Social enterprise startup: Empowering energy equity through solar! - Activate World

Social enterprise startup: Empowering energy equity through solar!

Steph Speirs, Co-founder and CEO, Solstice

Steph is an entrepreneur and community builder with management experience in the Middle East, South Asia, and the United States. 

She co-founded and runs Solstice, an enterprise dedicated to radically expanding the number of American households that can take advantage of clean energy using community-shared solar farms. She is a Techstars alum and was selected as an Echoing Green Climate Fellow, a Global Good Fund Fellow, a Kia Revisionary, a Renewable Energy World 40 Under 40 in Solar, a Grist 50 Fixer, a GLG Social Impact Fellow, a Cordes Fellow, and an Acumen Global Fellow. 

She previously led sales and marketing innovation initiatives in India at d.light, a solar products company powering areas without reliable electricity; spearheaded Acumen’s renewable energy impact investment strategy in Pakistan; developed Middle East policy as the youngest policy director at the White House National Security Council; and managed field operations in seven states for the first Obama presidential campaign. 

She holds a B.A. from Yale, a Master in Public Affairs (MPA) with distinction from Princeton, and an MBA from MIT with a Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. She originally hails from Hawaii.

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Social Enterprise Startup: Empowering Energy Equity through Solar!

Solstice deploys “community solar,” enabling households to subscribe to shared solar farms. Co-founder and CEO, Steph Speirs, highlights their business model to achieve greater energy equity. Solstice addresses inclusion issues in the solar industry, works to democratize access to clean energy, and focuses on accelerating the transition to clean energy. Listen to our conversation on how Solstice as a social enterprise is changing business and demonstrating a new generation of leadership!

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Social Enterprise Startup: Empowering Energy Equity through Solar!

Steph Speirs, Co-founder and CEO, Solstice

Jon Mertz:          00:02          Welcome to the Activate World Podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substances and depth of thought.

Jon Mertz:          00:20          As we continue to explore our different business and organizational models, we’re going to take a closer look at social enterprises with Steph Speirs, co-founder and CEO of Solstice. Welcome to Activate World, Steph.

Steph Speirs:       00:32          Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Jon Mertz:          00:34          Looking forward to our conversation. First, describe Solstice, and how you approach your business.

Steph Speirs:       00:39          Of course. So the problem that we’re trying to solve is that four out of five Americans cannot actually get solar power right now, and it’s for a variety of reasons. Maybe they’re a renter or a condo owner or there’s a tree covering their roof or their roof faces the wrong way or made out of rotten materials. So essentially you have to be a little bit of a unicorn to get rooftop solar. And yet solar is so cheap right now that it can help everyone save money on their electricity bills if they could just access it.

Steph Speirs:       01:07          So Solstice offers a solution that’s called Community Solar, and Community Solar means you don’t have to worry about installing anything on your rooftop. You can buy a portion of a neighborhood shared solar farm instead. And there’s no upfront cost. You save money on your electricity bill immediately, and you don’t have to install anything on your home. So it’s the most affordable and accessible type of clean energy out there. Solstice is a software platform and company that makes it really easy to households and businesses to plug into a local solar farm, and we handle all the backend headache, the integration with utilities, the billing, the crediting, the enrollment of customers so that these farms can get built more quickly.

Jon Mertz:          01:55          And what led you to start Solstice?

Steph Speirs:       01:56          Yeah. I started it with a couple of great co-founders, and one of my co-founders and I were working in India on solar micro grids. We went to really rural India, and we had to take a plane, then a train, then a car to get there. And this village was electrified by solar, but we couldn’t think of anyone back home, any of our friends or family that had put solar on their home. So we looked into it. We found out about this access problem in America where four out of five Americans can’t get solar, and we said, “Okay. Let’s work on this problem,” and started Solstice to use Community Solar as a vehicle to do that.

Jon Mertz:          02:35          Did you have an interest in solar prior to your trip to India?

Steph Speirs:       02:38          I had been working in solar for a couple years before Solstice, working in India and Pakistan in renewable energy deployment. But before that, I had no idea I would end up in this industry. I was actually prior to my renewable energy experience, I was working in government and politics. I had worked in the Obama campaign and was working under the administration. And I was working in Middle East policy during the Arab spring years for the Obama administration. And we would walk down in Yemen and drive through the streets of Yemen in these armored vehicles talking about counter terrorism and national security, and yet when I looked out the window, I saw people lined up waiting for fuel. Ordinary Yemenis couldn’t get the fuel to power their everyday lives despite Yemen being very, very sunny. So that sparked my interest in renewable energy for the first time, and I thought, “Well, there’s nothing like working in Middle East policy that makes you realize renewable energy is a solution for the future and our oil policies are a solution for the past.”

