Canary Media’s Charging Up column chronicles gender diversity in the climatetech sector. Part one is a short Q&A with an industry role model about their career path. Part two features updates on career transitions. Please send feedback and tips to email@example.com. Canary thanks Greentown Labs for its support of the column.
Alicia Barton: Charting a different course
Alicia Barton is chief executive officer at FirstLight Power. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
How did you end up on this career path?
I took a nontraditional path to becoming a CEO. I started my career as a lawyer, so I went to law school rather than business school. I was focused on environmental and climate issues, and I thought I wanted to work on environmental compliance litigation, but at some point, I had a fundamental shift in perspective when I realized that it would be so much more impactful to work on building solutions. So I moved from being an environmental attorney to working on clean energy projects and the industry. I have gone back and forth between the public and private sectors, which is also unusual for a CEO, but it has been helpful in understanding how the private and public sectors work hand in hand to build clean energy markets and projects that are going to actually deliver the solutions that we need to combat the climate crisis.
I have been in my role at FirstLight Power for three years. We’ve been focused on expanding our business model and our suite of technologies so we’re now a diversified owner, operator and developer of clean energy — we have hydro, pumped hydro, solar, batteries and offshore wind in our operating or development portfolio. And we’ve been expanding geographically quite a bit as well. Our passion is to deliver integrated clean-energy solutions to our customers, which ultimately allow us to get to a grid that is both clean and reliable.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The one that has stuck with me the most was from a former boss of mine. The advice was to take a step back and think about what I would want to say years from now about what I accomplished in my role and to really focus on that handful of things. It can be easy in the day-to-day of a job to get swept up in long to-do lists and have things take over your own list of priorities, but it is important to not lose sight of what is important for you personally to accomplish.
What is a barrier you faced, and how did you overcome it?
Part of what we’re trying to do in the clean energy industry is fundamentally to convince people to think differently. The lack of confidence in a different vision of the future is a real challenge that I’ve had to confront at different moments. For example, when I first started working on offshore wind more than a decade ago, it was hard for people to wrap their minds around the idea that offshore wind could help power the grid on the East Coast. Similarly, when I worked on the proposal for New York state to adopt a clean-energy standard requiring 100% clean electricity, people again had a hard time believing that that would even be possible.
We have been able to overcome that by building credibility and making a business case for delivering results, but that takes time and hard work because it really is a mindset shift. You can’t assume that just by proposing a good project people will immediately understand the benefits and accept it. It takes a lot of broad-based effort to work with stakeholders on all sides of the issue. I think we’re still fighting that in some of the discussions that continue in New England about whether we can move away from fossil fuels. That’s not unique to this area of the country, of course, and I think we’ve got to approach that with thought, creativity and open-mindedness that will allow us to bring people along to the fact that the future will look very different than the past.
What do you think are some interesting, overlooked career opportunities in climatetech?
My company is fortunate to work with over 35 municipal utilities around New England, to whom we sell clean, local renewable energy. And in many places, those local municipal utilities are the ones that are doing innovative and creative things. Because they are smaller, they can tailor their solutions more to their customers’ needs.
There are many places in the country with rural electric co-ops and municipal utilities where professionals can have a lot of impact. There are opportunities for new approaches in securing the power they deliver to customers, like microgrids, EV charging and clean energy. So it’s a real, tangible way to get involved at the local level that can actually drive some really interesting and impactful results.
What is your superpower?
The ability to remain calm in stressful circumstances. I didn’t really realize this was a superpower at first, but I would get comments about how I did not get stressed or nothing fazed me. And of course, inside I would be thinking to myself that I was actually very stressed or even freaking out, but I have the ability to keep a level head and a calm demeanor even in the midst of stress. That has allowed me to focus on problem-solving, and it also had a real impact on the people around me. It brings a team a sense of calm that helps get it through stressful moments.
Elaine Hsieh is now senior advisor to the Under Secretary for Infrastructure at the U.S. Department of Energy. Hsieh was previously chief marketing officer, principal of outreach and co-founder at RMI affiliate Third Derivative.
Liz Ramsay Dalton is co-founder and partner at Mission Strategies, a newly launched bipartisan government affairs and lobbying firm for the clean energy sector. Previously, Dalton was with Overture VC and Boundary Stone Partners.
Element Energy added Jen Betz as chief financial officer. Betz joins Element from Analog Devices, a global semiconductor firm, where she was VP of accounting. Element is a battery management company looking to improve the safety, lifetime and energy throughput of batteries. In December, Element announced it had raised $28 million in an initial close of its Series B round.
Emma Bell, previously with Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, is now VP at Activate Capital, a later-stage venture capital firm working on the digital transformation of industrial systems and infrastructure.
Barbara Lantz is the new social media and engagement manager at Canary Media. Lantz has worked in marketing and social media for Major League Baseball teams, including the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics. Most recently, she was the public-affairs assistant at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy.
For the record
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15.2 million people in the U.S. were working in the manufacturing sector in 2022, but women made up only 29.3 percent of those workers.
Check it out
Canary Media and Post Script Media are hosting a live event at Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts on Thursday, April 6 from 5:00–9:00 pm ET. If you are in the Boston area, join us for an evening of networking, a live recording of our podcast The Carbon Copy, and an engaging journalist-led panel discussion. Get your tickets here!
Charging Up is supported by Greentown Labs, the largest climatetech incubator in North America, home to 200+ startups across incubators in Boston and Houston. We’re working to build an inclusive climatetech community that convenes, connects and inspires startups, corporates, investors, policymakers and others to scale climate solutions. We believe there’s a place for everyone in climate and know fighting the climate crisis means fighting for gender equity, too. This month we’re honoring the women who paved the way in climate and celebrating those who will continue to push our industry forward. Learn more about us here and connect with us here.