‘Sfun Times for Solar’s Brightest Stars

Emily Kirsch looks out over Lake Merritt from her 14,000 square foot solar incubator in the heart of Oakland’s Uptown district. Across the bay bridge, the fog rolls in over San Francisco, but here at SfunCube the sun streams in, illuminating a golden opportunity. The solar movement in Oakland is setting the stage for our generation to tackle climate change, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and offer investments that our grandchildren will be proud of.

Julian sat down with Emily at SfunCube to learn about her work building clean energy ecosystems, hacking her education and ushering in the next generation of solar leaders.

Part 1: What’s Happening in the Solar System?

JC: What do you do?

EK: I’m the co-founder of SfunCube, an incubator and accelerator to help solar entrepreneurs succeed. We give solar entrepreneurs the resources they need to start and scale successful businesses. Entrepreneurs come to us at an early stage in their business and we give them creative office space where they’re surrounded by other solar startups, connect them to mentors, and connect them to capital so they can get their ideas into the market and scale.

JC: How does the general public understand what’s happening in solar today?

EK: When I say ‘solar’, most people think of panels on roofs. There are fun innovations in solar hardware like clear windows that produce electricity, roof tiles where every tile is solar panels with micro-inverters. There’s even solar paint! Hardware innovation is great. I love it and I geek out on it, but we can actually take existing hardware technology and get it up on 40 millions roofs in the US.

JC: Awesome! So how do I get solar on my roof? What’s the process?

EK: Once you decide you want to go solar, a design and engineering team can use satellite imagery to design a system for your roof. Then a permitting team works with the city to get approval. The installation team installs and, if you leased it, the solar company operates and maintains the system for you. Leasing allows homeowners put little or no money down.

JC: Zooming out, what’s the market opportunity here?

EK: In the US the solar industry has grown 400% over the past 4 years. Solar has created 47,000 jobs in California alone, and about 143,000 across the country. There is no other industry in the US growing that quickly, doing good for the world, and hiring people for quality jobs. Warren Buffett’s solar portfolio is now worth 7 billion dollars. He’s bringing credibility to the industry and people are taking note. Financiers, large utilities and dirty energy companies are waking up and smelling the sunshine. Globally, solar is a $100 billion dollar business annually. There’s a market opportunity for solar entrepreneurs to develop the software and financial services the industry needs to go from 1% of the US electricity supply, which is where it currently stands, to 80% which it can and should be in our lifetime.

We could power the world with solar technology as it exists today, but the limiting factors are software and financing. That’s what our focus is here at SfunCube: supporting businesses that have developed innovative software platforms and financing models to make solar more affordable and accessible to people around the world.

JC: What’s the biggest challenge for solar?

EK: Old dirty energy. Instead of seeing the profitability of this new energy opportunity, entrenched energy industries are digging their heels into quicksand and they’re making the transition to solar more difficult than it should be. The transition is inevitable, it’s just a matter of how soon and who’s going to lead. We’re doing our part to make sure that solar entrepreneurs in SfunCube are lighting the way forward.

JC: What’s the most significant way that you’re seeding this disruption?

EK: The current energy sector is based on centralized power generation, while solar is inherently distributed. Solar is on neighborhood rooftops, schools, military bases, and places of worship, distributing energy risk and making us more energy secure. Solar empowers people by transforming rooftops and fields into a clean energy power plants. We’re seeding this disruption by supporting solar entrepreneurs who are moving us from a centralized system that is inherently dirty to one that’s distributed, clean, and creates more jobs.

JC: So speaking of old, dirty energy, what’s up with all the white guys around here?

EK: It’s a reflection of the tech, software, and finance industries. One of our goals is to recruit more women and people of color to these sectors that have been very white and very male. We need to show entrepreneurial women and people of color that they have a future as leaders in these industries.

We hosted a SfunCube event in partnership with C3E, an organization sponsored by the US Department of Energy and MIT that recognizes women leaders in clean energy. It was inspiring to look around the room and know that every woman there had a powerful position in clean energy. We have hosted Girls Inc. which promotes girls of color getting into STEM — science, technology, math, and engineering. We have also hosted the Kapor Center Impact Fellows, traditionally underrepresented undergrad and grad students that are placed in paid internships with Silicon Valley companies.

It’s about showing emerging leaders they are needed in solar software and finance and showing existing companies that the will be more successful if their workforce reflects the general population which is increasingly diverse.

JC: What does SfunCube mean, what does it stand for?

EK: Sfun is our vision. Everyone needs energy, everyone needs electricity and everyone needs solar. Our mission is to support entrepreneurs to create Solar For Universal Need, hence the acronym SFUN. The cube is the space where the solar magic happens. That’s how we get SfunCube.

PART 2: Hacking My Education

JC: So what drew you to the center of the solar system?

EK: I had a nontraditional education and career path. In my junior year of high school I went to South Africa for a year as an exchange student. I came back, worked my entire senior year, graduated and didn’t want to go to college. I took off to Costa Rica for six months to work on an organic chocolate and coffee farm, learn Spanish and travel. When I came back I decided to take some classes at the community college for fun. I liked to learn and wanted to explore some of my interests in history and ecology.

JC: So how did that work out?

EK: I found a teacher, Walter Turner, and developed independent study courses. After a couple of courses he told me to think about going to college, so I took general Ed classes and then transferred to San Francisco State University where I was able to design my own major. I hand picked my classes and professors and got a degree in Sustainable Urban Development. I started volunteering at a local non-profit called the Ella Baker Center and when I graduated from SF State, they offered me a full time job. I ended up there for six years.

