Interview with Devin Hampton, CEO of UtilityAPI

Interview with Devin Hampton, CEO of UtilityAPI

Catherine talks with Devin about why UtilityAPI’s management team having virtually no overlapping demographics is actually a strength, as well as his recent viral LinkedIn post about the lack of diversity & inclusion in the clean energy industry among many other topics.

Part 1

Part 3

Part 2

Part 1 Transcript

Catherine: I’m Catherine McLean Founder and CEO of Dylan Green, and today I have with me from Oakland California Devin Hampton CEO of UtilityAPI. Thanks for joining us, Devin.

Devin: Thank you so much for having me, today. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Catherine: You have an extremely impressive background, from your work on the Obama campaign to the DOE, to consulting with civic advisors, to your current role as CEO of UtilityAPI. Can you introduce yourself a bit, and talk a little bit about your career journey?

Devin: I appreciate the opportunity to share a bit about that. It’s the way you listen that is what we typically would have on a resume: I’ve done this. I’ve done that. But that’s really only half my career, and I think a lot of times leaders especially only talk about the things that got them to where they are, the steps. Where I had a lot of that, that’s me from the time I became a quote-unquote professional. But I spent years, I worked for an airline as a union ramper. I moved bags for five years until we got laid off. The union got laid off, that’s a big part of my story. I met great people doing that work. I learned a lot of lessons doing that work. I also was a bartender in my hometown for years. I worked in hotels. I always had two jobs before I started this journey. I learned that part of the career is just as important, but it looks weird in a link in a resume. So really those kind of jobs really set me up for success once I entered the political space. We could go all day how long it took me to get from that work into working for President Obama. Not running a company, but I really just think it’s important. That I learned something each step of the way, and then able to use it for what I do now.

Catherine: There are many people of color that would look up to you as a CEO, and maybe working at Alaska Airlines trying to aspire to be what you’ve become. What do you think is the most contributing factor to your career success?

Devin: I think part of it’s inside, part of it’s outside. So I’m a total optimist, and so I always believe that I can do something. And even if something doesn’t work out, I just believe that’s not the lesson I need to learn for whatever happens next. I’m a strong believer, I think the phrase is “Good problem? Bad problem? Who knows?” I learned that from actually calling my COO at our company because she knows that lives by that as well. That every time a door shuts-probably okay. The next thing that’s going to happen because that’s probably what we need to have happen anyway. So first of all, there’s the optimism part, but I’ve also had a lot of people along the way who probably saw more in me than I saw in myself.
I got my start in politics because I was asking people at the bar that I worked at, how to do that. I was interested, but I didn’t know how to do it. And literally, a patron was like, “Hey I’m actually running for city council, and you can come work for me. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you across the bar. I think you have certain skills. You could probably do this. I’ll give you a chance.” That was how I got into politics actually, and from there I knew how to work hard. I’ve always known how to work hard, but it was the learning the kind of every industry, every space has different lexicons. We have people talking about things, different ways to identify that you’re in the in group. And it was really these folks that would spend time to really bring me in. I was very fortunate, city council members. Who else along the way? I worked for a secretary, a deputy secretary, an assistant secretary of energy. All spent time to make sure that I had what it took, but also pushed me. I remember the first time I had a woman boss, she asked me if I’d ever worked for a woman before. Those kind of lessons are important. A professor at the University of Washington, even though it took me 20 years to graduate, stood by me for 20 years. 20 years to graduate.

Catherine: It actually took you 20 years to graduate?

Devin: Yeah, I’m not lying. Okay, you’re right. It was 19 years. So there’s a lot of folks along the way. It’s a bit of personal grit, optimism, knowing how to work hard. But I think when people gave me their hand to help me out, or reached the hand to help me out, I grabbed it. So I try to do that now for other folks. Anytime someone sends me a note on LinkedIn or anything, “Hey can we get coffee? Can we chat?” I’m like, “Sure thing. You got an hour. What do you need?” It’s because people did that for me.

