Interview with Julia Hamm, CEO & President of Smart Electric Power Alliance

Interview with Julia Hamm, CEO & President of Smart Electric Power Alliance

What was it like to become the President & CEO of Smart Electric Power Alliance at the age of 27? I recently spoke with Julia Hamm about this, the value of taking significant risks to make big career moves, salary negotiation and her personal champions. 

We also discussed SEPA’s robust, specific diversity, equity & inclusion initiatives, incl. a Board of Directors target of 40% of seats being filled by underrepresented groups as well as gender parity. We also spoke about SEPA TV, which has been highlighting utilities who are keeping their foot on the pedal when it comes to decarbonization, despite the pandemic, as well as critical topics like environmental justice & a just clean energy transition.

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, another neighbor, in Arlington, Virginia, Julia Hamm, CEO of SEPA. Thanks for joining me Julia. 

Julia: Thanks so much for having me. I’m looking forward to it. 

Catherine: You’ve had such an incredible track record from founding Solar Power International, which we all love and miss dearly, to leading the Smart Electric Power Alliance, SEPA, as CEO and President for nearly 17 years, to being the Chair of the Board of Directors of CELI, the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, which we all think so highly of. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?

Julia: Yeah, sure, you’ve hit the highlights! A lot of people ask me – how did I get to where I am? – and I would have to say it wasn’t really intentional, it wasn’t by design. When I went off to college, a story I often tell, when I was in high school, I remember I was sitting in my favorite chair in my parents living room and going through the book of majors, which was literally like 1-2 inches thick, and I was going through it and circling anything that looked remotely interesting to me. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I actually entered college as a Natural Resources Major. Where I went, at Cornell, I don’t know if it’s this way at other universities, but essentially there are science classes for science majors and science classes for non-science majors. Natural Resources was a science major, so very quickly, after just one semester, I realized I should not be in a major that’s a science major. Not my strong suit! So I, very quickly in my second semester of school, switched to Business Management and Marketing, and it was clear that that was an immediate fit, like that was what I was meant to do. I tell that story because I think it shows that even though I didn’t know it, I sort of always had this inclination for the environment and issues in that realm, even though I couldn’t articulate it at that point in my life, but I was drawn to that as a major even though it didn’t turn out to be the right fit. So it is not too surprising that I did, by chance, end up in the energy industry. When I graduated from college I went and did meeting planning for a year, and I was bored out of my mind, so a year out of college I started working for the company that, back at that time, actually ran SEPA. So in 1999 I didn’t work for SEPA but SEPA was my primary client, so I actually have been involved deeply with SEPA for more than 20 years. Then I was at the consulting company for a few years, left and did a short stint at ICF International, which I loved, a phenomenal company. But the SEPA board came and said – Hey, we want to make a change, would you be willing to come be our actual first employee at SEPA? So I did that in January of 2004, and it was really like starting over, the organization had been around for more than a decade but we were wiping the slate clean and starting fresh. For me, it was very much like being an entrepreneur and starting a brand new venture. It’s been fantastic, SEPA has been almost my entire career. Some people say – but aren’t you getting bored? Like don’t you want to go do something different? But it’s not boring! SEPA is in a constant state of evolution because of the industry we are in but also the role we play in the industry, that’s helping to facilitate change, so every year is something different for us. It doesn’t ever get boring. 

Catherine: And you’re giving hope to all the college graduates, that you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do the rest of your life at 21. That’s positive. What would you say is the most critical factor in your career success? And what’s some advice that you can give to others looking to follow in your footsteps, especially maybe women? 

Julia: Yeah, I was really fortunate. First of all, obviously hard work makes a difference, so early in my career I worked really hard. I showed my capabilities, I demonstrated what I could accomplish, and as a result of that, at very junior levels within an organization, ultimately I ended up developing some champions, people who really became champions of me personally, and it was in those people, who brought me back into SEPA a few years down the road and giving me an opportunity, I was 27 when I became head of SEPA, and that was a big risk. It was a big risk for the board, who were all seasoned executives, to say we are going to put this organization’s future in the hands of a 27 year old. So it was a combination of the fact that I worked really hard to demonstrate what I was capable of together with the fact that I was fortunate enough to have a couple of people who really recognized not only what I had done but what my potential was, and were willing to take a chance on me. 

