long path to entrepreneurship: Kate Purmal and Sheryl Sandberg.
Working at the Fortune 200 company was my first full-time job. I applied on their website, interviewed, and accepted an offer as a Business Finance Associate Analyst. I started there with the expectation that real-world finance experience would be useful and that I could navigate to an area of the company that was closer to my interest in renewable energy
It was important for me to have an impact and to be hands-on with renewables. But neither of these were the case where I was. When I tried to change departments, I was blocked. I was dissatisfied and frustrated with the limitations of working within a highly political and bureaucratic organization.
Catalysts for transformation
Amidst this career dissatisfaction, I attended a talk in September 2013 by Kate Purmal, hosted by Women in Cleantech and Sustainability. Kate’s message was to be bold and cultivate your vision.
Why was Kate’s talk transformative for me? Because she explained that women excel at all the skills to be great leaders, except one: vision. Women are less likely to dream big and cultivate a large vision, she told us. So as part of her talk, Kate walked the room through a vision exercise. We envisioned 10 years, 2 years, and one year out, then physically stepped into our envisioned life 2 years from now. It was a powerful experience.
Three weeks later, I saw Sheryl Sandberg speak at Dreamforce and received her book for free. I read it through in two sittings. My most important takeaways: You can’t be what you can’t see, and all of us have unconscious biases, despite our best intensions.
I started taking action: I hosted a retreat for long-term career planning based on Kate’sblog, started a lean-in circle, started a newsletter for women in the energy/environment space, spun my events list into a website, and jumped into the startup world. My husband, Scott Lucas, also encouraged me to start a startup. He saw my potential to build something valuable.
I decided to explore the tech world because any company has a tech component – a marketplace, some data component – but also because tech is where entrepreneurship is happening. I attended a Women 2.0 event where Janice Fraser shared her insights on being a startup founder and it lit a fire in me. In June, I participated in a Startup Weekend, where 100 people come together to start companies over the weekend – and learned my way around technical people. On Friday night of the weekend, about a third of the participants pitch ideas to the group, then people form teams around ideas and complete a minimum viable product by Saturday.
I signed up for the weekend just so I could learn and observe. I also thought it would be a good idea to pitch an idea just to get the experience. I thought of an idea the Wednesday before the event, and pitched it on Friday night. Five people wanted to join my team! I had two back-end developers, one front-end unicorn (they’re excellent at quite a few things), and two business people join me in building Connectomatic for the weekend. Connectomatic is an annotated LinkedIn. I could instantly add notes about the people I met — like that they had an Etsy store — and set reminders to contact them.
We created a minimum viable product, and I pitched for five minutes in front of a crowd of 100 people. People came up after I pitched and said how they would use Connectomatic. In two days, I shared my idea and complete strangers built a live prototype! The experience was empowering. It proved that amazing things happen when you voice your ideas and opinions with others: others respond!
The winding path to change
In July, I planned a solar happy hour with WCS, and met Daniel – who would become my co-founder. We stayed in touch because he plans and attends cleantech events.
In August, I signed up for a one-day prototyping hackathon and invited my newsletter subscribers to attend with me. Daniel responded. We build Keen Casa, a mint.com for home appliances that encourages energy efficient upgrades. We were in the top 5 out of 40 groups! Most important, we leaned that we worked really well together.
As I was exploring leaning in and tech, I took a job as a Business Development analyst at a utility-scale wind company in February and was laid off August 1st. It was demoralizing and scary. I had six figures of student loans, my husband earned just above minimum wage as a magazine editor, and we needed to pay our San Francisco rent. Unemployment was my greatest fear, because I grew up in metro-Detroit and knew what unemployment could do to a family.
Luckily, I had refinanced my student loans with SoFi, so I was able to take advantage of their career services. I had weekly phone calls with Bob Park, a career coach, and he kept my spirits up and kept me on track to find a job.
My financial anxieties remained mostly under control because unemployment checks began to arrive. I applied for Covered California, and my husband and I had health insurance for $1/month. The social safety net works.
I interviewed with a solar company though a WCS connection, but things stalled. A wall in my studio apartment was covered with post-it notes with company names, roles, and connections. Each day I had coffee and lunch meetings with two or three people.
Becoming a CEO
After the hackathon in August, I thought it would be good to meet up again with Daniel and hear more about the startup he was working on, UtilityAPI. Our mid-September meeting at the SfunCube, the solar startup incubator where UtilityAPI is located, turned out to be more of an interview. Daniel asked me to be co-founder and CEO. I said yes!
It was one year to the day since Kate Purmal’s talk. The same day, the solar company called me at home and asked me to join their team. But I couldn’t imagine working for another company now that I had the chance to be CEO.
