• Celina Mikolajczak was working on batteries before they were even a thing
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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Celina Mikolajczak was working on batteries before they were even a thing

The chief battery technology officer at Lyten and longtime industry veteran talks shop with Canary Media. Plus, big job moves and venture funding news.
By Maria Virginia Olano, Eric Wesoff

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A smiling woman with short light-brown hair and a light skin tone wearing a gray blazer. A graphic overlay reads Charging Up.

Canary Media’s Charging Up column chronicles gender diversity and notable career moves in the climatetech sector. Got a person or event you’d like to see us cover or a hot job tip? Let us know!

Celina Mikolajczak: Battery industry veteran and expert

Celina Mikolajczak is chief battery technology officer at Lyten. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.

How did you end up on this career path?

When I graduated from Caltech in 1991, technology like laptops and cellphones were scarce, and lithium-ion batteries were just entering the market. My degree was in mechanical engineering with a focus on fluid mechanics and combustion, so I thought I would go into aerospace or mechanical engineering like my father, who worked on gas turbine engines. However, the early-’90s recession led me down an unexpected path. I got an offer to join Schlumberger doing wireline logging in the oil business. Working out in the field in southern Louisiana was a real crash course in leadership and how an industry works.

About a year later, I decided to go to grad school at Princeton to study mechanical engineering with a focus on combustion. By 1999, I found myself working on battery safety. This led to regulatory work with the Rechargeable Battery Association and a deep dive into battery failure analysis. My expertise in battery safety caught Tesla’s attention, and I joined their team in 2012, overseeing cell quality at a pivotal time for electric vehicles and while Tesla was still a relatively small company.

After six years with Tesla, I joined Uber to develop batteries for electric aircraft, and then I moved to Panasonic at the Gigafactory in Reno. My journey continued with QuantumScape, and now at Lyten, I oversee the entire battery business, from R&D to production.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I often share this with interns: You’re going to have at least four or five different careers. The stuff that is happening right now won’t be happening in 20 years, so don’t stress so much about the future and making your next move — if a role doesn’t fit, you can always change direction. My own career journey, from astronomy research at Caltech to the oil field, graduate studies, engineering consulting and battery technology, reflects diverse technical shifts and learning curves. Staying flexible and open to new opportunities prevents stagnation.

What is a barrier you faced, and how did you overcome it? 

There are lots of barriers for women. The thing that you run into most as a woman is that people do not expect you to be a leader — and a lot of times, women themselves don’t expect to be leaders. It’s not until you start doing it that you realize, hey, I’m pretty good at this. But wherever you are in your career, if you walk into a room with a bunch of tall guys, most people will assume you are the admin or the dumbest person in the group, and because that is a constant, I think it is important to learn how to deal with it early on. When I went to Caltech, the ratio of women to men was 7-to-100, and still, to this day, I often sit in boardrooms where I am the only woman in a room full of people. So you have to foster credibility and strength in yourself and what you bring to a team while not being perceived as weak or vulnerable.

What do you think are some interesting, overlooked career opportunities in climatetech? 

This is a really nascent industry. Specifically on the battery side, the industry is vast. From raw material extraction to processing to end-use product manufacturing, each of these could be a huge industry all on their own, so if you have an interest in mining, chemistry or engineering, you can find those jobs all up and down the value chain. But you can also find all the sales, finance and administrative roles that you can imagine. And the reality is, these companies are not going to find people who have 20 years of experience in the battery industry — I’m like the only one who has that much experience — so there is a huge opportunity.

What is your superpower? 

I am stubborn as hell. Honestly, that’s the difference between making it and not. It’s not about intelligence; it’s not about skills, because no matter how good you are, you are going to get knocked down a whole bunch of times — you’re going to run into barriers and difficult problems. So it’s your ability to get knocked down and get back up again and just keep going. That’s where my superpower is. It’s not very exciting, but there you go.

Career moves

Stephanie Holmes is now chief people and culture officer at microreactor startup Oklo. Holmes was previously senior counsel for labor and employment at Southern Company Gas, as well as the founder of BrighterSideHR.

Becca Ward is now chief of staff for the Office of Manufacturing and Energy Supply Chains at the U.S. Department of Energy. Ward was previously deputy assistant secretary for Senate affairs at the DOE.

Sara Rafalson has been promoted to executive vice president for policy and external affairs at electric-vehicle charging firm EVgo.

Caroline Ott, previously at Vision Ridge Partners, has joined direct air capture startup Climeworks as director of carbon market projects and partnerships.

Emily Domenech is now senior VP at Boundary Stone Partners, a leading climate change government affairs firm. Domenech was previously senior policy advisor at the office of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Eve Hanson has been promoted to senior VP for research and innovation at climatetech venture investor Energy Impact Partners. Emilia Emcke has been promoted to strategy associate at the investment firm.

Check it out

The New Club, a career-support network for women in engineering, recently raised $3.1 million in venture funding. The group intends to use the funding to hire engineers-in-residence, expand its event offerings and continue to scale its mission with a new set of investors and advisers. Sierra Ventures and Afore Capital co-led the investment round and were joined by Operator Collective, Precursor Ventures, Dragonfly Capital and Stanford GSB’s 2021 Fund.

The talent-acquisition consultancy firm Dylan Green has a podcast out featuring Arpita Bhattacharyya, the chief climate officer at the DOE’s Loan Programs Office. The LPO has approximately $400 billion in lending authority for clean-energy commercialization and has already deployed $20 billion in loans and conditional commitments.

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.