Interview with Constance Thompson, SVP of DEIJ at ACORE
How impactful can a renewable energy nonprofit membership program be when it comes to the triple bottom line – people, profit & planet? According to American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), over 75% of its 25 total women or BIPOC-owned cohort member companies have significantly grown their businesses as members of ACORE’s Accelerate Membership Program, a recipient last year of the groundbreaking Inclusive Energy Innovation Prize from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In this Green Light episode, Catherine spoke with Constance Thompson, SVP of DEIJ at ACORE, about how companies like 548 Enterprise were able to receive funding from U.S. Bank as a result of their participation in ACORE’s program & why programs like this are key to building a more equitable, just & sustainable future for all.
They also spoke about Constance’s transition into the renewable energy sector, her advice for others looking to do the same, & ACORE’s recent report, ‘Opportunities to Diversify the U.S. Renewable Energy Manufacturing Supply Chain,’ that ACORE recently published with support from Amazon Web Services (AWS) & BW Research. Constance also spoke about her involvement with Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) & why she encourages more women to take on speaking engagements through WRISE’s Speaker Bureau.
Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Constance Thompson. Constance is the Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Justice at the American Council on Renewable Energy. And it’s in the Washington DC area. Welcome.
Constance: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Catherine. It’s a delight to be here on the podcast.
Catherine: You’re enjoying this? The balmy weather we had yesterday. 80 degree weather we can rub in everyone’s face.
Constance: I know! But I was inside the whole time! I was at a conference, the Department of Energy had a conference and then they had the you know, boss had this reception afterwards. So it was like between buildings.
Catherine: I was already plus yesterday. I was in Boston. It was snowing. So we don’t have anything to brag about then. There you go. So I wanted to say congratulations on your recent promotion. And for those of you who don’t know, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your current role?
Constance: Sure. Constance Thompson. I had the pleasure of serving as a Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Justice with the American Council on Renewable Energy. And what that embodies is we have a signature program called Accelerate, which is a program aimed at supporting the success of women, black, indigenous, people of color owned renewable energy businesses, that is now managed by Neelam Sakarya and then also our larger body of work, which is focused on social and economic justice. And we’re getting more into our environmental justice, body of work policy work, in addition, some internal work around creating a culture that supports the external work that we’re doing.
Catherine: It looks like you started your career as a recruiter, cool, I like returning, outside the clean energy industry. How did you make your way into clean tech in ACORE specifically?
Constance: ACORE, well into clean tech, it was basically let me take a step back here. So I worked with engineers most of my life, I was a headhunter, as you indicated I originally wanted to run the world by serving as a pastor to a French speaking country in Africa. That was, I graduated undergrad, but that took a year so I became a headhunter. And the individuals I was headhunting were engineers, and they work in different markets. So I started working at Corning. That was my first kind of big corporate job there and unbeknownst to me, they were doing some clean energy work overseas. And then I went to Cornell and they were doing a little bit of work, but I didn’t know I just was working with the engineers. But recently how I made it to ACORE was because their need was creating a more inclusive and just program. To enable people of color to come into this field as entrepreneurs. So that’s how I got into it. That’s how I got into it.
Catherine: That’s so cool. I love that story. It’s like: life’s what happens when you’re making plans for it. Like sometimes you just have to like be open to let things happen. Do you have any advice for those looking to transition into clean energy?
Constance: One, don’t be hesitant about it. There’s so many people in this industry who don’t have direct clean energy experience. And what I’m finding is that the industry is about transferable skills into this field. They’re subject matter experts. You can learn this, but don’t be hesitant to come into the field and bring the expertise
Catherine: Getting back to your work at ACORE, can you talk a bit about a course Accelerate membership program?
Constance: Absolutely. So our ACORE Accelerate membership program started in 2020, late 2020. And as a result of board members coming to us saying what do you all doing to create a more inclusive- it was board members- and they workshop this, this program with staff and the correct requirement had to be that it had to be something that opened doors and leveraged our power, but also that it would make impacts and what they came out with was the ACORE Accelerate membership program which is a two year complimentary membership program. One of the things that we get is people who think it’s an accelerator, it’s not, it’s a membership program with Accelerated-adjacent benefits to it. And we open them up to the ACORE network. We introduce them to member companies or business partnership opportunities, we create an ecosystem for them to partner with one another. We match them up with an executive mentor. And we do these very exclusive virtual networking events, where they get to discuss business opportunities with program sponsors and partners and in addition to some other benefits, they get pro bono legal support, they get an opportunity to collaborate with one another and it’s just been an amazing journey for us these past 3 years.
Catherine: That’s really great. I’ve not heard of anything like that before. It’s different.
Constance: That’s why the perception of it as an accelerator is like an accelerator but it’s a membership program. And I can brag a little bit because I’m so proud of our members, our member companies which are owned by women and people of color. That’s the criteria. They are making transformational impacts in new technologies, implementing new technologies, they are doing projects in underserved communities that are opening up workforce opportunities that are using clean energy in these communities. And last but not least, something that we didn’t expect to do in business with one another. Which is amazing, making transformational impacts. Out of our 25 member companies that we had bring in from our past two cohorts, we can say that 19 of those companies, as members of ACORE accelerate have grown their businesses. We just announced our newest cohort who will be joining the family and they refer to themselves as family the accelerate family. It’s across the country. Our members are all over the country and they are creating their own regional networks that we support. They started this, for example, we have several members that are out of the San Diego area. They get together, they talk about business partnership opportunities and they hang out there literally family.
