Interview with Gilbert Campbell, Co-Founder and CEO of Volt Energy
Catherine talks with Gilbert about his background in clean energy, his work on the SEIA board with diversity and inclusion initiatives, his advice for entrepreneurs and more.
Part 1 Transcript
Catherine: I’m Catherine McLean Founder and CEO of Dylan Green, and today I have with me Gilbert Campbell. Gilbert is the CEO of Volt Energy, and is based in Arlington, Virginia He is my neighbor! Welcome Gilbert!
Gilbert: Thank you, and thank you for having me Catherine, I appreciate it, neighbor.
Catherine: I wish we could do this in person. Maybe next time. Gilbert, tell us a little bit about your background, and your current company and your role.
Gilbert: Sure. I am originally from Philadelphia, I say that because football kicks off on Sunday and I am a diehard Philadelphia sports fan, growing up. I went to Howard University. I worked in corporate America for about 10 years after that, primarily doing management consulting, as well as biotech sales, and got into management. In 2007, my business partner, Antonio Francis, and I co-founded the company but it was a walking business plan for two years, we still had full time jobs. So we really launched the company in 2009, that is when it became a full time venture.
Catherine: What made you decide to launch volt?
Gilbert: Great question. I always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. So every job I did led to skill sets that would lead to me becoming an entrepreneur but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. An opportunity came in 2006-2007 to help a wind developer do sales in North America. So Antonio, who co-founded the company with me, we both went to Panama, for example, we were working to try to get a wind farm developed there. In that process, I started to understand that clean energy makes sense. Because outside of payroll, for most organizations and large companies, utility costs are the second highest line item. So if you can do a social good where you can help a company or organization save in the bottom line but by doing so in an environmentally responsible way, that’s also helping our planet, and creating a carbon free energy future, it just makes sense. So I know I wanted to be, an entrepreneur has some level of social good, and solar provided that opportunity.
Catherine: I know exactly how you feel. Recently, you have taken on a couple of new roles, on boards, such as SEIA and AABE, the American Association of Blacks in Energy. Can you talk a little bit about what you are trying to accomplish in those roles?
Gilbert: Yeah. So first off, both of those organizations are led by wonderful women, at SEIA Abby Hopper, and at AABE Paula Glover who I have the utmost respect for, they don’t need us, they can run it themselves! It has been an awesome experience and humbling experience to be on both boards. I just joined the AABE board, SEIA I have been on a little longer. Part of my responsibility on both boards is just to help the organization think through their vision and strategy, moving forward for the next 5 or 10 years. Also thinking about policies and different things that they should implement. Then especially in the times that we are in right now, a big component of what both organizations are doing a very good job of grappling with is racial disparities and social justice initiatives that are going across the country. Part of what I do, for example, on the SEIA board I am part of the Diversity Inclusion task force, where we’re trying to set forth best practices for the industry to follow as it relates to all items related to diversity and inclusion. When we get to AABE, AABE has a 5 pillar program, as far as best practices for equity in energy, so it’s helping them to get that message out to the broader industry. Both wonderful organizations have exemplary leaders, I am just happy to serve for.
Catherine: There is one thing that I just wanted to quickly ask you. Going back to you being an entrepreneur and becoming a co-founder of Volt. What advice would you have for people looking to take on a role like that, for other entrepreneurs?
Gilbert: Yeah, I would say think big, dream big, have a lot of naysayers. Then work your plan. It takes a long time. If you think it’s going to be six months it’s going to be 18 months. If you think you need to raise $1 million dollars, raise $5 million dollars. These are lessons that I have learned. Things take a little longer than what you expect, you need a little more money than what you expect. But if you dream big and you really work your plan and execute it. There is nothing that you can’t do. I would just say, I also believe, serve first. I try to give as much back as I can to the community, partners that I work with, and I think that when you do the right thing and plant those seeds, down the road you have people who say: what can I do to assist your growing? Don’t lose track of who you are, find things that you are passionate about and if you can marry that to whatever entrepreneurial business that it is that you are running. That is some advice that I have.
