Interview with Elizabeth Kaiga, CCO at DNV | Energy Equity & Navigating Your Career as an 'Outsider'
As an American with Kenyan heritage and a multicultural upbringing that includes formative years in India, Elizabeth Kaiga brings a highly unique & necessary lens to the energy transition. Our CEO spoke with Elizabeth, DNV’s Chief Commercial Officer for Energy Systems in North America, at her office in Virginia. They spoke about her unconventional career path in the energy industry – starting from when she interned for the United Nations Environmental Programme, to then working at several global professional service firms. We especially loved hearing from Elizabeth about how she has successfully navigated her career as someone with a multicultural background & who has often been an ‘outsider’, as well as about the new energy equity offerings DNV is now providing to its clients.
Elizabeth has been on the Board of WRISE for 7 years now & shared more with Catherine about the ways in which the organization is directly impacting lives through fellowships, job boards, mentoring, networking opportunities & its speakers bureau. She also highlighted the strong impact of WRISE’s corporate sponsors, including Google, Edison Energy, SOLV, RWE, Cordelio Power, MCE, Orsted, Qcells, Lightsource bp, Copia Power, AES, Longroad Energy and DNV. Elizabeth has also been on the Board of Solar Sister, a nonprofit that has helped over 10,000 women in Sub-Saharan Africa (an emerging market) gain access to clean energy solutions in off-grid communities and create clean energy businesses. Thank you, Elizabeth, for all that you do for our industry!
Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Elizabeth Kaiga. She’s the Chief Commercial Officer at DNV in North America. Thank you for joining me, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: Thank you for inviting me to have this conversation.
Catherine: So let’s stop by the Dylan green headquarters, that is my house on the way to the airport. And so I’m really excited to have her join me. Can you introduce yourself and tell us more about your current role at DNV?
Elizabeth: Absolutely. My current role at DMV is Chief Commercial Officer. Within the Energy Systems Group at DMV, and in North America is the region that I’m focused on. In that capacity I lead our commercial strategy and related activities. With a focus on customer centricity and quality assurance. DNV for those who are not familiar with the brand, is an innovative engineering firm with expertise in Testing Certification, technical advisory services, and we offer those services across the entire energy value chain. But I should also specify we also work in a few other sectors beyond energy. For purposes of this conversation. We’re obviously focused on the energy conversation. DNV support our clients in navigating the energy transition by offering solutions and services to make sure that we do this in a way that is reliable, and safe. And happy to be here.
Catherine: Cool. I’m interested in hearing more about your upbringing because it is a very interesting upbringing. You’re an American of Kenyan descent who grew up in India and has dealt firsthand with energy access challenges. Did your upbringing influence you to focus your career on clean energy?
Elizabeth: I would say indirectly, okay. And I will stop by just referencing the fact that I’m part of a generation of kids that were referred to as Third Culture kids. I think the politically correct term now is cross cultural kids. Okay. And so this is a term that pertains to a group of people that have a hard time answering the question why you throw simply kind of And so essentially, the reason why I bring up the cross cultural upbringing, is because I feel that that enriched my experience in many different ways. As you mentioned, being of Kenyan descent, having spent a lot of my formative years, up until high school in India, and at a boarding school that is at the foothills of the Himalayas, and fun fact, whether the Lama lives in exile, so he was a regular visitor to the school. So just a little side note, but that experience while it didn’t directly impact my career choices in energy, I think what it did is give me a very unique perspective on energy challenges especially as pertains to energy access, energy, affordability, energy availability, right. And so I think that lens is what I bring to my career and has been really impactful in the work that I do and sort of how I view the industry and the future of the industry as well.
Catherine: And it probably always gives you that sort of inclusion lens like you’re always wanting to make sure that everyone is coming on this journey of energy transition, right. You had an internship with the UN Environment Program in Kenya, where you focused on women in the environment. How did you make your way into your current role as Chief Commercial Officer at DMV, do you have any advice for others looking for similar path?
