Interview with Andrea Luecke, Executive Director of Cleantech Leaders Roundtable
After growing the Solar Foundation (now @IREC) from zero staff & budget to a $6M organization & initiating the first ever Solar Jobs Census, we can’t wait to see what Andrea accomplishes at Cleantech Leaders Roundtable (CTLR). We especially appreciate that Andrea & CTLR is focused on bridging the investment access gap for underrepresented founders & CEOs.
In addition to speaking about her new role at CTLR, Catherine spoke with Andrea about how she transitioned from the Peace Corps in Morocco to cleantech, as well as what it was like to spearhead Clean Energy for America’s Inaugural Ball, which had 3,000 attendees & raised $200,000 for environmental justice organizations.
Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Andrea Luecke. Welcome, Andrea.
Andrea: Hi, Catherine. How are you? Good. Thank you.
Catherine: Good. Andrew is joining us from Rhode Island. She’s my first podcast guest that I’ve had from Rhode Island. Welcome.
Andrea: We have a population of 2000. So I may be your first and last.
Catherine: Yeah. So I want to talk a bit about some of your career history. And then obviously, what your current position is now as the executive director of CTLR. For those who may know, the Clean Tech Leaders Roundtable. So you started off with City of Milwaukee, to the solar Foundation, which is now Interstate Renewable Energy Council. Tell us a little bit about your very impressive background and about your new role, which congratulations, by the way,
Andrea: Oh, thanks. Impressive. It always makes me chuckle when somebody says I have an impressive background. I have very humble roots. I grew up in rural Wisconsin, hiking, biking, riding horses. I lived in the very, very beautiful driftless area, and went to public school. And as soon as I was old enough, I got the heck out of there, and did a lot of international travel, had a lot of adventures, public school, and then yeah, eventually, I had some career success. But yeah, it’s been a little bit of a circular path. There was definitely no roadmap for me to follow. I didn’t have any mentors, not a lot of guidance, paid my own way. And definitely at some point, we should grab a glass of wine, and I’ll tell you about the story when I walked home from Central Mexico. So wow, my good adventures, but no linear career trajectory. But the common thread is that I’ve always been a social entrepreneur. From the very beginning, I was interested in rainforest conservation, then International Development, then solar research and education. And then now clean tech community and ecosystem buildings. It’s been really awesome. It’s been a wonderful sort of circular journey. And it’s really forced me to embrace change, and also trust in my abilities to transform and to design the life that I want. I want to lead and so it’s been great. But yes, as you suggested, most people know me from when I was president and executive director of the solar Foundation, and I did that for over 10 years, moved lots of mountains, made a big mark, I’m really proud of all that work. But those mountains, they were very heavy, are still a little tired from carrying all those mountains. But so after 10 years, I did make a conscious decision to step down in order to take care of my own health and the health of my family. I have a nine year old daughter, who needed me and of course, some aging parents, and it was a global pandemic. And change was all around so. So I initiated the change. And I knew that the solar foundation would be in great hands with Irek. I personally go way back with IREC, with Jane Wiseman, and Joseph Ruby and all of the workforce OGs over at Irek. So I’ve known them forever. And there’s just a lot of mission alignment between the solar foundation and Irek plus IREC knows how to manage federal funds and that’s the that was the bulk of our funding. And so you were really a natural fit to absorb our programs and staff and it made leaving that much easier because I really loved it. I loved the solar foundation. It was my baby I raised, but I needed a break and I was really eager to take some time off and explore new opportunities. And so in my year off, I hiked a lot and became a yoga practitioner. I got back involved with a rainforest nonprofit that I helped to start in high school when I was a student activist. I did some coaching and some consulting on the side. And that sort of got me into the clean tech leaders roundtable because I was a consultant to clean tech leaders roundtable in my year off I was the head organizer for them for the Clean Energy for America.
Yeah, that was a big smash. So we had over 3000 attendees. It was a virtual event to commemorate the election and the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris 3000 people were there and we had literally rock stars. Billy Eilish, Akon Bob Weir. It was amazing. And it was so successful, so epic that we were able to donate $200,000 of our proceeds to 10 Environmental Justice nonprofits via the Solutions Project. So it was just a smashing success. And then Jigar Shah, who, with Jake Sussman, they founded the clean tech leaders roundtable, Jiger tapped me to replace him on the board, because he was headed off to DOE to their loan programs office. And so I “replaced” Jigar. As if anyone can repace Jigar.
Catherine: I always think that there shouldn’t be a Shah after it, he should just be like Madonna or something, like just Jigar.
