7 questions with: Kristen Graf, Executive Director of the new formed group WRISE

Kristen Graf

William Shakespeare’s Juliet once pondered (and we paraphrase): “What’s the big deal about a name?” In the case of the reconstituted Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE), the answer is “plenty.”

Formerly the “Women of Wind Energy,” the new group will focus on making sure women are fully represented in the renewable energy sectors, including the fastest growing segment of solar. Executive Director Kristen Graf sat down with pv magazine USA to explain what the name change means. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

pv magazine USA (pmu): What led the Women of Wind Energy to become WRISE?

Kristen Graf (Graf): Through ongoing conversations with many of our supporters, we recognized the call to broaden our scope.  This was also reflected in the needs of many of our stakeholders, who wanted to see us use the organization’s successful 10-year history of programming, chapters, network and sphere of influence to support women across the renewable energy spectrum.

pmu: How many members do you currently have, and what do you think the expansion of your mandate will do for your membership?

Graf: We currently have more than 3,500 people participating in our programs. While our paid membership is a fraction of that, I believe this transition will translate into significant growth in participation as well as membership. Just looking at the scale of the solar job market – it’s one of the largest and fastest growing in all of energy. There are a lot of great women across renewables we believe will find even greater value in our work now.

pmu: How important a role do women currently play in the renewable energy space? Are women represented adequately in the industry?

Graf: Currently, women represent about 25 to 30% of the workforce in solar and wind, and only a small percentage of them are women of color, so no, women are not yet adequately represented in the renewable energy sector. We’ve made some great progress in the last few years, but we still have a long way to go.  And it is important to break it down a little further – looking at CEOs of renewable energy companies, there is a significant lack of women in those positions. The same is true of the manufacturing floor, technician positions, installers – all positions that need more women.  There is a significant body of research from great organizations like Catalyst, McKinsey, MIT, Credit Suisse and others that show us that diverse teams are better for decision-making and better for business, so really the success of the renewable energy future is hanging on our ability to bring in the diverse mix of talent, perspectives and backgrounds that we really need.

pmu: What does WRISE see as its role in adding womens’ voices to the discussions of renewable energy?

Graf: Our role is threefold:

First, we are here to help recruit more women and get them in the door to great positions in the renewable energy space.  Many of our chapters and members connect with K-12 programs because it is critical to reach young girls before the age of 12 if you want them to consider a career in STEM fields.

But our work doesn’t stop at high school – we were founded around a fellowship program to bring students and recent graduates to the annual WINDPOWER conference, and we’ve been working to grow our presence in other college spaces like the Society of Women Engineers because we need to be sure those minds are finding their way to the renewable energy jobs that are available.

Second, we have to retain and advance all of the amazing women that are already working in renewables.  There are some devastating statistics about the rate that we lose women in tech careers – 50% drop out of STEM fields in the first 10 years of their career.  And they aren’t just going home – they are going to other roles with clearer pathways for advancement and more flexibility.  We need them to stay, so we have a lot of work to do – both helping women plan and navigate their own careers, but also working across renewable energy companies to be sure they have the internal culture, programming and policies to keep women at those companies..

Thirdly, we have to lift the voices across our network to carry their expertise, personal experience and passion for renewable energy into their communities. Whether that means conversations with the local PTA or siting committee, or speaking out about national energy policy, we want to prepare everyone in our network with tools like speaker and media trainings to allow them to connect and make their voice heard.

pmu: As we have written about, the five most influential solar organizations are being run by women. Is that a sign of progress?

Graf: It is a sign of progress, but it is not enough.  It is good to celebrate those amazing women, but we can’t pause long because there is still a lot of work ahead.  We not only need women leading the nonprofit space. We need more women leading the companies. We need more women on the boards of the companies and NGOs. We need more women in government – regulatory commissions, congress, state legislatures, city councils.  We need more women in academia and research, law, finance, investment, manufacturing – the list goes on.

pmu: Do you see opportunities to partner with these organizations?

Graf: Without a doubt. I’m really thrilled with the enthusiasm that SEIA has been able to generate with their Women’s Empowerment Initiative and their partnership with The Solar Foundation to gather specific data on  gender, race, and military service will serve as a critical benchmark to ensure we are able to document progress.

SEPA’s transition to working not just in solar but across the Smart Electricity space offered many lessons as we began our own transition, and I consider Julia Hamm, Abby Hopper, and Andrea Luecke to be trusted colleagues and peers who are brilliant in their own roles, offer vision and insights for our work at WRISE, and also care deeply about the work of diversity equity and inclusion.

Another organization that wasn’t mentioned in your earlier article is GRID Alternatives – also run by a woman, Erica Mackie.  We met through the Department of Energy’s C3E Symposium when we both received mid-career awards the same year and have been connected since.  Erica’s work to establish GRID’s National Women in Solar Initiative with webinars showcasing great women in solar and featuring women’s builds across the country has been another powerful indicator of the potential that can be achieved when you start bring more great minds in to tackle the key challenges in the sector.

pmu: In one year, if we talk to you again, what will you be telling us about?

Graf: We have big ideas for the coming months, including releasing more concrete tools and best practices for companies looking to address diversity in their own teams. We’re also continuing the evolution of one  our annual Leadership Forum, as well as creating new tools and programs for advancing women into leadership roles.

More than anything though what I hope we’ll be talking about is the way I am in awe of how women and men across the renewable energy spectrum, well beyond wind, stepped up and made this organization their own.

With any luck, a future member of the solar industry.