Elizabeth: If I reference back to that internship, it would age me because it was so long ago. So I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s a direct correlation between that particular internship. But again, like my prior answer, there’s a lot of things that are intertwined. So that internship, again, opened my eyes to some of the challenges in emerging markets right now. The United UNEP, which is the United Nations Environmental Program is actually headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. Okay, internship was so I would say that that definitely gives you a different perspective in terms of my career. When I look at it, just as I was reflecting on this conversation, I’ve worked for two engineering firms and I’m not an engineer. I’ve worked for two accounting firms. A lot of accountants or a CPA. So when I look at my career, I think what I would say is it’s been unconventional, right? It hasn’t necessarily when we’re given career advice, sometimes we’re led to believe that the right career is sort of like a straight path. Yeah, with very specific guidance on how you get to the top. And I would just say, that’s not really the reality. So for me, my path was more unconventional. If I had to give advice to another or something that I would say that it is perfectly fine to take the road less traveled. I would especially say that for women because I think again our career paths are a little there’s unique challenges that come that are faced by not just women but also underrepresented communities. So I would say you know, one piece of advice that I will say is that it’s okay to take that road that’s less traveled and get there in a different way. I would also say that, again, kind of leveraging all the context of being raised across cultures. I also discovered some power and being the outsider, an outsider, because you’re constantly having to define and build your own sort of alternative. And so I think a vast experience growing up that way is also pretty empowering not only in terms of being able to relate in so many different ways across cultures, but also being able to successfully navigate as an outsider. And we can define that in many different ways, in a corporate environment as well.
Catherine: Yes to being able to sort of integrate anywhere that you find yourself, any situation that you find yourself in because you’re able to sort of I think what’s interesting about that is like you probably have a lot of independence because you’ve been in that situation, but then you’re also able to sort of read the room quite quickly, and know how to navigate it.
Elizabeth: And I think one of the things already just stay on that for a second is also you’re also very comfortable with discomfort right? Because you’re never like an environment. You know, growing up in India, I don’t perfectly fit in. So I think that also gives you that elemental we often use this in diversity, terminology, the whole get comfortable with being uncomfortable, but this is really a true test.
Catherine: Right. It’s such a good point. And one of the things I always say when people talk about career paths and everything I’m always like life is what happens when you’re making plans for it. I just firmly believe that and especially think there’s a woman, so much of our career is dictated right. Unfortunately or fortunately by our personal life and so, that’s not always so predictable. So what’s the work that you’re most proud of having accomplished at DMV?
Elizabeth: That’s a bit of a tough one because there’s so many things. Yeah so it’s like, trying to pick like your favorite. I don’t know, it’s a tough one. But I would say, as I look at it, coming from a role where I’m in a commercial leadership role. I think one of the things that I’m proud of is building a strong commercial culture within the organization. And specifically within my region, because my role is a little bit more North America centric. And what that sort of translates into is DNV is a customer focused organization. Not just in the sense of giving and empowering our customers with insights and strategies and solutions, but also doing that in a way that ensures reliability and safety. We’re very focused on safety, as we not only strengthen existing technologies, but also explore new technologies within the clean energy. So that’s kind of a big focus of the firm. So I would say the commercial culture element is something that I take great pride in. I’m proud of having sat on the first ever global diversity equity inclusion board at DNV. I think a lot of firms that are being honest, would say they have a lot of work to do. I have yet to come across the firm that has accomplished in the same way we have a lot of work to do. But we’re headed in the right direction. So that’s another thing that I would say I do take pride in. And last but not least, and this is very important to me both personally and professionally, is the fact that DNV did roll out within our service offering energy equity services. This is a solution and a service that we offer to many different clients that we work with regulators, utilities developers, but essentially helping them think about how to build equity into their strategies into their projects into their thought process and that’s interesting in a way that not only betters their business right but also betters our our industry.
Catherine: Now is that something like that is a consultancy thing that you do and that’s just like included in everything you do like in the DNA of what you do.
Elizabeth: Correct, so it’s a service offering that we offer through one of our groups, but it kind of bleeds into every every other sector within the energy space. And obviously we have to be sensitive to what clients are looking for some of the needs that a utility would have are slightly different than what an investor should be, for example, but being able to even provide that sort of platform so people are more intentional about the way that they approach the business I think is is a huge accomplishment.
Catherine: I love that so I have my next question which is a long question that you kindly put together. Please, it was like I thought you’d like it short but I’m going to do a long question for Elizabeth. So here we go. More than one in every four years households faces a high energy burden, spending at least 6% of household income on energy, compared to a national average of 3.1%. While clean energy technologies are increasingly available in the US, access to it is not equitable. What are your thoughts around ensuring an equitable clean energy transition in the US?
