5 Years of CELI: A conversation with Julia Hamm, CELI board member and President & CEO of SEPA

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Julia speaking on a “women in solar” panel for CELI fellows in 2015.

How did you first get involved with CELI?

When the founding team was in the very early stages of planning CELI, we had coffee to chat about whether something like CELI was needed in the industry. After that first conversation, I was hooked. I immediately saw the value: there was a clear need in the clean energy industry for what CELI could provide. So, I joined the board not long after that first coffee, and I have been on the board ever since.

 

“From the beginning, I immediately saw very tactically how the CELI programming would be valuable to individuals on my team, which would be valuable to the organization, which would be valuable to the industry.”

 

So you’ve been on CELI’s board since its inception. What motivates you to stay involved with CELI 5 years later?

What keeps me motivated is the same thing that motivated me in the first place. From where I sit as the head of SEPA and an employer in the clean energy space, I immediately saw the value that CELI could provide to people on my team, which would help SEPA fulfill its mission, which then helps drive further clean energy deployment. Normally I think about things from a strategic level first and then drill down to the tactical level, but in this case, I saw the reverse. From the beginning, I immediately saw very tactically how the CELI programming would be valuable to individuals on my team, which would be valuable to the organization, which would be valuable to the industry.

That’s what still keeps me motivated and excited: there’s still so much potential for CELI’s impact to increase. I believe that leaders need to understand the big picture of the space in order to have the greatest impact on the future of the energy industry. But too often, somebody becomes an expert on a topic; let’s take solar finance as an example. This person might quickly become a subject matter expert on solar finance, and their career can progress very far along that track -- even into very senior level leadership positions within the industry -- without understanding anything outside of that bubble. For the purposes of this example, a solar finance expert needs to understand the broader solar market, the clean energy industry as a whole, and, at the highest level, how clean energy fits into the nation’s power system. You have to understand the big picture in order to really optimize the value of your specific subject matter expertise.

That’s why I love the CELI fellowship program in particular. It exposes folks who are just getting started in our industry to some of those bigger picture pieces and shows them how it all fits together, which ultimately makes them more effective in influencing the direction of the electric power industry.

You’ve also been a speaker at a few CELI sessions over the years. What impresses you or excites you most about CELI fellows when you meet them?

First, it’s so interesting to see the diversity represented by the fellows. CELI fellows are quite diverse in terms of their backgrounds and subject matter expertise within the broader clean energy landscape. That also speaks to part of CELI’s overall value. Not only are these fellows learning from the instructors, but they are also exposed to the diverse perspectives of their peers within their own fellowship class.

I’m also always struck by the quality of the people in the fellowship program. It really is the cream of the crop of those early in their careers in the clean energy industry. From an employer’s perspective, and knowing CELI as well as I do, I place a lot of value in seeing CELI on someone’s resume. CELI alumni are very passionate and committed from a mission standpoint. Also, if I am interviewing a current or former CELI fellow to work at my organization, I know they have already gone through a very rigorous vetting process and were selected from a large applicant pool. Therefore, CELI is a really good screening tool that, as an employer, I place a lot of value on. I would be shocked to hire someone who was a CELI fellow and find that they weren’t a hardworking, dedicated, very intelligent person who was excited to work in this industry.

 

“As everyone knows, there is no shortage of conferences in our industry. I think emPOWER is truly unique in that it’s pulling together a community of people with common interests, all motivated by the desire to become leaders in this industry.”

 

You mentioned that one of the reasons you’re so motivated to stay active with CELI is because of the potential to grow. In your opinion, what is CELI’s potential, and what is your vision for CELI?

Part of CELI’s potential is to scale to other markets. CELI started in DC and expanded to San Francisco, but there are many other cities that are ripe for CELI. So, a lot of the potential is in the ability to scale what’s already been done in limited geographic regions -- it’s about scaling the success that already exists.

The other piece of that growth is moving into other areas. As people move out of the fellowship program, CELI has the potential to continue to lead those people up their career path into meaning leadership roles within the industry. The fellowship program is a great intensive introduction into that, but there’s still so much potential for CELI to continue to provide alumni with leadership training, continuous education, networking opportunities, and other things that will help position those individuals as the leaders in this industry.

This October, you are speaking at CELI’s first conference, emPOWER. Why is emPOWER a unique conference, and why should people attend?

As everyone knows, there is no shortage of conferences in our industry. I think emPOWER is truly unique in that it’s pulling together a community of people with common interests, all motivated by the desire to become leaders in this industry. It’s a way to bring CELI’s entire extended network together.

Right now within the CELI community, those who are in the same fellowship class have great relationships, and there are some opportunities for alumni and the broader professional network to get together, but this is the one opportunity for the whole community to convene in one place.

Importantly, the emPOWER conference is also an opportunity to become part of the CELI network if you’re not already a part of it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a young professional who’s considering applying to become a fellow, or someone who’s looking for new hires for their company, or someone just motivated by being around mission-driven, passionate people.

The reason this is so unique is because, most often, people come to conferences to talk about a specific subject matter. In this case, there is very specific subject matter to be discussed, but it’s more about the people and the opportunity for those people to come together. The people are more critical for emPOWER than most other industry events.

What is your advice for young professionals who are looking to get involved with CELI?

Find ways to engage, and start to know the people who are through the community. That could be through emPOWER, community happy hours, or public events. Building relationships with those within the community enables the opportunity to become part of that community.

Based on your success in the clean energy space to date, do you have advice you have for young leaders as they navigate this industry?

Now is the time to take risks with your career. It becomes harder and harder to take career risks as you get older, so now is the time to try things out and see how they work. Work at a start-up that may or may not succeed; try something that you’re not 100% confident in. Commit to doing it and try it. The earlier you are in your career and life, the easier it is to take those risks without significant downside. Be willing to take risks.

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