“Become essential to others to develop grit”, With Desmond Wheatley, CEO of Envision Solar International

Yitzi Weiner
Nov 11, 2019 · 15 min read
Image for post
Image for post

I had the pleasure of interviewing Desmond Wheatley, President, CEO and Chairman of Envision Solar International. Wheatley joined Envision Solar as a consultant in 2010 and has served as the Company’s CEO since 2011 as well as Chairman of the Board since 2016. He has two decades of senior international management experience in technology systems integration, energy management, communications and renewable energy. He was a founding partner in the international consulting practice Crichton Hill LLC. Prior to Crichton Hill, Wheatley was CEO of iAxis FZ LLC, a Dubai-based alternative energy and technology systems integration company. From 2000 to 2007, he held a variety of senior management positions at San Diego based Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, fka Wireless Facilities. He spent the last five years as President of ENS, the largest independent security and energy management systems integrator in the USA. Prior to ENS, Wheatley held senior management positions in the cellular and broadband wireless industries, deploying infrastructure and lobbying in Washington DC on behalf of major wireless service providers. Wheatley has founded, funded and operated four profitable start-up companies and was previously engaged in M&A activities. Wheatley evaluated acquisition opportunities, conducted due diligence and raised commitments of $500M in debt and equity.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Running Envision Solar is in many ways the perfect nexus of everything I have ever done professionally and everything I believe in philosophically. At one time or another I have been involved in ship building, energy infrastructure, communications, security and finance. With each passing year I become more aware of the great gifts that nature has bestowed upon humanity; the planet we inhabit, its natural resources and even our own brains have all been placed at our disposal, free of charge. To squander any great gift, freely given, is an offense to everything that makes us good.

At Envision we invent and manufacture products which are designed to preserve this blue planet while allowing humans to profitably go about their daily lives. Our products are essentially structures that generate, store and dispense electricity using nothing but renewable sources. They also broadcast telemetry and communicate with a variety of networks. We build them to be tough because they have to not just survive but continue to work reliably in the harshest of environments. It’s very like building and fitting out a small ship. We even use nautical terms to describe elements of the products, port, starboard, fore and aft for example. Everything I learned at sea, in shipyards and deploying energy, communications and security infrastructure contributes to the invention, design and fabrication of the products.

I have also raised the capital required to grow, through some very lean times, and led the company through a public offering and a listing on Nasdaq so my experience in the capital markets and with public companies has been another crucial contributor.

Going to sea as a young man also taught me that one must be able to rely, completely, on one’s fellow crew mates. Each of us was responsible for the others and often in life or death situations. In all of my ventures I have had the honor leading some of the finest people I could ever hope to meet; these crew mates have embraced the visions and given their all to ensure successful delivery.

I view all of these facets as essential ingredients in the recipe that has allowed us to succeed. So while there is no one story that, on it’s own, brought me here, all my stories have led me to this point.

Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

When I went to sea as a young man, and later as a commercial diver, I learned that “impossible” cannot be part of one’s lexicon. Failure is not an option. There is no-one to call when you find yourself adrift a thousand miles from land because some critical piece of equipment has failed, or the weather has gone south on you. You have to get inventive and you have to solve the problem or you, and a lot of others, are going to get hurt. I have carried that sentiment through all my business dealings over the last three decades. I’m often struck by how quickly people give up or accept an “experts” opinion that something cannot be done — that’s like waving a red flag at a bull for me. I cannot accept that anything crucial is impossible and I find it very hard to give up on anything until I have found an existing (or invented a new) solution. Because of that I have often found myself in harsh and unforgiving environments, in a business sense and also, too often in a physical sense as well. Working in harsh conditions or chronically under-resourced is hard and very demanding. It can be thankless too. No-one is immune to doubt, particularly self-doubt. That doubt becomes even more acute when you hit barriers while endeavoring to do something that everyone else is telling you is impossible. It’s hard not to wonder if they are right. But I’ve learned that they never are. I have, from time to time, worked too hard and long or invested too much or asked too much of others chasing some outcome that in the end might have been better left alone but I’ve never outright failed — no matter how impossible the experts thought the goal.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I think it’s first worth pointing out that it actually took me a long time to understand that there was anything peculiar in my level of drive or commitment. I thought everyone had it. I had to be told over and over again by others that my determination and willingness to go to extremes to get something done was unusual. So, in the early days at least, there was nothing very interesting about it. I just thought that working hard, putting up with pain and suffering through whatever challenges stood in front of me was what one did. I enjoyed it; enjoyed the feeling of being a young man and not taking “no” for an answer. All of my heros, Shackleton, Scott, Cook, Churchill, Shepard, Armstrong, Aldrin, taught me that success is the only acceptable outcome and when success proves elusive, then, and only then, an honorable failure. In later years, my drive has come from my beliefs and a strong sense that each of us should do everything in our power to leave everyone, everything and everywhere a little better than we found it. How much better should be proportional to one’s energy and ability. I have nearly endless energy (for things I believe in) and I suppose that I have a certain amount of ability, therefore my contribution to making things better should be above average at the very least. I feel very driven to live up to that self-imposed expectation. Anything less would be a terrible disappointment to me — except, of course, honor in failure.

