Chat with Amanda Bybee | The Sunnyside Podcast

Chat with Amanda Bybee

• Published on July 5, 2022

Episode Summary:

In this episode, Sharon Lee talks with Amanda Bybee about how her profound desire to generate an impact in the world in her early 20s led her to work with solar energy. Amanda tells us a little bit about her background and her professional trajectory that landed in the solar industry. In this way, she talks about O&M, what is the focus of the company, the business strategies, and in general how she has developed herself as a professional with ONM before and after the pandemic as a woman.

Insights from this Episode:

  • Amanda’s professional trajectory
  • How Amanda landed the solar energy field
  • Amanda’s personal background
  • What is a cooperative approach in terms of the energy business
  • What is Amanda looking for in the members of O&M
  • The importance of the geographic scope for the members of O&M
  • The environment that O&M seeks to create on a corporative level
  • What a female style of leadership means to Amanda
  • What advantages has Amanda found in this style of leadership
  • How the pandemic changed the working style in general
  • The importance of mentorship
  • The importance of technology for climate change friendly practices in the solar industry
  • Projects in which Amanda is working on

Quotes from the Show: 

  • “When I graduated college I knew that I wanted to do impactful work and I thought if I was gonna line up all the problems in the world as dominos, what are the dominos that are in front of the line that is affecting everything else”- Amanda Bybee in “The Sunnyside Podcast”
  • “[About O&M] We’ve been also working within the membership to ensure that our technicians are trained to a certain standard, to ensure that all carry the safety credentials, to ensure that we are approaching the work in a way that is safe, efficient and profitable”- Amanda Bybee in “The Sunnyside Podcast”
  • “[About feminine leadership] When you are responsible for running a business that is situated in a historical context of these life-altering events, I really feel it’s like…a call for a new kind of leadership ”- Amanda Bybee in “The Sunnyside Podcast”
  • “All these quarantine periods and … making space for your employees to deal with both mental trauma associated with all these stuff and as well as the physical aspects of it, these all add up to to a lot of new business challenges”- Amanda Bybee in “The Sunnyside Podcast”
  • “Studies also show that managers tend to perceive greater productivity from workers that come into the office and when you’re working from home you do not tend to establish the same type of sticky emotional bonds with your coworkers, you don’t have the opportunities to facetime with your manager as much”- Amanda Bybee in “The Sunnyside Podcast”

Episode transcript:

Sharon Lee:

Welcome to The Sunnyside, the podcast that makes solar energy relatable, accessible, and attainable. Join us as we journey behind the scenes with women taking amazing strides in all parts of the solar industry. I’m your host, Sharon Lee. And thank you for joining us today.

Sharon Lee:

All right. Welcome back to The Sunnyside. So we are going to start things off, talking a little bit from Sharon’s corner and naturally as always, travel baseball seems to be my life outside of solar. And so that is exactly what we did all weekend. So we had to do a little bit of family dividing and conquering, where I went with my older kiddo and my husband went with my younger and we were all over Metro Atlanta this weekend. So I don’t even know what today is, but it was fun. My younger son was supposed to have an off weekend, but he had a coach call him and he played as a pickup player in a tournament and turns out this ended up being a reunion of a former All Star rec league team. So it was fun for the parents, it was fun for the kids.

Sharon Lee:

They had so much momentum and excitement, they ended up going to the championship game. They lost the championship, but we really did not care. We’d been there for so long and it was so much fun. So anyway, his season’s about to end, and then we can just focus on one kid for baseball and you think you get a break and then football season starts. So whatever, but I’m kind of a broken record on this sports related stuff, but hey, that’s kind of my life, but let’s dive into The Sunnyside and welcome Amanda Bybee. She is the CEO of Amicus O&M. So thank you for joining us today.

Amanda Bybee:

I’m delighted to be here. Thanks for having me.

Sharon Lee:

Fantastic. So let’s talk a little bit about your background. I’m always fascinated to find out how people wound up in the solar industry. And when I was looking at your bio, you went from a English/French major at the University of Texas Austin to solar. So tell me how that ride went.

Amanda Bybee:

Yes. Well, when I graduated college, I knew that I wanted to do impactful work. And I thought about if I was going to line up all the problems in the world like a domino chain, what are the dominoes at the front of the line that affect everything else? And my answer for myself at the time was education and energy underlie a lot of the problems that we see in the world today. And I really wanted to make an impact in my early 20s. I didn’t want to have to wait 20 years of working my way up through being a teacher and getting into administration, because really what I wanted to work on were systems. And I knew that was just going to be a longer path whereas on the energy side it felt like I could make a difference faster. So I got my first job at a nonprofit organization in Austin called Public Citizen.

Amanda Bybee:

It is a national nonprofit with a big presence in Washington, DC it’s really regarded as a consumer advocacy group, but in Texas we had a little satellite office with just four paid staffers and eight interns and we focused on energy in the environment. And so that gave me my entry point to the renewable energy industry, mostly from a policy perspective, because we were advocating for more friendly, renewable energy policies in the city of Austin in the state of Texas. And it was a really fun and exciting time we launched the Solar Austin campaign and Austin Energy started the first solar rebate program in the state of Texas in 2004. So I got to be a big part of that. And San Antonio came quickly thereafter, they’re a much larger utility, but between the two of them, they’ve really made a dent in getting Texas’s solar industry started. So that was pretty fun.

