5 Years of CELI: An Interview with Jackie Weidman, CELI Co-Founder and Community Builder
What inspired you to start CELI? In 2013, my co-founder Adam James and I were working at the Center for American Progress. During a coffee break a few months into the job, we realized that we were both new to the energy space and had a shared passion for combating climate change. While we really wanted to work on issues that would proactively work to address combating climate change, we noticed there were a lot of hurdles and murkiness around knowing where to start making an impact. Things just weren’t moving fast enough.
And once you realized you wanted to start CELI, what was the first step you took?
We started by asking a lot of people a lot of questions. People from all across the public and private energy sector. After listening to all of these perspectives on the clean energy industry, we decided to focus on tackling two things: (1) the lack of collaboration in the industry and (2) the lack of young professionals who had a well rounded understanding of what it actually takes to build a clean energy economy. Since this seemed to be a result of narrowed educational backgrounds, we determined that a holistic education of the energy sector was needed. We also knew we wanted to help people find jobs and opportunities in clean energy. So we focused on creating ways to connect them to other people they could start collaborating with. Overall, we just wanted to see change happen faster.
CELI DC alums in SF - Apoorv, Sarah, Jackie, Adam - Aug 2016
Why did you decide to make “clean energy” your focus?
At the time, and obviously more and more every year, we felt an urgency to lower humanity’s carbon footprint as fast as possible. We decided to focus on clean energy because we wanted to see more zero or almost zero carbon-emitting forms of energy gain traction. Realizing there were and are a huge variety of technologies that fell into this category, we used the term clean energy in an attempt remain open to the full range of carbon-cutting solutions.
How did you define success at the time?
The big picture has always been to build a community of next generation leaders that will advance clean energy solutions faster than they would otherwise. So, success for us is speeding up the process of growing the clean energy economy and transitioning away from carbon-intensive energy resources.
In order to achieve our long term goal of building a clean energy economy, we need the best, brightest, and most passionate people working on these issues. But these people need support in order to be successful. Knowing this, we decided to build a community based around understanding, trust and open mindedness. We envision people tapping into CELI early in their career, so it helps them grow and continues to support their success as they became leaders. It became clear pretty quickly that it’s the community and relationships being built are the most valuable part of the organization.
“We hosted an informational happy hour expecting
60 or so people to show up and about 120 did.
We took over the bar (and outnumbered Giants fans).”
How did you know it was time to make it your full time job?
Unlike some founders who know immediately where they will be in 5 years, we spent the first couple of years figuring it out as we went. We were able to run CELI as a side-hustle for nearly three years, thanks to an exceptional volunteer team but, frankly, I was afraid that we would run out of people who would apply and thus, CELI would end. But demand increased far beyond my expectations, and even well beyond DC.
In early 2016, a group of Alumni based in San Francisco started reaching out about Bay Area opportunities, requesting that we start a chapter out west. I decided to take a trip out there in April of 2016 and was shocked by the level of interest. We hosted an informational happy hour expecting 60 or so people to show up and about 120 did. We took over the bar (and outnumbered Giants fans). It was that moment that I realized that the need for CELI extended far beyond Washington D.C. and our board decided to start expansion by launching a program in the Bay Area (almost exactly 2 years ago!) At the time, I was working a full-time job for a start-up called Urban Ingenuity. I had a conversation with my extremely supportive boss, who was also a mentor to CELI, and decided that the time was right to dedicate to CELI full-time.
What did you learn from expanding CELI to San Francisco?
First and foremost, I could never have done it alone. Laura Wang, Sarah Guzick, and Chris Denny-Brown in particular were critical in making our expansion possible. Not to mention the 10+ volunteers who kept things running on the ground back in DC.
Another critical lesson was learning patience. Building relationships takes time and commitment, and it’s just as important to grow deep while growing wide. It took us about 6 months to build the partnerships, demand, and top-rate instructors we needed to get up and running. Beyond that, building a strong, sustainable community of peers takes even longer, so patience is key.
Vote Solar Equinox Party, March 2018
Personally, I learned the importance of not being afraid to ask for help and that the energy sector is a strong, complicated and dynamic community. Because of that, one person can not meet everyone’s needs. Not even four people can. I had to learn to provide people the space and skills to take things on themselves. This made the organization way stronger than I think it could have been as a top down organization.
Then, for people who aren’t familiar with startups either companies or non-profits, I learned that fundraising is a really important component. It was a steep learning curve for me. Without funding, you can’t have as much of an impact (or pay yourself) so it’s essential to tie as much of organizational growth to fundraising as possible.
Knowing what you do today, what advice would you give yourself 5 years ago?
I would have tried to find a business partner who could have joined me in a full-time capacity. Although I am incredibly grateful for my co-founder, board, and leadership teammates, there is a big difference between working full-time and serving as a volunteer. I spent a lot of time in the start-up incubator, Powerhouse, and learned how valuable it is to have a co-founder to bounce ideas off of and balance the workload.
What were some of your fondest moments starting CELI and over the past 5 years?
More than anything, I just loved spending time with the people in the community - from camping trips to holiday parties to Fellowship sessions. I appreciated listening to the conversations the sessions inspired and watching how much people enjoyed spending that time together. It always reminded me why we built the organization in the first place, for the community. Personally, I really cherish the friendships that I now have with many of the Fellows and leadership team members. It was that connection and support that made moving to a completely new place a little easier and I really consider myself lucky to have gained friendships that will last a lifetime.
Now that you’ve transitioned out of the Executive Director role what will you be doing?
I have wanted to go to graduate school for a long time. I think I was waiting for the “right time” until I realized there’s never really a “right” time to do anything. However, it was important to me to ensure that CELI was in a good place before I started my grad school experience. It was a really hard decision to leave CELI, but I think the time was right for me and for the organization. I believe good leadership is knowing when to step aside and let someone more brilliant (hey, Liz!) take your organization to the next level.
I just started a graduate program in Urban Planning at UPenn (University of Pennsylvania) in Philly. In my view, planning school provides a systematic, methodical approach to solving climate and energy problems. I plan to focus on urban policies that can best reduce carbon emissions from the transportation and housing sectors. Everything I’ve learned being a part of CELI over the last five years has reinforced my next career phase, and I’m excited to be an engaged member of the CELI family for decades to come.
“CELI is intended to springboard people into the next stage of their careers and needs to provide that to a more inclusive, diverse range of people moving forward. There are certainly a lot of ways to do that, and I trust the new leadership of the organization to get there as they see fit.”
Now that you’re going back to school, what do you hope the next five years of CELI will look like?
I hope CELI continues to challenge the current paradigm of what it means to be a leader and provide a supportive community that enables the type of change the world needs.
To me, that looks like CELIions running for office, starting companies together, and leading foundations that invest in organizations driving change. CELI is intended to springboard people into the next stage of their careers and needs to provide that to a more inclusive, diverse range of people moving forward. There are certainly a lot of ways to do that, and I trust the new leadership of the organization to get there as they see fit.
What recommendations do you have for someone looking to become involved in CELI?
I think the first thing is to really understand why you want to be in CELI is that it’s not for someone who just wants to add something to their resume or get a better job. Rather, CELI is about contributing to a community. The organization is strongest when everyone gives as much as they receive from that community. I refer to CELI as a family because the relationships are really strong. Everyone who joins as a really important component of that. For people who are looking for that kind of community, my best advice is to show up, talk to people, and share yourself and your perspectives with others. We need you!
CELI camping trip - California, June 2018