Sarah Gaddis and Jodi White work at BayWa r.e. Solar Systems, a Solar PV organization dedicated to supporting local, independent installers by offering only a select group of top-quality products. Sarah and Jodi spoke with us about their roles at BayWa r.e., their experience in the industry and their recent benchmark of becoming a 55% female operated company.
Jodi White is the Co-Founder and CFO of BayWa r.e.
Sarah Gaddis is the Regional Sales Manager, Northeast at BayWa r.e.
Tell us your story… how did you get involved in the solar industry?
Sarah Gaddis: I came to the solar industry after several years in the broader environmental industry, starting with working in development at two nonprofits. After two years in grad school, I came to the energy world by working at a nonprofit that focused on energy efficiency in New York City’s low income housing stock. Since then, I’ve been committed to the renewable energy industry – first cutting my teeth at an innovative startup in the small wind industry and now at BayWa r.e. Solar Systems, a pure-play solar distributor dedicated to supporting local, independent installers. My current role holds the prestigious title of Regional Sales Manager, Northeast. While technically a sales position, the Sales Managers at BayWa r.e. act more like consultants than salespersons to our customers. In this very competitive market, we do everything in our power to help them compete by providing them with best-in-class products, financing options, and the logistical support that they need when they need it.
Jodi White: I took my first job in the Solar industry 12 years ago as a Finance Manger with Dankoff Solar Products, a solar distribution company in Santa Fe, NM. When I took the position I was in the middle of a masters of accounting program at UNM, with 3 kids under the age of 7. It was exhausting juggling school, work, and family but I was passionate about renewable energy as well as running a good business and am so grateful that I did it. In 2005 Dankoff Solar was purchased by Conergy. I worked at Conergy as Finance Manager until 2008 when I left to co-found Focused Energy and serve as the CFO. Focused Energy was acquired by BayWa r.e. in 2011 and renamed BayWa r.e. Solar Systems in 2015. I am still CFO of BayWa r.e. Solar Systems today.
What does a day look like for you at BayWa r.e.?
Sarah Gaddis: My day usually depends on whether I am on the road visiting with customers or in the office on the phone/computer. On the road, the days are a bit longer. I schedule myself that way because I always want to leave a buffer for meetings to go as long as they might. I recently had a 3 hour lunch with a customer in Virginia! Between meetings, (but not while driving!), I’ll make calls and send emails usually popping into a coffee shop to do so. In the office, my day starts by catching up on emails/calls that I might have missed overnight. In general, I’ve found that solar installers tend to be early birds getting a jump on the day so I’m normally busiest in the morning – emailing and on the phone with customers. These conversations can take a variety of shapes and sizes: sometimes just a simple quote request for an upcoming project, sometimes light design consulting for a project, other times questions about a new product we may have or are expected to have soon – we offer more than just a price list for customers, which is my favorite part of the job and the real value-add of working with and for BayWa r.e. Solar Systems.
Jodi White: We strive to give local installers access to the resources usually reserved for larger companies, and local employees the opportunities they typically find in bigger cities. We want to support and enable our partners to be the best that they can be. We believe we can do this through collaboration and innovation rather than just throwing money at trying to solve their challenges. Therefore, my role in the company is to build and maintain a really strong culture of continual improvement, engagement, and collaboration. What does this mean for me on a daily basis? Lots of honest, constructive, confrontation, I am trying to educate and empower people to solve problems effectively. One of my favorite saying is “get better at life everyday.”
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Sarah Gaddis: Perfect segway! My favorite part about my job is the in-depth conversations that I get to have with customers. While the lion’s share of my conversations are about the solar industry, we’ll occasionally go off-topic about our own lives. I really enjoy building relationships with my customers, hearing about their successes and where they are struggling. With that information, I am better equipped to help them succeed. And learning. This industry is changing so quickly that as soon as I think I fully understand something, there is something new to learn or wrap my head around.
Jodi White: It is a difficult experience to explain, but a handful of times a year, when a group of employees comes together to share ideas and knowledge to solve a collective problem there is a level of creativity and cooperation that inspires me and gives me hope that diverse communities can solve large complex problems. It makes me proud that our culture encourages this type of work and that our employees rise to the occasion. It’s also super fun to participate in.