Sharon Lee:

And it’s amazing how most people think of solar panels when they think of solar energy and it’s amazing at how much policy plays into all of that. I mean a huge portion of it. And so then therefore suddenly this whole industry opens up because policy changes.

Amanda Bybee:

Exactly, yeah. But still to this day, here we are almost 20 years later and we’re still a very policy driven industry, but really when you take a step back and look at it, all of energy is. That’s true for oil and gas as well. They’re still heavily affected by the policies that come down. So I don’t think we’re getting out of the policy game anytime soon.

Sharon Lee:

Right. Unfortunately, but that’s right. So you’re a mom of two and you live in Colorado now, not Texas.

Amanda Bybee:

That’s right.

Sharon Lee:

So tell me a little bit about your background there.

Amanda Bybee:

Yeah. So we moved to Colorado in 2005, which was after the state had passed amendment 37, which set up the state’s first renewable energy goals but before the rule making was finished. So I had been interviewing everybody I knew from Texas that had contacts in Colorado. I said, “Where do I need to start?” I had some contacts. I made phone calls, I did informational interviews. But then there was a hearing at the Public Utilities Commission. And so I rode my bicycle to the PUC building in August of 2005, parked my bike, pulled my blazer out of my backpack and went in, looking like a professional. It was a pretty influential rule making hearing and I was like, oh, well all the solar companies will be there.

Amanda Bybee:

And in fact they were not very well represented, but one of the very earnest, passionate speakers, there was a gentleman named Blake Jones and I went and introduced myself to him afterwards and he was the co-founder of Namaste Solar. And so we started talking and I officially joined Namaste Solar in January of ’06. And I was like the fifth full-time person on payroll. So it was just this little baby startup at the time. And we were still waiting for the rebate programs to actually kick off here in Colorado, but they took a chance and hired me and I went on to be there for over 11 years.

Sharon Lee:

Wow. And they were an EPC. So tell me what you did for them.

Amanda Bybee:

Oh golly. What did I not do for them over-

Sharon Lee:

Better question.

Amanda Bybee:

The course of time. So Namaste Solar is a really cool company. It is an employee owned cooperative in fact. This will become a theme as I talk. It’s also a certified B Corp and it’s just a company that really believes in walk in its talk. So really pays a lot of attention to how it does what it does in the solar industry. When I started out… When you’re a company of five or 10 people, you’re doing everything. So I was bookkeeping and policy and inside sales and receiving and inventory and everything but going out in the field basically. And then I went into actual sales and I worked quite a bit with builders to try to integrate solar into new home construction, because we felt like that was going to be a more impactful way to leverage relationships instead of the one off retrofit sales. And then somewhere along the way we made me vice president. And people would say, “Vice president of what?” And I would say, “Of everything.”

Sharon Lee:

Hello, of course.

Amanda Bybee:

VP of PV, I don’t know, but it was really a utility player, so returning to that utility kind of role so that I could support any division that needed it, did a lot of work in HR at the time, supported marketing and commercial sales at various points. But then the really fun thing was I got to help out with some certain special projects. So Namaste Solar was in many ways the generator, the brain power behind Amicus Solar Cooperative, which is a purchasing cooperative that we founded in 2011. It today has 70 member companies throughout the United States that aggregate purchases of all of the major solar equipment so that they can get better volume based pricing.

Amanda Bybee:

Out Amicus Solar then came an effort to start Clean Energy Credit Union. And I got to be the project manager of this whole effort with the National Credit Union Administration to start a new federally chartered credit union to provide financing for solar and all kinds of clean energy products and services. So Clean Energy Credit Union is a going concern today. I am still a volunteer with it. Something I’m really proud of, they’ve got over 6,000 members now throughout the United States and they’ve originated over a hundred million dollars in loans for all kinds of clean energy products and services. So really, really cool growth because we got the charter for that in 2017 and it opened for business in 2018. So all that growth has happened.

Sharon Lee:

Wow.

Amanda Bybee:

In just a few short years. And then right around the time that we hired the first CEO for Clean Energy Credit Union, we also submitted a grant application to the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to start Amicus Operations and Maintenance cooperative. And we partnered with a couple of other member companies from Amicus Solar and Amicus Solar itself. And when we were submitting the paperwork, they said, “Hey Amanda, can we put you down as the principal investigator on this thing?” And I said, “What does that mean?” They were like, “Well, I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out.”

Sharon Lee:

That’s right. [crosstalk]

Amanda Bybee:

Inadvertently-

Sharon Lee:

That’s right.

Amanda Bybee:

Positioned me to be the project manager of that grant.

Sharon Lee:

Nice.

Amanda Bybee:

And then subsequently I moved over to run it full time.

