‘A Golden Time’: Growing Opportunities for Female Entrepreneurs in Cleantech

July 19, 2021
Julia Pyper

From garage startups to corporate boardrooms, the number of women in business has been steadily increasing for years. Although female representation in business leadership has yet to reach parity, including in clean energy.

According to the American Express 2019 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, the number of women-owned businesses grew two times faster on average than all businesses nationwide between 2014 and 2019. The share of women-owned businesses as a portion of all U.S. businesses jumped from less than 5% in 1972 to 42% in 2019.

Amid a turbulent 2020, the number of women leading Fortune 500 companies hit an all-time high of 37. But at just over 7% of top ranked businesses, that’s still a long way from achieving gender equality among Fortune 500 leadership.

Also in 2020, a disproportionate number of women fell out of the workforce entirely, driven in large part by the preexisting wage gap and insufficient access to childcare. It’s estimated the setback could wipe out recent gains women have made in the workplace.

The dynamic and fast-growing clean energy sector represents an enormous opportunity to increase the presence of women in business. As global emissions continue to rapidly rise, there’s tremendous need for more diverse leaders and innovative solutions to help address the climate crisis.

The California Sustainable Energy Entrepreneur Development Initiative (CalSEED), backed by the California Energy Commission and operated by New Energy Nexus, helps entrepreneurs accelerate their companies and careers. Ahead of CalSEED’s next solicitation taking place August 13-September 5, program director Joy Larson said she hopes that the program will set a new record for female applicants.

“Female entrepreneurs have historically been underrepresented in cleantech,” said Larson. “It’s an important and exciting time to support female cleantech entrepreneurs, who are bringing much-needed climate solutions to market.”

Seeing women make up a greater share of the clean energy workforce will require some work. The renewable energy industry employs roughly 32% women, compared to 22% in the energy sector overall, according to a 2019 IRENA report. However, the study found women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs within the renewable energy sector is still far behind the proportion of women working administrative jobs.

Despite these challenges, a group of female entrepreneurs who previously participated in the CalSEED program said they feel optimistic about working in the clean energy sector and report feeling empowered to lead their respective companies and solve big problems.

“There are more allies [for female entrepreneurs] today than there were in the past, and they’re more clearly identified,” said Dr. Etosha Cave, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Twelve (formerly Opus 12) a startup that recycles carbon dioxide “There are ecosystems and incubators for women and there is a lot more awareness around it. So, I think it’s actually kind of a golden time if you really want to be an entrepreneur of any gender, but especially so for women compared to where it was in the past.”

“I don’t want to sound like we’ve solved the problem by any means,” she added. “And compared to five years ago – when no one was talking about the female entrepreneurship experience versus the male entrepreneurship experience and the disparities in funding –

there are now conversations about funding vehicles that are specifically set up for female entrepreneurs.”

CalSEED funding, programming, and networking opportunities were critical enablers for Opus 12, according to Cave. The company’s breakthrough technology eliminates emissions by turning carbon dioxide into high-demand chemicals like methane, ethylene, and ethanol. With support from CalSEED in 2017, Dr. Cave and her partners transformed their lab discoveries into a commercial solution for making the world’s most critical chemicals from CO2 instead of fossil fuels.

“As a mechanical engineer I’m used to working in male dominated industries, and I’ve actually found the clean energy space to be very inclusive,” said Kirsten Pace, COO of Maxout Renewables. “I think the fact that most people in this industry have a common goal of tackling climate change helps keep egos in check and people focused on results.”

Maxout Renewables develops products and technologies that are designed to help solar power compete head-to-head with coal and other cheap energy sources. Maxout’s products include Polyverter, a true all-in-one hybrid inverter, and its patented Balancer that provides emergency backup power, energy storage, time-of-use load-shifting, per-panel optimization, and monitoring.

Pace said she highly recommends Cleantech Open (CTO) as a great resource for all early-stage companies. She and her team had no experience with pitching or creating business plans when they launched their first solar startup.

“Even if you don’t currently have a startup but are looking to get into the clean energy space, volunteering at the CTO is a great way to make contacts and get exposed to the training and resources they provide,” she said.

All entrepreneurs have to wear a lot of different hats. For Kristin Sampayan, CEO of Opcondys, Inc. and former CalSEED grant recipient, balancing administrative work with business development, as well as lab work and experiments, is a challenge. On top of that, she is a proud mother of two adult girls.

“But I think as a woman, I’ve always felt completely encouraged to go ahead and pursue whatever needed to be done in fulfilling these roles,” said Sampayan. “I’ve had a lot of encouragement from all of the organizations I’ve dealt with, and New Energy Nexus has been really good.”

Sampayan and her husband collectively launched Opcondys in 2014 to develop a new class of power semiconductor called the opticondistor for the power electronics market. The opticondistor is a revolutionary power switching device that Sampayan’s husband developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that’s able to provide faster, higher temperature operation and greater power handling capabilities.

There are a wide variety of applications for Opcondys’ power switching device, from medical equipment to high voltage power lines. The company is currently working on a contract with ARPA-E to develop a prototype for use in a grid-tied energy storage inverter.

While she’s currently focused on getting Opcondys market ready, Sampayan said that she previously decided to put her work on pause to focus on raising her young children, who have since grown up and launched careers of their own. In some ways, taking that break led Sampayan to entrepreneurship, which came with a lot of hard work but also some flexibility.

“I ended up doing consulting and then starting this company, more because … our family was a higher priority for both me and my husband,” she said. “I wanted to kind of pull back from the career and become more involved in making sure that my girls had the attention and the guidance they needed.”

“So, it’s not impossible to really pursue dreams and manage a family,” she added. “It’s difficult. Even now, it’s a struggle to find the time that I would like to spend with my family. But it’s just about learning to prioritize.”

When Kirsten Pace of Maxout Renewables was asked if she had any advice for other women looking to launch a cleantech company, she underscored that it’s an exciting time to work in a fast-changing and important field like clean energy.

“There are a lot of problems that still need to be solved and the field is broad enough that you don’t necessarily need to be an insider to have a shot at coming up with an innovative and commercially viable product,” she said. “There are also a lot of funding opportunities for startups that have an idea that isn’t necessarily fully proven out, such as CalSEED.”

“There has never been a better time to be a clean energy startup,” said Pace.