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Spotlight on: Andrea Luecke, The Solar FoundationFor the inaugural edition of our newsletter and its "solar spotlight" piece, we sat down with Andrea Luecke, Executive Director and President of The Solar Foundation. Andrea is a veteran to the industry and exhibits the qualities of a Women in Solar leader. In addition to her work at the Solar Foundation, Andrea has served as one of our advisors since our founding. Here’s what she had to say.
How did you get into the solar industry?
I am a lifelong environmentalist, and before I worked in solar, I always thought that conservation, recycling, the ozone layer crisis, deforestation, and recycling were very important issues. I didn’t go to school for science, biology, or conservation; I got a liberal arts degree focusing on international development.
I have always loved to travel, and I used my undergrad degree to see the world. I lived for a year in Ecuador, a year in Mexico, and then I finished my undergrad in the Twin Cities [at the University of Minnesota]. All of my work overseas focused on international development issues: helping rural farmers with natural resources, or keeping rivers clean. Post college I lived in Spain for two years and Morocco for 3. While in Morocco, I worked at a rural women’s cooperative where I helped them market their argan oil while ensuring the endemic and endangered argan trees would be sustained.
I got to do a lot of environmental work when I was younger, but I knew I needed to go back to school to get a master’s degree to take my next step. So, I applied for a Peace Corps fellowship program where they paid for my master’s – which led me to Milwaukee. In exchange for the free education, I worked for the city running the Department of Energy’s Solar America Cities program and Milwaukee Shines, which was my first solar job. At the time, all I knew was that I liked solar because of its environmental and social benefits and thought it made a lot of sense. Plus, I knew I wanted to have solar on my house one day. The learning curve was very steep, but I did well and was exposed to a lot of the front line issues. I managed a multi-million dollar grant and convened dozens of important regional stakeholders. After my grad program ended, I looked for a new opportunity which led me to The Solar Foundation.
Tell us about your job at The Solar Foundation.
The Solar Foundation is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to increase understanding of solar energy through strategic research that educates the public and transforms markets. We’ve been around for over thirty years, but most known for our Solar Jobs Report and economic impact studies, mostly because we have found that people are most interested in solar’s economic benefits – and saving money. Our research provides very tangible, reliable information.
We also sponsor a program to bring solar to K-12 schools through the Brian D. Robertson Memorial Schools Fund. Our goal is to get solar on 20,000 schools by 2020.
What aspects of your job interested you the most?
I love what we do. I love how we study and how we present information. All of the research – and everything that we do – is as objective, unbiased, and credible as possible. And, to boot, we are starting to get some nice recognition.*
I love our organization’s culture. We have a progressive board who believes that employees should be treated well and that people are important. We have also created a very fun and flexible workplace. I look forward to seeing my people every day and think they feel the same way. I drive them hard with deadlines, but I am not concerned if they have to arrive late to work or need to leave early. We are all adults, and we are all responsible. I trust them to get their jobs done, and this has yielded very positive results for us.
We saw that the 2013 National Solar Jobs Census, released on January 27, found some interesting statistics on women and minorities. Can you discuss these new additions to the report?
Women and minorities were tracked for the first time in this report. The data we gathered this year will serve as a baseline, and it won’t be until the next year or the year after that we can fully measure improvements in women and minorities’ presence in the solar workforce.
We found that fewer women are involved in solar than in the national workforce. In the national workforce, women and men are 50-50 in the workplace. In solar, just about one of out of every five workers is a woman. Obviously, there is lots of room for improvement here. Although we do not have any statistically valid research on the progress of the industry (because, as I said, this is our baseline), anecdotally, my impression is that it was closer to 5 or 10% only four years ago.
These numbers are even worse for African Americans, Latin Americans, and Asians, meaning there is even more opportunity for improvement. We hope these findings can serve as a catalyst for how we can make changes in how we hire and how we train. I recently spoke with Reverend Jesse Jackson. His big thing is that solar needs to be more multicultural. He said to me in a booming voice, “Andrea, if you want solar to be mainstream, it’s gotta be multicultural.”
With greater diversity in our industry, we could have greater innovation. Companies with diverse staff are more competitive and have wider margins. This is ultimately cost saving for a company. It’s not just about women in solar; it’s about making solar more accessible to every single person in this country as a consumer or a producer. Solar is universal and benefits all walks of life. While the industry is becoming more diverse, there are things that the industry can do to speed up the process.
Do you have any advice for women starting a career in the solar industry?
My advice would be the same advice that I give to everyone: work hard and network as much as you possibly can. Make friends with people that can help serve as referrals. I don’t buy into gender roles or gender stereotypes and don’t think that women are inherently more instinctual or smarter or that men are better negotiators. We are different but equal. That said, I do believe that women and minority groups need to work harder than their white male counterparts. I know it’s a double standard, but this is my experience. I got into solar through sheer hard work. Sometimes that means working 80 hours a week. I’m not going to say that is a sustainable path forward, but it did work for me.
Hard work, diligence, perseverance, a can-do attitude, passion, and fire will set you apart in this industry. If someone gives you a chance, you’ve got to grab onto it and never let go. Not everyone gets a chance – how do you break in without a chance? It’s tough. Network, get the training, and be willing to grab on and not let go.
How can we help The Solar Foundation?
The Solar Foundation is actively looking to round out its board with a few new people and it is interested in making its board more diverse. People should contact me if they know of someone with deep experiences who can help shape the direction of our growing organization.
You can also support us through a tax deductible donation or through being a volunteer. Volunteers help with our Summer Solstice party, which will take place in D.C. on June 20th this year. We welcome volunteers to serve on our host committee, bring people to our event, and help to raise our profile. We also have a Fellows program. Our Fellows help with all aspects of our operations and get some great experience.
Anything else we should know?
It’s time for the solar industry to be a greater part of the climate discussion. We need to hold a more prominent place in environmental discussions, and we need to elevate the conversation on economic issues. When Obama says solar, we want it to be synonymous with jobs. Solar should be associated with urban revival and economic opportunity. Sure, there’s some policy holding us back, but if we are able to stay focused and united with other clean energy industries, we should be able to ultimately win this rhetorical war.
*Job figures from the most recent Solar Jobs Report were mentioned in the State of the Union as a testament to the solar industry’s tremendous growth.