Sharon Lee:

So let’s back up for one second and just start back with what exactly is a cooperative approach. Maybe let’s lay that out and then talk about how that applies to O&M.

Amanda Bybee:

Yeah. So cooperatives are for profit corporations, which is a common misconception, a lot of people think they’re nonprofits. And while there are days where it feels like I’m running in nonprofit, it is technically for profit. But what is intrinsic to a cooperative’s design is that it’s governance is inherently democratic because in a cooperative, whatever your membership base may be, if it’s employee owned your membership is your employees. If you’re a purchasing cooperative, it may be the companies that are buying through you, whatever it is, each of your members owns one share in the cooperative. And so when it comes to any matter of governance that entitles them to one vote and it’s this fundamentally egalitarian democratic governance structure, that is the hallmark of a cooperative. And this was really appealing to us at Namaste Solar, when we had always been an employee owned company, but we actually converted to being an employee-owned cooperative in 2011 because that would align our governance structure with our operating structure, because we were always operating on a one person, one vote paradigm within the company.

Amanda Bybee:

But the official shareholder rights when we started out were one share equals one vote and any individual could own up to 10,000 shares. And so what we found was that created this inequality of shareholder concentration relative to the way that we were running the business. And so we wanted to bring those two things into better alignment and the cooperative structure did that, just very elegantly. And several things we loved about that in addition to the elegance of it is also the idea of everybody’s voice matters. And so an installer had one share, the CEO had one share and it was a real way to levelize that playing field in a way that we embraced. And I know that’s not going to be the right situation for every company, but that fit us very well. In the context of a purchasing cooperative or what call ourselves more a shared services cooperative, each of the member companies in Amicus Solar or Amicus O&Mown one share in the cooperative.

Amanda Bybee:

And that’s mostly exercised when we vote on our boards of directors. But the other thing that comes with that share is shared risk and reward. So when a cooperative is profitable, it’s going to distribute that profit to its member companies. And when a cooperative is unprofitable, it could choose to share that loss with the member companies and there’s financial mechanisms to do that. But that’s an aspect of the cooperative is that it’s a really a shared ownership experience. And depending on how you choose to exercise that on a day to day basis, that shared risk and reward can really include a tremendous education in business ownership and for an employee owned cooperative, it was also a way to help our employees start to build wealth.

Amanda Bybee:

In addition to their salaries, they have an investment and that investment yields dividends, at least at Namaste Solar and in many of the other employee owned and cooperatives that I am aware of, they accompany that ownership with quite a lot of education that the average worker might not get. How to read financial statements. What does it mean to have this investment that yields dividends or to share losses? we used to joke that we got the Namaste MBA after so many years of being at the company because of all of the financial literacy that we included as a part of just employment.

Sharon Lee:

Well, that’s a good segue, when we were talking that you had just gotten off the phone with a perspective member. So that also goes right into the attributes of members that you’re looking for. So let’s talk about what you’re looking for in members and how that works out.

Amanda Bybee:

Out. So Amicus O&M Cooperative, as I described it as kind of a shared services cooperative. And when we were formed in 2016, with the help of that DOE grant, the intent behind it was really to bring more standardization and consistency to the O&M marketplace for better or worse O&M has always kind of been an afterthought in our industry and we’ve been working really hard the last five, six years to change that and help O&M be more of a top of mind issue for developers and asset owners, because you think about it we’ve spent all this time as an industry focusing on the development cycle two, three years to find the land and pick out the site and the system and all that, get your off takers lineup, but O&M is going to be happening for 25 plus years on that site.

Amanda Bybee:

And if you expect your return on investment to meet the numbers that were in that initial spreadsheet during that development cycle, you have to pay attention to the maintenance of this asset. So been banging this drum, trying to make sure people see it. But the other fact of the matter is that in 2016, at least it was a wild west. There was no consistency in terms of scopes of work, frequencies, pricing, it was just all over the place. So we’ve been also working within the membership to ensure that our technicians are trained to a certain standard, to ensure that they all carry the right safety credentials, to ensure that we are approaching the work in a way that is safe and efficient and profitable, because this is an incredible form of diversification for a lot of our companies. We have a handful of companies that are O&M only shops, but the majority of them also perform EPC services.

Amanda Bybee:

And they look at their service in O&M departments as an additional revenue stream to what their EPC is doing. And so within the cooperative, we accomplish our goals of standardization through several different means. And I talk about these kind of three big buckets of what is the value proposition of joining the O&M Cooperative? The first is tools and templates that we provide that give a service in O&M department, a whole framework for how to operate. It’s the legal contract, it’s the estimating tool. It’s a software that allows the technicians to go out in the field, follow the app, follow the checklist, and then generate a report so that if everybody’s using the same tools by nature, you’re reinforcing some amount of standardization. We also in the second bucket do quite a lot of knowledge sharing. And so we have monthly meetings where you can interact with your counterpart at companies all over the country.

