Interview with Trevor Hardy, CEO & Safiyyah Khan, VP of Marketing, BlueWave Solar
What can your company learn from BlueWave Solar, which has been ranked alongside Patagonia as one of the most impactful companies in the world? I’ve been impressed w/BlueWave’s Anti-Racist Action Plan & progress on this initiative as well as its B Corporation status & commitment to the triple bottom line. Some key takeaways & recommendations from my interview w/BlueWave’s CEO, Trevor Hardy, & VP of Marketing, Safiyyah Khan, as it relates to implementing successful diversity, equity, inclusion & justice (DEIJ) initiatives are:
✅ Formed an internal Advisory Council
✅ Reviewed hiring processes → now have more diverse executive team
✅ Partnered w/All In Energy, Enroot & Boston Private Industry Council to discover more diverse interns
✅ Implemented pay equity
✅ Sought out a DEIJ consultant
I also spoke w/them about why mentorship & diverse leadership are critical as well as about how their agrivoltaic projects are supporting the triple bottom line.
Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, founder and CEO of Dylan Green, and very excited today to have BlueWave with me, Trevor Hardy and Safiyyah Khan. Welcome.
Safiyyah: Thank you.
Trevor: Hi Catherine.
Catherine: Tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Safiyyah: Yeah, thanks Catherine. My name is Safiyyah Khan. I am a VP of marketing at BlueWave Solar. My background mostly involves strategy, launching new products, and kind of always a heavy emphasis on helping our company or any other company of the net be more mission driven and have more impact apart from just it’s bottom line.
Trevor: Thanks Safiyyah. Catherine, I’m Trevor Hardy, CEO and co-founder at BlueWave. My background is primarily in real estate private equity. I left that business in 2011, wanting to do something more meaningful with my life and joined up with John and Eric and co-founded BlueWave. They had started the company the year before and I was the third partner in the boat with them. Yeah, I spend most of my time focusing on how to get the company from A to Z. I’m not smart enough to understand a lot of the more visionary aspects of the business, but I take a lot of direction from folks like John, Eric, Mark, Safiyyah, Larry, a number of folks in our organization who have a really great ability and capability to look around corners. And, I focused on working with the team to get us there.
Catherine: Great. Just in case, any inquiring minds want to know where’s your exit from?
Trevor: You have to guess.
Catherine: South Africa!
Trevor: Yeah, I was born in South Africa. You would knew about that! I was born in South Africa, I worked for a year in London, or studied in South Africa through my schooling out there, worked for a year in London and then came to grad school in 2000s. First time I’d ever been to the U.S., thought I was going to be here for a couple of years, and here I am, over 20 years later with my wife and two kids and, very happy to be here, but still very much in love with South Africa.
Catherine: And Rugby I take it?
Trevor: Oh yes.
Catherine: So, I want to talk about the fact that you all are a B Corp. I’m really fascinated by B Corps. There aren’t a lot of companies aren’t in our industry that are B Corps. I think 3Degrees comes to mind. Tell us a bit about what a B Corp means and why exactly you received this status.
Trevor: Yeah, for us it was a very natural thing to do. Catherine, a triple button bottom line approach has always been just the way that we have done things. I said, my own career progression, I wanted to do something more meaningful. So, thinking about and seeing the developments of these solar projects is a lot more than just putting modules in the ground. It has been a core part of our DNA from the get-go. Yeah, so that I think is a key part of the reason why we chose to become a certified B Corp and really just followed from what we were actually organically doing as a company and a team. Anyway, I want to give John DeVillars, the chairman and co-founder of the company, a lot of credit for setting that tone from the get-go. It was one of the key reasons why I knew that John and Eric were the folks that I wanted to work with and partner with to build a company. And, John has been great over the years in not only setting that time, but also, holding us accountable as a team. And, we are very proud of what we’ve accomplished from a B Corp point of view. We’ve been voted amongst the most impactful companies in the world, of the last two years running. We still have a lot of work to do, but taking a very holistic approach to what we’re doing is, I think, just part of who we are and most importantly, a big part of the people that we hire.