Catherine: Great. Talk a little bit about solar PPA contracts, minority owned businesses. So corporates bought a record amount of green energy through PPA’s in 2019, that’s up more than 40% from the prior year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Are diverse companies benefitting from this tremendous growth? And, if not, why not? And what can be done to ensure minority owned businesses are benefiting equally?
Gilbert: That’s a great question. The answer would be no. That’s a big passion of mine, to highlight this issue. Corporations are signing these large PPA’s, most of them have very strong supply diversity programs and are doing great jobs in other areas. Because this is somewhat of a new area, I think they haven’t necessarily thought about diversity in the nexus, comparing it to sustainability or with solar or wind, for example. It is a big issue because when you look at, especially when you are talking about black and brown communities, those are the communities that got all the worst aspects of bad environmental policy, living near fossil fuel power plants, close to 70% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal power plant. So if we are building clean power plants, as you can see all those PPAs are creating long term wealth for businesses, the communities that got all the bad aspects of bad climate policy, really should be benefiting from having clean energy power plants in their communities, job creation, and wealth creation. So the reason I am so passionate about that, a Power Purchasing Agreement can be 10 years, it can be a 20 year contract that’s creating real capital and real wealth. That is something that in underserved communities really should be building some of that wealth. Unfortunately, it is not happening, but part of my job is to make sure that it does, not just for Volt but for other companies across the board, to make sure they are participating and getting some of these large and long term contracts. The last thing I’ll say is, when you talk to most entrepreneurs, and especially entrepreneurs of color, access to capital is usually a big hindrance. So when you talk about signing a Power Purchasing Agreement with a large fortune 500 company, because they are a strong counterparty, and you’re signing a contract with someone you know is going to be around 10, 15, 20 years from now, it makes raising capital not as much of a hindrance as it normally is because they see who your client is.
Part 2 Transcript
Catherine: I want to talk a little bit more about Volt Energy and some of the projects that you have worked on. So Volt has a range of clients, from the US Army to the Cheesecake Factory, I love the Cheesecake Factory, to Howard University, your alma mater. What’s your favorite project that Volt has implemented and why?
Gilbert: Oh wow! (chuckles) Put me on the spot with my favorite project! They’re all my favorite. I’ll say this, each project has been unique. But you probably can tell, I am really committed to our work in the community. The projects that we have worked on have had a direct impact on the community and particularly with young people. For example, Howard University where we have students involved in School of Business, School of Engineering, untraditional schools that you might not think a solar company would be working with, School of Communications, where they are helping us with press releases and how we develop marketing, also with the little kids. We’ve done some projects with the KIPP Charter schools, and explaining to second and third graders how their iPads get power and how they will be the ones running the country smarter with better cleaner energy policy so they are our future leaders. Any time I can get a chance to work with young people or on community projects, like KIPP, Wake Forest, Howard University. And we have also done some projects with African American churches, we are doing a project with a synagogue now, where not only are you helping that organization but it’s members as well too, to talk about what they can do, what they can take home, as it relates to solar and energy efficiency.
Catherine: That’s great, I like that! Talking about greater equity, through your solar projects, what example could you give around environmental justice in underserved communities and some of the projects you might have been involved with that address that?
Gilbert: Sure, a lot of the projects. For example, Florida Avenue Baptist church, which is project we probably did 8 years ago, it was the first African American church to install solar energy. And it is right in the heart of Washington D.C., on Florida Avenue as you can tell by the name. And when I met with the pastor and presented the idea of doing solar, he is a visionary, Dr. Earl Trent, he saw how it would impact, not just saving on utility bills, but the greater good for the younger people in the church to look at this as an industry. That goes back to the point I was saying earlier about the communities, the underserved communities that have been hit the hardest, should be in the front line as far as the positive aspects. That is a great story where we were able to successfully do a solar project there, and if you were to do a tour there now, especially on the weekend, one of the youth in the church would give you a tour and then explain to you how solar works, how kilowatt-hours work, DC versus AC electricity, just kind of having that impact. Then the other thing we did at Florida Avenue, is we helped them establish a green ministry, so not just dealing with solar but the members of their church, especially the older members that have limited income, walking them through how to read their utility bills, which can be very hard to read. So that’s an example of how we have done work in the community. I mentioned the KIPP charter schools, where we have come in and done workshops to students about careers in energy and how energy works. Then, Howards, a real time example of them using every school within the campus to make sure that students are part of the process, and they are looking at clean energy as a real career to explore.
