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Women in Business Q&A: Julia Hamm, President and CEO, SEPA

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Julia Hamm has 15 years experience advising and collaborating with utilities, manufacturers and government agencies on renewable energy and energy efficiency strategies and programs. The knowledge and experience she has gained as the President and CEO of SEPA since 2004 makes her one of the world's foremost experts on the nexus between utilities and solar energy. Julia guides and oversees all of SEPA's research, education, and collaboration activities for its 900+ member companies. She has expertise on the business models and solar programs of more than 400 utilities throughout the U.S., as well as utilities in Europe and Asia. Prior to joining SEPA, Julia worked for ICF International where she supported EPA's implementation of the ENERGY STAR program. Julia - a graduate of Cornell University - walks the talk, living in a PV-powered energy efficient home in Northern Virginia.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in a very small town in upstate NY. I went to a public school where there were 23 people in my grade. As an introvert, I wasn't interested in being a leader, but the pool of people in my school was limited so whenever no one else stepped up I found myself compelled to do so. As a result I ended up in formal leadership roles throughout high school. But then I went to Cornell University for college - a large Ivy League school - and I was surrounded by peers who were leaders. For four years I was able to step out of any formal leadership role and simply be a productive member of the team. Looking back, I think these two very different experiences influenced me, teaching me early on that there are times when I need to step up but other times when it's okay to sit back and let others lead.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at SEPA?
Prior to taking the top job at SEPA I experienced a variety of company cultures and leadership styles. It helped me to figure out what type of culture I wanted to create for SEPA and what type of leader I wanted to be for my team. We have a culture where collaboration and transparency are highly valued, and we balance working hard with playing hard.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at SEPA?
There have been many highlights, most of which have to do with times when SEPA did something that directly and tangibly advanced our mission. For example, we take a group of electric utility executives on an annual trip to places that have significant solar deployment. There are always executives who are solar skeptics that come along to see first hand what solar is all about. On our trip in 2008, I was standing next to one of those skeptics while we were visiting a large solar project in Germany. He turned to me and said "We could do solar in a pretty big way without any problems". And he has. He's been turned from a skeptic to an advocate, deploying large amounts of solar electricity into the electric grid.

The biggest challenges have largely been driven by rapid growth. When I took over the organization in 2004, the organization was essentially pushing the reset button and starting from square one. I was the only employee and had to build the business from the ground up. Growing quickly has been fun but it has also been hard. With new people constantly joining the team, I've realized we have to be in a constant state of employee education. You can't roll out a new policy, for example, and think your job is done because you explained it really well at the time of implementation. The same goes for the strategic plan, and the connection between that plan and our specific programs and projects. It all comes back to the need for frequent and consistent communication with the team, which takes a lot of time and effort.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in the energy industry?
Know your stuff. Own it. Speak with conviction when you are talking about subject matter in your area of expertise. But don't pretend to know it all. Admit, but don't apologize, when the discussion goes into an area where you aren't an expert. This has been my approach and it's allowed me to become respected and credible with my peers, regardless of their age, experience or gender.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Building relationships far and wide is the key to success. I could list example after example of times where I built relationships with people who, at the time, didn't seem like people that could help SEPA in any way but eventually became critical to our success. You never know who others are connected to or where they may end up later in their career. So be nice to everyone, treat everyone with respect, and ask people the right questions about who they are and what they care about so you can file away the answers in your head for future use.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Before kids, my husband and I both worked long hours, and I was almost always the last person out of the office in the evening. But when I was pregnant with my first child, my husband issued a challenge: for us both to be home by 6pm every day. He said he knew there would be days when it wouldn't be possible, but those should be the exception rather than the rule. I thought he was crazy and there was no way we could do it. But then our son came and when the clock hit 5:30 every day, I simply got up and walked out of the office. Our kids are now 5 and 3.5, and I've managed to pick up my kids by 6pm most days, at least the days when I'm not on the road...which leads me to the bigger challenge.

I'm on the road approximately a third of the time speaking at industry meetings. That's a lot of time to be gone from my family. But it's a necessary part of my job. Perhaps that's why I don't feel so guilty about leaving my desk at 5:30pm on the days I'm in the office.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I am still relatively young, and I think I had it much easier than many women who came before me. I personally haven't had any challenges that I believe are specific to the fact that I am a woman. But based on what I've seen from my position as the head of SEPA, most women seem to be less likely to speak up as loudly as their male counterparts about what they want. Women need to realize if they want something, they need to ask for it.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Early in my career I reported directly to the president of the company where I worked. Although I was only a year out of college when I started, he gave me responsibilities that I sometimes wasn't sure I was ready for. But I was always able to succeed. He helped me gain confidence in my own abilities and built my interest in tackling rather than shying away from tough challenges.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I don't have any particular names to provide, but I most admire female leaders who got to where they are by being who they are, rather than trying to be like someone else. Women shouldn't have to act like men to make it to the top.

What do you want SEPA to accomplish in the next year?
SEPA just launched a bold new initiative that will run throughout 2015, called the 51st State. Today we work with 50 different sets of energy policies in 50 different states. We operate with the decades old legacy of electricity market rules and structures designed for the central station power world of the 20th Century. So it is not surprising that the rapid rise of an easily scalable energy source like solar - along with advent of affordable energy storage, expanded microgrids and a growing electric vehicle fleet - is causing disruption that will only continue to grow.

We think that the time is right to take a step back from what exists today, and imagine what we could create if we started over with a clean slate, in the proverbial 51st State. Our initiative is soliciting the best and brightest ideas from solar industry companies, electric utilities, related associations or think tanks, universities, consultants...anyone with the best and brightest ideas for a sustainable path for distributed energy resources and the infrastructure and needs of managing the electric grid.

We established an independent and distinguished Innovation Review Panel of five energy thought leaders who will review what we hope is a diverse set of compelling concept submissions, and select the most promising of those concepts for SEPA and the authors to share far and wide.

We have a lot of other things to accomplish in 2015, but this initiative has the potential to be one of the most impactful things the organization has done in its 22 year history.

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