Jon Mertz:          03:51          So I understand Solstice is a hybrid social enterprise model with a mix of for-profit and nonprofit aims. Walk us through what that means.

Steph Speirs:       03:58          So our business model is really a B2B2C kind of model. We partner with solar developers that build solar farms, and they’re really good at financing and installing the farms, putting them in the ground, getting the permitting. They’re less good at and have less interest in undertaking all the customer engagement. And they have no software capabilities to really handle the complicated billing and crediting and backing administration with utility companies. So that’s the service that pain point that Solstice solved for these solar developers. We take care of every step of the customer experience for them such that they can build their farms more quickly. We can get more solar in the ground.

Steph Speirs:       04:45          So with the end user households and businesses that Solstice interact with, we help them plug into local solar gardens, and our software platform manages every step of the customer experience for the developers. And that way the value proposition for the end user, household or business, that’s signing up is that they get cheaper electricity, they get to support local clean energy, and then on the other end of the market place, the developers get to save money, handle their customer services much more efficiently, and build more solar.

Jon Mertz:          05:21          And on the nonprofit side, what’s your focus there?

Steph Speirs:       05:22          Yeah. We have two separate entities. One is a C corporation software company that I just mentioned, and then we have a 501C3 nonprofit that is entirely focused on low income access to Community Solar as well as policy innovations that allow for inclusive solar policies throughout the country.

Jon Mertz:          05:44          Would you say your aim is energy equity?

Steph Speirs:       05:46          Yeah. Exactly. There’s not a question in our minds that the green transition will happen. We believe that there will be more and more clean energy, and that’s what everyone’s predicting. But there is a question of whether that green transition will be equitable. And there’s been a severe inequity in the energy industry to date. Low income populations are disproportionally affected by pollution, climate change, natural disasters. They pay a disproportionate amount of their income on energy, and they’re disproportionally locked out of the clean energy market. Yet they could use the savings the most. And so we are trying to inject more equity into the energy industry by making solar actually affordable and accessible to everyone, including low income communities.

Jon Mertz:          06:38          How do you balance being a for-profit entity with your efforts for more energy equity on the nonprofit side?

Steph Speirs:       06:44          I think the key to better, more inclusive energy systems is a reassessment of risk, and by that I mean often developers in solar finance years don’t want to include low income populations in their customer pool because they perceive this population to be too risky. They’re going to default on their bills. They’re just going to not pay. They’re going to move away. There’s a lot of churn. These are all assumptions that are made about low income communities. When you look at the statistics around how people pay their bills though, people pay their electricity bills until the bitter end. It is one of the last bills they stop paying because they don’t want to lose access to electricity. So I think what we’re trying to prove here is that the perceived risk of serving these customers is greater than the real risk of serving these customers.

Steph Speirs:       07:40          And that there’s two reasons to serve these customers. One is moral, for all the reasons I said earlier. These populations are marginalized and cut out from clean energy even though they could use clean energy the most and are disproportionally affected by climate change. But there’s also the business reason for including these customers. There’s just simply no way that solar will be a big business until we figure out a way to serve four out of five Americans that are currently locked out of the market. And furthermore, for climate reasons. We’re never going to solve climate change if we don’t figure out a way to democratize access to clean energy. The fact that so few people in this country can access clean energy right now means that we’re not maximizing the customer pool for business growth potential, and it means that we’re not doing enough to save the planet for climate change.

Jon Mertz:          08:35          It seems like social change is really an important part of your business.

Steph Speirs:       08:40          Yeah. We firmly believe that being more inclusive is the path to scale and growth. Those things are not intention. What is that tension is sometimes financiers perception of risk, which is frankly archaic.

Jon Mertz:          08:57          Where is Solstice at when it comes to scaling the business?

Steph Speirs:       09:00          Yeah. So we started pilots in 2017, and we have generated demand for over 100 megawatts of solar in this country. Mostly our projects have been in New York and Massachusetts, though we’re currently in contract negotiations to expand to Maryland, Illinois, California, and potentially New Jersey and Minnesota after that. The Community Solar energy has grown more than double each of the last three years, and four years ago, this industry didn’t exist on a commercial level. And it’s predicted to be $80 billion by 2030. So it’s just massive potential for growth.