Catherine: Oh, I love this. So wonderful. So I was gonna ask you next about the best stories but it sounds like you have quite a few. So if you could just choose a couple that would be wonderful to highlight.
Constance: Sure. We have a company out of Chicago for 548 Enterprises. They started with us as 548 Capital. In two years, they have grown to create a workforce division of their organization and this is some of the benefits from the IRA. I do want to share this story. AJ Patton who’s the founder and CEO of this company, his first year as a member, we put them on a panel at our finance forum, and it was talking about funding opportunities. And one of the things he said was, we can’t get people to finance this. I have great credit. These are great projects, and we can’t get people to fund it. So I’m starting to think that you’re not serious about this. The U.S. Bank immediately contacted him and said we want to do business with you. From there, AJ has implemented, has stood up a housing community that’s all solar in and community and these individuals are saving on their bills. He’s got local leaders involved in this work, and it’s talking about clean energy and communities that don’t normally talk about this. So his is great. I have another member company they’re called Suntex. And they’re out of Texas. And what they do is solar installation, only for Spanish speaking customers. Okay, they’ve been able to do through their company is one, talk about clean energy in a different way. Cost savings, build trust, a lot of these individuals, you have to talk to the abuela and the abuela says no, it’s not happening. And they’ve also been able to train a workforce, individuals from their communities on these projects. amazingly successful. So those are two success stories there.
Catherine: I just really love that! I think so much of this is just like knowledge is power, right? Just making these communities aware that they’re this is like something that they can get involved in and benefit from in so many different ways and that somebody’s like on their sides, like walk them through how to do that.
Constance: Absolutely! The other thing I’ve learned, Catherine, is that when people tend to deal with business people who happen to be women and people of color. They think it’s all about that, about people of color helping and giving back, those kinds of things. Two member companies who we did one of our virtual networking events with, they came out of this and I couldn’t have scripted him better. He said Constance, what I learned from this event, this is about business, to be women and people of color that are renewable energy. They know more than I do, and I work for a renewable energy company. But this is about business and that’s what I say to people. This program is about good business that happens to facilitate a just transition contribute to us having a just transition.
Catherine: But it’s the thing I’m always talking about, which is the triple bottom line. Right. So you were talking about clean energy. We’re talking about diversity, equity, inclusion, justice. We’re talking about profit. Why do they all have to be mutually exclusive? Why can’t they all be tied together?
Constance: Because it’s about money. When we talk about profit when we start talking about market share when we start talking about where these projects are located: money away.
Catherine: Right, right. Well, tell us about the report on opportunities to diversify in the US renewable energy manufacturing supply chain. ACORE recently commissioned with Amazon Web Services and VW research. Are there any specific goals ACORE hopes to achieve with this report?
Constance: Well, we’ve already achieved one. We needed to know the data, we wanted to know how many companies out there are the tier one tier two phase that are owned by women and people of color and the numbers are dismal. And I’d like people to read the report. I’m not going to give you that number. That number is dismal. You need to read it. So one goal has been achieved. The second one that we will achieve mid year this year Q2 this year, is that we’re going to bring together many of the companies that participated in the study, but also other companies who say they have supply chain commitments to say okay, you read the report. This is what it says: What can we do together, to change this picture, to create an action plan for that and that was a requirement from AWS. Not just do the report that we talk about what we can do to change this.
Catherine: Right, right. Is this going to be a yearly report
Constance: At this juncture? We’re not going to do one next year. There’s a lot to do from what’s in this one.
Catherine: Fair enough. That’s fair enough. Lastly, I recently saw you speak on WRISE panel focused on Moderator training. Can you talk a bit about your work with WRISE and why you think it’s a good idea for people to get involved with rice?
Constance: With WRISE, I was introduced to them when I entered this sector, a year and a half or so ago when I joined ACORE, and one of the first things that we did was we made sure that every single one of our staff members was members of WRISE, every single segment so we did that. The second thing of engagement that we’ve been able to do I moderated a panel of unclean energy CEOs that were females and asked them about the career trajectories but not the normal what we asked women about, tell us why it’s critical for women to be a part of this clean energy transition. As CEOs, what are the things you’re going through that you recommend other women kind of try to avoid but most importantly, stay focused on and then words of wisdom of course, which was fantastic. And most recently, as one of the panelists of the Speaker prep session, which I found very interesting to do.
Catherine: Yeah, I really, really enjoyed it because I got asked to moderate once. I was absolutely terrified. And so you give some like really good, kind of like tips and tricks on how to be part of the conversation but-
Constance: Your job is to facilitate a transformational conversation and you’re running the show. Run it
Catherine: For your crowd. I love that. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me. I really enjoyed talking to you and I think people are gonna. I’m so excited for people to know more about this program because I wasn’t aware of it before. I know and I’m in DC. And this is like what I do. Like I’m really excited to like to tell people about it and and promote it a bit like sharing.
Constance: Yeah, you did great during this podcast, I want you to hear this and take it in. You are doing an amazing job of getting things out that maybe people aren’t hearing and talking about things in a very real way.
Catherine: Thank you. I really appreciate you saying that. Thank you because it can be a delicate subject sometimes to talk about so I try my best to be like you know not- just stay out of trouble.
Constance: The trouble is always good. Good trouble. Stay in some trouble. Thank you for having me.
Catherine: Thanks a lot.