Catherine: Wait, that’s incredible. I didn’t realize that you were so young when you went in there. So were you the CEO at 27?

Julia: I was, but I was the only employee, so I was CEO of myself! I think the advice in there, relevant to that whole story, I was at ICF which is a great company, I loved my job there I loved the people I worked with, I really enjoyed what I was doing, and when the SEPA board came back to me and said – Hey would you come back and take over, basically start over from scratch? – it was a huge risk for me. It was a huge risk for the board to choose me, but it was a huge risk for me to choose to leave ICF to take the job. Because the organization was in really bad financial condition at that point. There was no strategic plan, there was no path forward, so they were trying to figure out the path forward. In hindsight, I thought well, if I’m going to take this risk, I’m going to ask for a really big salary and it really has to be worth it. So at the time I thought I was asking for a really big salary and in hindsight I should have asked for way more! That’s one lesson! I think the fact that I took that risk really paid off. I took it early enough in my life where I didn’t have a family to support at that point in time, so it was a risk but if it didn’t work out I could have pretty easily found something else. For me, I think the advice to people is: you have to be willing to take risks, in order to really make big career moves.

Catherine: What do you love most about your job?

Julia: That’s a good question. There’s lots of things I love about it. It’s funny, if you had asked me, back in March or February, my answer was always, I love the external industry engagement. I love going to the events, I love being on stage, I love sharing the vision. It’s real interesting now, that all that stuff is gone, and all of my engagement is like this with a video screen. I still do love it, it’s different. But I thought i would really miss it in a way that I don’t. I do still love the external engagement part of it, and there are ways to do that virtually. But I think my perspectives changed a little bit now and sort of what really motivates me and excites me about working at SEPA is – I am a visionary through and through – that’s how people describe me, as a visionary leader. So what I love about it is that I’m always looking farther out into the future than anyone around me. But I am also helping other people look further into the future. SEPA is just a great environment in which to be able to do that, to have a vision, and not to just move in that direction myself, but help other people move in that direction. 

Catherine: Yeah, that’s interesting. 

Part 2 Transcript

Catherine: So I want to talk about SEPA’s diversity initiative. I know that you guys have aggressive recruitment targets for the Board of Directors, including gender parity, and 40% membership from underrepresented communities. So you’re including that as people of color, low income, native populations, LBGTQ. Can you talk a bit more specifically about how SEPA is taking the lead when it comes to Diversity Equity and Inclusion?

Julia: Yeah, I will start with that board diversity target. I want to mention that that is a newly revised target, so we have had a board diversity target for a number of years now. Which was just a single target of having 40% of the seats filled by diverse individuals, as a catch all. Earlier this summer, we revisited that and broke it into the two pieces: gender parity as one piece plus 40% of seats filled by underrepresented groups. So we still have a lot of work to do. We are not there yet! We are in the middle of the nominations process right now. It’s a great example of how having a stated target really changes behavior, because it has changed completely how the nominating committee is approaching things. That is a really important piece of it. As our board talked about what that target should be, there were questions around: is that too aggressive? Are we going to be able to meet that? How long is it going to take us? Ultimately the board decided, SEPA should be on the cutting edge, we should have the most aggressive targets. We want to be showing our leadership in this space and showing others that they should be following. So it’s great to have that commitment, starting all the way at the board level at the top. Throughout our organization, there are lots of pieces to it, I wouldn’t say we have a specific DEI initiative. What we are really doing is looking to embed DEI throughout all of our work. So we’ve got the board targets, top-down, but really thinking about it more as sort of a bottoms up throughout the rest of the organization. So what we have done is, every team within SEPA has identified what they can do in their own day to day work that helps advance DEI. In some cases, for example, for HR people, obviously that’s for things that they can do internally with our own staff, but with our content, our research people, it’s things like when we do case studies and we need to interview people for case studies, making sure that we are looking for diverse voices to do the interview with. Obviously we do a lot of events, in person or in virtual or both, so making sure we are much more thoughtful about the composition of our speakers at our events but taking that up to another level for all of the major events we have planning committees. So that is one thing that the team this summer identified, we need to make sure we have really good diversity on that planning committee. And we have research advisory councils – hey wait a minute we don’t have really good diversity on our research advisory councils – we need to change that. I’ll be the first to admit, we have always cared about the issues but they have not been front and center for us until this year. A lot of it, how do we get our own house in order first? How do we make sure that our team really understands these issues so that we can then figure out how to best help the industry. With SEPA, the nature of who we are, in terms of the work we do, the biggest opportunity for us is raising the visibility of the issues, as well as elevating the voices of diverse people in our community.

