5 Years of CELI: A Conversation with CELI Co-Founder and Board Chair, Adam James
What inspired you to start CELI? Around the time we started thinking about CELI, it was clear that there was a need for fresh leadership in clean energy and different approach to tackling problems. At the same time, there was (and still is) a pool of extremely motivated young people who wanted to do more with their time and energy. These people really cared about and were animated by clean energy and climate change. And they did not have an outlet for that energy.
So, it was a confluence of those 2 things: there was an opportunity on the horizon for new leadership, and a pool of people who wanted to be leaders. What was missing was a map to guide them from wherever they were at the time, to being in a position of leadership. My co-founder Jackie and I turned our attention to nuts and bolts: we started thinking about what those people needed to be more effective and get into a leadership position.
And that’s why we founded CELI. Through many unacceptably long coffee breaks of brainstorming, we realized it was not enough to go to happy hours after every working day; it was not enough to do a few courses on clean energy topics; and it was not enough for these young leaders to keep doing what they were doing. We needed an accelerant.
We started focusing on three big areas: perspectives from outside people’s immediate area of practice; a deep educational knowledge that spanned more topics than people would get exposure to in their job; and most importantly, connections with similar people who were motivated in the same ways to solve problems. Off of that foundation, we started building something new.
What was the first step you took?
We started with a business plan. As part of that, we did some research into organizations that had done similar things in this space before. And then we started to shop our plan around town, to hear perspectives and reactions to that plan.
If you go back and look at that plan, it’s amazing how closely we’ve followed what we originally envisioned.
Co-Founders Adam James and Jackie Weidman at a scouting event for San Francisco expansion
How do you define clean energy | Why did you decide on “clean energy”
We didn’t define clean energy. One of the things we believed very strongly from the start was that pragmatism was a very important principle.
At the time, there was a lot of unproductive debate about what things mean and who should get to be in the tent. This has continued through to today. We wanted to side step those conversations, not because they aren’t important to have, but because we don’t always have enough time to debate the nuances of an approach before moving forward.
Instead, we created a speaker-based forum. We found people who were doing really exciting, impactful things in the clean energy and climate change space, and we brought them in to talk to our fellows about what they were doing. In doing so, we let them bring their own perspectives on those challenging questions the table. But CELI as an institution avoided taking a position; instead, we focused on facilitating a dialogue on some of those touchy subjects.
How did you define success at the time?
Our goal was to create change, which is a long game. We started out with a big idea, so we weren’t going to know if we had been successful for a long time -- 5, 10, 15 years. That was something we signed up for, and we knew we might not get the warm fuzzy feeling in years 1 through 5.
Right out of the gate, we were shocked at how strong the reaction to CELI was. People were so inspired and passionate about what we were doing. We tapped into this source of energy that had just blatantly been there, so we actually got an immediate validation of our work. I’ve never had that experience professionally before.
So, the challenge has been to keep our eye on the prize, remember that success is a long term metric, and not get too distracted by the fact that CELI has a profound impact on people’s lives today. It’s easy to look at that profound impact and enthusiasm and say we’ve done enough. I’m glad that people had such an immediate reaction to CELI, but we need to remember that success is a long game and stay focused on the work.
"CELI was an audacious idea out of the gate, and I want us to stay audacious. What we learned is that people are inspired by audacity -- and then, you can actually rise to meet huge challenges."
Now you are sitting in the board chair position. How has your perspective changed from being a founder to being board chair, and what has your journey been over the last 5 years?
I care about what happens with CELI more than anything else. My top priority has been to make sure the institution continues to make an impact over the long term.
When I first started, I was very involved in deciding how things should be run and who we should recruit to join our team. Over time, my role shifted to think more about creating an opportunity for other people to make CELI stronger, and ensuring we have diverse viewpoints represented on our team. At the same time, my job is to make sure we don’t veer too far from our core mission -- because I think it’s way better to do one thing well, than to do many things poorly. That can be hard when you have so much enthusiasm, and so many good causes. So, success for me personally with CELI is not leaving it with claw marks.
Now, at the board level, I think more about how we set ourselves up for long term, institutional stability. I want to make sure we are always putting ourselves in a position where we can have the biggest possible impact. That involves looking a bit further out and working backwards from where I think we could be in the future.
CELI was an audacious idea out of the gate, and I want us to stay audacious. What we learned is that people are inspired by audacity -- and then, you can actually rise to meet huge challenges.
Meeting with Washington Governor Jay Inslee at Powerhouse in Oakland, CA
What were some of the biggest lessons? And what advice would you have given yourself?
CELI has been a huge personal and professional learning opportunity for me. If I could do anything differently, it would be to reflect on a frequent basis about how I can contribute and use my time wisely. For example, early on I sank a lot of time into thinking about things like how to structure a board, when what we really needed was people promoting what we were doing.
Additionally, I sometimes wonder if we should’ve focused on getting funding in the door earlier, because I think that may have allowed us to resource CELI more quickly, staff more quickly, and tackle problems more quickly. There’s a real benefit in having full time staff, because that frees up our volunteer leadership team to focus on the work that can make the most impact. I would go back to the business plan and think more carefully about what we could do on nights and weekends versus what we needed full-time staff to do.
Any advice for folks who want to get involved with CELI?
What we care about more than anything is the passion you bring to the table, and the service that you plan to do with the tools you’re being given here. We don’t care about your resume, or who you know -- we want people who care about these issues and who are willing to work for them. There’s a lot of ways you can show that -- attending our events, getting to know our fellows and our leadership team, and asking us what you can do to help, rather than asking us what we can do for you.
"You can get a lot of things a lot of different places, but CELI is the only place that’s a genuine one stop shop for becoming someone who’s going to change the world."
What is your one line pitch for “why CELI”?
You can get a lot of things a lot of different places, but CELI is the only place that’s a genuine one stop shop for becoming someone who’s going to change the world.
When you sit down in the room to be a part of this thing, you are benefitting from a tremendous amount of work that’s being done behind the scenes in an extremely thoughtful way, to put you in a position to have the biggest possible impact. We do all that work because we believe in you, even if we haven’t met you yet - and we’re excited to get to know you and give you that chance.