Andrea: So I think those are tough shoes to follow. That’s for certain, but yeah, no pressure. They needed somebody who they needed a willing sucker. And, so I was on the board for doing some board work. But it became increasingly clear that the Clean Tech Leaders Roundtable really needed more attention, more active staff support, it was being supported on a part time basis by the Clean Energy business network. She’s a rock star, and super impressive, but she was wearing two hats, and you know how that goes. And so, I was invited to help relieve her of those duties because it was just too much and CTLR has so much potential. And so I, after much negotiation and discussion with Jigar and Jake, I was convinced to, to come on board and be the first full time Executive Director and that’s where we are now.
Catherine: Nice. Well, I’m really excited about it, I really enjoyed being a part of it. I mean, a lot of it involves food and drink, which is something I’m very passionate about. But if you have the events now and I just really enjoy it. I just think it’s such a great mix of people. And I always like to learn something and meet people and learn and find out about things that I didn’t know about in the industry. And I just always find it really worthwhile.
Andrea: Well, I’m glad to hear that. Yeah, I agree with you. It’s got a lot of potential, the caliber of the people that we are working with is exceptional. I mean, you’re talking about the very best to the very brightest, world class, entrepreneurs and investors. I mean, a huge community of investors and bringing those two groups together, a lot of magic can happen. And so that’s what I’m trying to curate and create. In this new role at the Clean Tech Leaders Roundtable.
Catherine: I want to talk a little bit about you in the Peace Corps. As a volunteer, I’ve noticed that this comes up quite a bit in our space that people started their journey in the Peace Corps. I guess that goes back to being just really mission driven from an early age. And you were in Morocco, which sounds absolutely amazing. And you did your undergrad degree in cultural studies and literature when you were there. So how did that turn into a career in clean tech then?
Andrea: Exactly. It’s all seemingly unrelated, pretty random. But yeah, I lived overseas actually, for seven years. I lived in Mexico and Ecuador and Spain and Morocco. I learned Spanish, Arabic and Berber. I still speak Spanish but I pretty much forgot all of my Arabic and Berber. But I always wanted to join the Peace Corps and be a cultural attache. That was my thing. And Morocco is exotic. It’s different. It’s an extraordinary country. It’s got the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It’s got three mountain chains, it’s got the Sahara desert and some of the most exceptional welcoming people on the planet. And I lived there in Morocco for almost three years and my ties to Morocco. They run very deep. My daughter is half Moroccan and she goes back with her dad to visit family almost every year for an extended amount of time. And aside from that, Morocco is really where I discovered, I say, discovered solar. And there was a group and fairly defunct now struggling, but in the early 10s are in the I don’t even know how to say in the late 2000s, there was a group called Desert Tech. And they are a consortium of governments and major companies that wanted to put massive CSP plants in the Sahara Desert to export the power to Europe, and presumably cities in North Africa and Central Africa. And I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And at that point, and this was back in 2005, or something, I heard this statistic that one hour of solar power is all we need for all of the Earth’s power needs for an entire year. And that just blew my mind. And I couldn’t get over that course, just a sun worshiper, like everybody else, the sun is fantastic. And I just couldn’t get over the potential. So it was really, really there in Morocco that I decided to go back to school, get my master’s, got my master’s in business, nonprofit specialization. And my dream was to be the executive director of an environmental organization, maybe a solar nonprofit. And I chose to attend grad school in Milwaukee, because it was free, and I’m cheap. I received a fellowship, which covered all my costs. And I also, through this fellowship, I was paid to work at the City of Milwaukee running their solar energy program, Milwaukee shines. So I was like, check Jack, this is great. And perfect alignment. And then of course, when my grad program was over, so it was my contract with the city. So I was really, at that time, ready to be recruited. And I was instantly recruited by the solar Foundation. And, and I worked my dream job for 10 years and, and it was a great, very synergistic time in my life.
Catherine: That’s great. I love that. I mean, it was sort of like, your aha moment was, “Ah, this is it. This is what I want to do.” I also feel like it’s good sometimes to let your travels take you different places and keep an open mind to what you want to be when you grow up, I always say life is what happens when you’re making plans for it, just keep an open mind. Because the journey is happening all around you all the time. People get so focused on their plan.
Andrea: Travel, good to see the world. It’s so important. That’s where it’s at.
Catherine: So important. So you were talking about previously running city of Milwaukee solar energy program and Waukee Shines, which was funded through the US Department of Energy Solar America Cities Initiative. You also when you were there, put together one of the nation’s first PACE programs. How did your work there sort of later influence your work at the solar foundation such as the soul SMART program, for example?