So, how are things going today? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?

I am not successful. I have had elements of success, but I am very far from done. Grit has certainly enabled me to achieve the elements; to cross certain thresholds that are commonly labeled as success. I hold the titles, I lead the public company, I have patents and inventions that are fairly broadly used. I have a magnificent team of people around me who accept me as their leader. I would have none of these things had I not the tenacity to stick at it when a more sensible person might have quit. I am grateful for that grit and I’m grateful that I have been equipped, through an accident of birth, with the physical stamina and intellectual capability to turn Grit into some tangible successes. But I don’t think of it as being successful in any final sense. I won’t feel that until the job is done. It is, of course, possible that I am the kind of person who will never feel that the job is fully done.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I have made so many mistakes, some funny and some not so funny. I’m still making them. It’s very hard to pick one particular instance from the vast catalogue of stupidities of which I’ve been guilty. Early in my life, in another career, I did, through an error of judgement, turn the power off for a town of some thirty thousand residents. It wasn’t funny at the time. It was terrifying. I thought I’d killed a lot of people in the process. When it was clear that everyone was alright, all of us started laughing in the way that one does when one has had a narrow escape and the outcome has been rather awful but nevertheless very funny. I knew at the time that I had to cover our tracks and so I came up with method of making it seem impossible that I, or my team, could have been responsible. I relied on the inability of domain experts to comprehend anything that did not fit into their entrenched expectations. The real entertainment came from watching the “experts” trying to work out what could have happened. They suspected us but, then again, it seemed impossible that we could have been responsible and so there was a great deal of head scratching and consternation. We bit our tongues but later that night, over a few pitchers of beer, we laughed so hard that, for the second time in 24 hours, I thought we might die. It was dishonest of me to cover our tracks in that way. I didn’t do it to save my skin. I did it because I knew that a lot of good people would lose their jobs if we were found out, and to no benefit. I had to make a judgement about what the best thing to do was and I had to do it quickly. I don’t regret it — though I am sorry for the people who went without power for a couple of days because of my stupidity.

Image for post
Image for post

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The defining feature of Envision Solar is that we consistently do what others tell us is impossible. Our team has been defying the experts since we first decided to tackle a 100-year-old, entrenched industry with a brand-new technology solution that most people didn’t understand and even fewer believed could work. One incident in particular stands out as being indicative of our broader “don’t take no for an answer” culture. Very early in our evolution we had an opportunity to demonstrate our product at an industry event. There was generally nothing but skepticism about the validity of our claims surrounding the efficacy of our product and, as such, any opportunity to actually demonstrate it live was one which we could not pass. The event was to take place several miles across San Diego from our facility. The product is large, heavy and tall enough to make it very expensive to transport. We simply couldn’t afford the highly specialized trucking equipment and very large forklifts on either end that would be required to deliver the product to the demonstration site. But, I felt, we equally could not afford not to be there. That would only add fuel to the doubter’s fire. So, I set about considering how we could save some money on the delivery and landed upon the idea of doing away with the specialized trucking and one of the forklifts. We would, instead, carry the product the whole way on one forklift, across the city, on public streets. In the middle of the night, naturally. I asked for volunteers and did not come up short (such is the quality of the team). We set off at around 2 AM in an old and dilapidated but very large forklift traveling at no more than two or three miles per hour. I had employees and interns in personal and rented cars with their blinkers flashing in front of and behind me. I drove the forklift. I needed the escort because the product was large enough to completely block traffic in both directions on the streets we chose. There wasn’t a lot of traffic at first but as the hours wore on the early commuters started to join us and with increasing frequency registered their frustration with horns and middle fingers. At one point, a mile or so from our destination, the forklift overheated as I tried to climb a freeway overpass. The hydraulics bled off until the forks hit the street, but I pressed on with great showers of sparks spraying in every direction. Finally, the beast could take it no more and I came to a halt with a growing traffic jam behind and in front of me. There was nothing for it but to wait until things cooled off which, thanks to the second law of thermal dynamics, they inevitably do. Some time later I arrived at the destination. The hosts assumed we had merely unloaded from a truck on the street, not that we had driven the loaded forklift for several miles through the night. It never occurred to them that anyone would do such a thing, though the clouds of blue smoke billowing from the nearly knackered machine should have tipped them off. The event was a success and seminal in our development. But much more than that, it was emblematic of our company’s ethos — nothing is impossible and the fact that everyone else doesn’t do something does mean it cannot be done.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

