Our industry needs risk and it needs risk takers. The need to meet big short-term goals prevents us from doing thoughtful forward-looking research yet making forward-looking development investments is critical for meeting the even bigger goals we face tomorrow.
When I began my career all I knew was that I wanted to work at a non-profit with an environmental focus. I do not remember applying for my first job in energy, I was surprised to get called for an interview, and I thought that in general it went terribly. But, thankfully Janet Brandt saw past (or didn’t see) those shortcomings, she took a risk and offered me a job at Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation (WECC). It was the perfect time to get into energy efficiency in Wisconsin because Wisconsin was taking the risk of transitioning to statewide programming and WECC was positioned to be the contractor selected to run one of the first comprehensive public-benefits programs in the nation.
When WECC won that work, it was an all hands on deck moment. They needed people to manage programs and Janet, who was in need of a warm body, although she would argue it was talent, handed me a multi-million dollar program to run, a huge risk! And while in that moment I had great doubt – Janet had none. She looked at me and said: “You can go as far as you want in this industry. You just have to go for it.” I grabbed onto those words and ran with them.
I was fortunate to launch my career when the industry was small. Going for it was entirely possible. There was room to experiment and take risks. We all knew each other. We lived and breathed our work. We helped each other and shared ideas because we knew that to grow as an industry we had to be collaborative. We supported and applauded each other when we took risks and we understood that the industry’s success would be because of the risk takers. The risk paid off, and the industry boomed.
Growth has brought a faster pace and more competition, competition has made us more risk averse and at times seems to have disconnected us from the core reason we came into this field: to make a difference. But I know that at our core we are still passionate and we are still risk takers. I am emboldened knowing this and keep it close to me as I make decisions regarding my career.
When I left my job with WECC it was a risk. I took another risk when I moved into evaluation at Opinion Dynamics after spending the first decade of my career in energy focused on program administration, design and implementation. Now, as I move forward with Illume building opportunity around the intersection of program planning, implementation and research, I do so with the full appreciation that it is a risk.
But our industry needs risk and it needs risk takers. The need to meet big short-term goals prevents us from doing thoughtful forward-looking research yet making forward-looking development investments is critical for meeting the even bigger goals we face tomorrow. My colleagues and former co-workers all opine about the need to think longer term, but the lack of time and the need to deal with today’s fires get in the way. As a small boutique firm, Illume can serve as the forward-looking lens. We can help our friends, allies, and partners take a breath, look up, and take some risk while also ensuring they can keep today’s efforts moving forward. Down the road, it is my hope that we will be able to look back and see that we sustained and grew as an industry and, more importantly, the risks we took made a difference.
I want to close by looping back to where I started. I don’t think Janet Brandt was a big fan of “Star Wars,” but when I worked for her she often repeated a line from the movie: “Do or do not, there is no try”. As silly as it may seem to quote Yoda, these words stick with me and I return to them in moments of doubt, when my fear of risk threatens to stop me in my tracks. I have two choices in life, I can take the risk or live with the regret. I accept the risk. I know that there may be hard times, moments of doubt, and maybe even failure but yet I do. And while Yoda is an iconic character, Anne and I have adopted another quote we think is more fitting as we launch and grow Illume: