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Interview with Helen Watts, Executive Director, Student Energy

Interview with Helen Watts, Executive Director, Student Energy

You’re all very much needed in this space, and there’s room for everyone. Everyone needs to be part of this change. It’s going to be a big lift and there’s a long road ahead – collective action is where its at.

Hello, Helen, and thank you so much for joining me today for this interview for Women in Power Systems.

You work at Student Energy, is that correct?

Helen Watts

Thank you so much for inviting me. I do work with Student Energy as the Executive Director of the organization. I oversee the global organization’s vision and our Theory of Change.

Can you tell us a little bit about the company itself? What are the primary goals and principles?

HW

Absolutely. Student Energy is a global NGO and a Canadian charity. Our mission is to empower the next generation of energy leaders to accelerate a sustainable, just, and equitable energy transition. Our core focus of work is really about supporting young people and equipping them with everything they need to be really effective change makers in the energy transition. So that might look like launching a skill building program. It might be development of educational materials. A lot of what we do is developing pathways for young people to access different spaces, career opportunities, pathways to get their ideas off the ground and get them connected to energy transition work for the long-run. Student Energy runs anywhere between five and ten educational programs at any given point in time. And we do quite a bit of research as well to close the data and evidence gap on how young people are thinking about the energy future, their priorities for change, and how they want to be engaged with other actors in the energy system.

Regarding inspiring and helping young people, do you maybe have a practical example or a project you’re currently working on you could share something about?

HW

A program that I’m really excited about was part of a big commitment that Student Energy made in 2021 at the United Nations High-level Dialogue on Energy. We made a commitment to massively scale support for tangible youth-led energy projects on the ground. What that meant for us in real-time was developing an entire program dedicated to supporting young people on project development and entrepreneurship. It’s called Student Energy Guided Projects. Through that program, we also wanted to develop templates for young people to access more readily available, scalable, replicable project models and examples that they could just apply to their community and adapt to the local context. Young people will often be quite daunted by where to start, what solution is a good fit for my community? And this just really gives them a starting point.

We focused on Solar PV for our first iteration of guided projects, at a micro or household scale. And we just closed out our first pilot cohort with six teams from three different countries through the program which took place over the course of about 10 months or so. We ran all of the educational and training components with support from government and philanthropy partners, and we built mentorship channels through Student Energy staff and partners in our network. At the end of this first cohort, we awarded those six projects startup grants of $10,000 to get their projects implemented in communities. It included a really wide range of different types of projects, but all of them providing that entry point for young people to actually get their hands around developing energy projects in their communities.

My next question is regarding sustainability and clean green energy. This is a really big and urgent topic right now. Do you think that young people are maybe more interested and more dedicated to this than some previous generations?

HW

I think so. We’re in a really unique position where young people have so much access to information and to each other just through communications platforms, social media, new technologies. That’s really catalyzed a lot of interest and engagement around issues like climate, but also things like social justice and equity, the impact of technology on our lives, the future of work challenge. Young people are very tapped into what other young people around them are talking about and what issues are directly affecting their communities. They feel very passionate about these systems challenges and systems solutions. We look at the energy transition and climate action as a way to address other issues that we care about and don’t feel trapped by the confines of “what’s been done” or “what’s not possible”, which I think is a really unique identifier of this generation. Combine this with real, painful experiences feeling the current impacts of the climate crisis and how a lack of reliable, safe, and affordable energy access puts people in unjust and dangerous circumstances, and we’re starting to reach a boiling point. Young people very much feel this moment right now that will define what our world looks like as we grow into our 30s and 40s and 50s.

I think we feel a unique connection to this moment and want to hold actors accountable for building and investing in a future that is going to be a positive one for us and for our kids and future generations to come as well. That’s given us an interesting, unique perspective on climate action and the energy transition in the confluence of all this information, all this access to community – digital and in-person – and the feeling that this very much is our future that we’re designing right now.

Well said. Regarding equity, do you have some mechanisms in place that target specifically young women who wish to go into the field?

HW

We’re in the process right now of planning for a dedicated mentorship and programming stream supporting young women in energy. What we’ve actually seen, which is really interesting in our programs, is a consistent 50-50 gender split in our programs across the board, which is really different than what we actually see in the sectors itself. Both the renewable and fossil fuel energy sectors have historically been, and to this day still are, very male-dominated industries. There’s this challenge right now where the demand exists from women, but the opportunities and access aren’t there. I think young women in particular are really seeing this as an opportunity area for them. But there’s a disengagement point that’s happening once women are ready to access long-term careers in the sector, access career flexibility, or access opportunities for upward mobility, where the sector at large isn’t necessarily set up to support that. This stems from many places. It might be cultural stereotypes that exist. It might be the way workplace support programs are set up to support women who have other priorities in their lives as well.

We need to focus on that early career stage level of how young women are really supported to move into long-term, decent paying careers with opportunities for mobility. We’re doing a lot of work right now with our Student Energy careers program, which places young people in virtual pre-internships with organizations. That’s a program where we also see a gender split of 50-50. We’re doing quite a bit of research as well to understand, is this consistent across our programs? What does our alumni network look like? Do our alumni reflect the same demographics as what we’re seeing in our active programs? Where does that drop off happen? We also work with partners that do take more gender-responsive approaches to their work, like Sustainable Energy for All and GWNET. RMI has a whole Women in Renewable Energy program that they run as well, the WIRE program. Our strategy to tackle this issue is being workshopped, as maybe the shortest way to explain it. But we’ve been really lucky in that we can be very proud of the fact that we see this 50-50 split, but that doesn’t remove our responsibility about how that continues beyond our programs as well.