Catherine: I really like that example of working with older members of the church on their utility bill because I’m sure there’s also some opportunity for cost savings there, that they were not even aware of. Especially with poverty being so prevalent among that community.
Gilbert: It’s kinda back to my point earlier, when you do the right thing, and you show up; that project was probably our smallest project that we’ve done. And we did a ribbon cutting ceremony there, Lisa Jackson, who was the EPA administrator under President Obama at the time, gave keynote remarks. Tom Graham, who was the president of Pepco at the time was there, as well as a host of other dignitaries. And that project went viral, National Geographic did a special on it, so it just shows that – that was the goal – we didn’t think it would take off like that, but it was ‘Let’s encourage other churches, other community organizations, and underserved communities to really think about solar,’ and I commend Florida Avenue for their leadership, in being the first to do so.
Catherine: That’s great, and I’m sure there are other churches that contact them for advice, and it’s self perpetuating. My final question is what are some ways that Volt has facilitated greater Diversity Equity and Inclusion internally, we have talked a lot about externally, but what about things like board members, using diverse subcontractors, or otherwise? And what are top recommendations that you can give other clean energy companies to do the same?
Gilbert: That’s a great question. So, I think it’s a misconception being that we are a majority minority owned firm that we don’t have work to do. But, being honest, we have a lot of work to do as it relates to Diversity Equity and Inclusion in our own company. So one of the first things that I identified, and we are addressing now, looking at our board, we have a lack of women. And I am excited that we got one woman that is going to join, I can’t announce that yet, we have so many wonderful, qualified candidates. But that’s the area that we have identified after looking internally, and we are taking steps to address. Also, looking at our supply chain. We buy goods and services to run our business, and make sure that we have a supply diversity program. We’re a small little medium company but looking at what large companies do, they have strong supply diversity programs with specific goals. We have set a goal internally to spend 30% of our goods and services with diverse firms. So that’s another example. I would say this relates to our day to day role of developing solar projects. Being a developer, were able to select the installer that builds the project for us, the company that’s going to do operation and maintenance, and again these are 10-20 year projects. That’s work for a significant period of time. So we have been intentional in looking for African American, Latino, women-owned companies that work with us. And we have actually had some success. We found a very strong African American solar installer that we are using for our projects. We’re working with an African American engineering firm that’s helping us with interconnection, which can also be a nightmare when you are connecting the solar system with a utility company. And we’re going to continue to pursue other partners that work with – you hear all the time, well they’re not diverse firms in this space – well there are. And if they are not then you need to create opportunities, whether it’s having them serve as a sub with a larger company but in a real way, not where they are just showing up superficially, but they are able to build their capacity and eventually be able to stand on their own too. We definitely have more work to do and are fully committed to making sure that we are doing the best that we can do for diversity and inclusion. So your last part, I guess the question was, what would I recommend for other companies to do? I would say, start at your board level. If you have a diverse board, we tend to hire and have an affinity for people that we know, but by having a diverse group on your board brings new relationships outside of our comfort zone. So I think that’s important. I also think it’s extremely important for your leadership team to be diverse. I would say, not of just board, but also leadership team, and then recruiting, so what does your pipeline look like? Are you going out to historically black college universities, are you going out and being aggressive and finding the future women leaders for your companies. But then also, when you are in the company, do you have affinity groups to make sure that the diversity and inclusion is part of your cultural DNA? Do people feel safe in the company, do they feel respected? Those are some things that I would say. Lastly, again going back to, think about, for business owners, all the money that you spend to run your business and subcontracting opportunities and really try to look for diverse firms, there are a lot of them that are out there. That’s where, going back to organizations like SEIA and AABE can also help point resources to say – we’re looking for a diverse firm and xyz in energy. That’s where both of those organizations can serve as a wonderful resource.
Catherine: Great, well thank you so much for your time, Gilbert.
Gilbert: Thank you Catherine, this has been fun.