Amanda Bybee:

Hey, I’m dealing with X problem. How have y’all handled this? Everybody’s dealing with the same problems. This isn’t terribly proprietary to go out there and fix these things, but there’s always something new. There’s always a new software to explore together or a new problem that we run into. And so we share notes and we compare how we’ve addressed each problem. Within that vein, and maybe this kind of straddles the standardization and the knowledge sharing, we’re also building a training program for our O&M technicians, because the more you trained the same types of standards and the same practices, the more again, that’s going to reinforce the standardization, but also the knowledge sharing. And this was born out of a years long technician shortage, because the fact of the matter is we do not have enough experienced and trained technicians to take care of the solar that’s currently installed much less what we plan to install over the next 10 years to try to mitigate the climate crisis.

Sharon Lee:

Exactly.

Amanda Bybee:

So we got to grow them, we got to grow these technicians and that’s really a huge emphasis and priority for the cooperative right now. But then the last thing that we do on each other’s behalf is we try to help each other grow. And so when I’m out there talking to clients, if they call me up and say, “Hey, do you know somebody in Southern California?” I’ll say, “As a matter of fact I do.” And I make introductions. So we call it business development, but really I’m just a matchmaker. So the cooperative doesn’t hold O&M contracts, we don’t actually dispatch technicians ourselves. I introduce clients to the member companies who are equipped and resourced to do that effectively.

Sharon Lee:

And you also have a geographic scope as far as what you’re looking for in members, right?

Amanda Bybee:

Yes. So when we talk to new member companies, we look at it in terms of three or four big important pieces. One is geographic coverage. Optimally we want the cooperative to cover all 50 states and outlying territories and everything. Right now we do have some holes on our map. So we’re looking for member companies that can come in and help fill in those holes, but we also pay attention to overlap. And this is actually one of the trickier aspects of adding new members to the cooperative is paying attention to market saturation. We do not discourage competition within the cooperative and we take great pains to ensure that we’re always on the right side of antitrust and anti cooperative competitive law. But it’s true that if there are too many companies operating in the same area, they get a little bit uncomfortable.

Sharon Lee:

Sure.

Amanda Bybee:

So we do try to manage that in a responsible and respectful way. A little bit of overlap is not such a bad thing in my book because it gives you opportunities, backup. You can always work together on projects if you get some kind of a big, special project that requires more than you can comfortably staff. So some overlap is okay, but we don’t want too much. But then the other really big important thing is that within that knowledge sharing piece, there has to be a lot of trust in the room because you’re not going to be willing to share your blunder or your mistake if there’s someone in the room that you don’t feel will hold that confidence. And so looking for companies that are values aligned with the things that we cherish in the cooperative and in particular, that piece of holding the confidence for each other, absolutely knowing that nobody on that call is going to repeat what you said in a derogatory fashion to your potential customer, to try to win business away from you. That kind of values alignment and values add to our cooperative is really important.

Amanda Bybee:

And then lastly to the degree that we are possibly doing work on each other’s behalf, this can be like a network of subcontractors. If you happen to have a national portfolio that you can’t service all by yourself, you want to make sure that the companies that we bring in are high quality workmanship and who will adhere to the safety standards that we’re setting out and who will emphasize safety and who will go out there and really be efficient at the work, not just fumbling around and making a lot of mistakes that they expect you to pay for. So quality workmanship is of course a really important part of it.

Sharon Lee:

Okay. Well and this podcast is about women in solar. So tell me what a female style of leadership means to you.

Amanda Bybee:

Yeah. So one of the things that I feel like we have seen, especially over the last two years coming through the pandemic is there’s really been a call for a new kind of leadership. We cannot function as leaders in our company, pretending like there is some bubble that takes your employees out of the real world. And the pandemic and a lot of the social unrest we’ve seen in the last few years, these are having real impacts on all of us, but certainly on all of our employees. And when you are responsible for running a business that is situated in the historical context of these life altering events, I really feel like it’s brought to the forefront a call for a new kind of leadership, which I would describe as a more compassionate kind of leadership.

Amanda Bybee:

I think that in some circles, this has historically been called a feminine style of leadership, but I hesitate to brand it with that because I really want to see this coming from all leaders of every gender, not just from women, where we take into account mental health, we take into account what is your social family situation? Do you have children or old folks in your life that you need to go take care of? Are you sick? Do you need to quarantine? Do you need to be with somebody else that is sick and quarantining, creating space and forgiveness and grace for each other in these moments is really the kind of leadership that I think is called for in this time.

Amanda Bybee:

And I think that if we develop these new skills as leaders, if we can say, I see you as a whole person dealing with a whole lot of things that are not your day job, maybe we build that into our expectations. Maybe we build that into our office policies. I think everybody’s gotten a whole lot more comfortable with remote work than we ever were-

Sharon Lee:

For sure.

Amanda Bybee:

Prior to the pandemic, but can we take some of those lessons and weave them into the way that we think about the future of work? I’ve heard a lot of really eloquent thought leaders say we are at a once in a lifetime inflection point for thinking about what our work lives and our personal lives and how they interact. This is a tremendous opportunity to really broaden the way that we think and treat each other.

