Interview with Esther Morales, Executive Director at CELI

Interview with Esther Morales, Executive Director at CELI

Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI) grew its programming by 40% over the past 2 years. Clean energy fellowship & internship programs like these are critical to enable the industry to scale by educating & training new talent & connecting them with leaders in the industry. In this Green Light episode, Catherine spoke with Esther Morales, Executive Director of CELI, about the recent growth & shifts in their programming & the ways in which the organization is enhancing its focus on diversity, equity, inclusion & energy justice, including through its EDICT fellowship, a joint program offered by CELI, Elemental Excelerator & FutureMap. From working on Obama’s campaign, to working in the White House & for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) & U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Esther has clearly brought a wealth of knowledge & experience to CELI. We are excited to see what more CELI will accomplish this year as a result of Esther’s leadership, as CELI’s fellowship & internship programs are needed now more than ever to help those from outside the industry transition into clean energy.


Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Esther Morales. Thanks for joining me, Esther.

Esther: Catherine. It’s so wonderful to be here. I love your Green Light podcast. I listen to it a lot. It’s one of my favorite podcasts.

Catherine: Oh, thank you so much! 

Esther: And you’re based in California, and I’m calling in from Oakland. 

Catherine: Oh, you’re getting all that rain?

Esther: We did, we got a ton of rain yesterday, maybe it started around five then it’s been okay. Honestly, it’s not going on. I was expecting much worse. 

Catherine: So yeah. The media made it look like there wasn’t going to be an island. any longer.

Esther: Right. And I think Southern California got hit way harder. And I thought we would lose  power. We didn’t. So overall, I feel like we’re in a good place. 

Catherine: Good. Well, for those of you who don’t know, you’re the executive director of CELI, which is the Clean Energy Leadership Institute. It’s an organization that I’m a massive fan of. I learned about through Adam James over at EIP a few years ago. So I really want you to tell us all about CELI and all about your role there.

Esther: Okay, so first I want to tell you the story of CELI and more than anything, I think, CELI is in its 10th year of operations. So the landscape is changed a lot. And imagine 2013 Adam James, and Jackie Wheaton got together and they were really upset about how the first four years of the Obama administration the Waxman Markey Bill had failed. And a lot of folks were upset and wondering, I think young people in the clean energy ecosystem at the time were wondering what can we do? How do we move our agenda forward around it? When we don’t have a lot of policy supports in place. And CELI was born then it held the same name in April of 2013, Adam and Jackie and about six of their other friends about 8 people met for the first time at Boeing, I think in the DMV area in the office there. And they invited a speaker to speak to them about what that speaker thought should happen or what that speakers expertise was in the energy world. And ultimately, they began to- one of them would ask another speaker to speak the next week, and it evolved. That year, they actually incorporated as a nonprofit and Adam and Jackie tapped a few of the most sort of vigorous and energetic folks who have gone through that first set of speaker engagements to create the next set. And this whole rotation of the fellowship was born. And as CELI was started in the Washington, DC area. For the first four years, it only came together in Washington DC. In 2017, Jackie Weidman, became the Executive Director and jumped started a program out here in San Francisco. So for four years, CELI only ever existed in one place. In 2017 we moved to two locations. And then when Liz Dalton Ramsey came on board in 2018. She began to make some really important changes that still  hold true today. And she ultimately ended up starting CELI’s third location in Chicago. I can board the staff had already had plans to start up our fourth city based location in New York City.

What is incredible about this moment if we get from 2010 till till now is that in the last two years, the greatest policy pieces have ever been passed around at the federal level and we’re seeing more and more at the state level as well. And so we now have the Infrastructure Bill that was passed. We have the CHIPS and Science, we have the Inflation Reduction Act or the IRA. And CELI is closing out its first 10 years and really looking towards the next 10 years to try and understand, given now that we have all of these policies supports, what is CELI’s role in the broader ecosystem. And I think getting to put that new story together I think, originally it was, well we don’t have a lot of supports. How can we really support leadership in this area and now we have way more support. And I think that we have a moment where you’re truly able to actually realize a dream of accelerating our transition. And in that, CELI’s purpose is focused on the people side so if our mission is to accelerate the clean energy transition to a resilient, decarbonized and equitable economy, I think within that the way that we do that our method is to really focus on the people side of it and to equip leadership within that to actually begin to understand more deeply the system side and then on the leadership development side begin to get more in touch with their purpose.