Jon Mertz:          09:40          That’s great. So you’ve worked with investors and have outside funding.

Steph Speirs:       09:43          Yeah. We have been really, really fortunate to have incredible investors who are really supportive of both mission as well as our business model. And actually up until very recently when we raised our seed round, we had only raised an angel’s round prior to that. And a lot of our angel supporters were individuals in the social enterprise space, and then our seed round supporters were a combination of venture funds as well as angels.

Jon Mertz:          10:19          How do you approach your business different than a typical venture-back startup would?

Steph Speirs:       10:23          There are a couple of software competitors in our space, and one we distinguish ourselves from them in a couple of ways. One is our mission. We care about whether underserved communities are included because 42% of this country is considered low to moderate income based on HUD requirements. And that’s a big portion of the population that all these other companies are ignoring. So that’s one reason why I think customers trust us is because we do authentically care about inclusion and we work every day to make sure that happens. And that actually honestly helps our business outcomes as well because people are more likely to trust a mission-driven company that they feel more secure in recommending us to their friends and neighbors, which is a real big propulsion of growth in the solar industry.

Jon Mertz:          11:23          It seems that your social enterprise business model really fits well with what millennials and Gen Z expect out of business today. Would you agree with that?

Steph Speirs:       11:32          Yeah. I would definitely agree with that, but I also wouldn’t give some of the older folks a bad rap because some of the biggest surprises of our organization is that we assumed all the early adopters would be millennials or Gen Z people who cared about the environment and support mission businesses. But what we found is that our ambassadors, those are folks that volunteer to tell their friends and neighbors about Community Solar. Our ambassadors are a lot of folks in their 50-70 year old range. They have kids that are out of the house. They see that they want their planet to be around for future generations and their families, and they have a little more spare time that they can get on the ground and tell their friends and neighbors about a tangible solution to climate change like Community Solar. So the older generations are just as excited about Community Solar as the 30s to 20 year old as well.

Jon Mertz:          12:32          Are there certain traits that you look for in new hires?

Steph Speirs:       12:35          Yeah. I have a lot of reverence for people who are gritty and who work hard, and we really try hard not to hire people based on traditional markers of privilege, like what school you went to, who you know, what’s your network. Because we know from personal experience that those are not indicators of merit, those are indicators of the birth lottery. And so we’ve hired people in sales positions who only had restaurant waitressing experience. We’ve hired people to do serious work who didn’t look like the traditional candidate on paper, and we took a change on them. And they turned out to be amazing because they were given that opportunity.

Steph Speirs:       13:28          So what we focus on is really two things. Are you incredibly competent at what you do, number one. And number two, are you not an asshole. You have to be a good person. You have to be mission aligned, but you have to be extremely competent at what you do. Turns out that’s kind of a rare combination.

Jon Mertz:          13:52          Once they join your company, what do they find attractive about Solstice?

Steph Speirs:       13:56          One of the best opportunities of starting a company is getting to create the world as you think it should be as opposed to reflecting the world as it is. For instance, we give people at our company a lot of vacation. They get six to seven weeks of vacation a year. They get a lot of flexibility in when they do their work, and that comes with an underlying trust that they’ll just get their work done. I think people say that our values are pretty unique. For example, one of our values is gratitude, and we believe it’s really important to practice gratitude every week.

Steph Speirs:       14:35          For example, psychological studies say that when we as a human population do well, we actually attribute it to ourselves. And when we do poorly, when we fail, we tend to point the finger at others. Studies have shown this. We’re trying to flip that on its head at Solstice. We’re trying to say that when we do well, our first step should be to thank others who’ve helped us get here because we don’t get anywhere without a lot of help. And when we do poorly, to think about what is it that we could’ve done better. And we try to practice our values. We every week in our all hands meeting, we spend 10 minutes writing thank you notes to people who have helped the organization or we write to customers to thank them. So that’s an example of how we’re a little bit of a strange bird, but we try to create the culture that we want to see in the rest of the world.

Jon Mertz:          15:26          That sounds like a great model. Do you believe that employee engagement is generally higher in social enterprises than other businesses?

Steph Speirs:       15:32          I would like to believe that’s true. I have worked in a couple of social enterprises, and that is not true for all of them. But I want to believe that the kinds of founders that are starting social enterprises also care about their employees as much as their customers and their other stakeholders. And truly, the success of any company entirely depends on talent. Who are the people that are giving up other opportunities and saying, “I’m going to wake up every day. I’m going to work on this issue, and that will determine whether that issue succeeds or fails.” So I want to believe that every social enterprise does it, and I hope we’ll get there.