Since I became CEO, Daniel and I have raised six figures from Better Ventures, been on stage in front of 1,700 people at Y Combinator’s Startup School, tested our beta product with customers, built a robust customer pipeline, and hired a software engineer.
I went from needing a job to being a job creator in five months. Daniel and I are paying ourselves a modest salary from the money we raised, not to mention paying our software engineer a competitive Bay Area salary.
Had I always wanted to be a CEO and leader? Kind of. Growing up, I was always off doing my own thing and making my own path forward. I knew that it was difficult for me to operate in organizations that were constrained by their own structural limitations. I always knew I could lead a company, but working from the bottom rung to the top would take a long time — so instead, I started from the top. This is only the beginning, and I have a lot to learn, but the best way to learn is by doing.
Small actions add up to a fulfilled life
My journey over the past year has been one small action after another – small actions that accumulated into a new and fulfilled life. When I’m on the bus home after a long day of customers, investors, advisors, and networking, I am overwhelmingly grateful for my life and the dream that I’m living: I’m so happy I get teary-eyed.
My newsletter started with 20 of my friends in energy, then it grew and morphed. I started my events list because I wished I had a go-to list of events to attend when I first moved to the area. I tried something and I tweaked it based on feedback. Now I have 155 subscribers, and more than 60 people read my newsletter on a weekly basis.
My advice to others who are thinking about a startup someday? Start attending events and meeting interesting people. If you continue to do the same things you’ve always done, and expect things to change for the better, that’s insanity. If not now, when? If not you, who? Take action. Start small and watch it grow.
Many people supported and encouraged me along my path, most important, my husband. I couldn’t have done this without his support and love. Other people who supported me include Virginia Klausmeier, Julia Prochnik, Barbara Tyler, and my in-laws, Don and Vicki Lucas. Seth Familian and Matt Levene also helped introduce me to the tech scene. Also, thank you to Daniel Roesler, my co-founder, who took a big risk on me and saw my potential.
Elena Lucas is co-founder and CEO of UtilityAPI, a SaaS company that automatically and instantly collects utility customer bill and usage data for the new energy economy.Elena has leveraged her extensive connections in the solar industry to get the UtilityAPI service into the hands of some of the top solar companies. She has utility finance experience and is on the board of Women in Cleantech and Sustainability. Prior experience includes utility scale wind development, research on EV charging station adoption, and policy analysis of Net Energy Metering. She holds a Master’s of International Economics with a focus on econometrics and energy policy from UC San Diego and her Bachelors from Loyola Chicago. She also curates a website and newsletter of all the energy, tech, and career development events in the Bay Area,ElenaLucas.co. She is from metro-Detroit, earned her Girl Scout Gold Award, and paints abstract landscapes.
Posted by Guest Contributor
By Rachel Barron
This article originally appeared on SolarEnergy.net, and is reprinted with permission.
It’s no secret that California is king when it comes to the U.S. solar industry. The state leads the country by housing about half of the nation’s total installed solar capacity, according to the latest data from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
Even with $7.1 billion spent in California to install solar in 2013, according to the SEIA, and more expected to have been spent in 2014, the golden state’s solar industry is still vulnerable to be toppled from its ruling position.
Concern that the Golden State’s solar industry could weaken is heavily rooted in the murky future of solar policy. Key California solar policies that helped drive the adoption of the technology are expected to sunset in the next few years, and uncertainty looms over whether the federal government will renew the 30 percent solar Investment Tax Credit for residential consumers, which is slated to expire at the end of 2016.
Looking to ensure that the California solar industry is in a position to defend itself from its adversaries, and help pro-solar policies continue to flourish is Bernadette Del Chiaro, the executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association(CALSEIA).
Del Chiaro was hired by CALSEIA in July of 2013. When she took the job, the association, which was incorporated in 1978, had roughly 100 members and one full-time staff member. The association’s budget the year before Del Chiaro came on was about $450,000.
Since Del Chiaro has taken the helm, she has helped CALSEIA build up its arsenal. Under her leadership, the association has doubled its membership, and increased its budget to about $700,000 for its current fiscal year. Del Chiaro is also looking to hire its fifth staff member early this year, and expects CALSEIA’s 2015 budget to reach about $850,000.
Del Chiaro says she is passionate about protecting the environment. She also has an intense competitive streak. “I really like winning,” she said. Del Chiaro has taken these two attributes and poured them into her career of working in public policy to help pass green laws and regulations.
While serving as energy program director for Environment California, Del Chiaro was the primary architect for SB 1, more commonly known as the Million Solar Roofs initiative. Signed into law in 2006, the legislation created a mandate to put 3,000 megawatts of solar on California roofs by the end of 2016.