Sharon Lee:

Right. I think that we’ve always talked about balance in any… Whether what you’re doing financially, what you’re doing in any part of your life. But you’re right, we’re finally seeing it put into real life action. Have you already seen benefits from this style of leadership in your own world?

Amanda Bybee:

Well, within the cooperative, I run a very lean shop, so it’s just me in the cooperative. So I’ll say that all of those we’s that I threw around were pretty like me, myself and I kind of the royal we’s, but I’ve certainly seen this surface with the member companies because while the staff of the cooperative itself is only one, I interact with 27 active member companies all the time. And they have staffs ranging from 10 up to 350 and this has very much been on their minds. We’ve spent a lot of time in that spirit of sharing information and how have you handled the pandemic crises? There have been biweekly calls with the principles of these member companies on the Amicus Solar side for the last two years. So there’s been a lot of talk about this and how we accommodate it, how we keep our businesses running, how we still find ways to stay profitable because it is a factor that-

Sharon Lee:

Sure.

Amanda Bybee:

All these quarantine periods and all these making space for your employees to deal with both mental trauma associated with all this stuff, as well as the physical aspects of it. These all add up to a lot of new business challenges that we hadn’t faced in the same exact way before.

Sharon Lee:

In fact, when we met, we were on a Zoom call, that was the Women in Solar Energy. I had just started Velo and I think you privately chatted me, “Oh my gosh you’re at Velo.” And you knew some folks here and all that, but one of the questions they threw out is what did you learn from when everything was shut down and all of that, I mean, I had been working remotely long before COVID so that was not a transition for me, but having two kids at home at young ages and trying to… I think I shared with our group that I learned that I could flip grilled cheese and do a conference call at the same time. But one thing that you and I were talking about previously when we were on the phone was that this brings about that balance in diversity and inclusion and how a business takes all of that into account. And I think that we’re really capitalizing on that now.

Amanda Bybee:

It’s interesting, I’ve read some really poignant articles in the last few months about what is the future of work? Because I think alongside the pandemic, we have also seen this huge social call for more racial equity and for in the corporate world, diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and looking at the intersection of these two topics very specifically for example, remote work and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. There are some conundrums within that I think companies are facing right now, which is that women and people of color tend to prefer working from home because in many cases it allows them to integrate their lives and flip that grilled cheese while being on a conference call in ways that are really helpful. It’s not a detraction for my productivity to go throw a load of laundry in the washing machine and then come back down to my meeting. But it enables me to not have to do that load of laundry on the weekends, which I really value.

Sharon Lee:

Sure.

Amanda Bybee:

However, studies also show that managers tend to perceive greater productivity from workers that come into the office. And when you’re working from home, you do not tend to establish the same type of sticky, emotional bonds with your coworkers. You don’t have the opportunities for face time with your manager as much. And so it can result in possibly this disconnect of you’ve got these great workers working from home, but you don’t see them as much and so you don’t maybe have as much of a sense of their work. And if management tends to promote those who are in the office and those tend to be our white male counterparts, you’re going to end up with this sort of backward cycle. And so I think it’s something for companies to really put some careful thought into.

Amanda Bybee:

And what it’s really also forced us to do is put a fine point on what is an expectation of a worker. And if you can meet your expectations working from home or by coming into the office a couple days a week, then there shouldn’t be a penalty for that. But then the other thing that I’ll say is there’s also this equity piece of there are a lot of workers in the solar industry who can’t work from home, you can’t install solar or fix solar from a computer. So I think that there’s a lot of aspects of equity that are surfacing right now. And it’s not just around gender lines or racial lines, but it’s also about types of work that we’re doing. And how do we honor those? And it’s an interesting moment for us though, to try to weave all of this into one future of a workplace and still ensure that we’re increasing the diversity, equity, and inclusion of our companies.

Sharon Lee:

Well that might be a good segue into… You’re making this so easy for me. To segue into mentorship because I think that how you’re working with your new hires and all of that and placing these values and shaping either new workers or your new workplace or whatever, it all plays together.

Amanda Bybee:

Yeah. I think mentorship is a cool answer to some of these questions because when you have a structured mentorship program, you kind of hit several of these notes. One is you’re helping ensure the success of a new employee. Two, you’re potentially increasing their visibility to management if you’re pairing managers with newer employees or more entry level folks or up and coming folks, you’re increasing their visibility, which is going to help them when it comes time for those next promotions and raises, but it also creates more sticky bonds. And I think in the labor market we’re facing right now where people are jumping ship and record numbers, looking for new advancement opportunities or more pay or more benefits in general, what keeps a person in many cases is the relationship that they form with their coworkers.

Amanda Bybee:

And so through mentorship, you can create more of a bond which maybe will result in a little bit higher retention rate or you’ll have at a minimum an opportunity to understand where a person wants to go and how you can help them achieve that within your organization. But I also really like mentorship programs. We had set one up at Namaste Solar, back in my days there where we very intentionally required the mentor and mentee to be from different teams because it created another degree of cross pollinization that frankly benefited the mentors as much as it did the mentees.