JC: How did you use your time at Ella Baker Center to further your own learning?

EK: I started as a research consultant and created the first inventory of green businesses in Oakland. I develop the Green Employer Council, a group of businesses who were partners in a workforce development-training program called the Oakland Green Jobs Corps, which trained people in Oakland to get jobs in renewable energy industries.

JC: Did they have those projects in mind when you were hired or did you create that opportunity once you were hired?

EK: I started in workforce development and launched the Oakland Green Jobs Corps. However, when the 2008 economic crisis hit, I shifted my focus from workforce development to driving demand for clean energy jobs via policy. I launched and led the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, which worked with the City of Oakland to draft and pass their Energy and Action Climate Plan, which is the most ambitious Climate Action Plan in the country with unprecedented community input.

Through this experience, I realized that a thriving businesses ecosystem was needed to implement these innovative policy initiatives. At the time, a solar company called Mosaic was just getting started and wanted to pilot their crowdfunding model with non-profits in Oakland. I worked with Mosaic on their first four installations. At the same time, Sungevity, an Oakland based solar company, was growing quickly and their Co-Founder, Danny Kennedy, had supported the workforce and policy initiatives I was leading. My experience with Mosaic and Sungevity made me realize that these are the kind of businesses we need to successfully disrupt energy and finance in a way that addresses climate change, creates a whole lot of jobs, all while making people money on their solar investments. That’s when I thought there has to be an epicenter for solar innovation. That’s what SfunCube is becoming.

JC: In the midst of all this amazing work did you ever think of going back to school?

EK: I was planning on going back to school to get an MBA for the skills, the network, but mostly for my ego. I wondered if I was qualified to do what I’m doing at SfunCube without the MBA. I said to Danny once, “If you were to choose the person with the best skill set or the best background to be the co-founder and CEO of SfunCube, I wouldn’t be it. I don’t have that profile.” And he said, “Actually you are it, because it was your idea and you’re doing it.”

Our work at SfunCube is speaking for itself without the MBA. We know that our entrepreneurs can be incredibly successful with or without any letters behind their name. As far as grad school goes, I decided that if I’m going to put that much time and money into something, it should be what I am already doing, supporting solar entrepreneurs to succeed. That’s worth so much more than the letters after my name. I could be working on case studies for Gillette razors (I was actually given this case study at an MBA information session), or I could be supporting solar entrepreneurs addressing climate change, creating jobs and providing the world’s energy with sunshine. I’d much rather do the latter.

JC: How do you know you’re heading in the right direction? What guides you?

EK: What I ask myself everyday is, how can I have the greatest positive impact. That’s my North Star. My question for those who are going to see this is, what are you good at, what do you love and how can you apply that to a career?

Part 3: Building an Ecosystem

JC: Why is Oakland a good place for your solar hub?

EK: Oakland is a startup game changer. We’re in between the tech and finance infrastructure of San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Our rent is cheap, our skies are sunny and our culture is real. In every way we’re able to provide the best physical environment for solar entrepreneurs to succeed.

JC: You’re building an ecosystem for solar to thrive here. What are the core building blocks?

EK: The program for solar entrepreneurs is key. Most accelerator programs are 6–12 week programs that are heavily structured with classes, curriculum, and homework. We shopped the idea of this kind of program around to entrepreneurs in SfunCube and they were not excited about it. What they wanted was great office space, connections to each other, access to essential business services, introductions to mentors that were solar pioneers, and connections to capital. So that’s exactly what we give them.

JC: So you had to bring in the solar pioneers? Is it right to call them that?

EK: They’re absolutely pioneers. They’re the founders of the solar industry in the U.S. and the reason why any of us are here right now is because of the foundation they’ve laid. Now these pioneers see the opportunity to give back and accelerate the industry by sharing everything that they’ve learned.

JC: How tight is the solar community? Do you guys have a Burning Man camp or something? How does it work outside the office?

EK: No official Burning Man camp but some of the most valuable interactions at SfunCube happen in the kitchen or at the bar.

JC: Is food and drink the main ingredient of the innovation recipe? What do the ping pong tables and bean bags have to do with it?

EK: It’s all part of it. Like most things in SfunCube, innovation seems to happen organically. We don’t prescribe a set formula because it’s an evolving ecosystem, just like a startup. There’s a term ecotone, meaning that the most productive ecosystems are those that have the most overlap. The more diversity you have, the more productive the ecosystem is. We’re constantly adding new elements and skill sets into the mix. We pull in professionals from law firms, accounting, management consulting, marketing and communications. All the expertise our entrepreneurs need is often too expensive, so we’ve gotten business service professionals to provide pro bono services to help them thrive, and if we do well, perhaps these professionals will have found some new clients in the process.

A lot of entrepreneurs are isolated. When they work out of their homes or cafés, it is such a limiting factor. That alone can kill your idea or your ability to succeed just by being alone or trying to by yourself. We’ve created a collaborative space entrepreneurs can be productive and have fun.

JC: If you had any advice for a young person that was interested in getting into solar what would you tell them?

EK: For young people interested in getting into solar I’d say it’s the best opportunity of your lifetime. The industry is growing and solar is going to be everywhere in our lifetime.

Ask yourself, where are you going to have the most impact? What do you love? Because the things that you love, you’re going to be good at, and the things that you’re good at, you probably love. Get involved in something you care about and if it doesn’t exist, start it yourself. Take the risk and find a place like the SfunCube to do it, because the world needs you.

***This interview took place in March 2014, when SfunCube was headquartered at Jack London Square in Oakland.

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