What is one industry project that you’re really excited about? This can be one you’re personally overseeing, or one you’ve simply heard about.
Sarah Gaddis: Oh wow – so many! My instinct is the solar roadways. I know this “project” is a controversial one as to whether it could work in the real world and be scalable, but that would be an amazing breakthrough – for all the obvious reasons.
Jodi White: I am most inspired by the organizations that are bringing solar power to remote areas of the world for the benefit of rural women and girls. Big solar projects and new technology are impressive, but I believe the education and support of women and girls around the world is the most powerful form of change we can support.
BayWa r.e. recently reached the 55% female employee milestone. Tell us about that process and why workforce gender diversity is/was such a big priority for your organization.
Sarah Gaddis: Coming from the small wind industry, I was used to an even larger discrepancy in the female:male ratio. It was very apparent, which made it a constant uphill battle as a female. In the most literal way, because one wasn’t used to seeing women in the industry meant that we were constantly trying to prove that we knew what we were talking about. WOWE (Women of Wind Energy) is doing excellent work in trying to help women feel confident within their companies and in the industry. I met many women who were the only females working for their company – like me at the time. BayWa r.e. is really focused on workforce gender diversity from the executive level, both internally and externally as we try to set an example for the industry at large.
Jodi White: Diversity in the workplace is really about allowing the company to innovate faster. It is pretty simple- the more diverse your workforce, the more perspectives you have during collaboration. The Solar Industry has always changed rapidly and to stay at the top of your game you need to be flexible and adaptable. This takes diversity of opinions. The next priority for our organization is in improving our gender diversity within management positions. This is a problem in all industries and we want to support, train, and mentor the women in our company to become accomplished business leaders wherever they go.
What else is BayWa r.e. doing right now to get more women in the industry?
Sarah Gaddis: A few months ago we started a group focused on this topic. We’ve been meeting once a month so far and have a dedicated Slack (internal messaging platform) channel to constantly be brainstorming and sharing ideas/stories. While I’m based in Brooklyn, our headquarters is located in Santa Fe, NM. There we are in conversations with local schools and workforce training groups about volunteer and mentoring opportunities. Generally, we think there is a lot of leading by example to be done. There are so many strong women in this industry and I’m just starting to get to meet them all. WISE (Women in Solar Energy) does an excellent job connecting these women and making sure our voices are heard at industry events, which is so important.
Jodi White: We just started a monthly WISE meeting internally to support our current employees and to reach out to our local community. The Santa Fe Community College has a Solar Energy Certificate program and we are forming a mentorship program for its women students. Our group also intends to raise awareness and educate our employees about the micro-inequities surrounding gender that impact our lives. We hope that this work will keep the bright capable women working in the solar industry, as well as get them to join.
Any mentors or companies who have helped you grow professionally? Were there any key learning or a-ha! moments you wish to share?
Sarah Gaddis: When I joined BayWa r.e. Solar Systems I was no stranger to the renewable energy industry, but I was very new to solar. The past 4.5 months have been a crash course in the industry, both in learning the technology, but also the current and past solar state of affairs. I’m learning every day from my incredibly knowledgeable colleagues and my customers that have been doing this for years and years – I couldn’t single out a specific person! A key learning moment was when I went on a customer visit in North Carolina to the site of a residential install. Asked if I wanted to go on the roof to experience what it’s like to install flashing, I respond with a quick “Yes!” I switched into my sneakers, borrowed a hat, and before I knew it had a power tool in my hand 30 feet off the ground. No better way to learn than by doing!
Jodi White: I am fortunate to have exceedingly wonderful supportive people in my life. My husband and children have given me the space and latitude to do what I love and I have found a family of individuals at our company who have as much fun as I do working, and who motivate me to “get better at life everyday.” There is another saying I have taken a fancy to this last year: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This succinctly sums up the lessons I have learned in transitioning from a young startup company to a mature stable company driven by happy, engaged employees and customers. I am a fiercely independent woman and relying on and trusting others has been challenging for me. My a-ha! moment? Discovering that when you listen to, empower and support a group of people they will in turn make good decisions, teach and support others and accomplish ten fold what one individual can.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
Sarah Gaddis: When I’m not working, I’m normally outside. Rock climbing, biking, hiking, surfing, and cross country skiing are favorite hobbies of mine. I’m also very into music – I like to hear new music and see live performances as often as possible.