Sharon Lee:

Right.

Amanda Bybee:

So I was such an early joiner at the company and I was in a desk based role. So my mentees were typically field folks. I learned so much from them and having been at the company as long as I had by the time we built the mentorship program, I had forgotten what it felt like to be new at the company. And so it gave me so much insight to just ask them questions and hear from them. And I don’t even love the term mentorship in some ways, because it implies in some sense a hierarchical relationship. Like the mentor is supposed to know everything and the mentee is just gobbling it up. But in my experience, it’s much more of a level playing field than a two way street, because I learn a ton even when I’m being called the mentor.

Amanda Bybee:

And what’s also funny is that in a lot of the companies I’ve seen try to start mentorship programs, most people won’t raise their hands and say, “I should be a mentor.” Everybody tends to cast themselves in the role of mentees. And so when you kind of approach it from more of a pure level or a pure structure, it tends to make it more comfortable for people to enter into that relationship and say, “Let’s just carve out special time where you and I get together and talk.” And so I kind of prefer language that has less of a hierarchical note to it for that reason.

Sharon Lee:

But I love the cross teaming as well because you generally think of butting heads with… You’re behind the desk and you’re pushing deadline, deadline and all that. And that person’s out in the field and they’re dealing with rain or they’re dealing with whatever the challenge might be. And then it really lets you see it from their perspective and kind of live it.

Amanda Bybee:

Well and I mean, every company in our space deals with this question of the field/office divide. And so anything we can do to build empathy across that chasm and kind of shrink its distance between the walls a little bit, I think that tends to benefit our cultures as a whole and spending time with each other, the office person going out in the field or the field person coming into the office for a period of time. I think it does create a lot greater sense of what it is to walk in each other’s shoes for that mile.

Sharon Lee:

Right.

Amanda Bybee:

So yeah, it accomplishes a lot of really positive things to have mentorship that’s thoughtfully structured. Now they can also go badly if you don’t put enough time and energy and thought into how you support that program. But when done well, I think it can be a really strong addition to a company’s culture.

Sharon Lee:

Right and I think that you’re exactly right, that adds to retention. And I think that people put such a low value on spending that extra time doing that, but in the end it is so beneficial for the company. So it makes perfect sense.

Amanda Bybee:

Well I think a lot of us get caught up in the day to day like the crush and the sweep of the volume of business that we’re trying to accomplish. But this is also a part of our maturing as an industry as a whole, you got to start thinking about succession planning at some point, and there’s no better way to do that than putting in place programs like a mentorship program. And if you’re a company that is going to care about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I hope we all are, then you need to look for specific ways to ensure that you are elevating people who want to be elevated and giving them those pathways up through your company. Because I think a lot of us are very good at paying attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion, particularly in entry level jobs, but it really needs to trickle out into every level of our company.

Amanda Bybee:

And so I think that the most successful companies have a strong promotion policy where they first try to hire up from within and then where needed they may supplement from external sources with specific skill sets. But the more you can raise people up, the more you give them that picture of how I can succeed at this company for a long time, I think the better off you’re going to be in any kind of succession when the founders and leaders choose to step down. I look at the solar industry as a whole and I’ve been in it, I’ll call it 20 years next year, but that’s still really quite young as an industry. And so we’re learning these lessons all over again, that other industries have learned and that’s a part of our maturation and our professionalizing and it’s a good thing. And there’s a lot we can learn from other industries that have been down this road before. It’s my hope that we’re starting to pay attention to what we can learn from our brethren around the world.

Sharon Lee:

Well and-

Amanda Bybee:

Brethren and sisteren.

Sharon Lee:

Right. Well, so let’s shift gears a little bit. When we talked before we talked about so many different topics, but one of those topics was technology. So tell me about a technology that you see as being very impactful to our overall discussion of adopting more, say climate friendly practices. [crosstalk]

Amanda Bybee:

Well, I am really excited to see the rise of the electric pickup truck. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this technology because what we’re seeing right now is A< electric vehicle sales are on the rise. And this is a really important part of transforming a highly polluting aspect of our industry infrastructure. It's good for solar because we're electrifying everything and solar PV does that. So I see it as a win for our industry to see this advent of electrification, but it's also obviously a big win for the environment. And we've seen the EV adopters, the early adopters are always the ones that are like either techno geeks or enviro geeks or they're kind of out there. But electric pickup trucks are about as mainstream as you can get in American society.

Amanda Bybee:

And when you think about this, if I own a contracting company and I have a fleet of pickup trucks out in the world, most of them aren’t doing long haul driving every day. Most of them are working in a given service area. And so the ranges that are coming out on these pickup trucks, it’s going to fit perfectly within my service area needs. And if I can do that without having to pay 4, 5, $6 gallon gas, boy, that’s starting to look pretty darn attractive.

Amanda Bybee:

So the economics of it are really exciting. But then the other piece of this, which Ford is way out ahead of with the way that they’re marketing the Lightning is they’re marketing it as a backup generator that you can use in your home so that you could plug this into the grid at night and provide power back to the grid. You could use it during an outage. And I think it’s going to transform the way that we contemplate these distributed battery resources, these distributed energy resources.

