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Here Comes the Sun

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If Sunrun C.E.O. and co-founder Lynn Jurich had a superpower, it would be… drumroll please… efficiency. Not only does efficiency describe the way she administratively runs her company, but efficiency also permeates through the business because Sunrun is saving their solar customers over $300 million in utility bills, and saving the environment from 5.2 million tons of carbon dioxide. This is the equivalent of 586 million gallons of gasoline or 5 billion pounds of coal — that’s efficiency with a capital E. Since its inception in 2007, Sunrun has become the largest dedicated provider of residential solar, storage, and energy services in the United States. The business has generated more than 7 billion kilowatt-hours of clean energy. Jurich’s foresight to invest in alternative energy led her and her business to successes she had only dreamed of. So, join me in taking a closer look at the woman and the dream behind the rise of residential solar in America, with a story so brilliant we recommend Ray-Bans. 

It began in an airplane, on a return trip from Shanghai, where Jurich had just completed a graduate internship for Stanford Business School. Shanghai’s development boom had left her thinking, “Oh my gosh, we need to figure out how to build things more sustainably.” She explains, “I wanted to do something at scale to help us use our resources more efficiently to support global growth.” Back at Stanford, she mentioned her ideas to a classmate who connected her with a friend in solar. The rest, as they say, is history–albeit it a brightly lit one.

Jurich and co-founder Ed Fenster invented the business model “solar as a service,” by tapping an undiscovered demand for clean, affordable energy one roof, one home at a time. Today, a new Sunrun system is installed every two minutes throughout 22 states including Texas, Nevada, Florida, Arizona, South Carolina, and California. Last year, Sunrun grew their customer base by 22% to nearly 300,000, and they currently employ 4,800 Americans to oversee $5 billion dollars worth of solar. 

But the sun didn’t rise overnight for Jurich and Sunrun. Straight out of college, Jurich landed a high stakes job at Summit Partners, which required a calculated departure from her introverted comfort zone. As one of few female venture capitalists, she cold-called her way to investments totaling over $900 million in the financial services and technology sectors. Her strategy to get in front of C.E.O.s was a mix of sheer determination and bold action based on intel she’d picked up in college interviewing Silicon Valley companies and day trading on the side. She’d figure out what seat on the plane to book to get next to the C.E.O., what conference to attend, where to be when, and she’d never approach someone on a Monday. She credits her time at Summit Partners for clarifying what she wanted to do. It was in learning the ins and outs of an executive mind that she realized, “Oh I could do that.” 

As it turns out, she was right. Named one of the Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business in 2013 and Forbes’ Women to Watch in 2015, Jurich has earned well beyond a BS in Science, Technology and Society, and an MBA from Stanford. But being a C.E.O. of a multi-billion dollar company is not what she set out to do and as she was starting Sunrun she’d get a lot of dismissive feedback, “One hundred percent of people said it wouldn’t work and gave me this dismissive message. ‘Well, there’s a lot of sophisticated people working on that stuff. Go home, little girl.’” Go home, she did not. Instead, she spent her weekends putting flyers on people’s windshields and attending town hall meetings to explain how the average American can get solar. “It was a hustle,” Jurich plainly states. She and her entrepreneur husband tag teamed raising capital for both of their businesses. Her husband started a skincare company, Tatcha, which launched in 2009. After years of financial and emotional strain, the sky began to clear for him. Meanwhile, Jurich, who had never aspired to be in the limelight, found herself directly in the sun.  

At the moment of truth, with Sunrun just about to go public, Jurich gave birth to her first child. Nursing her baby at roadshows, she watched the company’s stock open, and it immediately  sank, so she never got her, “Oh, I co-founded this company and brought it to a billion-dollar I.P.O. moment.” But that’s not something she’s lamenting today, with Sunrun being the leading installer of residential rooftop solar panels in the United States. She’s even outpaced the energy king himself, with Elon Musk’s SolarCity third in line. This summer, Sunrun acquired its closest competitor Vivent to further expand operations. Still, Jurich’s legacy is bigger than just Sunrun, as evidenced by her morning mantra: “All people and all circumstances are my allies.” When asked if that applies to Musk she told the New York Times, “Yeah, totally. I mean, he’s in it for climate. He believes it.”

The leading lady of solar walks three miles to work daily, preferring to take her calls while moving and on occasion, she likes to invite a Sunrun employee to join her for some good healthy mentorship. Her opportunity as a leader for women is particularly well-positioned as American solar jobs have increased 167% over the past decade, and almost a quarter of regulated utilities in the U.S. are now helmed by women — triple the percentage of their representation in the Fortune 500. Her advice? It’s a combination of meditation-inspired mantras and values-based leadership: Abundance over scarcity, take time to build trust, and pay attention to body language — a yes is not a yes unless it’s a “whole-body yes.” 

Sunrun’s quick and nimble strategy is infusing a fast-growing industry with the energy it needs to shine. Solar generated $18.7 billion of investment in the American economy in 2019. The opportunity for a solar-powered economic recovery in states like South Carolina–where residents pay 23% more than the rest of the country for electricity from an aging fossil-fuel grid–or in Florida–where 25 million residents experienced blackouts from 2008 to 2018–is huge. Meanwhile, states like Texas already have a huge solar footprint, with enough  current installations to power over 350,000 homes, the state employs 10,261 in solar with $6,428.21 million invested. 

Jurich says, “Creating a sustainable planet is both our greatest societal challenge and our greatest durable economic opportunity.” While becoming a trailblazer wasn’t easy, Jurich explains she wouldn’t change her path even if she could. “One-hundred percent of people told us it was a mistake (to start Sunrun) and that I was crazy to leave my job in private equity. But I believed in the possibility to power our entire world with the sun and wanted to build a community to do it. We believed that solar could best be used in the hands of the people, establishing a cleaner, more affordable and more resilient energy future,” Jurich said. Now, with her dream fully realized and her company changing the world, her initial leap of faith doesn’t seem all that crazy.

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