Andrea: Yeah, it was really a very smooth transition. The City of Milwaukee was one of 25 solar America’s cities. DOE had this big program, they awarded 25 cities and those 25 cities received a lot of special attention from the labs like Unreal and Sandia, we received me and all the other leaders of the 24 that 24 other cities, we’re seeing all of this attention, like technical assistance, help doing all these site assessment reports. And we did a manufacturing study in Milwaukee, we had a lot of policy support. And it was amazing. I was very fortunate, I greatly benefited from that, the City of Milwaukee greatly benefited from that. It really allowed Milwaukee which is an inconspicuous Rust Belt city in the middle of nowhere, to really form an edge policy and programs. And this is an edge that they continue to build on today. And so like all of these cities that were solar American cities, we were all tasked with implementing low cost and no cost financing programs. And we decided at the City of Milwaukee to do PACE, and we were one of the nation’s first pay These programs, PACE just really clicked with our city council because it was something that they could control themselves through the assessor’s office. But we also did zoning and building codes. And we also really learned to think about economic development through the lens of solar. All of that is, is what I sort of took back with me to this or took with me to the solar Foundation. And when that funding opportunity from the Department of Energy hit for SolSmart. I was like, first in line to apply. Basically, in a matter of two hours. Philip Haddix, Alex Wind and I, we have formed our team, we put together this incredible team. And we wrote a proposal, and we won $10 million. And that was a lot of money!
Catherine: That’s a lot of money now!
Andrea: It is! But I mean, there seems like there’s zeros now on everything, like everything’s financially growing so quickly. But yes, we got a $10 million grant. And we were so good about implementing the grant that it’s now since been renewed and expanded and extended numerous times, multiple times. And it all kind of stems back from SolSmart because it is all about policies and programs for local governments. And so it all stems back to my work. I don’t want to take credit for everything. But definitely my work at the City of Milwaukee was foundational for giving us that baseline knowledge so that we could run some programs on the sort of soft cost reduction, city and county, local government implementations side and then yeah, like I said, when SolSmart hit that funding opportunity, we were like on it right away. And that really kick started there created an enormous amount of growth, we more than tripled in size overnight, we had a lot of hurdles, then of course, compliance issues, staffing issues, and then the job got a lot less fun. But it was also making a difference and having an impact on SolSmart its objective was to get 300 cities and counties to become solar friendly. Work with us to make some changes, create a friendly marketplace for solar and solar companies. And now we’re talking about 500-600 cities and counties, it has just gone gangbusters. And it’s one of the most successful programs, I think that’s come out of the soft cost side of DOE’s solar program, ever.
Catherine: That’s amazing. Really amazing. I want to talk about this. So as a lot of people know, I’m very passionate about diversity within our industry. But you’ve obviously been a champion of this long before it was talked about in such depth as it is now. So you spent many years at the solar foundation. WREX, we’re now calling it in fact, I believe you were the first employee solid foundation as you’ve mentioned. And looking back on your time there. Some of the accomplishments that you’re most proud of, I would assume would be something like the soul SMART program. But personally, I’m a big fan of this kind of solar jobs census and diversity study, actually I think I have it on my website. If you notice, I don’t know if you notice.
Andrea: Glad to hear that!
Catherine: I have that and SEIA, SEIA is the information as well, because they’ve done a lot around this topic as well. I really want to hear about how this came about for you. Like when was that moment you sort of felt like this needs to be talked about. We need to have some data walk me through that.
Andrea: Yeah. So yeah, I was the first employee grew it from zero literally had a $0 budget, no staff knowing element nothing and grew it to $6 million at our peak before I left and spun it into IREC super proud of all of the work so smart. The work that we’ve done, we did in Puerto Rico through solar saves lives, Solar Schools in the National Solar Schools Consortium. I mean, we’re just an incredibly prolific organization. But the thing that I love the most is the solar jobs census. That’s the thing that I felt that presented the most opportunity. It was the biggest gap that needed to be filled. And that jobs messaging, I knew from my work at the City of Milwaukee, resonates with politicians and political leaders, and don’t talk about climate, don’t talk about environment, we could talk with each other about that. But when it comes to getting policies passed, the only way is to talk about it through that economic and jobs lens. And so, from the very beginning, we knew that the solar jobs census was going to be something and it was at first in the first year, it was just this tiny little report, I barely had enough money to even do a national number. The first number was, like 93,000 Solar workers in 2010. And then got some good media attention. People were like, Oh, this is good. And the methodology looks good. And we hired BW Research partnership to do the methodology and the stats on the back end. And they did an amazing job all throughout, and super defensible, highly credible methodology. And then I had to go to war with everybody, the EI and all of the naysayers, and really defend the methodology, but we were able to defend it. And that attracted attention, and resources. And my goal with it was to get statistically significant solar jobs numbers for all 50 states. And I thought, wow, if we could do that, that’s just amazing. We not only did that, we actually were able to get statistically significant for all districts, federal and congressional districts in all 50 states. So we had 10s of 1000s of statistically significant data numbers that were just incredibly useful. And were used in nearly every policy proceeding, legislative briefing and hearing and used by SEIA used by Vote Solar, and everybody. And it just was such an important piece of our messaging. And really, I think helped to unlock some political support for not just solar, but for renewables writ large. And certainly, it inspired the Department of Energy’s UCR report series, which tracks jobs across the energy sector. And yeah, so it was great. I was so proud of that work. That is where we first started tracking the number of women, people of color veterans union labor in the solar industry. And that, of course, inspired the subsequent solar industry diversity study that I spearheaded a long time ago before it was cool.