  1. Address something that is much larger and more important than you or your company.
  2. Make sure you thoroughly believe in what you are doing
  3. Surround yourself with people who share your beliefs and can take them forward
  4. Seek commitment over expertise
  5. Doubt the experts. They usually know how things were, sometimes know how things are and rarely know how things will be. You are in the ‘how things will be’ business.
  6. Take inspiration from everyone who tells you that you can’t do what you plan to do — they are simply identifying opportunity
  7. Take risks — big ones
  8. Bridge your bleak times. You will have them. Give yourself a chance to come out on the other side.
  9. Be thoroughly self reliant. Don’t let anyone else control your destiny
  10. Keep profit as a goal but be proud of how you get it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Not a person. People. There have been many people in my life who afforded me opportunities which I did not, on paper, appear to deserve. What I call The American Meritocracy has been good to me. I love the fact that, in this country, people will give you a chance accepting that you might fail and that if you do it’s everyone’s responsibility to move on. These people recognize that when the dark horse doesn’t fail the upside can be so much greater than when the obvious choice succeeds.

And then there have been the people I’ve had the honor of leading. The contributors, the individuals who did so much more than their paycheck demanded because they were engaged. On a strictly personal level, I can say that I have experienced very high levels of gratification in hearing from a current, or former employee, that they found working with me to be the best experience of their (work) life.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Envision is a publicly traded company. As the CEO and Chairman, it’s my primary responsibility to generate profits and create shareholder value. At the same time everything, that this company does is about reversing the negative impact that all of our daily lives visit upon our fragile environment. 70% of the worlds’ greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation and the generation of electricity. Our products remove both sources without asking our customers to give up anything. Simply put, when Envision has a good day, the planet has a good day. I could make more money elsewhere, I could work shorter hours, I could have a much easier life — but I couldn’t live with myself if I did.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)

  1. Lead yourself into harms way and when you find that you can cope lead others there too. I have always sought out the risky and dangerous things. Not for their own sake but because I felt that there was some real value to be created by taking the risk or chancing the danger. I do not advocate being an adrenaline junky, exposing yourself to risk simply to experience it. Rather, I choose goals which have a true worthy outcome and then I accept the risk and danger as an unavoidable price that must be paid for the benefits generated. Grit is a natural byproduct of surviving and thriving under such circumstances.
  2. Experiment with your ability to suffer. You cannot know what you are capable of until you push your boundaries beyond your comfort zone. I, perversely, get a great deal of satisfaction out of being cold, or exhausted or in pain — but only when I value the outcome of my activities. Recreationally, I like open water swimming and running. Swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco or across the length of the Golden Gate Bridge is not comfortable for me. I am not a good swimmer. But I can force myself to make it and, when I do, I find that my level or resiliency is increased mentally for the next challenge. Running a marathon has a similar effect. In business one can elect not to take the easy route if there is a greater prize associated with avoiding it. Each time one exposes oneself to the tougher challenges, one becomes better equipped to deal with them in the future. Paradoxically perhaps, I find failing (with honor) is just as constructive.
  3. Throw away your business books and read, instead, about the great explorers and other great leaders in history. Scott, Shackleton, Barrow, Churchill. You’ll soon find that your worst day does not compare with what they often struggled through for months and sometimes years on end. And beyond that you’ll get some great management tips
  4. Meet and spend time with people who have known real hardship, poverty, combat, illness. Any set of circumstances you consider extraordinary. Learn how they got through it. Humans have tremendous capacity. Most of us are never called upon to learn what we are truly capable of, but you can get a sense of it from those who have been.
  5. Become essential to others. When you know that others rely on you utterly you might find that you are much less willing to give up and much more capable than you ever knew. Every parent knows this intuitively. Teams who have worked in very stressful conditions quickly learn it. Combat veterans rarely talk about the grand vision which took their nation to war. They do consistently say that they overcame their fear because they could not let down their comrades. As a business leader you have employees, shareholders and customers who rely on you to varying degrees. Underestimate how important you are to them at your peril (and theirs). When you accept that an employee’s livelihood, or a shareholder’s retirement, or a customer’s project is totally dependent on your effort you will push yourself to extremes and you will develop tremendous Grit in the process. As a leader you do not have a job, you have a mission and when you have a mission you can only succeed or fail with honor. In any event you will develop Grit.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Drive on Sunshine

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can visit us at https://envisionsolar.com or

Linkedin: /Envision-Solar

Instagram: @envisionsolarinc

Facebook: /EnvisionSolar

Twitter: @EnvisionSolar

YouTube: /envisionsolarsd

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store