Elizabeth: Gosh, yeah. And part of why I thought that was important is because we’re going to talk a little bit later about some of the boards that I serve on, and the conversation will maybe go into a different market than the United States. But it’s just to also be able to remember that we still have an inequity and energy access issue in the United States. And so this, the statistics you share, are relevant to that. One of the other statistics and I’m just going to look at my notes because I want to be correct on this is that if you look at solar, for example, right. Solar has benefited higher income households, which are four times more likely to adopt it than low income families, even though 42% of residential rooftop is in low to moderate income communities. So what does that say about access? It says, the way that we’ve structured it and I know that the IRA, there’s a little bit more of equity actors that are trying to level the playing field, I do have to recognize that the three level exam is a relatively recent addition. But if you’re looking at this just purely in the way that as an industry, we’ve rolled it out, we’ve essentially said well, if you don’t hold on your home no solar for you. You can’t if you don’t hit a certain FICO score, which I don’t know what, not for you. So I think part of that is also just trying to think about how do we do this in such a way that the benefits of clean energy and I picked on solar in this instance, but generally that those benefits are shared by all right, in the US, so And in thinking about this, there’s a few different I don’t know if I should call them triggers, but a few different things that I think could be helpful. We just covered the Aerie. Right, that’s a policy mechanism. And I think making sure that we’re thinking about climate policy in a very intentional way, both at a state and federal level, is pretty important in terms of just, again, leveling that playing field and making sure that everybody can benefit. I often talked about financing. It’s always really weird, not a conference when you have a bunch of bankers and other types of investors and you ask them an equity question. Because I don’t think that is something that it’s getting better, but I don’t think that’s something that that sector has always led with.
Catherine: It’s interesting that you mentioned this because I’m just in the process of working. I’ve been doing some work with green banks, like DC Green Bank, whatever county Green Bank, New York Green Bank, and this is something I find fascinating, like really being able to like focus on the county level or the city level, small loans. Or small projects that are really going at the grassroots level within these communities. Do you have any experience speaking with orgs like that?
Elizabeth: I mean, I’ve spoken to not the smaller ones, but I’ve spoken to slightly larger financial institutions. And have conversations around just even the underwriting process. So when you do your underwriting for a community solar project, because that’s one way to make it accessible to others, right? Do those underwriting criteria need to change? Do you need to explore it differently to make it more equitable? It’s a question. You know, I’m not on the financing side of the business.
Catherine: It is not accusatory either. I’m sure you’re asking genuinely like, are we looking at this right? I think sometimes it’s women, it’s like, everybody’s like, Oh, God. It’s like no, “just asking”.
Elizabeth: We need to ask. I think it’s a question that the financing sector needs to ask, right? How do we make it more equitable? The other piece that I often bring up is the ESG, which is very heavily focused on the E. A lot less so on the S&G but the S&G are pretty important. In terms of making sure that things are equitable, the E environmental, I think a lot of people like, Yep, got that. Let’s talk about governance. Do we have that right. So I think, again, just looking at that a little bit more holistically, especially with reporting on ESG, and being more transparent about that, and that could be a lot of things. It could include diversity on boards, it could include so if we look at that a little bit more holistically, I think that’s also another aspect of the conversation that I think needs to change. And then last, but not least we talked about different sort of deployment models that community solar, but last but not least, I think jobs and I think that’s kind of your specialty. So thinking about ways to again, make that process more inclusive. Yeah. You know, as the industry gets bigger as there is more opportunities, how are we making it work such that we’re creating a more robust workforce. Yeah. That includes women that includes underrepresented communities how do we make more progress, significant progress on that front.
Catherine: Right it’s flexible around being in the office requirements. So you’ve been on the board of WRISE. That’s I think that’s how we know each other originally through WRISE. We saw each other we I think we met in person for the first time at the WRISE leadership forum and
Elizabeth: What an incredible event that was.
Catherine: It was an incredible event. I just really enjoy, I really liked the size of it as well, like I felt it was more manageable than some of the other conferences but so you’ve been on the board there for seven years. Can you share some specific examples of ways in which WRISE has supported women in their clean energy career path?
Elizabeth: Yeah. So I should qualify that by saying we don’t think of women as a monolithic kind of population. So, sometimes the way that support looks from a rights perspective depends on where they are in their career. So I think some of the ways that I feel like WRISE has had a really good impact is the fellowship programs, for example. And so these are scholarships that in year two that have been running for a long time that the majority of the board are familiar with are things like the right buyer fellowship program, when our backs sort of focus more on the wind side of the business. There’s been, as the industry has evolved solar programming as well in that regard, but essentially opportunities to not only promote those careers for new entrants, but also create opportunities for them to network within the industry whether that’s reclass or ACB. We always have a pretty large event and collaboration with ACP or CMC bar. That gives us those candidates visibility at those kind of events facilitates networking, right. We hope that’s where opportunities are created in terms of jobs as well. mentorship and peer mentorship, whether it’s at a more junior level for new entrants into the industry, or even career or trying to create a space for executive women as well because they have different challenges to also kind of gather and share experiences, I think is another way that that works. We have a pretty active job board program where we post you know, we work with a lot of our corporate sponsors to highlight some of the jobs that are available in the industry. And then top leadership as well as promoting thought leadership with our speaker bureau, which a lot of the more seasoned and experienced women can sort of position themselves as potential speakers. We don’t want to hear the constant refrain that we get when we question why a lot of industry panels do not have diversity. So we’re trying to help solve that problem.