Safiyyah: Yeah. I’d add to that, Trevor, that on the one hand being a B Corp means you go through a very rigorous certification process, as you probably know, Catherine. And for us, we’re constantly trying to increase our score, not to win, but basically because it helps us be even more mission-driven and more impactful, across the triple bottom lines. And to Trevor’s point just now, Catherine, you mentioned that, Chad Nicoles, Chad mentioned to me a few weeks ago, were just talking and he said, one of his greatest fears would be working for a company that wasn’t a B Corp. Even someone like Rachel, who’s our office manager, she’s still heavily involved in the B Corp community. We have a lot of people who came here because we’re a B Corp and they live that authentically as individuals and working in Blueleaf gives them an additional value to their work.
Catherine: Yeah, you’re a hundred percent correct on that. It was very important to Chad. He was looking at organizations and, I definitely think it’s important to a lot of people just from employee point of view, your suppliers, customers, everyone, there’s only positive things that can come from it. So, I want to talk about this anti racism action plan. BlueWave established an anti racism action plan last year that includes specific action items, like setting up the anti racism advisory board, providing anti-racism training, recognizing Juneteenth as an annual firm holiday, and examining their hiring processes, pay equity and retention, and professional training programs. What progress has BlueWave made on this plan so far? And what are some lessons that you can share with others that may want to implement this?
Safiyyah: Yeah. Thank you. Trevor and I were saying we could talk about this for a half a day. It’s been so important to us in the past year. I’ll start with the progress. As you kind of alluded to the way we built our program, it was very much hands-on. We didn’t say that we were going to throw tons of money at it. It was more so we were looking at how we could build a program that A) was authentic and impactful for where we are, but also that would be impactful in the long term, not just when, basically all eyes weren’t on this issue. Like they were at this time last year, we wanted to build something that would be really sustainable for us and for the industry and for our communities. Those were the three pillars we tried to act on internally for the company, and what we could do to further our industry and what we could do for the communities that we work and live in. Internally, as a company, we’ve gotten a lot done. There’s certainly things we didn’t get to yet, but still intend to. Were able to do things like we did implement a formal process for assessing all of our employee compensation to ensure that we’re removing any basically prejudice there and help people be compensated, how they were promoted. We expanded our recruiting and hiring practices, and we’re already fortunately seeing results from that and having a more diverse executive team. Already one area that we didn’t get to in the past year, that is still very high in our list of priorities. We found a phenomenal, justice equity, diversity inclusion consultant, who is a woman, a black woman owned a B Corp, Tessy consulting. We plan on bringing them on board later this year. And when we first built the plan, we had intended to have already done that at this stage. I just wanted to share with you things that we also didn’t get to do yet.
The other bucket is about bringing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion to the industry, not just in how we work in the industry, but perhaps helping others, our friends and competent competitors and allies in the industry to create more of a diverse, clean energy industry. You may know that it’s already a very well-intentioned field, but it’s also very much filled and led by white males. It’s also very accessible, mostly to more wealthy, upper middle class and wealthy communities. In terms of the industry, what we thought we could do most easily and most sustainably was to create more pathways for young people from either a lower income or more diverse communities to have access to the clean energy industry is you and your listeners probably already know, young people tend to be networked based on what their families and communities are entrenched in. If they’re not in communities where people are already working in these industries, they may never have an opportunity to say, Hey, can you get my kid a job or an internship next summer? Or can I get a job there, right out of college.
We have partnered with multiple organizations that have private industry plans were in Boston and root, all in energy to work on creating internships for youth from lower income groups and people of color and just the more urban parts of Massachusetts, so that we’re getting more high school students and college students coming in to our internship programs. The other thing that we’ve been able to do is to really work on a policy team, to push more for policies that create more accessibility for black indigenous people of color and lower income people to community solar. This is something not just BlueWave, honestly, but the industry has been trying to solve for many years. It’s never been really able, really been possible, for us to get the policies aligned with the investors who really own the projects and determine a lot of what we can do with the projects and then how we’re able to go out into the field. For instance, being able to have a fully functional bilingual community, solar project is something that we’re not able to do. Weren’t able to do in the past, or even on the development side, being able to provide the right incentives that are supported by the policies to do so. A lot of that has been happening in the industry, but also we take great pride in our policy team. That’s been pushing quite a bit of that.
