Charging Up: A chat with Jess Brooks, chief development officer at Sunwealth

Plus, climatetech career moves at FreeWire, Prologis, Form, FERC, Fermata and 7-Eleven.

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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 protected]​canarymedia.​com. Canary thanks FischTank PR for its support of the column.

Jess Brooks: A business leader on a mission to increase access to solar

Jess Brooks is chief development officer at Sunwealth. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.

How did you end up on this career path?

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I came to clean energy by way of community economic development. I spent close to two decades helping investors put their money to work in affordable housing, childcare, schools, community health centers and nonprofit organizations at a national CDFI (community development financial institution). The common thread that connects that work and my work at Sunwealth is using capital to unlock access to opportunity. 

The community-based solar market, where Sunwealth invests, has tremendous potential to deliver real economic benefits to low-income people and communities in the form of clean energy access, energy savings and green jobs. This is a pivotal moment for clean energy. The decisions we make today about how to invest will have lasting repercussions, determining who has a stake in our clean-energy future and who gets left behind. I want to make sure all communities — especially those that have borne a disproportionate burden from pollution, climate change and high energy costs — have a seat at the table. 

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

This comes from one of my solar heroes, Lynn Benander of Co-op Power, who was quoting Angela Davis: I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”

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

When we started Sunwealth, people said that community-scale projects delivering savings to low-income people and nonprofits weren’t an investable market — that the scale was too small. We’ve overcome it with disciplined underwriting and a community of partners willing to adjust their lens and think more holistically about the outcomes we’re trying to create. It’s not just how much solar we build; it’s who we partner with to build it and who benefits.

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

Everybody likes to focus on the moonshots — the large-scale, gigaton drawdown opportunities and new technologies. I see real opportunity for impact in the proven technologies that exist in the here and now, like making solar accessible to individuals and organizations across the country through innovative financial structures and back-end systems that extend access and savings. We need people who haven’t traditionally considered careers in clean energy — women, people of color, people who grew up in under-resourced communities — to bring new ways of thinking, seeing and investing to the deal table. Sure, there’s a lot we can do with new technology and new policies, but there’s a lot we can and need to be doing with the tools we have right now.

What is your superpower?

As a mom of two boys, I’m used to balancing competing priorities — school, work, home, extracurriculars — and optimizing for the overall health of our family. As investors, we need to do the same thing: think holistically about the outcomes we want to achieve and the pathways that will get us there. The real solutions aren’t going to come from compartmentalizing. They’ll come when we embrace the complexity of the challenges we face — climate change, inequality, structural racism — and tackle them together.

Career moves

Stacey Simms was promoted to senior manager for EV policy and incentives at 7-Eleven, a convenience outlet and gas station that operates, franchises and/​or licenses more than 13,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada. In June 2021, the company set a goal of installing 500 direct-current fast EV charging ports by the end of 2022

Tanya Jones is now president of the board of directors of The National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition, a nonprofit that raises awareness of the energy needs of low-income energy consumers through public-private partnerships and education and training.

Deidre Yiu, previously with Rivian, is now senior product manager for hardware at FreeWire Technologies, a maker of EV fast-charging equipment.

Natasha Keefer is now head of origination and power marketing for the Americas at Prologis, a publicly traded real estate investment trust. Keefer previously served as vice president of power supply at Clean Power Alliance, a Southern California electricity provider.

Linnan Cao has joined the Environmental Defense Fund as senior analyst, U.S. states climate. Cao was previously at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and before that, she was a policy analyst at the California Public Utilities Commission.

Taylor Offlée was promoted to sourcer at long-duration energy storage aspirant Form Energy. The company raised $450 million in October.

Cheryl Cortegiani was promoted to business development executive at Energy Management Corporation, a firm that builds and services electric motors, variable frequency drives and backup generator systems. 

Arielle (Swett) Schwartz is now an energy industry analyst at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Swett was previously an analyst with Arcadia.

Fermata Energy, a developer of vehicle-to-everything systems, has recently made a number of strategic hires, bringing on a cadre of highly experienced women with backgrounds in energy and utilities. Among the new employees are: 

For the record

Of the over 3,000 companies that have gone public in the U.S. since 2013, less than 1 percent have been founded and led by women at the time they went public. The bulk of those — 12 — went public in 2021.

Graphic that says Less than 1% of companies that went public between 2013 and 2021 were founded and led by a woman.

Check it out

Browning the Green Space and Greentown Labs have partnered to create the Advancing Climatetech and Clean Energy Leaders Program, or ACCEL, a cleantech accelerator that will offer resources, mentorship and funding opportunities for Black, brown and Indigenous founders. They are taking applications until December 23.

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Over the past decade, FischTank PR has established itself as one of the leading cleantech / renewable energy / sustainability PR firms in the country. We are known for our ability to get results, be creative and serve as an extension of our client’s communications program. FischTank has extensive experience working with brands across solar, energy storage, battery technology, EVs, hydrogen, grid-edge technologies, software, utilities, developers, financiers and more. For more information about our cleantech / sustainability practice, please visit our website or follow us on LinkedIn to see our client work.

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial and research associate at Canary Media.

Eric Wesoff is the editorial director at Canary Media.