Catherine: Do you think we’re making progress?
Andrea: I think we’re making a lot of progress! Yeah, I think we’re making a tremendous amount of progress. I don’t know if the numbers are showing it per se. I think that at the end of the day, it’s all about the numbers. Yeah. But I think that company culture has changed and is and is way more accepting and receptive to single moms and mothers and women and people of color and people from different backgrounds, people with accents. And I think that we’re just becoming a lot more inclusive as an industry, vis a vie our culture. And so that’s, that’s terrific. And I love that. And that’s, in part, what I am infusing into the Clean Tech Leaders Roundtable. Because our industry has been traditionally very male dominated. Certainly, a lot of the membership in the community in the clean tech leaders roundtable is male. And we’re trying to change that. And we’re also trying to encourage and support through access to capital access to opportunity access to people, underrepresented founders and CEOs in the clean tech space.
Catherine: Well, I have to say, I was absolutely floored when I went to this CTLR event in DC a few weeks ago, that event during the day that you had the lunch and the roundtable itself. I couldn’t believe how many women were there. And it was, I mean, heavy hitter women like these are like powerful women. These aren’t like this wasn’t sort of junior people, these were these leaders in their, in their field women. And I was just really impressed with that, because I think there has been so much progress with thing with WRISE, WCS and there’s all these different women’s organization And now that women can lean into, but I think sometimes as a woman, you want to just be in a conversation, which is a mix of both. Right. And I think that’s what I really felt at that event A few weeks ago, it was just a really nice mix of both people represented.
Andrea: Yeah, I totally agree. And I work really hard trying to make sure that we have a nice balance. And it’s a work in progress. So we’re not, we’re not there. But we will be and we are making conscious concerted efforts every day.
Catherine: Andrea, so what are you most looking forward to working on in your new role at CTLR?
Andrea: Oh, well, aside from all of the fun dinner events, which I love, because I love the business networking, it really gives me a lot of energy. But I would say the two things that I am most excited about are our angel investment initiative. And our support for underrepresented founders and CEOs through our telx fellowship. And in terms of the angels, we call it CTLR Angels, we did a lot of strategy sessions, you were part of our strategy sessions. And our group, highly recommended for me, an angel investment platform, we are constantly receiving pitches from companies, and we are in the room with some of the most visionary leaders and also some of the most deep pocketed investors. A lot of high net worth individuals are in our community. And so we really see it as an opportunity to fill some gaps, we see that angel investing can serve as a bridge for companies as they try to cross that valley of death. And without angel investing at the seed stage, a lot of these companies, companies that are trying to scale tried and true technologies, technologies that we know work, and they will go out of business because they just don’t have. They’re not at the lifecycle. They’re not at the phase where they can attract traditional banking, banks, even green banks, VCs or private equity. And so angel investing is really, I think, a really important place for our group to plug in. And we’re actually rolling that out. We’re looking for partners, we’re actively seeking pitches, people can follow up with me if they’re interested in either pitching, investing, partnering. And then, like I said, the telx fellowship is really good. We’re doing that in partnership with the clean energy business network. Last year, we rolled out our first cohort, and we received more than 60 applications. We awarded seven fellowships to seven lucky individuals. And what we provide them is access to people and access to opportunity. And we showcase them, we feature them, we provide them with mentorship from some of our more experienced founder or CEO CXOs. And we’re doing it again, we’re going to do it every year, we’ve got a new cohort that we’re rolling out, we’ll have applications available in a few weeks. July will probably be when we’re accepting applications. And then we will be announcing the fiscal year 2022 cohort in early fall. So definitely check our website for that. And we’re excited to continue supporting the telx fellows in perpetuity.
Catherine: Great. Thank you so much, Andrea.,
Andrea: Oh, yes you’re welcome. Thanks for having me.