The third bucket is how we bring justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion to our communities. We hope that the work we do by default helps the communities, but as you know, the communities that are most affected by climate change and fossil fuels tend to be brown and black communities and lower income communities. As I mentioned earlier, those are also the communities that have the least access to clean energy. By default, we’re hoping that our work impacts that and our ability to prioritize working in those communities. We’ve also started doing things like where we’re building projects, acknowledging the indigenous people’s lands, who we’re building on. We’re at the nascent stages of starting to work with the indigenous peoples on some of those lands where we’re starting to build on, we have our first pilots with that happening now.
Another thing that we’ve done with our anti-racism work over the past year, which was very much driven by volunteers within the company, we didn’t go out and hire people to do this work. We just all carved out extra time to do these things. Since last year was a really important election year. We worked heavily with the elections and the census as well to do phone banking, letter writing, educating people on supporting, representatives who were overtly anti-racist and who were also overtly, for environmental justice and clean energy. Those are some of the high level areas where we have succeeded to date or we’ve made progress to date. There are a ton of things that we’ve learned, and a ton of areas for us to continuously improve. Trevor, I was thinking maybe you could share some of the lessons we’ve learned from your perspective.
Trevor: So, I’ll just hop on like a couple of, we could chat a long time about this, Catherine and I would just frame. I want to give Safiyyah a huge amount of credit for being one of the many folks in our company who has really risen to the occasion, unsurprisingly. And as leaders of the company, what we tried to do was create, I think one of the most important things we did was open up the space internally as a company, as a team to enable us to grow and enable this to happen. We wanted this to become to Safiyyah‘s point something that was not a flash in the pan, but meaningful and sustainable engagement from us as a team. So, Safiyyah and a number of folks internally deserve a huge amount of credit for the great work that they’ve done. For me personally, I’ll be honest and say, I don’t feel I’ve done enough yet. One of the key challenges, and I was going to mention this earlier, of being a B Corp, is balancing the three aspects of that triple bottom line approach. This is something that I care very deeply about. Personally, I grew up in apartheid South Africa. My parents insisted that we go to fully integrated schooling. My parents insisted that we learn how to speak a black language. Diversity in the workplace, diversity in the community is a core part of one of the principles that I stand for, and we stand for as a company. That’s also a very meaningful part of the core mission and our goals.
I mean, we set out as a company and a team to revolutionize the energy’s energy world. The key part of that mission is providing access to everyone. Renewable should not be something which is enjoyed by wealthy families, but should be, that is a core part of what we feel, renewable stands for, truly is access for everyone. I think the industry as a whole has got a lot of work to do on this front and we’re pushing already hard. We feel really grateful that we’re in a state like Massachusetts, which is probably, I think, one of the greatest renewable incubators in the world. We worked very hard and we worked really hard to join the industry and establish a meaningful community solar program in the first place. We are now also working very hard to make sure that low and moderate income families get access to renewables as well, which has been a real challenge from a financing and a bankability standpoint, but we’re getting really close on that. I would say the biggest challenge to address Safiyyah‘s question in terms of lessons learned is just how do we balance this and how do we make this a sustainable initiative at BlueWave going forward? And, I’m very confident that because of the little grassroots nature that this has built, that this has established itself internally with our team, that effort is going to be enduring. It was also, I think, a very meaningful rallying effort or routing initiative for the team during the whole COVID epidemic last year, where they were all remote. And, this was very clearly something that’s an initiative that the team felt really deeply about. I think to some extent it became a bonding initiative for our broader team over what was very difficult time.
Safiyyah: Yeah, sorry, Trevor. I was gonna to build on that and say that people not just at BlueWave but people everywhere, it felt like they wanted to do something, but didn’t know what was in their place to do, or didn’t know how to even make a difference. Us working together really, were able to hone in on as a company that cares about climate change. How do we use what we’re working on to solve that problem, to also address systemic racism overall, but within the energy world. It gave us all, myself included, Trevor included, it gave all of us actual frameworks for how we could make individual impacts and impact as a company. As an employee for me too, it was even though we took on a lot of extra work as this group of volunteers, it was very, it has been and continues to be really meaningful to us.
