Categorized | Organizations

The Power of Clean, Green and Solar

by Debbi Gardiner McCullough

CEO Lynn Paige strolls down her factory floor and smiles. While the rest of the economy is in turmoil, her Phoenix, AZ-based solar technology company, Perfect Power Inc., thrives. Annual sales of its leading products such as solar cells are steady and growing from $650,000 six years ago to $6.4 million last year and a projected $9 million in sales for 2009. The company is hiring, not firing, and next month moves to a bigger facility. Paige says it was projecting product demand that helped. “Because few anticipated the green building boom, many ran out of merchandise,” she says. “We had enough and now we can’t keep up.”

In Springfield, MD, African-American businesswoman Andrea Frayser owns and runs ANDE, an eco-friendly beauty and skin-care line for minorities. It was a mere side income eight years ago and now generates $80,000 a year. Cassie Walker, an MBA graduate from the University of California at Los Angeles, started Three Elements Consulting LLC because she couldn’t find a meaningful fit for her skills. Now she helps mainstream businesses incorporate green marketing, policies, and start-ups to become profitable. “It’s truly rewarding,” she says.

Paige and the others are part of a growing network of women and minorities thriving in green sector jobs and companies. In its annual report late last year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors projected 750,000 jobs in the green sector, including renewable power and fuels, agriculture, and building retrofitting. The report predicts 2.5 million jobs by 2018. And a January survey of 260 executive recruiters by ExecuNet, a New York-based networking group, says the environmental services/green tech sector will generate the greatest growth in $100,000-level jobs in 2009.

Nobody knows precisely how many women and minorities are included in this, but anecdotally, the numbers are strong. Charlie Szoradi, CEO of GREENandSAVE, a non-profit group, trains people to teach homeowners to be more energy efficient. At his first training session in February, most attendees were Hispanic, and African-American women, he says, ranging from moms, returnee soldiers and recent Cornell University graduates. And executive search firms focusing on social responsibility, such as Bridge Partners LLC in New York, claim that more sustainable companies want women and minority executives to reflect their changing worker and customer demographics.

The Experts Weigh In

Ian Kim directs the Green Collar Jobs Campaign; a program with the Ella Baker Center, an Oakland, CA-based non-profit. He says that much of this growth results from hard work, both advocacy and labor, from employees, company owners, and non-profit groups. Programs such as the Oakland Green Job Corps, for instance, offer a six-month job-training course for poor people of color. The first 40 students (African-American and Latino with a 1:5 ratio of men to women) started last fall, and are training for jobs such as solar installers (roughly $15 per hour), manufacturing jobs making wind turbines, and retrofitting houses to be more energy efficient (about $22 per hour.) On the management and executive level, the Students for Responsible Business group, which promotes sustainable jobs to MBAs, also works to make green appeal to them.

Dr. Vish Krishnan, professor of innovation, technology, and operations at the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego, helps students segue into the green sector through his teaching and work with the new campus-wide sustainability committee. It translates research into products and services students can then commercialize. He compares green-sector jobs and industries to the early Internet days where we saw a more level playing field: “In some parts of the green value chain, nobody has a start-up legacy advantage. Also, traditional ways of networking and leveraging for jobs (i.e. playing golf) aren’t so attractive to green companies, so this evens things out. And because the green movement is supposed to be about being clean, cost-conscious, and socially responsible, company owners are more open to new suppliers and exploring new perhaps smaller vendors, over established ones. For a minority- or women-owned start-up, this offers some great options.”

Where Are The Opportunities?

One day after President Obama signed his stimulus package into law, Green for All, a non-profit group, hosted a phone conference called “Race and Jobs.” The experts felt that ample opportunity existed for Americans of color, especially in manufacturing and renewable energy companies. For MBAs, Kim says the opportunities are endless because every green industry and most green companies within them are thriving. “Anyone who can help foster or prosper this growth is useful,” he says.

Paige sees most renewable energy companies being run by White males, but this is because few women and minorities approach them. Newcomers should be open and not overly attached to one infrastructure or technology, she says, noting, “Solar panels might be hot today and tomorrow it’s fuel cells. Be ready to morph and change.”

Krishnan suggests that experienced MBAs launch their own venture, perhaps a services company first such as distributions or consulting, do careful market research, then build it into a product company. He also sees that often, women decide on green retrofitting at home, and this could make women attractive to these firms in sales, marketing, and customer-support positions. Szordai sees the home efficiency market as promising. The average cost check is $295, so with consultants doing three or four energy checks a week, this generates about $1,000,or $52,000 annually.

Caveats to Breaking In

But others see roadblocks prevailing. Kim sees multiple barriers for minorities without college degrees including some subtle cultural ones. Solar-energy companies remain typically White-male owned, small to medium businesses with 100-200 employees. A White candidate interviewing for a factory job might bond by referencing a recent trip to Lake Tahoe or his favorite vegetarian restaurant, Kim says, while a Black candidate might not. And yet the minority and White candidate would both work well. “This bias still exists, even in a green job interview,” Kim says, adding that the Green Employer Counsel helps counter this by having green companies commit to bringing in a person of color for a three month paid trial. If all goes well, job offers result.

Morris McDonald, president of the African-American Environmentalist Association, a Washington DC non-profit, worries that even with the stimulus package, most green-sector jobs don’t constitute middle-class incomes. He can’t cite even one African-American-owned energy company, and this absence of Black ownership, he thinks, excludes them from the marketplace. He sees burning coal in a cleaner way as a great industry and open to all Americans, and yet environmental groups demonize anyone wanting these other jobs.

Frayser was frustrated that owners of boutiques and spas initially believed that women of color wouldn’t want or couldn’t afford eco-friendly cosmetics and skin care. She feels many ad campaigns by big companies are “White looking, ” and therefore alienating to Blacks, which might deter some from pursuing green jobs. She and her mother countered it by doing direct sales to churches and home parties first, then spas, doctor’s offices, and salons finally caught on. This year, they launched a men’s and baby product line.

Walker believes that with everyone promoting themselves as green, differentiating oneself is now paramount. She made her mark by writing and self-publishing the Green Office Handbook: A Practical Guide for Greening Your Office. This established her as an expert, and led to more consulting work. And competition for renewable energy companies is fierce. When Paige started out, PerfectPower was one of just a handful of companies like it. Last year, 30 new renewable energy firms arrived in the Southwest, many from Europe. In March, another 20 were established.

And yet hope remains, even in this economy. Frayser says that had she listened to nay-sayers rather than her own intuition, she would never have succeeded. Paige acknowledges the competition, but insists that the renewable energy market is going to be a gold rush. “It’s wide open and beautiful,” she says.