Catherine: I think that’s really admirable, and I feel exactly the same way. so I think it’s a really good attribute to have. So I want to talk a little bit about CELI. I know that you’ve just started getting involved with CELI which is an organization I think really highly of, Clean Energy Leadership Institute. So UtilityAPI and about 20 other companies recently partnered with CELI to facilitate more diverse hires within the cleantech industry. Can you talk about this partnership, and why specifically you’re confident it’s going to lead to greater diversity, equity, inclusion in our industry? I’m specifically interested in what sets this apart from the broader CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion pledge.

Devin: Well I’ll start at the end. What sets this apart is we did not want to set out to start a new organization or just put some statement out and then leave it at that. We wanted action. And so UtilityAPI and a handful of 20 other, at least so far, companies in the cleantech space were like, “All right what can we actually do? We don’t want to start a new organization, because people already know how to do this. We found CELI. Oh my lord, this group is set up to help enable the challenge we’re trying to solve. And that challenge is that it’s almost a traditional supply and demand problem. We know that diversity is good for business. We know that it will help our industry, but we’re not being vocal enough about showing that there’s a demand for diverse voices. And so when a group like CELI goes out and tries to increase that supply, where’s the other side of the equation? So we’re trying to be as a group of companies to be the other side of the equation. And saying, “Hey we are looking for diverse voices in our conference rooms, in our boardrooms and everywhere else in between. Diversity is strength. Diversity is good for business, and that we will do what it takes. So we’ve actually made commitments about the steps we’re going to take. Whether it’s for looking for early-stage hires, mid-career senior officials, really anybody. We’re going to have the uncomfortable conversations within our own companies that make folks feel comfortable when they come to work with us. We are going to spend the time and effort it takes to actually interview diverse hires for all our job openings. We’re going to pay interns when we do have interns. We’re not going to have a college degree be a requirement for any of our jobs. I mean if that was a requirement for any of the jobs I’ve had, I wouldn’t be sitting here. And so maybe I think that differentiator is the action piece. We are spelling out exactly what we’re going to do. We are going out and finding money to pay for those programs, and then we are going to launch those programs. And then we are going to hold ourselves accountable, just as the rest of us do in our businesses day to day. We go out; we raise capital. We tell people what we’re gonna do with that capital, and if we don’t do what we said we’re gonna do with that capital, we get held accountable. We know that model very well, and so we’re just gonna take what we do find as a successful model, and we’re going to apply it to this challenge.

Part 2 Transcript

Catherine: UtilityAPI has stated that your leadership team shares no major demographic and this is a big strength of yours as you’ve said, “Diversity makes the business stronger.” Why do you think this is a strength, and what specific strategies can you recommend to other executives looking to attract more diverse staff particularly leadership? As we know when we focus on leadership, we’re not just focused on leadership but we include leadership as part of our strategy that translates into a more diverse staff in general.

Devin: So first I’ll start with our work at UtilityAPI. Diversity: we really talk about this a lot, because it’s true. This happens daily, we in our leadership team, we don’t have any shared history or shared experience. We joke that if we were one of those Venn diagrams, we wouldn’t have any circles overlapping. We actually have too much space sometimes, but that’s really great because we bring different perspectives to the table every day. I think something that probably hasn’t talked much about in these types of like why is diversity good is we all have different capacities for risk tolerance based on our personal backgrounds. And those sometimes shift day-to-day but it’s a big piece because when you’re running a startup, startups are risky just by definition. And depending on how far you lean it out, you could drive the company on the ground or you could have explosive growth. And you’re constantly toying with the difference between those two, and having a diverse team that has different risk tolerances, different lived experience, not only professionally but also just personally, we feel that we make smarter decisions. We know we make smarter decisions based on that interplay between those different strengths.

