Creating Sustainability at SolarCity

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By Monica Tanza (C17)

Published 1.15.15

If you had Nils Moe (C3) and Carl Schneebeck (C7) for EMCA, you remember the starfish power pose. Imagine standing like you are about to start a jumping jack—arms and legs out in a way that makes you look like a starfish. It’s a way of getting ready for a challenge. This is the story of how I ended up doing that in the bathroom at work in January and what came after.

But first, some background. Growing up, the combination of sustainability, my math aptitude, and a class assignment in product design drove me to dreams of starting a sustainable product design firm. With that desire, I studied mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley. However, I graduated in 2009 and, given the pulse of our economy at that time, product design firms weren’t interested in taking a risk on an ME with no experience.

I wanted my career to have a positive environmental impact, so I landed an engineering role at SolarCity through a craigslist ad and a nerve wracking interview with one of the founders, Peter Rive (for more on Peter, turn to page 16). The fast growing company allowed me to move into a team lead role after a year and a half and territory manager another year after that. Since Solar City didn’t provide management and leadership training, I started at Presidio Graduate School part time to strengthen my skill set.

Wanting a new challenge and more direct application of my work at PGS, I started applying for a Sustainability Project Manager role at another company in January. As I was applying, I thought why not do this at SolarCity? I already had strong working relationships across the company. Being a solar company, our final product is great for the environment, but our operations team was not driven nor measured on sustainability outcomes . So I put together a proposal, asked Peter if he had 15 minutes to talk about a sustainability idea, and spent five minutes in the bathroom beforehand back in the EMCA starfish pose. I then pitched him on the no brainer financial cost savings of having a Sustainability Manager at SolarCity.

Peter said yes.

Pitching to the C-suite and trying to create an entirely new job takes time, but I persisted and moved into my new role at the end of July. During that waiting period, Cheryl Dorsey (C17) and Ella Lu (C19) wrote a sustainability implementation plan for SolarCity as part of Kristin York’s Implementation of Sustainable Practices course. It has provided a great roadmap for what I can accomplish.

One of my first meetings in this role was with our facilities director, and I was happily surprised to learn that some of Cheryl and Ella’s suggestions are already being pursued. Then again, my meeting with the facilities director also made me realize that a part of my role would be internal marketing. Many of our employees are driven by doing well by the environment, so knowing what we are doing provides them higher job satisfaction, not to mention getting the laggards to think about how they can start to do more. I’ll need to perfect how to tell my story so that I will have more champions to help me with SolarCity’s sustainability work.

In addition to looking into lighting retrofits for our warehouses and moving to centralized waste bins at our offices, I am leading the development of company-wide leadership training. The irony is not lost on me that the need for leadership training is what lead me to PGS in the first place. I’m excited to help the company complete that goal as well as allow me to see what other improvements we can make.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of Presidian:

Monica Tanza (C17)

Monica Tanza is a living stereotype of a hippie—she works at a solar company in the Bay Area and is a vegetarian who drives a Prius. Since starting her new position, she’s decided to stay in corporate sustainability when she grows up.

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