FIVE WITH ALEXANDRA ADLER:
POWERING CLEANTECH ONE VOLUNTEER AT A TIME
Interview by Peg Zokowski, Innovators Ink
It all comes down to organizing people in order to make change. That’s what Alexandra (Ali) Adler, CEO of the Northeast Division of Cleantech Open (Cleantech Open Northeast), will tell you. In just her first 18 months at the helm, Adler, has expanded the reach of the Cleantech Open Northeast into 9 states with a growing army of ardent cleantech volunteers and mentors on the ground.
Adler was set on her current path after reading her first article on climate change in high school. “I was blown away. I couldn’t believe I didn’t know about it, and people were not doing something about it.” And a trip to Israel, prior to college, “made me much more conscious about how unsustainably our society has evolved. There, I noticed everyone living a simpler life style—one car not two, an apartment not a house.”
In college, Adler dove headlong into climate change taking as many classes as she could on sustainability, while organizing Campus Climate Change events, writing an opinion column on the college’s climate change efforts, and lobbying state and federal representatives on the 2007 federal Energy Bill and the Maryland Global Warming Solutions Act. Neither passed the first time, and Adler admitted it was discouraging after working so hard on an issue. That discouragement motivated her to learn more about the technology side of cleantech. Upon graduating, Adler went to work for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) to gain exposure to the business world of cleantech. While there, she worked on sector development and building the cleantech cluster in the State. Adler also came to see entrepreneurs as the people who were going to solve the problems. “I realized that in the private sector things can move a lot more quickly, and I got excited about this and the innovations that could make a big impact. After 18 months at MassCEC, she landed the job as Executive Director of Cleantech Open Northeast.
ii: You have a big job for a young professional.
AA: Yes I do. And it’s been a challenge. It helps that I’m working with a lot of other people who are entrepreneurs and young professionals. I’m not alone being a young person with a lot of responsibility. It also helps [that] I have a number of amazing mentors because I’ve had a lot to learn to grow into the role —the two chairmen of the Cleantech Open Northeast board and the former CEO of MassCEC have been great mentors among many others who have supported me; I’ve also had some great female mentors. All of this has helped me work through the challenges. I have those days where I think I can’t do it, but I really do feel empowered. And I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t care about the problem. The thing that motivates me is passionate people and being a part of something bigger.
ii: Any big initiatives launched this year or planned for next?
AA: We regionalized this organization. When I started it was pretty much just Boston. Yes, it is our home base, but since coming here we have built out our regional network—starting with a tour through Upstate New York—in New York City, upstate New York and Philadelphia, to name a few, with some incredible partners volunteering to make it happen. Prior to 2012, we had no volunteers outside of Boston. This year, across New York State alone we have 9 volunteer leaders.
In terms of the number of mentors, we had 45 people from New York City metro area apply to mentor this year, thanks to the hard work of our NYC metro director and NYC mentor lead, Tim Hoffman. We also had 13 mentor applicants from upstate New York, 12 from the Philadelphia area, and 3 from Maine. We have more than 100 mentors from Massachusetts. Last year we had only 15 mentors from New York State and none previously from the Philadelphia area.
This year, as a result of our efforts, more than half the companies accepted into our Accelerator program this year were from outside Massachusetts—22 out of 39.
ii: There had to be a few bumps in the road along the way. Any lessons learned?
AA: I had to learn how to manage people remotely. We recruited lead volunteers in expansion cities, and the challenge is not only in managing them, but keeping them engaged. Sometimes, other opportunities prevent them from staying on, as did happen in one expansion city. Where this occurs we scale back events and focus on our Ambassadors on the ground who continue building awareness among start-ups.
ii: What are you noticing in terms of the number of start-ups led by women vs. men?
AA: A lot of our founders are men this year, but we do have some women founders. I think the reason there are more men in this field isn’t sexist, but because energy historically has been male-dominated. There are a lot of start-ups, however, with women on their team.
ii: What question do you wish you were asked but aren’t?
AA: If they I wish people asked me what they could do to be a part of this—to help entrepreneurs and to help Cleantech Open Northeast. In speaking with people, I get the sense that people find this exciting. I want to help people to be a part of it.
If people are inspired by what they have read here they should call me. We have a lot of room to grow. I’m busy, but always make time to mentor young people entering the industry and am happy to talk to anyone about my experience.
ii: And if they asked, what would you tell them?
AA: If they have expertise and experience [working] with cleantech entrepreneurs they should mentor another entrepreneur. And I think that’s the number one way to help through Cleantech Open Northeast. Generally speaking, [they can help by] telling the story—the positive story—of cleantech. The industry has gone through tough times, but it isn’t dying.
Register for the October 17th Cleantech Open Northeast Innovation Expo and Awards Gala in Boston, and the November 20-21 Cleantech Open Global Forum in San Jose, CA.