For over seven years, Captain Kathrine Lukes led the Headquarters and Service Company of more than 400 Marines and Civilian Marines at Camp Pendleton, coordinating the management of over $6 million in supplies. In the midst of this, she earned an MBA in supply chain and operations and by the time her active duty was coming to a close, she was a prime candidate for the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes (HOH) Corporate Fellowship connecting veterans, service members, and military spouses with meaningful employment opportunities. What Lukes didn’t anticipate was landing a high-level position in an industry she hadn’t yet explored, through the Solar Ready Vets Fellowship offered in partnership with HOH. We caught up with her just as her active duty was ending, on the first day of civilian life and her first day as Operations Manager at Icarus RT.
First off, congratulations. What an exciting day to talk with you. And thank you for your service. How did you come to participate in the Solar Ready Vets Fellowship?
Through the Hiring Our Heroes Corporate Fellowship, within about six months of getting out of active duty, they let you go for three months and be a fellow at a corporate business partner. It’s the perfect way to segue into a career because they’re not just going to put you in a fellowship where they don’t think they have a place for you. The goal of the fellowship is to get you placed in a job. So if you can get that fellowship, you have a fairly good chance of getting placed at that company. It’s a good way to see different businesses, and be able to learn a little bit and to realize, ‘No this isn’t really what I want to do, thank you for the time,’ maybe now I have a letter of recommendation that I can use on my job search, or to find a place that you really do like.
Were there any challenges that you encountered during your fellowship that maybe you hadn’t anticipated?
Yes, obviously there was a really big learning curve because I went into solar and I never thought I’d be going into solar. I thought I would go to some big box stores like Northrop Grumman or Amazon and work in their logistics or operations division, so this opportunity is definitely a little out of my comfort zone. But this is the time in my life where I can take that risk and go somewhere that maybe isn’t where I saw myself. Now is the time to branch out.
The hardest part for me was the mentality. There is a big transition between what it’s like to be on active duty and what it’s like to be a civilian. In the military, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a female thing, but you have to be on your game, you have to be on point, you have to be aggressive so that people follow you because there’s that inherent instinct to say, ‘She’s a female she’s just acting like a bitch, or she’s just acting out of character.’ Getting into the civilian sector, when you act like that as a female, you get labeled. People aren’t going to follow you because they don’t respect that. In the military, that’s what people expect and respect. So it’s definitely a transition into how I need to treat people, and how I need to portray myself, not necessarily changing me, but changing how I portray myself so that I don’t come off as hard. That was a big transition for me, learning how to portray myself and how to be with people because it’s completely different.
Was any of that covered in the program?
It was. We did a one-week orientation before we got in. There are quite a few classes before transitioning into a program like this. It was definitely, ‘Hey, watch out. Things are different in the civilian sector than they are when you’re in the military.’ So I knew it was coming. I just didn’t think it would impact me quite as much as it did.
That’s fascinating. Let’s talk about the strengths that veterans bring to the clean energy workforce.
It’s kind of in the same vein, veterans are always trained to lead down to the small group level, especially in the Marine Corps, you’re trained to operate independently in case you get separated from your unit. Everybody all the way down to the lowest level is trained to be able to react and lead a group and make something happen, following the intent of their leaders. So, that ability to lead is definitely inherent in somebody who’s getting out of the military. It doesn’t necessarily come naturally, but we’ve all been trained on how to lead.
Then there are those intrinsic factors, like we all never want to fail. That’s a human characteristic. We’re gonna go above and beyond to do what we need to do to learn. I did a lot of that by standing up and asking those tough questions, versus thinking I’ll hang out in the back, and hopefully, I’ll learn what I need to learn eventually. Those are some of the strengths that I see from military service. That leadership, that ability to ask questions and go that extra step to understand what we’re supposed to be doing.
And then thirdly — we call it fire and forget — you give someone who’s military a task, and they’re gonna do it. If they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re going to ask or they’re going to figure it out, and it’s going to get done, which is usually very helpful. You want to have that person on your team who you can always depend on and know if I tell that person to do this, it’s going to get done, and maybe it’s not done up to my standards, but it’s gonna get done and I can guide that person to do it the way that I want it. They’ll take the critique, and do it better next time.
Is there something that surprised you about solar energy in particular?
When I think of solar I think of solar panels, not everything else that comes into it. Icarus is a solar storage company, we’re working on proprietary developments that go beyond just the panel, which I never knew was a thing. I thought it was just wham bam, here are your solar panels, you’re good to go, not realizing that there are inefficiencies in that solar panel that people are constantly trying to improve. That was kind of a shocker for me. That’s how little I knew about the industry.
Describe a day in the life of an operations manager at Icarus.
Right now we’re working on a one-tenth scale prototype of our final product. So I’m overseeing the site and making sure everybody’s staying on task, working on designs for how we want products to look, because on the next one we’re doing a full-scale prototype, we want it to look like what our final product will be. So my day looks like a lot of planning, a lot of working ahead, and a lot of meetings.
How often do you think you’ll be applying what you’ve learned in your military service to what you do now?
I apply things that I’ve learned every single day. Whether it’s leadership and making sure people are going in the right direction, to asking, ‘How would I organize this?’ In the Marine Corps as a supply officer, I was in charge of procuring parts, and [at Icarus], we don’t have a procurement system in place yet. I handled all the fiscal for my unit. So I took a lot of those products that I had built over seven years in the military and I brought them over and I use them on a daily basis, as I’m tracking items that we’re buying and the shipping process. I give that information to our accounting team so that they can track the costs and all of that. I use things that I learned from the military every day.
What would you tell military service members who are interested in the Solar Ready Vets Fellowship?
Go for it. Solar is definitely something that’s going to continue to expand as we move forward. The presidential debate the other night didn’t really talk about it too much, unfortunately. But global warming and climate change, they’re here.
The solar industry is where you can go to get that renewable energy to help with some of the factors that are leading to a negative decline. It’s an industry that’s going to be around for a while. For me personally, it’s where I can see myself impacting more than just my company by what I do, it’s going to impact business and impact a lot of people. Even though people aren’t going to know my name, the fact is I’ll be able to help a lot of people just by the little things that I do. It’s like volunteering on a grand scale, I’m just getting paid for it.
I love that. Do you have one word that describes you or that you keep in your mind as a sort of intention?
Lately, I’ve been really focusing on the word ‘grateful,’ because I’ve been given this opportunity to be a fellow and get into this program and be able to actually get the job on the back end with a company that I like and people I really enjoy working with. I try to think about things that I’m grateful for every day. I have a journal I write in to focus on being grateful because these opportunities don’t come to everybody and I have to thank whoever that they’re coming my way.