I counted―out of 450 solar contracting companies on our 2018 Top Solar Contractors list, only 24 have women listed as CEOs. That isn’t to say women don’t hold other executive roles or make up other staff, but it does say something about the need for diversity in the solar industry. According to the 2017 Solar Jobs Census from The Solar Foundation, women make up just 27% of the solar workforce.
Working on an almost entirely woman-led team at Solar Power World, I wanted to hear why other women got into solar and and how we can encourage more to get involved.
Before becoming COO, Tanya Strickford grew up through the ranks of SunPower by Positive Energy Solar (No. 204 on the 2018 Top Solar Contractors list), progressing from a field installer to crew lead, crew manager and operations manager. She loves working in solar and being part of a diverse group of people at the table, all working to solve problems that will impact the future. Strickford wants to bring her peers to the industry by leading through example.
“I don’t think the power of this can be overestimated,” she said. “Women applicants see themselves represented and likely feel more motivated and welcomed. As a company, we’ve hosted Women In Solar Energy (WISE) events to introduce women to the vast opportunities within the industry and show a familiar face. Positive Energy Solar has also had a strong commitment to our community, supporting STEM education throughout New Mexico and encouraging women to get involved.”
Ivy Gilbert was asked to help a solar start-up when she worked as a business consultant and ended up acquiring it and becoming CEO of IQ Power (No. 296 on the 2018 Top Solar Contractors list). Her passion grew as she discovered the possibilities that solar offered. Gilbert said it’s important to allow others to try something new and maybe discover their passion for solar too. So she didn’t waste any time when a marketer showed interest in transitioning to installation.
“We immediately set her up for training with our installation and service department where she went on installs and service calls until she was competent enough to handle service calls alone,” she said. “She enjoyed the work.” There’s a job on the roof for anyone with a passion and good work ethic.
Kristin Underwood, co-owner of Planet Earth Solar (No. 281 on the 2018 Top Solar Contractors list), was working for the EPA when she realized she couldn’t work behind a desk for the rest of her life. She likes that solar allows her to be outdoors and physically see what she has accomplished each day. She encourages companies to hire and mentor a diverse workforce.
“Men and women come at problems differently and by having other viewpoints and perspectives, you give your company an advantage by having more solutions to all the challenges that can come up in a typical day,” she said. “But just hiring women is not enough. I would encourage company leaders to also look out for them and encourage and mentor them. This industry can be hard on women, so women in solar need both women and men to champion their success.”
Katharine Kent, president of The Solar Store (No. 344 on the 2018 Top Solar Contractors list), helped start the business 20 years ago, then eventually bought the company and became the sole owner. She also studied nuclear and energy engineering and encourages her peers to enter STEM industries.
“Women in general should consider STEM industries. There are great paths to professional and personal development,” she said. “Solar is important work for the future and it feels good at the end of the day knowing your efforts are reducing the carbon footprint of our customers.”
Kathy Miller worked in corporate America, founded several preschools and even flipped houses before cofounding Yes Solar Solutions (No. 238 on the 2018 Top Solar Contractors list). She loves working in customer-owned solar because she gets to see the difference it makes in people’s lives and businesses. Miller tries to share that passion with her interns, while giving them real-world experience in solar. She advises companies to look past the gender and color of applicants and think about building a successful team first.
“Don’t sell yourself short by ignoring the opportunity to create a better team by considering more than the gender or color of an applicant,” she said. If I get a good resume, I interview that person even if we have no openings.”
Galina Kofchock had a drafting background from college, so when she opened Osceola Energy (No. 240 on the 2018 Top Solar Contractors list), she took on all the proposals, designs, permitting, financing, bookkeeping, payroll and other clerical tasks. This in-depth knowledge of the business has helped her become a successful CFO. She said she would love to see more diverse installers in the field.
“Entry-level field jobs usually pay more than entry-level office jobs so it is a fantastic way to provide for a family,” she said. “Women can offer a unique perspective to the work and usually pick up on different aspects of an installation that another male installer may overlook. I think this type of work is very empowering and I would really like to see more women give it a chance.”
Sheryl Lane found solar by accident. When her boyfriend at the time was let go from his solar installation job, she paired her entrepreneurial and marketing experience with his contractor’s license and started Earth Electric (No. 388 on the 2018 Top Solar Contractors list). She brings a holistic attitude to her work every day and to the solar industry as a whole.
“I see women as the ones asking the tough questions and the ones who consider our planet above ROI and the bottom line,” she said. “That’s the real minority in this industry. I think we could use more solar goddesses―yes, that’s the title on my business card.”
This commentary piece was featured exclusively in our 2018 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.