Out with Booth Babes, in with Women Solar Professionals at SPI

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There wasn’t enough room for all who tried to attend the Professional Women in Solar Breakfast at Solar Power International this week. That shows that there are more than a few women in solar, and that women in solar feel the need to band together.

 

Persistence and patience are key when it comes to many undertakings in solar. That was no less true of getting in to the Professional Women in Solar Breakfast at SPI. The fact that this breakfast routinely sells out attests to a couple facts: 1) There are more than a few women in solar, and 2) Women in solar feel the need to band together.

I was one of many who didn’t manage to get a ticket before the event sold out. But my persistence and patience paid off when enough seats opened up to let a few of us in, and I was finally admitted to the breakfast. There’s nothing like exclusivity to make an event feel desirable!

 

By the time I made it in and got myself some breakfast, the first speaker had already embarked on her talk. Caroline Venza, Lead Strategist at missionCTRL, talked to us about the challenges and opportunities of being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Her advice is good for women in any industry:

 

  • Be yourself. Venza acknowledged that despite her direct style, people had often expected her to be warm and fuzzy because she was a woman. But she encouraged us not to succumb to pressures to behave a certain way.

  • Be your own boss, no matter who you report to.

  • Think like an entrepreneur.

  • Voice your thoughts the way your hero would.

  • Take ownership and offer partnership.

  • Sit at the table — and be fearless. While most of Venza’s advice could apply to both men and women, this one is especially relevant for women.

 

The next speaker, Zeina El-Azzi, Vice President of North American Business Development at SunEdison, made a case for women focusing on our careers and our performance rather than on likeability. Why is this even an issue? It turns out that there’s a negative correlation between likeability as a woman and success — the opposite of the case for men. And while women are advancing, we’re still not keeping pace with men. This won’t fix itself, so we need to find ways to “get around the likeability conundrum.”

 

El-Azzi’s advice to women is to develop our brand. You can’t control whether people like you, but can control your brand. She gave us this homework:

 

  • Find out who you are, what you’re passionate about, and which strengths and weaknesses could be perceived as making you more or less likeable.

  • Work to create your brand, and own it. In doing this, think about the kinds of leadership, working relationships, and organizations we need today.

 

Does diversity matter for your company? Carol Giles Neslund, Vice President of North America Sales at Enphase, emphatically answers Yes. Companies with more diversity are more effective and make more money.

 

That means that solar companies need to hire more women. And as women in solar, we need to facilitate that and help one another be successful. It’s lonely at the top if you get there alone.

 

Neslund has practiced this in her own career, and she’s found that the more women she was able to bring to table, the better decisions her company made. Not to mention that women, major decision-makers in most households, matter in this market.

 

Neslund advised us to be flexible and find a balance between focusing on relationship and task. Leadership, she said, is about flexibility and meeting the occasion, while being authentic. Her conclusions:

 

  • Diversity really matters.

  • Leadership and your leadership style matter.

  • We must architect our own dreams.

 

The questions that followed these talks reflected women’s concern with some of the more in-your-face issues we encounter in the industry. Neslund was greeted with applause when she mentioned that her company doesn’t have booth babes. And one woman asked what to do if a client asked to go to a strip club. She was advised to just say no, and perhaps offer other entertainment alternatives. A man in the audience (yes, men were allowed in!) advised that we look at the men who are successful in solar. Chances are we’ll find they’re not engaging in that kind of behavior. 

 

With so much interest in this breakfast, I hope the organizers will consider finding a bigger room next year. We need room for all of us, to accommodate our growing numbers. There are still too many booth babes at solar conferences. Let’s make sure we carve out a place for professional women in solar.