Catherine: That’s really interesting, and nobody has ever said that to me. I’m really, really glad that you highlighted that because I think it’s such a really great point. You had a LinkedIn post recently, which went viral, where you mentioned diversity, equity, and inclusion in the clean energy industry. Can you tell us a little bit about what you were saying in that post, and elaborate your thinking on it?

Devine: Yeah, so the post came because of a lot of the things that are happening outside of our industry, right. Pandemic for sure, but we have a problem with systematic racism in the U.S. here, and it seemed like this summer because of some very high profile, horrendous things that have been happening to black bodies, the rest of the country seems to be recognizing that. It’s been my whole life of recognizing that, and so I felt that, I don’t know why I wrote this, but I was like maybe I’ll just share on LinkedIn, of all places, my own professional experiences with racism in our industry. Thinking that it was already pretty obvious that we had challenges, and so I wrote a note saying, “Hey what I want to see happen is no longer the only time I see black and brown faces at conferences. I don’t want them just on the diversity and inclusion panel. Let’s see them on the financing the next phase panel, and on the diversity inclusion panel let’s get the white cisgender CEO up there talking about why diversity is good for business.”
And the reason why I said it that way is that really until we as an industry understand that diversity is actually a business driver for us, that having diverse voices around is good for business, it’s always going to be looked at as an “oh we should just do that thing because it’s nice to do.” When that’s actually not the case. Study after study has proven that it’s actually helpful to growing businesses. But I don’t think that conversation is being had. I’ve been asked and seen people say, “Oh let’s get the black leaders to talk about diversity.” I want to flip it and have that uncomfortable position or conversation, or maybe not uncomfortable, where next time you go to a conference it’s actually the other way around. I want it to be a point where it’s not weird to see diverse voices talking about other things besides diversity. Like right now that’s where it is. And when that happens, we will have made ourselves be a stronger industry.

Catherine: You and I have spoken a bit about organizations perhaps begrudgingly hiring diverse candidates, as like a check box exercise. So you tend to have support at the c-suite because the board has realized that they have to do this for public appearances, and then you have H.R. that is obviously normally a fan of these sorts of toppings. But you have that mid- to senior-level manager that sometimes is not overly keen on adopting this, because it may be seen as more work for them to bring people in, or to hire and to train. How do you think that we can get these sorts of hiring managers excited about this?

Devin: Well I think what I hear when you describe it that way, is it sounds like hiring managers are scared to grow, or don’t want to have the challenge of growing. They feel that it’s just work, and it’s not benefiting them or the company. When actually, it’s quite the opposite. Hiring managers can be, I don’t know how you change their minds, but diversity does not help the individual being hired as much as it helps the company as a whole. This whole idea goes back it’s not just in businesses, it’s in schools, and everything else. People are like, “Oh my lord, we’re bringing in folks from different backgrounds,” like it’s gonna slow us down or something. It’s quite the opposite. The people that benefit the most from the diversity are actually the people who aren’t diverse in the first place. Because you’re gonna be exposed to new ideas, new ways of looking at things, hopefully, different perspectives. And we all work in industries where we’re talking about innovation. But what is more innovative than a different way of thinking about getting something done. I would think to that hiring manager that if you want to look good in your next review and you want your group to be doing well, you’re going to want to have some innovation in that group. And one of the quickest ways to get there is to find somebody who has had a completely different living experience than you. Who will be able to point out the gaps, challenges your thought process. We should all want someone challenging our thought process every day.

Catherine: 100 percent.

Devin: I’ve always had folks, mentors, who asked me to do that to them, and I ask people who I work with now. The rest of our leadership team at the office, no one hesitates to say, “What are you thinking?”

Catherine: Right, “what are you thinking there.”

Devin. That’s good, yeah.

Catherine: It’s so, so important.

Part 3 Transcript

Catherine: I want to talk a little bit about the business, UtilityAPI, and the software, the role of software in the clean energy transition. You guys have received rave reviews from customers like Tesla, Engie, EDF. How do you see software and specifically UtilityAPI’s platform accelerating clean energy transition?

