Only 2% of US electricians are women. Tonya Hicks wants to change that

As a Black woman, Hicks has faced her share of industry hurdles. Now she’s on a mission to electrify buildings, make EVs more accessible and build the next generation of climate-aware electricians.
By Maria Virginia Olano

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Two women in hard hats and reflective safety vests stand next to a large electrical component
(Photo courtesy of Tonya Hicks)

As a child, Tonya Hicks was fascinated by car engines. She spent her summers in her grandparents’ garage with her uncle, an industrial mechanic, who taught her how to build a motor from scrap by the time she was 8. She constantly got in trouble with her mother and grandmother for her grease-stained sundresses and dirty hands, but that did not deter her.

Hicks grew up in public housing in Meridian, Mississippi with her mom, grandparents and five uncles who helped raise her. You know how some people say they were raised by wolves? Well, I was raised by men. That made me tough,” she said. In high school, she realized that she loved math and was good at it, too. She knew she wanted to work in a field that allowed her to use her skills. I wanted to be a mathematician cracking codes for the Pentagon or the FBI,” she says, aspirations that came, in part, from watching TV shows with her grandma.

She earned a full scholarship to study mathematics at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio and enrolled as a freshman in 1990.

There she ran into a barrier that she would encounter time and again throughout her career. When she told a professor that she planned to work in a math-related profession, he replied that women don’t do those jobs,” and that she would be better off becoming a teacher. Hicks was discouraged, but at home, her grandmother had different advice: not only can women do everything, they already do everything — they always have.

The summer of her sophomore year, Hicks found a job at a construction site, mostly sweeping floors and cleaning up. She soon noticed that the electricians around her were constantly using math — calculating electrical loads, panels and voltages. It was a lightbulb moment for Hicks. She decided to drop out of college, forfeit her scholarship and become an electrician. She enrolled in a program through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union that allowed her to work 40 hours a week as an apprentice and attend school just one night per week. It was also, crucially, free.

But her path to a professional career was not a smooth one. From the moment she interviewed for the training program — in front of a panel made up of all white men — she was met with skepticism about her capabilities, and she felt the other trainees, who were overwhelmingly male and white, did not always respect her. They’d put me in the office trailer and anywhere there was something to clean up,” she said. Hicks made the most of it: While stuck in the office, she started reading receipts and getting a sense of how the business was run, knowledge she would draw on when she started her own business years later.

Despite all the hardships, in 1998, Hicks completed the apprenticeship, becoming the first woman electrician in Local 917 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the first Black woman journeyman in the state of Mississippi.

The gender disparity that Hicks experienced as an apprentice continues to be a huge problem across the trades. For example, men make up roughly 90 percent of all workers in the construction industry. When it comes to electricians, the gender gap is even more pronounced: In 2022, only 2.2 percent of electricians in the U.S. were women. Just 7.3 percent were Black.

This is especially problematic now, given the nationwide shortage of electricians, which is growing more acute just as the country is ramping up to meet ambitious decarbonization goals. Rewiring America estimates the U.S. will need at least 1 million more electricians over the next decade. Recruiting, training and retaining women in construction jobs and skilled trades will be essential to meeting that need.

The same year she joined the union, Hicks had her first son and moved to Atlanta, where she worked as an electrician for various employers. One day, a colleague at a job site somewhat jokingly suggested that she should start her own business. Hicks recalled, He said to me, You know, if you’re going to run around telling everybody what to do, you might as well own your own company.’”

That was the nudge Hicks needed to gather her savings and launch her business, Power Solutions, from the sunroom of her Atlanta apartment in 2000. She was 28 years old and a single mom to a six-year-old. She took on any job that she could get, often small, one-off residential projects.

Hungry for clients, she decided to attend a Chamber of Commerce conference for women entrepreneurs that she saw advertised on TV. She did not have a ticket but showed up anyway, asking to just listen from the back of the event. To her surprise, she was not just allowed in: The organizers gave her a seat at one of the tables up front, next to guest speaker Jane Fonda. To this day, Hicks credits much of her early success to the relationships she formed at that event.

Today, 23 years later, Power Solutions is thriving — Hicks, who serves as president and CEO, oversees a staff of 10. The company has morphed into an electrical contracting and facilities management firm that offers a wide array of services, including energy-efficiency upgrades, machine and lighting wiring, and security-system installations, with mostly commercial and government clients. She says the opportunities for work exceed the company’s capacity. Until now, Hicks has purposefully kept the business small — a mom-and-pop shop,” she says — in order for her to have enough time at home. Her second son — who also wants to be an electrician — is still in high school.

But Hicks’ entrepreneurial drive doesn’t stop with her company. Tired of always being the only woman or the only Black woman in the room, in 2015 Hicks decided to start her second venture, a career-training agency to help women navigate male-dominated fields, which she named Women Do Everything. She’s been running the agency since then, with the goal of increasing the visibility of women’s work and boosting earning potential for women in the trades through workshops, events and networking opportunities.

Hicks says this venture was more about formalizing what she was already doing than it was about starting something new. My happiness is in helping other people develop, helping other people pursue their dreams and be financially sustainable. That’s why Power Solutions is what I do, but Women Do Everything is who I am.”

Hicks is still pushing Power Solutions in new directions, including clean energy projects such as installing solar arrays and EV chargers. She says that although she has always cared about sustainability, it wasn’t until 2020 that climate and decarbonization became a central focus of her work. During the pandemic, I thought to myself, If we’re all going to die, I might as well die doing what I love.’” That’s when she decided that Power Solutions would take on more renewables, energy-efficiency and residential smart-home energy projects. Some of her current clients include the city of Savannah as well as local churches and organizations looking to go solar.

The timing of her decision couldn’t have been better. In August 2022, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to accelerate the transition to clean energy through a massive slate of incentive programs. It’s just like a dream come true,” Hicks says. I tell people I’ve been waiting on this my whole career. The best part is that we don’t have to get ready. We’ve been ready.”

Hicks has yet more plans in the works. She is in the process of launching a new brand, She EV, which aims to increase the number of women driving EVs. The company will also manufacture EV chargers in Fort Worth, Texas. And she is launching another venture next spring, She Solar, with similar goals in mind.

These days, Hicks is thinking a lot about how to get more young people interested in a career in the trades. Kids deserve an opportunity to explore and learn,” she said. There is such a need for a space where kids can get a feel for the environment and be exposed to multiple trades.” Her ideal solution? A blue-collar internship program that would allow high-school students to work with companies. Hicks says she has been making calls and thinking about how she can bring interns into her own company.

Her life is a compelling example of how a career in the trades can provide financial security for families — and how budding entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds and life experiences can take advantage of a new wave of government and public investments into decarbonization and clean energy. The United States can’t achieve its ambitious climate goals without a skilled, dependable workforce, and Tonya Hicks has made it her life’s mission to help build up that workforce.

I’ve always been a big-problem person. And while I had no clear plan of how I was going to help save the earth, I knew that I was going to do my part and that I was gonna bring other women with me.”

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.