Something else I wanted to add two other things in the lessons learned one is that because we did this as a grassroots, we have some ground rules if you’re doing this work with our volunteer team. One of them is that your job title has no merit in that working group are all equals in that group. Part of that was to ensure the reason we have systemic racism at all is because we have hierarchies of power that have favored certain groups over others. We wanted to ensure that the way we worked on this work, we literally call this The Work because we think it’s the most important thing we could be doing that we removed hierarchies while they were in those groups of Trevor showed up one day. He might have to do a spreadsheet for someone who is many layers his junior in the rest of the company. The other thing, similarly that we learned was that again, systemic racism and environmental injustice has a lot to do with separation, not having empathy and not being able to collaborate with the other. We tried to structure our work internally on this work differently than we do in the rest of the companies, so that we actively fostered valuing empathy and collaboration more than we necessarily would in our regular day to day work. They were qualities that we had highly prioritized and how we did our work and continue to do. It’s almost like a social experiment. Can we create a reform and how we lead an organization and how we get things done together in a way that could be replicated in society, if we wanted to.
Catherine: Gosh, that’s a lot, it’s a lot of work. It’s really impressive. I’m so proud of you all. I think companies are really gonna benefit from hearing this and hopefully will follow suit. I also want to talk about mentorship, which I know is something else that you all are very passionate about. The vast majority of marketers are women. As you said before, at some of you talks, Safiyyah, but less than 50% are CEOs. What would you say are some of the critical factors in your career success thus far and whether it would be mentors or anything else that got you to where you are today?
Safiyyah: When you first set that question, in my mind it was like, well, what does success mean? Because it could be, is it your actual career path, which might be a typical idea of success? Is it how much you’re actually fulfilled by the work that you do, how much you feel like what you’re doing is kind of aligned with who you are on the inside. It could be financial, it could be, or how much freedom you have for me, all of those things are things that I judge success by. I’ve told Trevor and I about this anti-racism work. I’ve spoken many times and I’ve told them it’s a bit dramatic, but I truly asked myself on a regular basis: If I died tomorrow, would I be okay with this decision I’m making right now? Would I be okay with how I’m living my life right now? That has a lot to do with what I consider success. But you’re right about mentorship. I think from a purely professional perspective that half of it is, have you chosen work that you’re great at, you’re working really hard and continuing to learn and grow. The other half is that we all stand on the shoulders of giants and the people who went before us. That stands for any path you’re on. It definitely stands for women.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had over the years, phenomenal mentors, both in kind of, I grew up in product management and moved into marketing, so in those fields. And also as being a woman in energy, I had phenomenal mentors there and there are people that I mentor and I learned from them as well. So there’s the standing on the shoulders of giants. And other aspects of that, we were saying that Trevor’s from South Africa, I’m from Trinidad and Tobago. I was looking back recently. I noticed that for half of the really meaningful jobs I’ve had, like my first job that got me on the product management path, and then my first job in energy, those were really pivotal jobs for me. The people who hired me were all either immigrants or women or people of color, and none of that ever came up in the discussions. In retrospect, as I look back, I think that’s part of why we need diverse leadership because it creates more diverse diversity and our workers themselves. In addition to that, I’ve been able to have some really phenomenal managers, advocates who, some of whom are white males. They’re just like, we talked about the collaboration and the empathy, someone who’s empowered to advocate for you, which isn’t always the case, but those were cases where again, the shoulders of giants have been really meaningful to me.
As an individual, I would say I’ve also spent a lot of time and money investing and pursuing work and pursuing a lifestyle that for me aligns, like I mentioned earlier, my inner self and my outer self, because that gives you a lot more to give to your job. It gives you many different layers of fulfillment in what you’re doing, which probably applies to a lot of people at a company like BlueWave where most of us are there because of mission. We’re there because yes, we may be great at marketing or developing projects or whatnot, but we’re also able to bring our whole selves to work. We’re surrounded by these phenomenal people doing the same thing.
Catherine: Yeah, so interesting that the point that you said that really stuck with me, was that you didn’t realize at the time, but when you look back a lot of the people who had given you a shot were people similar to yourself. And that’s why it’s so important. Like, I am such an advocate for networking because I think networking, giving to others first and not expecting anything in return, pays dividends. That whole ethos of network being a serial networker. That’s what I think it is. I think it is by helping other people in your situation, which is why I love what I do, I love helping the women because I’m quite passionate about women as a woman. So it makes sense.