Jodi White: Currently I am training for a 1,000 mile bike trip in September. My husband and I are taking our oldest son to the UK to do the LEJOG (Lands End to John o’ Groats). Trying to keep up with an 18 year old is humbling but fun, and is taking up all my spare time. I have recently started playing in a curling league, which is great fun and I recommend it for everyone, not just for Northerners!
Favorite solar resources that you use to stay up-to-date with what’s happening in the industry?
Sarah Gaddis: Every morning, I get the SolarWakeup emails and every night I get the CleanTechnica top stories of the day. We also have a dedicated internal Slack channel called our “reading list” where anyone at the company can post a story that they found interesting. I regularly check that feed.
Jodi White: There are so many to choose from now it is really hard to keep up with all the latest news. Since my time is limited I prefer GreenTech Media to keep me informed.
Sarah, before you joined the BayWa r.e. team, you worked in several different industries, but most recently with United Wind. How is the solar industry different from the others you’ve worked in? The solar industry is a really exciting space – there are so many moving parts and no company, state, roof, or inverter is the same. I can see and feel the momentum of the industry every day. It is thrilling to be a part of it.
Jodi, What would you say is the biggest change/shift you’ve seen in the solar/renewable energy industry over the past decade? The idea that installing solar is now a financial decision not an environmental decision is a significant shift over the last decade. This is great for the industry as a whole as the market matures. However I still believe that energy conservation is good for the long term health of our planet and would love to see the average American decrease energy consumption with smart home technology.
Sarah, you are relatively new to the organization… what is your favorite thing about this company thus far? I know it’s a bit cheesy, but this company really feels like a family. Being not only new to BayWa r.e., but also new to the industry, my colleagues have been very helpful and supportive every step of the way. We are all very busy, but never too busy for each other or for our customers (extended family!). On the same hand, there is a level of transparency and honesty within the organization that starts at the top and creates a safe space for the employees. I think that we all feel empowered to speak our minds, share ideas, and talk through concerns without consequence. It is very refreshing.
Jodi, what was the process of beginning your own energy business like? What is one key piece of advice you would give to someone interested in doing so?The process was like planning an elaborate fancy dinner, full of tiny details, long lists, anticipation, worry, excitement, imagination, creativity, overreactions, indecisions, and lots of celebrations. It is really too hard to give one piece of advice; there is so much I have learned.
First, I would tell everyone “go for it.”
Many women have great ideas and they hold themselves back because they are afraid of failing. It is not easy, but it is also great fun and liberating and no matter what happens, you will have learned a ton… After you decide to start your business the most important thing you can do is to make a commitment to honest and clear communication with yourself, your partners and your employees. So much frustration and disappointment can be avoided if we were all truly honest, while being kind and compassionate. Again, this is not easy, but it has been the most important lesson I have learned.
Thank you, Sarah and Jodi!
- Learn more about BayWa r.e.
- Attend SolarWorld Installer Summit in Portland, OR
FREE Summit Attendance for HeatSpring Users | Click Here to Register
Enter PROMO CODE: HEATSPRING
- Learn more about women in solar via RenewableEnergyWorld.com(the exclusive media sponsor of this summer series!)
- Check out the National Women in Solar Initiative webcast series hosted by GRID Alternatives and SunEdison
- Free Tool: 2015 Solar Startup Guide by Chris Williams
- Join Women in Solar Energy (WISE)
- Use our Free Solar Comparison Tool when comparing solar proposals for homeowners
- Free Course: Solar PV Design, Code, Economics, Sales and Site Visits with Chris Williams, Christopher LaForge, Ryan Mayfield
- HeatSpring Course: Solar PV Installer Bootcamp Training + NABCEP Entry Level Exam Prep with Fred Paris
- Learn the financial modeling background and perspective often lacking in deal negotiations by taking our Solar Executive MBA Training Course with Keith Cronin and Chris Lord
- Free Course: How to Use Solar Leases to Grow Your Solar Business with Chris Williams