Interview with Abby Hopper, President & CEO of Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)
What was it like to transition from a divorce attorney to the President & CEO of Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), all while raising three young children? I recently spoke w/Abby Hopper about this, mom guilt, managing consistently being the only woman in the room & the value of personal champions. We also spoke about the exciting new ways SEIA is further developing both its internal & external diversity, inclusion & equity initiatives.
Catherine: I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green, and today I have with me Abby Hopper. Abby is the CEO of SEIA. Thanks for joining me today Abby!
Abby: I’m so glad to be here!
Catherine: I want to talk a bit about the first time that we met. It was last summer, when life was somewhat normal, and you were running a lunch and learn at SEIA about your diversity challenge, at the time. It really stuck with me, because you had your son with you, and I also have a son, and I thought you were so calm, cool and collected and your son so well-behaved. I want to talk a bit about being a mom during the pandemic and how you found it.
Abby: Yeah, it’s been hard. It’s been really hard. I have three kids, so the one you met is my youngest. They’re all learning from home, they’re all struggling in their own ways. We’ve taken all the fun parts of school away and only left the boring parts of it. My daughters, I have a senior in high school, so she’s missing all of these rituals that happen her senior year, so that’s been a loss for her. It’s been really challenging to manage their own emotions, they all have their own emotional needs, they’re all reacting differently. I know your little guy is little little. Mine are old enough that there’s also a ton of anxiety around who they spend time with, who I spend time with, how we are exponentially increasing everyone’s risk. We’ve had more family fights about that than anything else, I guess it makes sense, but I wasn’t really anticipating that. All three of my children have very different comfort levels with exposure and being out in the world, so having to manage to the one who is most conservative and the most anxious about it, and telling the others that they can’t do things has been really hard.
Catherine: Yeah, I find as well with your parents and friends, they all have different risk levels. So it’s really challenging to navigate because you don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable but you also want to have some sort of pod of communication.
Abby: Right! Some other adult to talk to in your day.
Catherine: You’ve been a real trailblazer for women in clean energy. You’ve mentioned in the interviews you’ve given that you’ve been the ‘only’ for quite some time. And I definitely can identify with being ‘the only.’ How have you overcome being ‘the only?’
Abby: Yeah, I have been ‘the only’ many many many times. It took me a long time to really feel comfortable, and I don’t always feel comfortable being ‘the only.’ Earlier on in my career, when I was the only woman in the room, to be clear I am a white woman, I’m super privileged, I’m physically able to do whatever I want, so I try to be very aware of my own privilege, and so being the only woman and still coming from a place of lots and lots of privilege, to be very open about that, but I had to learn how to kind of take up my place at the table, literally, like sit at the table and not on the back row, to speak up if I had something to say. For me, it’s challenging, for a long time people spoke over me, because I am not someone who, I don’t need to talk all the time, and if someone talks over me I am usually just going to stop talking. But when I’m leading things I have to speak. So my friend, Kelly Speakes-Bachman, who’s the head of Energy Storage Association, she’s awesome and she’s one of my best friends. We were in a meeting once and I was talking about something and this gentleman started to talk over me and I put my hand up and I was like “stop, I’m still talking,” but I was so upset that I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say but I was like “I have to keep talking” because I’ve now made this whole big scene. So it was definitely a process, right, I didn’t just wake up one day and was like “oh, I’m totally comfortable in this room being the only woman.” I had a lot of really uncomfortable moments and things where I would leave the room and think, oh I didn’t do that right, or I should have spoken up more, I shouldn’t have let someone take my idea, there was tons and tons of self-doubt.
Catherine: Reminds me of Kamala Harris, during the debate: “I’m speaking.”
Abby: Right! Every woman was like “oh yeah, I know that. That’s happened to me eight thousand million times.”
Catherine: I want to talk about you transitioning into the energy industry, because I know your background is not in energy, you were a divorce attorney. One of the areas I feel really passionate about is we can achieve diversity by bringing people from other industries into our industry to help with this clean energy transition. So I want to talk about your clean energy transition.
Abby: Well I think it’s an interesting story but I don’t know if anyone else will. I am a mom, I was at a law firm, I was a divorce litigator billing 2400 hours a year, super super super busy. In divorce law, people need you right then, people would call and say my husband or my ex is taking my children from my house right now what do I do? It was a fear, I call it real-time law. People need you right this minute, they don’t need you to solve their problem next week. So that was demanding. Many Christmases, you can imagine Christmas and visitation is a very busy time for divorce lawyers, so I spent many a Christmas morning fielding calls from clients and things. So I say that because I was on maternity leave, I had a 4 year old, a 2 year old, and a brand new baby, and I couldn’t figure out how I was going to do this. How am I going to be a lawyer in private practice with three children under the age of 5? My husband at the time was also a litigator and we were just a hot mess of crazy. So I was actually at the court of special appeals in Maryland, arguing a case two months after giving birth, and I saw a friend who I knew from my other law firm. And I was just telling him, Doug, I don’t know what in the world I am going to do, how am I going to do this, my firm was not really that interested in working part time, and I didn’t even know if it would work. So about two weeks later, he called and said “Do you want to come work for me? You can come and work for me. I know you have 3 little kids and it will be fine and we’ll do great work.” And that’s when I went to be Deputy General Counsel at the Maryland Public Service Commision. So that was my transition into energy. It wasn’t all clean, it was a lot of utility regulation work but that’s when I made the shift from being a lawyer in private practice, doing nothing related to energy, but it was 100% about having more time with my kids, 100%. I thought I wanted to be a partner at a law firm, I gave that dream up. So I was like, wow, I am going to take a huge career hit here, but this is what I am going to do for my kiddos. The irony is it’s led me on this path that’s been so much more interesting and rewarding, and taken me to levels of leadership I would have never had the opportunity to have if I was simply a lawyer at a law firm. So that’s my transition. I’m sharing that, specifically, because the decisions I made to put my family first actually ended up benefiting me an incredible amount, but there was a period of like a year or two where I mourned my career because I thought “I was done.”
