Jeanine Cotter, CEO of solar installation company Luminalt, has witnessed profound resiliency. She watched her mother transform her life from divorcée, single teenage mother of two children, and public-assistance recipient to college graduate with a degree in urban planning, and then co-founder of a nonprofit that provides renewable energy and water systems to alleviate poverty in the developing world.
“Being in poverty does not define what your capabilities are. It does not define your ability to perform or your ability succeed,” Cotter said.
What poverty does do, she said, is limit access to opportunities. That’s why Cotter has made it part of her professional work to open up doors for people who might not have thought of solar as source of livelihood, and a way to help their families and communities rise.
Cotter co-founded San Francisco-based Luminalt with her husband Noel Cotter in 2004, making the company the city’s first and still only woman-owned solar company. Before starting Luminalt, she practiced law at Fenwick and West and was an attorney for financial software maker Intuit.
In 2008, Cotter helped lead Luminalt to become the city’s first workforce-development certified solar company, which commits the business to hiring in part from communities that have high levels of unemployment. For Cotter, this means when Luminalt has an entry-level position to fill, she first goes looking for new hires at community-based organizations, like Asian Neighborhood Design, an architecture and planning nonprofit that provides work training to help disadvantaged individuals become self-sufficient.
Although Luminalt has helped charter new hiring efforts in San Francisco, the company is small, at least when compared to industry giants such as SolarCity, which is one of the country’s largest solar installers and has more than 6,000 employees. Luminalt has 23 employees.
Cotter doesn’t let the sheer size of companies like SolarCity shake her. She believes that solar customers need a diverse array of solar installers — both large and small — to choose from in order to keep the industry healthy, which might help explain why Luminalt has continued to see a rise in revenues. Last year Luminalt pulled in $5.5 million, up $1.2 million from the year before.
She also believes the solar industry needs to increase its efforts to diversify the gender and ethnic makeup of its workforce. Women accounted for almost 22 percent of the 2014 workforce, according to the latest research by The Solar Foundation. The foundation also found that Latinos comprised 16.3 percent, Asians or Pacific Islanders represented 7 percent, and African-Americans made up 6 percent of last year’s solar workforce.
In March, the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA) announced that Cotter would co-chair the association’s initiative to help diversify the state’s growing solar workforce and access to the energy-making technology.
When you tap into gender, ethnic and economic diversity, “you are able to access folks that are not necessarily in the competitive workforce. And that means you can access talent that currently isn’t within any solar organization,” according to Cotter.
SolarEnergy.net spoke with Cotter about her drive to find new talent among underrepresented groups, why some companies find it hard to diversify their workforce, and how she is looking to change Luminalt to make sure the company provides stable work for families, which she says is key to diversifying solar.
Why is it important to hire employees from workforce-development programs?
The only way that you can transform the life of a family and of a community is to ensure that there are good jobs. I know from my own life that the only way that you get stability in your household is for the parents in that household to have the skill set necessary to command a wage that enables them to provide for a stable home for their children.
Working families are the backbone of a functioning society. The stronger and more resilient those families are — the less stressed out they are about money, and the more choices those families have about jobs and security — the better we are as a society.
Your mother has been an important figure in your life. How has her experience as a young struggling mother who rose above the odds influenced the way you run your business?
If it wasn’t for programs that extended opportunities to me, I would not be sitting where I am. It’s not that I didn’t work hard. I worked hard. It’s just that if predictive demographics determined my mother’s and my life I would be a single mother on public assistance.
Now my mother is remarried to a very wonderful man, and they have gone on and done amazing things. One of those amazing things is that they started the nonprofit Green Empowerment, which has a mission of social justice, environmental justice and economic justice. It is the same mission that has inspired aspects of my company except in an urban environment.
Are there challenges that come with hiring from workforce-development programs?
Yes. We have underinvested in the inner city and in rural America. We have underinvested in the education of communities of color and poor white communities, and that carries through in terms of some of the skill sets that folks bring to the workplace. But that doesn’t mean that given the opportunity to build those skill sets and perform that you aren’t going to have an amazing performer.
Some solar companies have been vocal about wanting to diversify their workforce but have struggled to do so. Why do you think that is?
It is a struggle for all of us in part because we’re not always getting resumes that reflect the depth and the diversity of our communities. We’re often getting resumes from folks interested in solar that are very similar to the existing workforce.
How do you think your work with CALSEIA to diversify the solar industry will help companies tap into new talent pools?
One of the reasons why I’m super excited by CALSEIA, as well as why I’m super excited about organizations like Women in Solar Energy and Grid Alternatives that push for women and also for disadvantaged communities to get into solar, is that it gives a platform and a megaphone to say, “People hey, look at solar. Apply for these jobs.” That helps expand the pool of individuals who are working in solar.
What’s CALSEIA’s plan to further diversify the solar workforce and marketplace?
We know where we want to go, which is a more diverse workforce and a more diverse market, but we do not have a specific launch plan that is detailed and ready to go.
We are still working on expanding the table right now so that we have who we need to build inclusion of different viewpoints so we can drive both of those objectives, both being the workforce objective and the market aspect.
Providing stable work for families is a theme that underlies much of your work to diversify the solar industry. With so much uncertainty surrounding whether the federal solar tax credit — which is a huge driver of solar sales — will expire at the end of 2016, how are you preparing Luminalt for a future that could mean industry retraction and layoffs?
I see us getting more involved in the operations and maintenance of existing systems. A lot of folks moved into the solar industry and then hopped out over the course of the last several years. So we get a lot of calls for troubleshooting systems that were installed by folks who aren’t around anymore. This is good work and it requires an incredibly talented workforce of people that really need to understand how solar works and how it is installed, because troubleshooting requires a different skill set. Also, it’s critical to keep all of the systems that the solar industry has installed up and running and doing what they were intended to do.
Ensuring that Luminalt is relevant, that we are doing really good work, and that we are expanding in a responsible way to ensure that my colleagues and I continue to have our weekly paychecks beginning in 2017 is something I am working hard on. We never had layoffs, and it’s important to me that we don’t.