Catherine: And keeping the momentum going. Making sure that it is not just a 2020 thing but a 2020s thing. I want to talk about SEPA TV, which I love the name of. I have really been enjoying your interviews on SEPA TV, which cover critical topics like decarbonization goals despite the pandemic, utilities and social equity, as well as microgrids, resilience for natural disasters, all very inspiring especially in times like these. What motivated you to start SEPA TV? And what are some highlights from the interviews you have done so far?

Julia: Interestingly, it has been the pandemic, I don’t know that SEPA TV would have emerged without the pandemic, or if it did it was probably years down the road. We had been talking in our plans for this year to launch a podcast, and once the pandemic hit we said that was not exactly the right path. I can’t take credit for the idea of SEPA TV, that came from the team, but when we first went into everyone working remotely, everyone wondered how do we create that personal connection? We felt like actually  having the visual faces was more important than just a podcast. That was the birthing of SEPA TV. In parallel with that, the team was working on the concept of SEPA TV while at the same time, I was thinking about the fact that in the early months, March and April, I was concerned, given the pandemic, that I didn’t want any companies to take their foot off the accelerator on their carbon reduction plans. I was thinking, how do we tell the story to the industry of why it is important not to slow down. As I started telling that concern and saying, how do we tell that story, and I started talking to our team about it, they said – oh! We have this idea for SEPA TV, let’s make that our first series. So it actually worked out really well, the first series we did was me interviewing six utility CEO’s who have really significant carbon reduction targets, and talking with them about why they were not taking their foot off the accelerator but also acknowledging what are some of the new challenges that Covid might put in front of you, but regardless of those challenges, why are you going to still keep moving forward, just as fast if not even potentially faster than you were before?

Part 3 Transcript

Catherine: Is there one utility that kind of stood out to you, with some of the work that they are doing? 

Julia: It is so hard to point to just one. There are so many great ones. But I have to say, one thing I am really impressed about, I am actually going to do a SEPA TV episode on it, very soon, Consumers Energy in Michigan. Their CEO Patti Poppe is just phenomenal, she is an amazing leader, she is super innovative, one of the things that I was so impressed by was that, when the pandemic hit, and they saw the challenges that their customers were having, they saw the shape of their load, their demand curve, changing based on people being home rather than at work and they saw all of these dynamics at play. They launched a new program with Google, and from the time they first even thought about maybe we need to institute this program to when it was actually deployed was only 4 months. Anyone who knows utilities knows that is light speed. That, to me, shines and stands out as a real amazing example of – the utility was already doing all the right things in terms of decarbonizing, they actually wanted the most aggressive timelines to decarbonize very quickly in the grand scheme of things – but the fact that they were able to, from project idea to execution in four months, in the middle of a pandemic where everybody was getting use to working from home, their own employees getting used to working from home, and there’s all this change happening just says so much. And I love that story because it demonstrates that utilities can innovate and utilities can move quickly.

Catherine: Do you believe organizations like utilities are prepared for a just clean energy transition, to ensure former fossil fuel workers are included? This is something I feel very strongly about, as you know, I am making sure that we are able to achieve a lot of our goals, especially around DEI space, with former fossil fuel workers. What are your thoughts around that topic?