Amanda Bybee:

And that is a fascinating case study in consumer behavior, probably, possibly going to inform utility policy and rate making where this is what solar has been. Solar has always been a disruptive technology to the utility industry, but I really see the advent of these electric pickup trucks as being another quantum leap forward in consumer behavior driving policy. Now we’re a little early, I don’t know that we’ve started to see utilities formulating the EV truck rate structure yet. But I think it’s coming and I feel like it’s going to be an aspect of our evolving society, where we see the ability to make a purchase that I’m going park in my garage, that’s going to affect my home energy usage. And that’s just a very cool and fascinating aspect of this evolution that we see taking place in the energy market as a whole.

Sharon Lee:

That’s right. We had talked earlier about both of us enjoying fiction and how a fictional character can take you somewhere and you are seeing it. It’s not dates in history and wars and battles and all of this cold stuff. I mean, you’re living it with that person. Whereas you’ve got a person that might not think about resiliency and backup power and grid connection and all of this, and then suddenly all of that’s parked in their garage and so they’re living it. And so it really does bring in the masses to something that is like cold solar policy that only a small fraction of us are even thinking about. So I think that’s a fantastic connection, but I know we are starting to run a little bit short on time. So let’s talk a little bit about other projects that you’re actively involved in, some of your other goings on.

Amanda Bybee:

Yeah. Well, I am really passionate about this question of diversifying the solar industry and as a woman advocating for more women in our industry has always been near and dear to my heart. And so if a young woman tries to friend me on LinkedIn, I almost always accept regardless of whatever the connection may be and the mentorship and the peer mentorship and the advocacy has always been really strong. And a few years ago, my friend Tara and I were at SPI and we were feeling really frustrated as we looked at the lineup of all of the speakers on the different panels. And we were at the women’s luncheon at SPI and they had us do these speed mentoring things at tables. And they asked me to be a mentor. And I was like, “Well, I still don’t think of myself as a mentor, but okay.”

Amanda Bybee:

And at the tables we were like, what can we do? I’m sick of waiting for somebody else to solve this problem. What can we actually do to address this kind of concentration we still see? And so we started a Google sheet and we started signing up women that were raising their hand to be speakers on panels, moderators, et cetera. And we got our Google sheet up to about 150 women who were great public speakers and it kind of stalled out which this is not uncommon, but we were still feeling frustrated. By this point, we’re into the pandemic, we’re seeing all these webinars umpteen gajillian webinars. But still far too many of them are all white men. And I know that is still the majority of our industry and that’s inevitable at some degree with the current demographics, but what’s not inevitable is that there are so many women and so many people of color in our industry who are perfectly wonderful speakers, who aren’t given the platform.

Amanda Bybee:

And so we got all fired up again. And we said, “We got to do more.” So we called WRISE the Women in Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy. And we said, “Hey, Kristen and Elon, at one point we heard y’all were working on a speaker’s bureau. Where is that at?” And they said, “Oh, we’re working on it right now.” And we said, “Well, we’ve got 150 names that we’d like to put on it. Can we just join forces and help you get this over the finish line?” And they said, “Heck yeah.” So we formed a committee and launched a speakers bureau through WRISE that is up and running today. It’s really easy to sign up. If you do a search for WRISE speakers bureau it’ll take you straight to that page. And this is all really with the intention of diversifying the faces and the voices that are taking part in the public discourse at our conferences.

Amanda Bybee:

So if you’re a conference organizer, it’s a tremendous resource. You can sort by area of expertise, you can sort by geography. If I was a recruiter and I was really smart, I would also look at this kind of a resource to think about who has the right area of expertise in your geography. So I think it’s possibly got a double purpose, but that’s one thing that I do feel really strongly about. And the other one I’ll mention is that I think that just like many activists in the space, I started out advocating for people who look like me, for women. But I’ve also come to see it’s really important for me to use my platforms, to advocate for people who don’t look like me and who come from all walks of life.

Sharon Lee:

Sure.

Amanda Bybee:

And so there is an industry group that has formed in the last year called Renewables Forward. And it’s all about bringing together the companies throughout the renewables industry who want to invest deeply in diversity, equity, and inclusion work. And we have hired our first executive director, she started in May. And so she is just off like a rocket. Her name is Chris Nichols. We’re really excited to have her join the team. There are about 40 or so member companies of Renewables Forward so far and growing. And these are large companies to small. I’m on the board of directors as a one person show. And so is Bruce Ledesma from Nextracker. They’re a far larger company and everything in between. Sol Systems had a lot to do with the formation of this, but it’s a way to come together and again, find a pure network of companies in our industry that are facing challenges and looking at ways to solve them.

Amanda Bybee:

And there’s a lot of resources that are coming out of the volunteer groups, HR playbooks, we’re getting a business mentorship program started to pair larger, more established companies with women and minority owned businesses that are up and coming. And we’re really looking at making sure that we’re measuring our progress in meaningful ways. So Renewables Forward is open to anybody who wants to join. I also happen to be the co-chair of the new membership committee. So I’m a good point of contact for that as well.

