Elena Lucas is the CEO and Co-Founder of UtilityAPI, an enterprise software company delivering access to energy usage data. Lucas is an active Board Member of Women in Cleantech & Sustainability, a former Pacific Gas and Electric Company Business Finance Analyst and the curator of ElenaLucas.co, an aggregation site featuring Bay Area career development opportunities for women working in “Energy, Environment and Tech.”

How did you become involved in your current career?

My career has taken the shape of a jungle gym, not a corporate ladder. During school, there was no way to know that I would be where I am now. I studied international studies, political science, and economics in undergrad and generally had no idea where or how I could use those skills besides someplace like a political office or the state department. I went to grad school immediately following undergrad because it was 2012 and the recession was in full swing. My second year, I interned at the California Center for Sustainable Energy (now CSE) and rediscovered my love of the environment. I researching electric vehicle charging station installations and leveraged CSE to do several class projects on solar. After graduation, I moved to the Bay Area to be part of the renewable energy industry.

It was my first time entering the full time job market. Now that it’s been a few years, here are my takeaways:

  1. Finding an entry level position in policy or business strategy is very difficult. I wish someone had told me sooner that I should take a role so at least I could start finding the right company environment which I would flourish in.

  2. The first two years of your career are spent finding out what does and doesn’t work for you. Some people are lucky to have clarity in what they want and their skills match what the job market is looking for, but it’s rare.

  3. There is a tension between compensation and the value of work which you provide throughout your career. I needed to work in the private sector at the beginning because I had six figures of student loans (undergrad and grad school) in addition to the cost of living in the Bay Area.

  4. Positive environmental impact can be achieved in many ways, and there are many different types of people and roles.

After an internship at the International Council on Clean Transportation, I took a job as an Associate Business Finance Analyst for Customer Energy Solutions at PG&E. I learned a lot about utilities and about myself in management structures. In February 2014, I took a job at Infinity Wind, then I was looking for something new. I started attending startup events in addition to energy events. I met my co-founder at the Women in Cleantech and Sustainability Intersolar Opening happy hour in July of 2014. We did a hackathon in August, and we went into business together in September. The more complete story is a long one, but check it out here: How I went from Jr Analyst to CEO in One Year.

I’m exactly where I need to be right now. My company’s technology is accelerating the shift to renewable energy and we’re doing our part to address climate change.

What environmental issues are of most concern to you?

Addressing climate change is the environmental issue of most concern for me. Climate change projections for 2050 are well within my lifetime and we need to do something about it now.

What do you think are some challenges and opportunities facing women in the environmental movement today?

The largest challenge and opportunity for women in the environmental movement is thinking big enough. Developing a big vision for the world is scary, but if you don’t, who will? Kate Purmal planted that seed in me and is one of the reasons I am where I am today. Another nugget of knowledge which serves me well is from Leah Busque. She only knew about 2% of what she needed to know to start, grow, and run a business. You’re never going to know everything. You might as well get started now and you’ll learn along the way. Surround yourself with good people who know a lot about the challenges you’re facing. It’s remarkable how much is possible.

Another challenge I see is non-profit vs. for-profit vs. government. Until recently, I thought I had to work in a non-profit in order to have a positive impact on the world, but now I know that’s simply not true.  I feel that I’m able the have the largest positive impact on the world through leading a private company. For me, the processes and politics required in other types of organizations was not a good fit. When I meet other women in the sector, I often hear about how they’re struggling with the mismatch between what they’re looking for and the realities of the organization they’re part of.

What are your suggestions on how to become more involved in your sector and the environmental movement?

  1. Show up. Attend events and have coffee with people. Solar is booming and all the major companies are hiring. Do a project for them, find a way into a company through connections, show them that you’re committed to getting into that company. Start building relationships early and keep your network updated as your career evolves.
  2. Attend events outside your comfort zone. The challenges the solar software industry have been solved before by many tech companies. People often learn the most when new ideas are introduced from left field. Open yourself up to that. Don’t know anyone at an event? Even better. You could very possibly never see those people at the event again, so you might as well say hi and see what they’re up to. Be curious and connect with other curious people.
  3. Don’t underestimate LinkedIn. I met someone a few years back and connected with them on LinkedIn. I never messaged or directly corresponded with them, but they saw my energy related posts on LinkedIn. When I was looking for a job, I reached out and had an interview completely prefaced on my engagement with the energy community on LinkedIn.

UtilityAPI was a finalist for SunShot Catalyst, any advice for those considering SunShot?

SunShot Catalyst is a great opportunity for people with a brand new idea and are starting from square one.

What do you need for UtilityAPI to continue growing?

Scaling. We’re capitalized, so now we need to execute our plan.

Your team works at SfunCube, the first solar incubator and accelerator, what’s it like working in that environment? How has it helped UtilityAPI?

Our experience at the SfunCube has been invaluable. Working alongside other solar software startups is great because your partners and beta testers are sitting next to you.


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