Striking out; women crafting a life – Sara

Posted January 22, 2014 By Sara Conzemius

We are excited to feature the accomplishments of women entrepreneurs on our spark this year. Each featured woman has been an inspiration for us and we are so grateful to have the opportunity to share their inspiration with you.

Each woman will answer the same set of questions related to their work, what inspired them to take a professional leap, and provide advice to other women itching to do the same.


I am proud to highlight ILLUME’s co-ower, Sara Van de Grift, as our first respondent. Sara has been an inspiration to me – Sara has unrivaled tenacity and focus when she sets her mind to a goal and her sheer force of will is not to be underestimated. As a business partner, I am lucky to witness and learn from her might. Sara also has a remarkable ability to temper this focus with extraordinary patience, empathy, and fearless loyalty – traits rarely combined in life and most certainly in business.  Here are Sara’s responses to our questions, as well as a few additional questions about her tenure at AESP.

How you describe your current life’s work?

I view ILLUME and the work we do as enabling constant improvement and innovation in energy efficiency, demand response and renewable energy programs.  Our focus is on providing unbiased and objective insight and information to improve programs, to reach more customers, to achieve higher savings, to make our industry better.

Was there a particular moment when it was clear to you that you needed to pursue a different path? Where were you in life literally and metaphorically? Why did you need a change?

I am not sure I can say I had a profound “spark” moment rather I had a confluence of moment that cultivated gradual awareness.  Things like moving from implementation to EM&V, seeing others take risk and being successful, watching work I would love to do pass by all had an affect.  If I have to call out a moment, I would say it was over a breakfast with my now business partner Anne, we were half joking about starting our own firm and about halfway through the conversation it seemed to occurred to both of us that this didn’t need to be a joke, we could do it.  It was an inspiring moment, we were there and we knew it.

Were there any key people in your life who inspired you to take the leap and/or supported you in doing so?

Obviously my family, my kids, I want as much for them as I can provide but leaving a good job with a steady paycheck is hard and doesn’t always seem like the best decision but, my family was so supportive, my friends, they gave me the strength to do this.  In addition there were friends in industry who helped provide me the confidence needed to take this leap, of particular importance were my colleagues on the AESP board and some of my personal mentors like Janet Brandt and Sue Nathan.

 What would you say to other women who are considering a big professional change?

We are so often restricted only by ourselves; fear, thinking we need certain things to be okay. For me I had to lay out the worst case scenario and see that it was not that bad. If you wait for the right time, the perfect moment it will never come. Get ready enough, accept that there is some risk but rationalize how bad that risk really is, lean heavily on your family and friends for moral support and then leap.

You’ve spent the last four years on the AESP board and assume the board chair seat this year. How has AESP shaped your professional career?

My involvement with AESP has provided me greater professional opportunity than anything else I have done over the course of my career.  Every moment has been a labor of love. Over the course of my tenure on the board I have been fortunate enough to develop strong relationships with  top leaders.  It offered me amazing mentors, women like Carol White and Meg Matt.  When you are young or new to industry it can be incredibly hard to navigate, you know who the looked to leaders are, you see them speak, hear their names but figuring out how to connect, how to make your mark, can be hard.  Volunteering with AESP provided an opportunity to connect with leaders outside my own company.

 What influence did AESP have in the formation of ILLUME?

My involvement in AESP influenced the formation of ILLUME in multiple ways. It gave me a view and visions, the courage to leap and an amazing support network.

AESP provides an interesting way to step out of yourself, your firm.  When you serve you have to put the Association first, your board work cannot be about personal gain, it cannot be about creating competitive advantages for your company. Instead it must be about devotion to and support for growing the industry.  When you dissect yourself from your company, your specific job, you are able to get a better view and vision of the industry you serve.  My work with AESP gave me a scenic overview from which I was able to step back and see the whole landscape of our industry, including gaps, places where there was clear opportunity.

Once I had the view I needed the courage.  When I was first approached about running for the AESP board I was terrified, but I did it and I won, when I was then asked to join the Executive Committee I was scared, but again I did it .  Each time you take a leap that scares you, it gets easier, you enjoy the rush a little more and the belief in yourself deepens.  Being involved in AESP made it easier to take the leap it required to launch ILLUME.  It provided me a network of mentors and friends who I knew would be there to pick me up if I fell upon landing.

What is your perspective on the current role of women in the energy industry? How do you see that changing in the next 5 years? 10 years?

I have seen an amazing change in the numbers of women in this industry. I remember attending my first industry conference and being a) one of the youngest people in the room and b) being absent the white beard that seemed to be a requirement to lead in this industry.  And while I knew age would come, I spent years worrying about the fact that the white beard never would. Instead of taking that as status quo, I decided to lead. It takes action, as women we must act with confidence, be brave and unapologetic, we must challenge the status quo.

One of my favorite moments in 2013 was at the ACEEE conference in Nashville it was called out that there was a need to move more women into leadership roles.  It’s that type of proclamation and quite frankly the outpouring of support and excitement Anne and I have received from other women in industry as we launched ILLUME that gives me absolute faith that the role of women in leadership in this industry will grow and that soon we will see women leading major companies and contracts at the same rate as our male colleagues; that we will be paid equally for this work and that we will be able to do this without giving up our other wants in life, family, art, dancing, balance.