Catherine: That doesn’t exist no, I love that speaker bureau. I got approached by them to do an event I think was solar positive, California, which I couldn’t do but I think it’s such a great idea just because it does take the mystery out of where these people are. And so you just have a one stop shop kind of thing. So what are some of the top reasons why you think people should join or support WRISE?
Elizabeth: Because all these awesome things that I just shared with you? Guess what? It takes money. So we welcome corporate sponsors. And I think this is a mutually beneficial relationship. Obviously, you help advocate and promote the advancement of women in the industry through WRISE. But I also think it ties in well with a lot of corporate sponsors that are also pursuing specific initiatives. Within their DEI program or within their corporate initiatives. I think there’s good alignment there. I also think that you can join WRISE even if it’s not a corporate sponsorship, you can join as an individual member. The cost is very reasonable. And if you’re a student, we can even give you a more reasonable rate. But essentially, the other reason would be to kind of be part of that community. Create a community around you. That can support you in many ways. As you know, WRISE has 39 chapters and is growing and that means we’re in 39 cities. Which probably means about at least 30 plus states. It’s very rare that a state has more, Pennsylvania might be the exception and Texas, because I actually did help with them. Launching the Houston chapter, we also have a strong Austin chapter. So there are states that have multiple cities. But generally what the local chapter does is give you an opportunity to engage with WRISE at a very local level, right? Whether it’s from local issues or just being able to meet with people in person, I think is another really good reason to join and kind of build that community around you.
Catherine:Yeah, that’s one of the things I like about it the most. It’s like National that you have your sort of local chapter if you like. So my last question is about Solar Sister. So you’ve been on the board of Solar Sister for nearly three years. Can you talk about what Solar Sister is and why you support this organization? Because they know their solar sisters. And then but there’s in the OG Solar Sister.
Elizabeth: So Solar Sisters as publicized by Abby.
Catherine: So different you should have franchised this.
Elizabeth: She didn’t have the ‘s’. So Solar Sister as an organization is an organization that is active and maybe I’ll just take a step back and say when I did that unit internship I talked about earlier. One of the things that I learned talking about is in emerging markets, and in Sub Saharan Africa, specifically, it’s women that bear the burden of energy poverty. And the negative impact of of climate change. So Solar Sister and why I joined this organization is because SOlar Sister believes that, again, women can be part of that solution and should be. I liked the fact that the focus is not only on bringing clean climate solutions to Sub Saharan Africa. And I should also specify, the solar system is only focused on off grid communities. So okay there’s obviously big cities, which I might have different challenges. But we’re looking at what we sometimes refer to as the last mile, so those are more rural communities. I love the fact that that model not only brings clean energy solutions, very simple couldn’t be a clean cooking stove, right that makes a heck of a difference. Could be a lantern that makes a difference could be a small solar panel. But the fact that it also creates an entrepreneurial opportunity for those women to also make money. So it’s a revenue generating model as well, I think is pretty powerful. And so that’s why I’m such a big supporter of that organization. As you mentioned earlier, being of Kenyan heritage that ties me closer to the continent. And this is an opportunity to have an impact in a really meaningful way.
Catherine: Right? It’s called like micro businesses. Is that cool term? Yeah. Well, thank you so much for stopping by.
Elizabeth: And one other thing that I should say it’s really important to Solar Sister. In 2018 Solar Sister made a commitment to get to 10,000 women intrapreneurs by this year. And as of a few days ago, we have exceeded that number. We’re now in excess of 10,000 women entrepreneurs that have benefited from this model. So that’s a just another thing that I wanted to throw out there because I think it’s a pretty it’s great when you set an ambitious milestone and you actually hit that.
Catherine: How many people are involved with Solar Sister?
Elizabeth: We have a pretty decent size board. Lots of experience. Men and women on the board, I should mention that. And a lot of them have had experience in emerging markets, whether it was working with companies like Chevron in Africa and other places, or working with development agencies and banks. So we have a board that helps drive that vision. We also have a really incredible network on the ground in each country. So it currently operates in three countries currently. So that’s Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria. And in each of those countries, there’s a country leader, as well as a team, because this has to be you know, you can’t execute this without having people on the ground that believe in this vision but can also be the face of this organization. And so we have a pretty powerful team that we also deploy locally, in addition to the board that I just described,
Catherine: Well, thank you for stopping by and visiting me telling us all about your incredible journey. I really appreciate it.
Elizabeth: Thank you. Thank you for having me.