Catherine: I noticed that you had worked on the Obamacare, and the EPA and the White House, and DOE, how did you eventually transition into CELI? 

Esther: So I see myself as somebody who consistently wants to change systems and I think actually it resonates with a lot of people. So I got my start in organizing. I soon began to run campaigns, and I ended up working for the Obama administration and partly at the Department of Energy, EPA and at the White House and at every point in time I would say my my purpose was really to try and understand how do we change these systems to bring about the outcomes that we want to see. And part of why I’m here at CELI is because developing leaders have always been bringing people together to do more than you can do as a single person. Something that’s always been part of my past. When I actually first learned about CELI I was working at the governor’s office here in California at the Office of Business and Economic Development Go Biz the Office of Small Business Entrepreneurship in 2020. 

At CELI, I applied as a fellow and I was accepted as a fellow and I was incredibly excited to get started as a fellow in our fellowship program. And I believe the stay at home order came down on March 16 of 2020. And our fellowship started March 20. And I basically started working 16 hour days and I wasn’t able to actually take the fellowship. But about a year later the position opened up and I felt that it had been so deeply important to me moving to a new job moving back to California from New York where I was living to actually engage with a network of individuals who are as curious to learn in California as I was and to actually be knitted together. Sort of in this greater purpose and bringing in energy economy that I felt very compelled to take on this role. And I think, Catherine, that for me it’s been an interesting crash course over the last two years. I’ve been on board for about two years. And when I came on board, CELI was facing its greatest expansion in the eight year period up until that point, so we had only ever done three fellowships COVID was deeply impacting us. We had always gathered in person and our city. We had tried the switch to virtual during 2020 like everybody else. And I was given this huge task of expanding to New York plus a national virtual cohort plus keeping Chicago Bay Area, Washington DC running and launching Edict which is our Empowering Diverse Climate Talent program. 

And we grew in 2021 from serving 100 fellows to serving 170. And then this past year we grew from serving 170 fellows to serving 227. And so if you look sort of at the 10 year history of CELI, we have grown really 40% of the high touch programming that we’ve delivered in the last 10 years has been done in the last two years, which I think is a huge accomplishment and it really speaks to the importance of clean energy education, the importance of people developing a community of practice, and more than anything: the fact that the economy now is at a place where our institutions are not actually meeting the needs of the Clean Energy workforce. So we’ve come a long way. And I’ve come into CELI at a very interesting point in time and the grassroots organizer really focusing on racial justice from the very beginning of my career, and I’m hoping, you know, being part of that huge team that elected the first black president and I feel like it’s always been a value of mine to look at diverse impacts the way that we’re actually opening up access, the way that we are creating more equitable pathways into a clean energy workforce and until leadership development pathways.

Catherine: This is why I really wanted to get you on the program because so many people asked me they’re like, where do you get your candidates from? Like, how do you source those who are so hard to find? And I always felt like somebody that gone through that CELI fellowship program, we’re gonna talk about that next is really in my mind, like a Gold Star stamp.. Like I know that that’s a good candidate because they’ve gone through that program because you’ve obviously vetted them to go that program in the first place. And then they’ve gone through that program. And I also think that, I’m very passionate about net diversity. So getting these diverse candidates into clean energy industry, and I have a lot of clients who are like, we didn’t want to do that and we don’t have time to train them. Right. This is like the number one thing I hear. So this is the fact that you’re doing this fellowship. It gives, you’re sort of taking on a little bit of that responsibility to to get these future leaders up and running for these companies. So please talk a little bit about fellowship program and what it entails. So people are aware.