Del Chiaro’s other triumphs include playing a lead role in getting passed into law AB 32, also known as the Global Warming Act Solutions, which requires California to sharply cut carbon-dioxide and other climate-changing emissions by 2020.
SolarEnergy.net spoke with Del Chiaro about the state of the California solar market, and how CALSEIA is working to build up its position of influence to address the needs of the nation’s largest solar market.
What challenges has CALSEIA had to overcome in the race to stay on par with California’s growing solar markets?
There has been some interesting history in California. The Million Solar Roofs initiative was created in 2006, and suddenly $3.2 billion dollars was available for the solar industry that had previously existed largely off of fumes from the 1980s boom. This created whole new markets that didn’t exist before. I think there were some clashes, and a lot of mistrust between the different market segments in the solar industry. People are now realizing that we’re in this together. It’s us versus, in many respects, the utilities. We really need to work together to build the political power necessary to win.
Why do you think utilities are one of solar’s greatest adversaries, and what type of opposition are you anticipating from them in the coming year?
Solar really doesn’t have much natural opposition other than from the utilities that are threatened. [Utilities’] business model is threatened by self-generation. I anticipate more of the same from the utilities, of claiming that solar is expensive, that it is a burden on electricity ratepayers. I expect them to continue to try to drum up opposition from minority and low-income communities, something that they have tried to do, and have failed repeatedly. I think those kind of antics will continue.
How are you positioning CALSEIA to stay ahead in regards to utility pushback?
A key policy that is up in the hands of policy makers right now is the future of net metering. Net metering is the ability of the consumer to generate their own electricity, and get fair and adequate compensation for their electricity that they generate on their own roof. This is something that utilities are launching multi-state attacks against, and California is not an exception to that. CALSEIA is working right now at the public utilities commission to make sure that the future of net metering in California stays strong, and in fact gets stronger than what we’ve seen.
With so many of California’s solar policies set to end, as well as the uncertainty regarding the renewal of the ITC, are you concerned that California’s solar industry will face hard times, similar to European countries, such as Germany and Spain, who had to adjust or eliminate incentive programs due to major spikes in activity?
This is an important distinction, and I’m speaking about California only, unlike Europe we have put in place policies that have allowed the industry to grow as subsidies have declined. As a result, we have a really solid foundation upon which to build. Furthermore, we’re not as dependent on a single policy, like say Germany was. The entire German market was built around the feed-in-tariff. In California we have a much more diverse set of policies.
That said it doesn’t belittle the fact that net metering and the federal tax credit are really critical to continued growth. If California got it wrong on net metering, or if the federal government refuses to extend the ITC, then California really could see a dramatic drop in the affordability and the amount of solar starting in 2017. That’s a very legitimate, very real threat. We aren’t going to go down to zero, or down to nothing, but there will be a considerable bust if policymakers allow that to happen.
What initiatives are on CALSEIA’s agenda in 2015 to help the California solar industry stay on a smooth path of growth?
Our three biggest, specific initiatives are fighting to protect, and in fact expand net metering at the public utilities commission. Fighting to get bipartisan support for the extension of the federal tax credit from California’s congressional delegation. We are also continuing to streamline permitting at the local level.
In September, California signed into law a mandate calling for cities and counties to streamline the permitting process for residential rooftop solar systems? Why is CALSEIA continuing to keep permitting among its top priorities?
In California, some of our most heavy solar markets permitting offices at the local level, the building departments, are processing 100 to 200 permits a week. That’s likely to double. Are they going to be ready for that, or, is there going to be such a backlog? Just the pure bureaucracy of managing the permitting process will cause problems throughout the entire construction industry frankly. CALSEIA is working right now in California with our building departments up and down the state to make sure they adopt the streamlined permitting practices that are going to enable them to handle and process this rush of permits. For those who don’t, it’s going to be a real problem.
By hiring you, do you think CALSEIA is making a statement that the organization is gearing up to heavily invest in influencing solar policy?
I think there is a general recognition among the industry that they need to make a bigger investment in public policy. Public policy involves a lot of organizing and a lot of hard work, and that’s clearly what I bring to the table.
I’ve been at this for almost 20 years now. I think there is a recipe for success, and we will keep focusing it on solar. There is so much potential for the California Solar Energy Industries Association to carry a bigger stick and get things done. We’ve only scratched the surface. By getting ourselves organized, putting our money into what matters — which is policy — and influencing politics we can get there. We can achieve our wildest dreams.
Photo credits: CALSEIA, Solar San Diego (Flickr), MJMonty (Flickr).
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