Catherine: Yeah, I can relate to that on so many levels because I think that you do have to be open-minded when it comes to life in general because you have all these amazing plans but life gets in the way. They must be really proud of you though, certainly they recognize the impact that you’re having. You have a more clean environment, surely.
Abby: You know, kids are funny. They want their mom to be home. They want their mom to remember to buy milk so they have cereal in the morning. They want their mom to be able to go on their field trips and I couldn’t do a lot of that.
Catherine: Yeah, well mom guilt is real. I want to talk a bit about SEIA, both externally and internally. So externally, diversity’s been one of your primary focuses, not only at SEIA but throughout your career, so that is what I was really impressed with as well, it’s not been a reaction to what has happened this year, it’s been doing this work for a while. How has the team further developed and expanded upon what SEIA was doing? And what are some DIJ successes that you’ve had?
Abby: Yeah, I think we had a lot of success. One thing I feel really proud of is that focus on diversity and a focus on equity, I think, and you should ask all my colleagues, but I think it is really inherent in almost everything that we do. It is a part of our culture. I think most people, hopefully everyone who I have the opportunity to work with, feels like they can bring all of themselves to work. I’ve had that feedback from some of my colleagues and that makes me feel really good. We did a cultural audit, almost two years ago, there are a million different questions but the one that felt really good to me was that people felt welcome, they felt included, they felt valued in our workplace. That was great! We’ve done that through lots of programming like really challenging ourselves. We have outside folks come in and work with us. Myself and two of my colleagues did a 2 and a half day training around the inherent racism in our structures and governments and institutions, that was really impactful, just on a personal level. I’ve been really intentional in my hiring, we’re far from perfect, but we’re assembling a pretty diverse group of colleagues, internally at SEIA, and I feel good about that. So much of this work, when I started this work around diversity, it was more because I just needed it. Right? Like I was not trying to save the world, I was trying to save myself. I needed other women, I was focused mainly on women, that I could talk to. Like, how do you do this with little kids? And what do you say when you have to take your kids to the pediatrician? I was at a law firm and your partner is pissed off at you. How do you navigate bringing cupcakes when you’re supposed to be in a hearing? Like, how do I do all of this? That was, for me, the foundation of why this mattered. And I would joke, sometimes, that every young woman lawyer, when I was back practicing law, that I was the one that they came to to be like, “how do you do this?” I was like, “I don’t know.” We are a hot mess, barely hanging on.
Catherine: I totally get it.
Abby: I have a crazy story. I have this one story when I worked for the governor of Maryland, and I was testifying. I had to testify in front of the state legislature’s finance committee about a really important bill. I was in the hearing room and my phone rings and it’s a school nurse. One of my kids has thrown up and I had to go get her. Oh no! I am supposed to testify within the hour, I am the one. Luckily I didn’t live that far away, so I ran to the school, picked my daughter up, ran back to the senate finance room, put her in a chair in the back of the finance room, next to a trash can. And told her to barf in the trash can if she needed to. Then I went to the table and I testified, and I was like “what pure hell I am living in right now.” But that was my life for a very long time.
Catherine: The struggle is real. So many moms are going to be able to identify with this. Not the testifying piece but the nature of the story.
Abby: Yes, the nature of the story. Child, I will attend to you in a moment, I need to deal with this professional thing in my life first.
Catherine: Tell me a little bit about some of the things you guys are doing externally because I know you are doing quite a bit with people like Gilbert Campbell, around the diversity guide. And you’ve done a lot with the NAACP, so tell me about that.