Julia: Yeah, I do think utilities are prepared. I think utilities have actually been thinking about this issue, a lot more, a lot longer than people in the clean energy space, with the exception of some NGOs that have a very specific just transition focus, but that’s different, but just generally if you’re talking about the utility industry and the clean energy industry, which by the way, are becoming the same thing! But if you want to put them in two separate buckets, the utilities have been thinking about this, because they have started closing plants already. They’ve had to be preparing. And I think that one of the challenges is a time frame challenge, in that, you mentioned SEPA TV earlier, so I’ve done this series on utilities and social equity and in every one of those conversations we talked about closing coal plants and what the utility has done to make sure that it was addressed, just transition and protecting both the workers but also the communities where the utilities were. And asked all of them: how long, given the experience you’ve had, how much notice do you really have to give before a plant closes to have enough time to retrain workers and do all the economic development to make sure that once the plant closes there’s something else in that community to support the economy, the shortest timeframe answer I got was 3 years. I got this 3 to 5 year window of how much notice. So I think there’s this challenge and obviously from a climate change standpoint, we want those plants to close absolutely as fast as possible, right. But if you, with no notice, close a plant it is going to have negative implications on a lot of people. So how do you strike that right balance, of closing the plant as fast as you can without harming the people in the community that are associated with that plant? So I think that that is a real rubbing spot where we have to really be thoughtful about that. But there’s a lot of, in the interviews I have done with utilities on this, there are so many great stories about the things they’ve done: apprenticeship programs, working with local and state economic development authorities. One of my favorite stories is one of the American Electric Power, AEP, utility companies, Appalachian Power, I think it is in West Virginia though, where they worked and they did a skills mapping exercise, and this was in fact not for the coal plant, but for the coal mine, and what they found was that the skills of coal miners actually map very closely to the skills of people that work in aerospace manufacturing plants. Because apparently coal mining is now a very highly technical process, and so the skills map, almost directly overlap, with the skills of the aerospace industry. So they have essentially now created this aerospace economic development zone, and the utility is working together with the state and the others in the community to try to bring aerospace manufacturing to the location in the area where the coal mines used to exist. 

Catherine: That’s so interesting! Because, in my mind, it’s like its energy, it needs to be energy, like for like, so if it’s not coal then another energy. But that is very short sighted because it doesn’t have to be that, obviously, as your case study points out. 

Julia: That’s a good point, it’s not energy to energy, because another example that I was talking about with the CEO of Salt River Project in Phoenix, about a plant they were closing that was on the Navajo Nation but they created this apprenticeship program for a certain number of the employees from the coal plant and trained them as I.T. technicians. So those people got trained to be able to work in any industry, not just the energy industry, they got trained in I.T. skills. I think there is a lot of opportunity, it’s not just this sort of small subset of other energy jobs they could have.

Catherine: It’s made me look at it in a completely different way. I never thought of it like that. Tell us a little bit about SEPA membership. We will finish with what are the benefits of being a SEPA member?

Julia: It depends who you are and what you are looking to get out of it. I am going to give the big picture benefits. Of course, there are very tactical, tangible things, but in the grand scheme of things, it is about the community and the ability to network with all these other stakeholders and work together to find solutions that go to help solve this immense challenge in front of us. The value, I think, is largely in the community, the engagement with other members that you get to have, the opportunity to jointly solve problems for the industry, that then can benefit your own company. And also, our team is fantastic in terms of thought leadership. We do have a lot of publications, a lot of educational content, so just from a day to day standpoint, there’s a lot of work that our team does that really helps people be better prepared to do their own job and be more successful at their own job. I will mention, one of the ways that we facilitate a lot of what I just mentioned is through working groups. We have about 10 working groups, and then some of those have 3 or 4 sub groups under them, the working groups are essentially, for example we have an EV working group, so there is a group of about 600 people in that working group, who all have a common interest in all things EV’s, and then under that group we have 4 subcommittees, which I am not going to get them all right, but there’s one that’s on regulatory and rates, there’s one on fleets, I forgot what the other two are off the top of my head. But it’s an opportunity to engage on a regular basis with a group of people, from a variety of different perspectives around specific topics. I used EV’s an example but we also have a microgrids working group, we have a storage working group, some of the working groups are super technical, we have an interoperability group, and standards related working groups, don’t ask! The working groups are really valuable and provide a forum for that sort of continuous ongoing engagement amongst the members. 

Catherine: That’s great. Thanks so much for your time today.

Julia: Yeah! Thanks for having me, it’s been fun.