Our third Solar Women Summer Series interview (powered by RenewableEnergyWorld.com) features Pamela Cargill, Principal at Chaolysti, a strategic consulting firm that helps residential solar installers operate more effectively. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chaolysti aims to massively scale the deployment of residential solar by deploying programs and strategies that aggressively lower “soft costs”—the non-hardware costs of installing solar energy.
- You don’t have to know everything about the technical side of the solar industry to enter. A good foundation of science-based skills (reasoning, statistics/analysis) and business acumen makes it easier to transfer in.
- Want to become more knowledgeable about what’s happening in the industry? Start reading the solar news daily or weekly through the SolarWakeup or other solar news outlets to build an understanding of the market dynamics, policies, and competitive landscape.
- Cost structures will continue to fall for solar and solar PV systems will become integrated more closely with storage or other demand management infrastructure.
- Delivering what you promise is one of the most critical success factors for starting your own solar business. Don’t over-commit yourself.
Q – Tell us your story – how’d you get into this industry?
I had grown up in the suburbs and was very hungry to learn more about how other people lived all over the world. I attended Hampshire College, where I was able to fully design my own program of study with the oversight of a board of staff and faculty members. It’s a great model for entrepreneurial eduction. I became interested in off-grid solar and homesteading during an introduction to sustainability course. Solar PV was still a cottage industry at the time- a lot of tie dyes and sandals. But I was interested in the transformational power of the technology to help people live better lives in a low-impact manner. By the time I graduated I had designed, sourced, and installed several stand alone PV systems. This would become the portfolio that helped me land my first job in solar a few years later as employee #2 of Kosmo Solar, which I helped scale up into one of the largest installers in New England over the course of several years, Alteris Renewables.
Q – In your opinion, what have been the biggest barriers preventing women from joining the world of solar professionally?
Women put a lot of barriers in their own ways. Some of this has been socialized through studies and books like The Confidence Code and Lean In. Several years ago, Hewlett-Packard’s HR department was trying to figure out how to get more women into top management positions. Women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. We need to work on ways to close that gap. Along those same lines, a lot of women perceive that they have to know a lot about the technical side of the industry to even set their foot in the door for any position. A good foundation of science-based skills (reasoning, statistics/analysis) and business acumen makes it easier to transfer in. Also, most of the high profile personalities in the industry are men, especially in senior leadership roles, so it can make it hard to see yourself there as a woman or person of color.
Q – How can the women who have taken or are planning to take HeatSpring solar courses become more involved within the solar industry?
I think strategically using continuing education to fill specific gaps or learn how to re-apply skills is smart. Use the opportunity in these classes to network with your peers and instructors. Look them up and connect on LinkedIn with a purpose. Start reading the solar news daily or weekly through the SolarWakeup or other solar news outlets to build an understanding of the market dynamics, policies, and competitive landscape. This will help you build an understanding of the opportunity landscape and how specific experiences you have had, especially in other industries, can help solve real problems in the solar industry.
Q – What are 3 ways for solar companies to lower soft costs?
I promote a three-pronged strategy for lowering soft costs. I don’t necessarily believe there are specific universal products or services that will work successfully for every company because our markets are so fragmented. Instead, I suggest holistic ways business owners can approach solving the problem.
- People: consider how you orient human resources like employees, subcontractors, and other outsource options so people are as fully utilized as possible. This helps keep overhead (OpEx) controlled.
- Process: Simplify offerings – having fewer options means it’s easier and less expensive to manage the process and tools is takes to sell, design, and install. This helps manage variability in your cost of goods sold (COGS).
- Tools: Choose and implement the use of software and hardware tools to best support a streamlined personnel strategy and process.
Q – Do you have any tips for women looking to forge a career/change paths toward solar energy?
Reach out and ask for help both locally at solar, sustainability, or “green” groups and online. Mentorship isn’t always achieved through a formal and structured program, but seek out those programs as well. Build a network and alliances in the solar space to get the support and advice you need. And remember, men should be part of that network, too. They can work as allies within organizations to help advocate for the advancement of women. Groups like Women in Solar Energy (WISE) and efforts like GRID Alternatives’ Women’s Initiative are both great channels where you can network, get educated, and/or get involved. (Pam is involved in developing the mentorship program for WISE)
Q – What does the future of solar look like?
Look to Australia and Hawaii for signs. The entire energy delivery system is changing. Cost structures will continue to fall for solar and solar PV systems will become integrated more closely with storage or other demand management infrastructure. It’s going to continue to become less of a premium and customized boutique business and more of an add-on to traditional trade work like roofing, HVAC, electrical, etc.
Q – If a woman wants to start a business in solar, what skills does she need?
It’s an interesting question, because I never considered that I needed specific skills because of my gender to start my own business. But it comes down to business acumen – finance, strategy, management – and self awareness – knowing your gaps and weaknesses and surrounding yourself with a “scaffolding” of people who can complement your skills, advise you, and challenge your assumptions. A lot of women aren’t exposed to activities that help them develop these skills. Develop that understanding of what it takes to get a company off the ground – having a runway of capital to keep yourself afloat while you start, developing a go-to-market strategy, positioning, and calculated risk taking. However, it’s still not always cut and dry. I have felt like I’ve had to prove myself more or sell my background quite a bit. Overall, I have found that delivering what you promise is one of the most critical success factors. Don’t over-commit yourself.
Q – What is one (or more!) solar initiative currently taking place that you’re really excited about?
I’ve been really excited about and pleased with the continued visibility and support for solar startups, software and otherwise, through efforts like SunShot Catalyst, SPI’s Start-up Alley, and the Sfuncube solar-focused business incubator near me in Oakland.
Q – Do you have a free tool/resource/white paper that we could share with the HeatSpring audience?
I did a features/benefits analysis of several solar business platforms for SolarPro magazine in the March/April issue that installers can read to help them decide about software tools that could help them run their business better based on their business model.
ADDITIONAL LEARNING RESOURCES
- Listen up! Cinnamon Solar featured Pamela in this podcast: The Energy Show: Running a Successful Solar Business
- Read Pamela’s SolarPro article “Residential Solar Business Software Platforms“
- Connect with Pamela June 18-21 at the MidWest Renewable Energy Fair
- Learn more about women in solar via RenewableEnergyWorld.com (the exclusive media sponsor of this summer series)
- Join us on July 13th at the Intersolar North America Happy Hourhosted by Women in Cleantech & Sustainability,Solar Marketing Group, Women In Solar Energy and GRID Alternatives.
- We’ll also be at the WISE Intersolar North America breakfast on July 14th!
- Check out the National Women in Solar Initiative webcast series hosted by GRID Alternatives and SunEdison
- Free Course: Basic Solar PV Design, Code, Economics, Sales, and Site Visits
- Free Course: How to Use Solar Leases to Grow Your Solar Business
- Learn the financial modeling background and perspective often lacking in deal negotiations by taking our Solar Executive MBA Training
- Study with Ryan Mayfield, Solar PV Technical Editor at SolarPro, by taking Megawatt Design
- Full Course: Solar PV Installer Boot Camp Training and NABCEP Entry Level Exam Prep