The 6th Annual Socially Responsible Business Conference took place March 14, 2014 at Mills College in Oakland. This piece is part of a series featuring panelists and companies that will be presenting at the conference. For this highlight, we talked to Chief People and Corporate Services Officer Susan Hollingshead about the factors that play a role in building and sustaining culture at Sungevity.
Oakland, CA based Sungevity is the fastest growing residential solar company in the US. With an employee headcount that has grown eight fold to 400+ in the past four years, Sungevity stands today as one of the largest B Corporations. The company was founded in 2007 with an unbelievable focus on the customer, and on social benefit principles intrinsic to the renewable energy market.
“We run our business around the theory that we can be successful by delighting our customers,” says Hollingshead. This approach means that beyond offering an “insane customer experience,” the company engages their customers in meaningful initiatives. Through a partnership with the Sierra Club, Sungevity contributes to the environmental organization for every client that goes solar. Beyond making a sound economic decision, customers get the opportunity to connect to socially responsible principles.
For Hollingshead, a serial entrepreneur with nineteen years experience in the Brownfield industry, being at Sungevity is a result of having realized years ago that wherever she was, she needed to be part of something that mattered. “In the Brownfield business you could see the positive impact that cleaning and repurposing properties had for the communities around them,” she says. It was a transformative social endeavor.
In addition, she is fascinated by the challenges that emerging markets present. Solar is a $100 billion dollar business worldwide and one of the world’s fastest growing industries. In terms of employed workers, the solar industry stands close to the very mature coal industry. Growth figures certainly stand in favor of solar.
Aware of this, Sungevity’s founders have developed SFUN Cube, an accelerator-incubator dedicated to solar. SFUN stands for Solar for Universal Need. The initiative strengthens Oakland as an innovation hub for sustainable businesses, and increases Sungevity’s ability to attract talented individuals committed to social responsibility.
Perhaps one of the clearest indicators of the culture quality that transpires at Sungevity is its mission: to build the world’s most energized network of customers who power their lives with sunshine. This statement is highly visible all over the company’s headquarters, on the walls, on the desks, and on PR materials. Hollingshead explains that the creation of the mission was a very conscious process in which every single word was thoroughly thought out. “It is very important for us and it is very important to make sure we put it everywhere. That’s part of what maintains our culture, the fact that the vast majority of people here are here because of the mission.”
A customer centric approach, a strong and clear mission, and being located in one of the Bay Area’s hottest entrepreneurial tech hubs, play key roles in dictating the company’s culture. But how does the organization leverage these elements as it grows?
“As you grow, you have to be really conscious about communication pathways,” admits Hollingshead. “Maintaining culture can be relatively easy when you are dealing with 50 employees, but as you become larger, it requires a tremendous amount of mutual trust and transparency. We have a monthly town hall where we share very sensitive information with the employees because we want them to know where the business is going and why. It’s not just a party, even though there is a social component to it. It’s more about engaging people and learning about what they are thinking. It’s talking about our values and how we can continue to embrace those values as we move forward.”
But perhaps the biggest force that brings all of these cultural elements together is the mutual commitment amongst customers, employees, and founders to the epic struggle for solar. “It’s a battle we are committed to,” says Hollingshead. “When we hire, we look for people who are clearly passionate about this mission. It involves a larger commitment than for a company that says, I’m here to make a profit.”
Cross posted from the Center for Socially Responsible Business at Mills College