Abby: Yeah, it’s really good work. One of the things I have spent some time thinking about is our role in this. We’re a trade association, we represent businesses, how can I both lead this effort but also figure out some of the appropriate steps to take. Because my members, there’s a huge variety of political views and beliefs around all this stuff. So we have really focused on things we can do to help companies. For example, working with Gilbert around a hire diversity database. I don’t know about you, but my phone started ringing off the hook in mid-June, like, “Hi, I want to hire black-owned or woman-owned company to do x,” and I had no resources. I know people but that hardly seems like a sufficient answer, so building that kind of resource for our industry, for the clean energy industry, will be incredibly impactful. To companies that are looking to intentionally spend their dollars with black and brown owned businesses and women owned businesses, and be helpful to those businesses. Clearly, that’s one effort. Another is really around board diversification. So, both internally to my board, if you went on my website and saw who’s on my board they’re awesome, brilliant, smart people, but not particularly diverse, mostly men and all, with one exception, white. So, how do we create the next generation of leaders that are more diverse and are ready and able to step into that leadership role? What lessons and resources can we offer our companies as they think about their own boards, and how they recruit more diverse candidates for their own boards? So that’s been really interesting, we’re having conversations with other groups that really focus on people earlier in their career and what kind of partnerships can we create to bring these ideas together? So that’s fun. A lot of companies, I’m very focused on companies, so a lot of companies want to do something and don’t know what to do, and it’s sort of this paralysis because they don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to do anything that might be offensive, so they sometimes don’t do anything. So we are creating best practices and a certification process to say if you want to make changes or you want to embrace diversity and inclusion in your company, here are the steps that you should take. So it’s an expansion of that best practices around hiring. It’s like, here are some concrete steps. So that’s exciting because change happens when these things stop being a box or a day and they are just a part of the culture. So that feels good. Then last but not least, is our policy work. How do we live these values in our policy work? I could lobby for an extension of the investment tax credit all day long, and sometimes it feels like that’s what I do, but what are the other policies we should be lobbying for? How do we use our resources and our impacts to help communities that have been forgotten, or communities that have experienced the devastating impact of fossil fuel generation? So that’s a really interesting conversation because, again, it’s sort of the heart of what we do as a business is lobby, and for policy outcomes. So being really thoughtful about how we incorporate those values into our lobbying work is kind of fun.
Catherine: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I think there’s a perception, from other industries, that because we are clean energy that we must have this rainbow coalition, right, because we’re trying to do good work. And I think that we have to include diversity in that work, not just like you were saying within hiring, but also policy things like environmental social justice and communities and you guys have really led the way on that, so thank you for that.
Abby: I would say one other thing, and I just want to mention it because it feels really important to me, back in the before times when we used to see each other in person, one of the things that was really important to me was just creating space for people at our events. So, like last year when we had the last event that we had, we had a reception for blacks and energy, and it was a convening opportunity. And it was amazing. And we had one for the LGBTQ community. And I always host the women’s one, well last year it was at my house in Utah, but it’s not really my house it’s the house I rented for the week. But I find for me personally, knowing that there’s a place where I will be welcomed and accepted and feel comfortable and connect with other people that want to feel welcomed and accepted and comfortable… it’s a lot. It means a lot. Those events that we host are pretty homogenous, right, there’s mostly white guys, and I love me some really great white guys. But there’s a lot of them and sometimes it takes my breath away and so being very intentional about creating those safe spaces is important to me.
Catherine: That’s hilarious! My last question for you, we have to talk politics just a tiny bit, so the 100-day plan see his top priorities re-leading the economic recovery with clean energy, particularly now that Biden has won. I know you have something called 6 For 46. Tell me all about it.
Abby: Oh it’s so fun! I could talk about this all day. We do, we have a really clear plan for what we think the new administration and the new congress should do to accelerate the deployment of clean energy. I think you and I both agree, and I think most of America agrees, that this transition is happening, to clean energy, and that it’s important that it happens. But we are particularly interested in accelerating it. What can we do to make it happen faster? We have identified a bunch of stuff, but the key areas are around climate and tax policy. Like providing certainty for businesses. It’s around infrastructure and the people that build that infrastructure. So that’s where it’s around the workforce training, then there’s equity pieces, but also the infrastructure itself, so transmission and those kinds of things. But then the last, is really important, is competition, right, so making sure that homeowners have the choice of where their energy comes from, that corporates have the choice, and that utilities have the choice. So there’s a lot of work that happens at FERC and at PURPA. And it’s sometimes not the work that gets headlined because it’s the daily grind but it really matters to companies. And so we’ve been talking about this Biden transition team about our vision and they have been very welcoming of that engagement. It’s been really really fun. But we distilled that down into this 6 For 46. Like, what do we need him to do on day 1? Other than get this pandemic under control, which I trust him to do. We identified a couple of really clear things he could do, right away, that don’t require congressional approval but that will be impactful. So those are things like get rid of those 201 tariffs, appoint a climate czar who really has equity at his or her core, appoint the right people at FERC, appoint the right people at the interior, and bring bold bold litigation, I’ve been talking too much about being attorneys, legislation to congress both around clean energy and domestic manufacturing. And then the other piece that’s important, that he could do right away, is he’s got to have a budget. Our president-elect, when he becomes our president, will have a budget very quickly and we’ve been doing a lot of work around this thing which is called SolarApp, which is really for the distributed community, that will bring down the soft cost significantly, and he could put money in the DOE budget to facilitate a deployment of that tool. We’re already partnered with DOE on it, and, again, it’s all about the rate of adoption, right, like faster faster faster. Our planet… Climate Change is not stopping, so we need to keep moving quickly.
Catherine: Yeah, Abby thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me. I appreciate all the hard work that you’re doing for our industry.
Abby: Oh, it was such a pleasure. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.