August 29, 2014 Leave a comment
Originally featured on C3E.net blog.
Ten or even five-year career goals have always seemed foreign to me. I graduated from college with a creative writing degree–writing and illustrating children’s books had been my dream–and then prolonged the work search by getting another degree in French culture and civilization from the Sorbonne (who wouldn’t want to live in Paris?). The first job I landed once I moved to Washington, DC, was serving subpoenas for a law firm. Even back then $6 an hour was not a living wage and I found myself making my own suits and not particularly liking lawyers. What to do next? I had worked for the electric utility during college as a technical writer and applied to be an innocuous sounding “service representative”. I would be in a three-year program with a test every six months and would be required to take night classes in engineering. How hard could it be?
Before the end of the three-year program, I was designing transformer and switch vaults with French drains (I knew French!) and sixteen way duct banks. I engineered circuit conversions. I wore a hard hat and carried an equipment bag to stake out projects that I had drafted onto construction blueprints (I could draw!). I moved on to commercial marketing, conducting energy audits and convincing building owners to install ice storage systems. Here I was for nearly a decade honing skills I never thought I had and having fun in the process.
The time had its challenges, such as when my boss called a staff meeting to state publicly that he hoped my pregnancy would not prevent us from making our goals. During my second pregnancy, the head of HR told me she thought it would be better for me to take the path of her sister who had kids and stay home. This was just before Clinton passed the Family and Medical Leave Act; I had just six weeks off for each child. I also really wanted to work more in clean energy and started looking around for opportunities. I found a memo in a colleague’s in-basket from a leader at a Department of Energy program that sounded interesting. I gave him a call.
This gentleman became my mentor, hiring me to run several programs through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. To be employed by the lab I had to present before a team of a dozen scientists. I was not a scientist but I did know something about creative utility rates I could tell them. Hey, how hard could it be? I was at NREL for almost a decade as well, getting my Certified Energy Manager license, starting a federal energy audit program and then a water efficiency program. A colleague of mine at the lab was leaving and the position of Manager of Government Relations would be open. I had never worked with Congress and the lab needed someone to translate the scientific programs into plain language (I could write!). That couldn’t possibly be as hard as engineering.
This was really the way my career worked. I would see an opportunity, decide that I had the skills to do it (or could get the skills if I worked hard enough), dive in, and try to have fun along the way. Not that I think I know everything, but that I have the capacity to learn. Other opportunities came my way that I took—working for a private equity firm on policy (while sourcing investments and doing technical due diligence), running a large and growing trade association, starting a clean energy and innovation policy company with several other folks. Not everything was easy. I was fired a couple of times and had to scramble for new work and heal emotionally. I have certainly had moments of self-doubt but never once thought anything was just too hard. If I were to describe what has kept me going through these thirty years working in clean energy it would be that very attitude: how hard can it really be?