Devin: How much time do we have? Software is key. We really feel that the services that we provide through our software are actually fundamental to enabling the clean energy future that we all want. If we’re ever going to have a chance of fighting climate change, software allows for efficiency and optimization, and I can throw one more in there — automation. If you can lower costs using our tools, we standardize data and control consent, who’s allowed to see that data. Those are processes that before we existed that could take over a month just to get the data you needed for a project. So if you’re trying to build solar panels, or buy an electric vehicle, or put a battery in a commercial building, it takes a month just to get the data to build your project. You can do 12 a year. Obviously, you can scale it and have a bunch of teams doing that. With us, that same process can take seconds. And also the cost, if you have the ability to be able to see data quickly and easily and model it quickly, your cost goes down as well in labor. So it’s the idea of software enabling infrastructure, at least the way that we look at it, our software. It is crucial. Without that, I mean could you imagine something people talk about, there’s a problem with the grid right now in California. Actually, you can talk about current times, we have potential to have blackouts because there’s not enough supply on the grid. But it’s really because the grid’s old, and it doesn’t know how to take advantage of the technologies that we have available today. Software utilized correctly actually can help that. It’s the next stage of where this industry needs to go. There’s real-world impacts, and we’re seeing them here in California right now. We can solve those through just cheaper solutions that come because of leveraging what you already have, some new technologies. We really feel that as a climate-fighting company that’s really exciting for us.

Catherine: What do you see the industry trends are for the business model that you have? What are the strongest drivers? You obviously mentioned climate change, the fires. What other drivers are you seeing?

Devin: There’s a few. There is first, there’s making money, right, most companies like to do that, throughout the industry. And right now, things are very inefficient. It’s hard to forecast long-term sales in an environment that is slowly moving. So by bringing software tools to the table in the industry, they can actually help accelerate the change that we all know is happening. It’s much easier to then optimize that transition. The other is we are likely at some point going to have — right now we have clean energy mandates, decarbonization mandates, and so it’s regulatory pressure. The industry though, I think, understands that we’re all moving towards at some point there’s going to be market pressure. There is going to be either a price on carbon or there will be enough incentives in the market. So the idea of changing how we all use energy will be based on price, and I’d say price on purpose. Most people, you ask the random person walking down the street, “Hey you care about saving energy?” They’re like, “sure why not?” Until they want to use their air conditioner and it’s hot. And you’re like, “Oh you want to save energy? Don’t use it.” But if you say, “I’ll save you money. Do you want to save money?” People are willing to get a little warmer if they know they’re saving some real money. So turning those into market-driven processes based on price signals, and the ability for people to make real decisions or to automate those decision-making processes for them. I see the industry going in that direction, and software like ours is a big piece of that.

Catherine: Okay, so I want to talk about Data Hive, the project that you did with Silicon Valley Clean Energy which GTM highlighted. I know it’s one of your favorite projects. Tell us a little bit about it, and any other projects that you’re working on that you’re really excited about.

Devin: That one is great. We’ve been building technology and software for the idea that data sharing should be offered by utilities. That groups like Silicon Valley Clean Energy should be able to enable their customers and their businesses in their area to be able to share data easily. And without going too deep into what that really—that changes the paradigm of what’s possible in the clean-tech sector. So we’ve enabled that, and that’s beyond exciting. But the next step or what sometimes that gets me even more enlivened is the idea that we’re an API. And for those of you all that don’t understand what that means, it just means it’s easiest to connect to something to use it. And so we have a lot of users that just start using our tools for use cases that we couldn’t have even imagined. And the idea that we are enabling innovative, smart, young companies to just come up with new stuff to do with energy data based on our tools is what keeps me super, super excited. Because our job is to make sure that this data infrastructure works. The use cases come from the market outside of us, and that keeps growing. So I can’t wait to see what someone does using us next.

Catherine: Well, I’ll leave it on that note. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Devin: Thank you so much for the opportunity. This has been a blast.