Esther: Okay, yeah, so the fellowship program is, I think we’re making changes often to respond to the data that we receive and in the previous year, so I think that the last three years so much of our work has been virtual, which has allowed greater access from a lot of different folks from parts of the country that wouldn’t otherwise have tapped into CELI’s programming. So folks from Houston or from Colorado or from, the Southwest or from Southern California and so I think that part of access and equity has to do with connection to communities really across his country. And I think that one of our primary purposes is to continue to sustain that access and actually expand it. So what we’re gonna see in the coming 18 months, Catherine is a little bit different than what we’ve been doing over the last few years. So I think that broadly, CELI ran two fellowships a year up through 2018 and then we moved to a one fellowship per year model. And we implement that 2019 2020 2021 and 2022 and we now are going to open up our doors on January 17. For applications to roll in. And we are kicking off this year’s first fellowship in September. And then from there on, we really hope to do a two fellowship per season if you will, two fellowship cycle per year because I think that in our one of the purposes around expanding access to clean energy education involves both keeping the current programming and our current cities but ideally being able to expand much more. And so this year, we’re looking at doing city based cohorts in the fall and then in January of 2024, through June of 2024, really focusing on our virtual cohorts to try to make sure that we have an access and it will it will actually increase the number of fellows that we can serve per year. Moving from 227 to about 400 per year. 

And then in terms of our actual curriculum. We take fellows through a five module set of sessions. And each module has about three sessions in it. So we start off with energy markets and Energy Finance. We move into new technologies. We look at Deep decarbonisation, we look at policy, and then we move into what we call social adaptation. And energy justice is a new framework that we’ve worked really hard to incorporate into our curriculum and that we’re still working on improving. And instead of having it as its own module, we are trying to work readings, speakers, and actual sessions really focused on entered the various aspects of energy justice, which I can go into a little bit more, but into each of these modules, so that it isn’t a module in and of itself, but it’s really incorporated. I mean, we can do it. I think we could do an entire fellowship just looking at the breakdown of what energy justice means and in all of these areas. We don’t have that time. And so we’re really right now focused on integrating it even more deeply.

Catherine: Yeah. Amazing. What’s the third module?

Esther: So we have five modules that we bring into the fellowship curriculum and within that we have three sessions. The other party I didn’t talk about Catherine, was the leadership development curriculum. And this is something that Liz worked really hard to bring to CELI, and that our board member, Eric Martin, who has been on the board for a while and he runs adaptive change advisors, which is based on bringing a particular leadership development approach and adaptive leadership development approach to the world. Which is something that I learned about when I first came to CELI and I think has been incredibly useful. So  we run our leadership development sessions on our Saturdays, for the most part, and these sessions are intended to help our fellows really connect with their purpose more deeply. They’re aimed at helping fellows try to understand how they are becoming changemakers and leaders, how they navigate the uncertainties of tomorrow, clean energy leadership, I think more than a lot of other sectors is really facing this rapidly evolving world. And I think that in order to understand you know how to move an idea forward or how to actually transform a system that’s blocking what you’re trying to do, it’s really important to be able to step back and reflect on on an approach that will actually help you become a better leader in dealing both with your day to day and in thinking through like how to move mountains in the future. 

Catherine: Interesting. You mentioned earlier about EDICT and I’m a big Devin Hampton fan. So tell us more about EDICT and the internship and how it came about and how it differs from the CELI fellowship program. 

Esther: Yes, so Devin Hampton sits on CELI’s board. And Devin was the co founder of EDICT and in the wake of the George Floyd protests in 2020., Devin took to LinkedIn and really talked about his experience as being a black man and black CEO in the clean energy economy and he put a challenge out to the world. And Jason Lee, one of the cofounders of EDICT stood up in that moment and said Devin, how can I help you? And Devin said what we really need is a program that will actually focus on diverse talent, give people hands-on experience and bring folks into clean tech. 

So he got together with Sarah Chandler of Elemental Accelerator and with Liz and Becca at CELI and this happened before I came on board and 2020. And when I came on board, the board had approved the program that we were running and I got to work with Elemental Accelerator and another organization. Future map run by Shruti. Who we all worked together, I would be remiss not to mention Rosina Contribalo who currently works with CELI as the EDICT Director, and Rosita has has been formative in designing the curriculum and what edict is is a business workforce partnerships so a mental future map and see like I’ll play different roles in this partnership. CELI’s main role is to develop a mini CELI Fellowship curriculum, if you will. So a clean energy education curriculum that supports and bolsters interns over a 10 week period. And the interns go through an application and selection process. They’re interviewed by employers that agree to work with Elemental Accelerator around a community of practice looking at equity and access in their companies. They hire interns into clean energy jobs over a 10 week period and the interns for the most part are sophomores, juniors, or more recent graduates in college, and they may even be a year or two years out of college but the idea of actually support talent that is interested in pursuing a career in clean energy but doesn’t actually know what that means. And part of CELI’s unique value that we bring to the partnership is that we we of course are connected to almost 1000 fellows at this point who are practitioners in the clean energy ecosystem, there is able to to be worked into our 10 week curriculum as speakers, as coaches, for lack of a better word, as people that the interns can actually develop a connection with interview, talk to them about their real world experience and moving and navigating the career through clean energy.