Trevor: I have a similar experience, Catherine, where I was a young fellow off the boat from South Africa had absolutely no network, whatsoever, and you know it. And had not been for one fellow specifically, who was my first boss, who I interned for my first summer in the U.S. who took me under his wing, as an Irish Catholic fellow from Charlestown, Jimmy Travis. And Jimmy took me under his wing and gave me a shot. If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t be here where I am today. No question about it. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a number of mentors over time. And, anyway, my life could have turned out very differently if people had not given me a crack, despite probably not even knowing where South Africa was, some of them, before I educated them.
Catherine: They probably think you’re from Australia.
Catherine: I wanna finish with a question about solar. BlueWave has quickly emerged as a leader in agrivoltaics. For anyone that doesn’t know the dual use of land for both solar and agriculture. I’m interested to know what motivated BlueWave to get involved with projects like these. Do you think these projects come within a higher upfront price point? And if so, do you still foresee BlueWave working on many more agrivoltaics projects in the years to come. Do you want to take that one, Trevor.
Trevor: Absolutely. Dual use agrivoltaics is going to be a huge part of what BlueWave does going forward. Yes, it’s more expensive. You’ve got a raise though, basically you’ve got to raise the entire system another six to eight feet above the ground relative to a standard ground mount system. Why went down this road in the first place? Again, it was just part of our DNA. We’ve worked very closely with a lot of farmers, not only in the U.S. but also in South Africa. We have a large, meaningful pipeline of projects down in South Africa. I come from a farming family in South Africa and I understand what it means to have steady income coming in the door. Farming can be one of the most volatile and risky, unpredictable industries to be in. Trust me, I know that every October, November, I’m on the phone with my old man trying to understand what the mango and lychee crop yields will be this year because my parents’ livelihood depends on it. Yeah, I think again, it was just really part of our DNA. We saw a lot of value. We wanted to work and expand our ability to work with farming families. We also saw it as a great avenue to address a lot of growing concerns about land use in tighter markets like Massachusetts, Maine, anywhere in the Northeast where land is at a premium. We understand why communities don’t want to see a lot of care cutting and other impacts from traditional ground mount solar.
So, just like Safiyyah has really stepped up and a groundswell of internal support on the, on a Jedi front. We’ve also had a number of folks through, Pearson deserves a lot of credit internally, who really stepped up incredibly passionate about dual use solar. We’ve worked and engaged very early on with not only the DOER, but also American Farmland Trust, University of Massachusetts, a number of organizations to really push this forward. We’re incredibly proud right now to be under construction with a three and a half megawatt facility, dual use facility in partnership with AES in Grafton, Massachusetts. That also has DC coupled storage integrated. And, that project should be done within the next few months. Hopefully that is the fourth project that we are doing with the Knowlton family. I stood on that field and Grafton probably seven, eight years ago was Paul Knoulton when they were really in tough shape and figuring out how they as a family could continue to hang on to this land that I believe had been in their family for three or four generations. I’m just incredibly proud of that effort. We think it is going to be, just a big part of what we do as BlueWave going forward, and frankly, what the industry should be doing going forward, as well as it is a total win-win-win for everyone involved. For the local community, for land use for agriculture, for renewable energy, for grid integration. If you integrate battery storage, it is tough to understand why we aren’t doing more of this.
And, we have a very large portfolio of dual use assets that we are working on in Massachusetts, we are also pursuing this on a voluntary basis in markets like Maine. We are under construction there in, with, about a three or four megawatt project in Rockport, where we working with a blueberry farmer and really using that as a test ground to understand, the impact, not only of the operations of the system, but also the construction of the system on, an existing blueberry farming operation. So, there’s a lot to learn for everyone to learn, but, obviously also tremendously meaningful to me personally. And, my dream is to one day put up some kind of a dual use system on our farm in South Africa. There’s not the same kind of support out there from an economic standpoint as there is in the U.S. but, hopefully we can make that happen at some point that would give my father a lot of joy. And pride, I think.
Catherine: Well, I’ve learned so much from you both, and I thank you so much for sharing your stories and your time with me today.
Safiyyah: Thank you too. It’s been really wonderful to spend this time with you and to talk about these topics that we hold so near and dear to our hearts.
Trevor: Thank you, Catherine. I really appreciate it. And great to spend time with you.