Jon Mertz:          16:21          What leaderships skills do you rely on the most?

Steph Speirs:       16:25          Honestly, I think the best leadership skill is to try every day to lead by example. When I was in business school, through no real fault of my business school, the way they taught leadership is sometimes about getting other people to do what you want. And these are the ways that you can persuade people more effectively, here are the communication methods you can use to persuade people more effectively, and that is a very practical utilitarian way of looking at leadership. I would prefer to look at leadership in a different way. The people I admire the most, the leaders that have inspired me throughout my life, they’re the ones who lead my example. By sheer will of their competence and goodness and integrity and sheer work ethic, they inspire others to want to be like them and work just as hard. That’s the model of leadership that I aspire to be more like.

Jon Mertz:          17:26          How do you keep yourself and your team from getting worn out by building a business while driving social change?

Steph Speirs:       17:31          In terms of my personal reminders of staying strong in times that are hard, and there are times that are hard all the time, I often think of my life hero and how much she has gone through. And that’s my mom. My mom is an immigrant, single mother, and she has always worked multiple jobs as long as I’ve known her. She raised three kids on a salary below the poverty line, and she works at a call center for an airline. So she’s the one that people call when their flight gets canceled and they’re really mad. Poor thing. And she gets yelled at every day. With her immigrant accent, she gets told to go back to her own country. And I think of the indignities that she and other family members that I know who work manual labor, blue collar jobs, what they have to deal with on a daily basis. And the lack of choice they have because of the life circumstances that are no fault of their own. And I think no matter how hard it gets for us founders or us working in startups and how privileged we are to have the choice to choose this work that we feel incredibly passionate about.

Steph Speirs:       18:47          So I think about people who suffer more, like my mom, every single day, and how little we have to suffer in opposition to that. And that helps me sustain this effort throughout the hard days.

Steph Speirs:       19:03          I think the maxim about focusing on the why is really important to the whole team getting through the hard times.

Steph Speirs:       19:14          The last thing I’ll say is I think we get through it together. It helps when you’re going through some difficulties or obstacles to have people in the trenches with you that you would trust entirely with every aspect of your life, and there are a lot of people on the Solstice team that I feel that way about. And none more than my co founder Sandhya. She is the best thing to happen to Solstice, and if I could spend the rest of my life working with her, I would. So it’s really amazing to have teammates like that who are incredible role models for the rest of the team.

Jon Mertz:          19:47          And what’s your best advice for other for-profit social enterprise startups?

Steph Speirs:       19:51          What I’ve learned in this process is that no one holds us to our mission except ourselves, and in fact, a lot of people will pressure us to give up our mission to make bigger returns or more short-term expedient returns and to grow faster. It is the path of least resistance to serve the highest income homeowners with clean energy. They’re the most educated about clean energy. They already want it a lot of the time. They’re willing to pay more to get it, and yet that’s actually such a small portion of the country that it’s not worth the short-term expediency of following that crowd at the expense of everyone else in the country who’s left out.

Steph Speirs:       20:39          So I think what I’m trying to say here in a long winded way is the advice I would have for people is to think about what is short term expedient for you and your business model, and really what is the long term gains that you can make by doubling down on your mission. Sometimes it’s tempting to say, “Oh yeah. We’ll do the revenue generating thing now, and then focus on the impact later.” I think a lot of businesses get into that mindset. But we’re in a crisis, and certainly a climate crisis. And there’s urgency, and we can’t keep pushing off solutions that will help solve some of our most attractable social environmental issues. So I have to say I wish and I hope that people stay true to their mission and avoid the mission drift that often comes with increasing investment into your company.

Jon Mertz:          21:37          That’s great advice, Steph. It’s been just a joy to meet you. Your story, your work and your insights are so inspiration, and I just really appreciate your time and all that you’re working on.

Steph Speirs:       21:47          Thanks a lot, Jon. I appreciate you having me.

Jon Mertz:          21:56          Activators, let’s continue the conversation in our Activate World LinkedIn group. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives.

Be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about the Activate World podcast. Encourage them to subscribe, listen, and share from their favorite podcast platform, AppleGoogleSpotifyiHeartRadio,  RadioPublic, and others. Let us know how we’re doing by leaving a review. Your reviews mean a lot to us.

Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.