From the UN to AES, how Madelka McCalla found her calling

The AES leader talks about building clean energy projects around the world and navigating impact-driven careers. Plus, job moves and a birthday.
By Eric Wesoff, Maria Virginia Olano

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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!

Madelka McCalla: A resilient leader with a toolbox full of tools 

Madelka McCalla is chief corporate affairs and impact officer at The AES Corporation. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.

How did you end up on this career path?

I’m originally from Panama. I started my career at the Panamanian Foreign Service in a role where I also had an opportunity to work at the UN, first at the Security Council and then the Development Programme (UNDP). After completing my Master’s degree, I wanted to have a positive impact on the world, and I thought that the best place to do that was at the UN. I wanted to find a more permanent role within the organization in their peacekeeping operations in Africa, but did not have any experience living and working in Africa.

Finally, one day, I met my future boss, and she asked me what I wanted to do. I said, I want to go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a peacekeeping operation.” And she said, Why don’t you join us? We also have businesses in Africa.” And I replied, Yes. I am going to say yes to this opportunity,” because next time when asked if I have experience living and working in Africa, I wanted my answer to be yes.

Fast forward 13 years, I’m still here at AES and I couldn’t be happier. I think that my background in political science and sociology has shaped a lot of my career and these different hats that I have worn — government, international organization and now the private sector. Once I joined AES I understood just how important energy is but also the impact of the private sector — since there isn’t as much bureaucracy, you have an opportunity to do a lot in the communities where you’re operating. For me, it’s been a great opportunity to design programs from scratch thinking about sustainability and community engagement.

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

To fully embrace your experiences without fear and to understand that resilience is not about avoiding falls but how swiftly you rise each time you stumble. This perspective is especially relevant to my journey, having moved from Panama to study and work abroad, facing new challenges every few years. It’s crucial to embrace new experiences and be thankful for the opportunities they present. You have many tools in your toolbox, and if life has put you somewhere, you are equipped to handle it.

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

When I was just starting out as a young woman in male-dominated spaces where experience was very much valued, I found it challenging. But going back to the toolbox, I realized that I could handle it and found that being a woman and a minority was in fact my biggest strength, I didn’t have to overpower men or speak loud, I just needed to understand that I also had a role to play.

Along the way, I found invaluable mentors, most of them men, who helped me navigate and succeed in that challenging space. Starting in a new country, looking young, being young, and from a different culture, meant I had to become articulate and accept that I wouldn’t win every time. This taught me the value of partnerships throughout my career, both internal and external. Even with the best ideas, you need the buy-in of at least a few people. Building trust is challenging, but once you establish it and understand what it means to each partner, honoring those commitments ensures they will trust you next time.

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

There is a pressing need for an accelerated energy transition, and there are two parts of making that happen: we need to innovate and we need to execute very fast. On the former, there is a need for science and innovation. Circular economy consultants are also going to be increasingly important. On the execution side, there’s an opportunity to involve more women in clean energy projects. I love the example of one of our projects in Brazil, a wind farm that is entirely operated by women, which was done intentionally. We can do a lot to train women to work in this field.

What is your superpower? 

A blend of empathy and the ability to connect and mobilize people towards achieving something meaningful. I find great fulfillment in bringing people together, fostering collaboration and motivating them to contribute to a common goal.

Career moves

Chelsea Robben has been promoted to VP of origination at wholesale electricity supplier NextEra Energy Resources.

Rafia Merchant, previously with Engie, is now managing director of capital markets at Spearmint Energy, a green merchant energy company.

Chelsea Adler has joined investment firm MUUS Climate Partners as head of investor relations. Adler was previously with Arsenal Capital Partners.

Jennifer Garson has joined climate change government affairs firm Boundary Stone Partners as senior vice president. Garson served for more than 15 years at the U.S. Department of Energy where she was most recently the director of the Water Power Technologies Office. 

Katherine Eshel, previously the chief of staff of the Mayor’s Office of Environment, Energy and Open Space for the City of Boston, is now leading the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s new climate policy and planning team.

Terra Weeks is now director of the California heat pumps partnership at the Building Decarbonization Coalition.

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To celebrate, we are running a donation drive, and the first $5,000 in gifts will be tripled with the help of a generous donor. If you can, please consider donating.

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.