We can introduce as many training programs and skill building programs as we want, but if they don’t actually link up with real jobs and opportunities, there’s no point.

We really do not hear such numbers very often in the industry. Do you think that this problem of retention of women in the industry is in some way also connected to the current lack of workforce we are experiencing in the power systems industry?

HW

I think they’re all connected issues. We’re starting to get more data on future jobs that are projected for the energy system and the whole value chain associated with the energy transition and the gaps in the global talent pipeline that we ultimately rely on to achieve our climate goals, as well as our energy goals. Energy demand is increasing, with population and urbanization rise, which is unsustainable with our current consumption patterns and energy systems. We still have a huge energy access gap for over 600 million people around the world. We can’t work on any of this without a talent pipeline.

A part of this is ensuring that accessible programs are available, skills and technical training programs are available to young people, and also to existing workers in different sectors, to support people moving between different roles within the energy sector. And then there’s that deeper level of accessibility when we look at what demographics are really supported to participate who is historically and currently underrepresented, whether that’s more marginalized groups, people in communities or cities with limited employment options, or people who can’t readily access training to move into a climate or clean energy job and have to go into the workforce at soon as possible to support themselves or their families.

There is also making sure that these programs are accessible for women, that they don’t feel stigmatized or excluded from these programs, that they aren’t forced to make a trade-off between an impactful job or life priorities. This can include support systems like access to childcare support or flexible working options. It really comes down to accessibility of training programs and skill building programs and, critically, those pathways into decent, supportive jobs, because we can introduce as many training programs and skill building programs as we want, but if they don’t actually link up with real jobs and opportunities, there’s no point.

Can you tell us a little bit maybe about your own personal journey? What inspired you to go into this industry and what made you stay in the industry?

HW

I’ll be honest, it was not a sector that I saw myself in initially, which is important to me because that’s underlined something that I feel quite passionate about now, which is bringing more people from unconventional backgrounds into the energy space. I studied history when I was in university in my undergraduate program, so really unconventional for the energy space. I got involved in extra curriculars when I was in university, including an organization that was focused on international exchange programs for young people. That developed my passion for the power

of international experiences and connections for young people because I had grown up across four continents and felt very passionately about the way that that impacted my world view and the issues that I cared about. I wanted to see that be made an opportunity for more young people. Through that engagement, I ended up connecting with my predecessor, now friend and mentor, Meredith, who was the Executive Director of Student Energy until early this year. I invited her to an event to speak, and she really inspired me to see a career pathway working on youth empowerment. Even just seeing a woman leading this organization working with impactful issues was so exciting to see, to really visualize myself doing something similar.

I stayed connected with Student Energy’s work as I continued finishing up my degree. I then moved to Vancouver. I saw the opening for the position. I had that moment of doubt because I don’t have an energy background. I don’t have technical skills in the energy side. I’m not from a STEM program. But given that the organization was so focused on youth empowerment, something that I felt passionately about, it was a global organization dealing with issues that I also feel very connected to, and it was led by a young woman who I could identify with, I felt that internal push to go for it. This experience helped me to identify two things that I now feel really strongly about. How can we enable more young people with unconventional backgrounds or degrees or experiences to see themselves in the energy space? We need different perspectives, a critical mass of different people ready to move into policy, community, business, social impact, technology roles, to contribute to the energy transition at a systems level.

But also, when it comes to getting more women involved in the energy space and more people who don’t replicate the white male dominated side of the industry, we need to see more examples of leaders who look like us, who we identify with, can look to as mentors, as examples of what leadership can look like. And this goes beyond gender, to representation at an intersectional level. We need to be ready to move aside, and create space and resources for Indigenous, Black, and racialized communities and people to lead organizations, so that more people see climate and energy as a space for them. At the end of the day, we need more people in this movement to fight for a just and liveable planet.

That’s a really good point because you are a person that didn’t go into STEM, but you’re still in this industry because we all need to come together on this goal of providing equal opportunities and also clean and green future for us all. Do you have any final thoughts for this interview?

HW

I think something that is commonly felt and not talked about enough is the imposter syndrome that comes with being a young person in the energy sector, but even just working on climate and clean energy and green issues more broadly. We see a lot of really inspiring leaders, young and established in this space, who often question whether or not they have what it takes to contribute. And I think something that I really try to emphasize is that this is not a challenge that will rely on any one individual. This is very much a collective effort and everybody has a role to play. We need to work with our communities to get us past those feelings of imposter syndrome. If you are passionate about climate, if you’re passionate about clean energy, and you see opportunities and you’re questioning whether or not you fit those, especially as a young woman, because we tend to see a mismatch between requirements of jobs and our own skills and abilities way more, please just go for it.

Apply for opportunities and really lean into your community and your mentor network. Develop a mentor network in order to get that support and validation that you might not be feeling yourself. The other thing that I really like to emphasize is managing your burnout. I see so many young leaders kick off as clean energy entrepreneurs or start working with organizations trying to enact policy change and completely burnout after a few years. This is going to be a transition, a sector transformation that is going to happen over decades. We need young people who are ready to sustain this change over the long term. People need to take care of themselves and say no to things where they are risking their health and wellbeing. Focus on what aspects of this larger challenge you feel most passionately connected to, don’t try and take it all on.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and are quite critical of ourselves as individuals. You’re all very much needed in this space, and there’s room for everyone. Everyone needs to be part of this change. It’s going to be a big lift and there’s a long road ahead – collective action is where its at.

Find more inspirational interviews and articles in our September 2023 issue of Women in Power Systems.

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