Sharon Lee:

Excellent. Excellent. Well, so in closing, I understand congratulations are in order. So you’ve got some big news for a recent American Solar Energy Society award, right?

Amanda Bybee:

Yes. Thank you very much. Awards always make me feel a little awkward to tell you the truth because that’s not why we do this work, but it also does feel really good that they honored actually what we termed the Clean Energy Cooperative Network, which includes Amicus Solar, the Clean Energy Credit Union and Amicus O&M Cooperatives. All of them are cooperatives and all of them have really been out to try to support independent business in our industry. And we believe despite the consolidation that we’re starting to see M&A activity and all that, small businesses are still the engine of our economy and they always will be.

Amanda Bybee:

And so finding the right ways to bring them together and to strengthen their businesses through cooperation is something that we all feel really passionate about. And I have not done anything in my career by myself. And in particular, I’ve been very fortunate to be in league with the leaders of these other cooperative, Stephen Irvin, with Amicus Solar and Blake Jones of Clean Energy Credit Union. And we’ve done an awful lot of this together so it felt really nice to have a recognition for the ecosystem that we’ve built in service and support of independent business.

Sharon Lee:

Wow. That’s fantastic. So congrats again. That’s very well deserved. And thank you again for joining us today on The Sunnyside. So tell us where people can find out more about Amicus O&M and how to get in touch with you.

Amanda Bybee:

Sure. So Amicus O&M’s website is Amicus, A-M-i-C-U-S, O-M in operations and maintenance.com. And there you can see a map of our member companies, their coverage. If you click on a state, you can see which companies service that area. I’m on LinkedIn, Amanda Bybee is probably the easiest way to search me. I try to stay off of the other social medias to be honest, but I do get over to LinkedIn somewhat regularly, and then you can always contact me through the website.

Sharon Lee:

Fantastic. All right. Well, thanks again. And we look forward to hearing more about everything that you’re doing out there in the world. You’re doing a lot of great work.

Amanda Bybee:

Well, thanks, Sharon. I appreciate you having me. And I appreciate the podcast and I think it’s a really awesome platform to hear from the women around our industry and to hear all the cool things that they’re doing, but also the different way that they’re doing it.

Sharon Lee:

Right, well said. All right, well, thanks again. Thanks for listening to The Sunnyside podcast. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review. You can also email questions, suggestions, and compliments to Sharon at VeloSolar.com. The Sunnyside is produced by the Podcast Laundry production company and executive produced by Sharon Lee.

Sharon Lee:

Sharon Lee taps over a decade of solar sales experience, having led the creation of a solar division for a leading manufacturing/construction firm, resulting in over 17 MW of solar in its portfolio as well as solar ultimately becoming its highest-grossing revenue vertical. Lee has been involved in the GA Solar Energy Association, serving on the board of directors as the marketing chair, organizing the annual conference, as well as vice-chair, and ultimately the first female chair of the organization in 2015. She is also a charter member of the Professional Women in Building chapter of the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders Association, a member of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), and Women in Solar Energy (WISE). Lee earned her B.S. degree in communications with double minors in marketing and psychology from Middle Tennessee State University, after spending three years at the University of Tennessee in the pre-health curriculum. Lee is the mom of two boys, ages 14 and 11, and a rabid college football fan. She and her husband, John, spend most of their free time at the baseball or football fields unless they can steal away for a quick round of golf.

Amanda Bybee:

Ms. Bybee has worked in the solar industry since 2003. Her entrée was promoting renewable energy policy in Austin, TX at Public Citizen, where she served as the coordinator of the Solar Austin Campaign. The campaign worked closely with Austin Energy to establish the first solar rebate program in Texas in 2004. Ms. Bybee then went on to work at Meridian Energy Systems, a solar EPC company. Ms. Bybee joined Namasté Solar in January 2006 as an early member of the team. She held numerous roles over her 11 years there, from technical sales & design to business development. While there, she worked to obtain a federal charter for a unique financial institution that funds clean energy products and services: Clean Energy Credit Union (www.cleanenergycu.org). This was only the 17th federal charter issued since 2010 and the first in the state of Colorado for over 30 years. She continues to serve as a volunteer on the Supervisory Committee of the credit union. In 2016, she helped earn an award from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative to found the Amicus O&M Cooperative (www.AmicusOM.com). The O&M Cooperative brings together a network of providers across the country to provide coordinated services for geographically distributed portfolios. She now serves as its CEO, and is committed to the mission “to ensure that solar PV fulfills its promise as a responsible and reliable energy source, for generations to come.” She obtained a BA in English and French from the University of Texas at Austin, and through solar, has found her “inner engineer.”

Stay Connected:

Sharon Lee

LinkedIn: Sharon Lee 

Facebook: Sharon Lee

Amanda Bybee

LinkedIn: Amanda Bybee

Subscribe to our podcast + download each episode on Spotify.

This episode was produced and managed by Podcast Laundry.