Catherine: This is really interesting to me because I didn’t realize this was the level that you all we’re doing this at. Because when I think of CELI, I think one of the reasons why it hits so close to home with me is because I got into energy when I was 30, as like a second chapter I always say. When I see CELI folks, it seems like they have had some years of experience, some career before they then go into the program. So it’s nice with this EDICT internship it looks like you’re now also working with some more junior folks. So that’s great.

Esther: Yeah. Folks who may have actually they may be mission driven and interested in cleaner but they have zero experience like they may have programming skills or comm skills.

Catherine: I mean, they didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do when they were in high school, so bizarre.

Esther: Yeah, and the energy ecosystem is so complex it is very difficult if you’re not in it, to actually understand what are all the opportunities available. This is really meant to make the energy ecosystem less opaque.

Catherine: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And I think as time goes on, it’s getting more and more complex which is fantastic. There’s so many positives to that, that you’re right. Like I have so many candidates who are just like I don’t know where in this ecosystem I’m trying to get myself into I just know I want to be involved in a mission driven so this is really awesome. You guys are addressing that. So from conferences, workshops and webinars, the fellowships to book clubs, CELI has a lot going on. What are you most looking forward to in 2023?

Esther: I am really looking forward to community building, I think that over the last year, so the impact of COVID has been inescapable. I worry that because we did a lot of our programming online that we weren’t able to build the deepest relationships, the reason that CELI is actually known. Its reputation is really built on the folks that built really deep relationships early on and I worried that we weren’t adequately creating the opportunities to bring people together in person and I think we’re finally out of that insanity of the last three years. And I feel very focused on bringing our community together again. And I think in the early days, speakers would come out once a week and everybody would get together once a week and I’m not sure there’s appetite for that, but I certainly want to make sure that whether we are running our in person city based cohorts or whether we are running our virtual cohorts that we’re really focusing on more hikes more walks around Lake Merritt more more picnics. I think that we’re trying to bring in more food and not necessarily making all our committee building happening at really noisy bars where you can’t hear each other but I think that I’m really trying to look for I have a dream that at some point, we can do something like big camping trips or big hikes together that we can do something like a Climate ride, those kinds of things. Yeah. I hope that we can, that we can build that this year. 

Catherine: I really really really like your approach this year of like the 50/50. Rebuilding that sort of in person in those four cities, but also giving people the ability that wouldn’t aren’t in those four cities an opportunity to get involved in this. Great, great idea who came up with that? Idea? Did you come up with it?

Esther: Especially in the Bay Area, we’re so lucky because a hike is a second way right? And yeah, good calm and it’s free and it doesn’t cost money and in that way we want to bring back the in person part that made CELI just so valuable. So that’s that for folks looking to have nerdy conversations about energy with other folks. Great and nice and kind and fun. 

Catherine: The networking piece, the networking piece is so so so important, especially if you’re taking people into these programs that aren’t from the space. Like half of the battle is just knowing the right people to speak to right so it’s like just having that network is so invaluable. So how can people get involved with CELI? Either as an employer or fellow or otherwise?

Esther: So employers can actually look at their staff and try and understand who would really benefit from going to our CELI program and then support any of their employees to get involved. A company that has already done that, fully taken advantage of CELI’s fellowship program. We would love to do a partnership with any company that is looking to support leadership development and clean energy to our corporate sponsorship program: Corporate Partners Program. Then, obviously, we are super excited we’re expanding our city based cohorts from approximately 38 to 50 this year, we’re adding more spots. So we will have if you’re looking to apply as a fellow. I think that we have more spots available this year in each of our city based cohorts that are and then we are running our virtual programming in January through June of 2024. I don’t want to forget about that.

Catherine: Thank you so much Esther for your time and for sharing all the great work that you guys are doing at CELI. I wish you the best of luck.

Esther: Thank you so much for having me on Green Light!. We’ll talk soon. 

Catherine: Take care.