Leveraging a network
Q: Can you start by sharing your name, title, and where you’re located?
My name is Melina Acevedo, and I work at D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments as an Associate in the Project Management and Development group. I am also a Leadership Team Member at Latinxs in Sustainability, a collective dedicated to advancing the representation of Latinx communities and professionals in the sustainability and clean energy fields. I recently moved cross country from the Bay Area to New York City for my job at DESRI.
Q: How long have you been in the energy industry? How did you first get involved?
I have worked in clean energy since 2018, but it has been a theme all my life. My mom, sister, and I immigrated from Peru when I was seven to San Pablo, California. It is a low-income, primarily Latino community, and the Chevron Oil Refinery is minutes away. So I grew up with frequent Spare the Air days, which meant staying indoors, and warnings of pollution and oil spills on the news. It made me curious about what was going on. Why did I miss school so much because of the air quality? Why was my community especially so burdened and vulnerable?
Years later, I had the opportunity to attend a private high school in Marin County, a nearby affluent county, which deeply influenced my trajectory. For the first time, I had a strong science education and experienced life in a healthy community with few environmental dangers. As I learned more, I pieced together that my poor, largely Spanish-speaking, immigrant community was on the frontlines of environmental racism. I was outraged and determined to contribute to a solution. When I started college at Princeton, I dove right in and took every sustainability and environmental science class I could. I developed a passion for renewable energy from a technical and engineering lens. In my sophomore year, I began conducting renewable energy engineering research and eventually completed my thesis on the subject. I graduated in 2016 with a Bachelors in Chemistry and Materials Science and Engineering.
Q: What was your experience navigating the job search process post-graduation?
It was difficult for so many reasons. I was the first person in my family to go to college. My mom did not speak English, so by the time I started Princeton, I was long used to translating and figuring things out independently. However, this experience alone would not prepare me for the cultural change that was to come. When I first got to Princeton, I did not realize how difficult it would be to navigate a completely different, affluent, world and feel comfortable. It was challenging to be in an environment where I did not see people who looked like me or came from similar upbringings. When it came time to apply for jobs, most of my friends could rely on family connections or support in their job search, but I did not have that. I also did not feel that many resources were available or visible to first-generation college students on campus at that time.
After I graduated, I had to sit with the fact that I needed help, and my reluctance to ask for help was holding me back. I did not know what I was doing. I started applying for analyst roles with solar developers, but they were shots in the dark. I received rejection after rejection because I did not have direct industry experience in the form of internships at solar companies. The interviews I did land were uncomfortable and unsuccessful. Most of the hiring managers and recruiters I spoke to were white men, and I struggled to connect with them. As I shared about my background, who I was, and what motivated me, I could feel their interest wane as I relayed that I had no direct industry experience but plenty of transferable skills for an analyst role. Overall, there was very little cultural understanding on their part. Our backgrounds were so different that it was difficult to build the connections that would lead to an entry-level clean energy role.
I landed a role with a finance startup, but it was bittersweet. I was grateful for the role and money, but I wanted to work in solar. I stayed for a few months for the experience, then joined another startup out of necessity. When I was laid off, I felt like a failure. I saw my friends diving into their careers, and here I was, with a Princeton degree, unable to break into the industry I was passionate about.
After that second role, I had to take a step back and assess. What was I doing with my career? Why was it so hard to admit that I did not know how to navigate this situation successfully? I had been alone for so long, being my own educational advocate for years, that I was stubborn and proud to a fault. Facing these questions pushed me out of my comfort zone and propelled me to finally ask for help. So, all in all, it took me two years after graduation to land an entry-level role in clean energy.
Q: What did asking for help look like for you?
I started with LinkedIn. I chuckle thinking about this, but I searched the keywords ‘Princeton Solar’ to see if anyone in my alumni network was working at a solar company and could help. I found a group called Princeton in Solar and felt so out of the loop. Why had I not heard of this group before? Regardless, I joined the group, and though it was small at the time, it soon became really valuable. Alumni shared job postings and advice for job seekers, and the group’s owner, an executive at a solar development firm, was especially active. I reached out to him to set up a call and heard back within 30 minutes. I told him everything I was struggling with, all the factors impacting my ability to land a role in clean energy, and for the first time, someone, a white man at that, sat down with me to explain the industry and validated my struggles. It felt surreal, having never had that type of interaction before.
We stayed in touch over the course of a few months while I took on a contract role in residential solar. He sent me jobs, provided feedback on my resume, and connected me to friends and colleagues in his network. This was the first time anyone advocated for me in this way. It made me realize that I deserved to work in this industry. Around that time, I joined Women in Cleantech and Sustainability and participated in their mentorship program. I received mentorship from a woman executive in the industry. She gave me interview tips and resume feedback, and slowly I started getting further in the interview process. I applied to around 20 roles before landing a full-time position, which was a significant improvement over the 50 to 60 roles I had applied to when I first started my job search at Princeton. I eventually interviewed for my first role in utility-scale solar. The connection I made through the Princeton group advocated for me as he knew senior leadership at the company, which worked in my favor to speed up the interview process. It took me two years to land any kind of role in clean energy and three years to land a full-time role in clean energy.
Q: What can industry leaders do to mitigate young grads’ struggles when applying and navigating the industry?
First, I would say that there is progress being made in colleges and universities. It is much easier to learn about clean energy careers now than when I was in school. Schools are expanding their curriculums to address clean energy topics and career centers are expanding their programming around sustainability careers. Overall, industry knowledge has grown in the top 50 schools or so. But this creates another barrier to entry because companies are becoming very comfortable, complacent at times, recruiting heavily from Ivy League or top-ranking institutions, where students have more access to relevant institutional knowledge and internships. I must admit I see this practice even at my current company, though it is slowly improving. This trend is easy to fall into, considering that renewable energy is a newer industry and many companies do not have adequate training programs in place. However, this only perpetuates existing diversity challenges.
So many students equally deserve access to these opportunities but are at a disadvantage because their community colleges, state schools, or even private schools do not have the resources to offer full programs on clean energy and sustainability. Inclusive recruiting practices become even more important when recruiting students from non-traditional backgrounds, such as students from rural communities, students who are first-generation Americans, and students who are first-generation college students. Along those lines, I also think it is important for employers to be more inclusive in the hiring process and look beyond industry experience and more closely at transferable skills and experiences, particularly at the entry level. What skills and experiences are must-haves and what can be learned on the job? Most skills for entry-level roles can be learned on the job. Organizations need to let go of unrealistic expectations because we need a workforce ready to go, and one that is diverse and inclusive at that.
Q: Do you have any final messages you’d like to share?
Through my time in energy, I have experienced first-hand the value of a community and support system. It can be discouraging to not see yourself or folks with similar lived experiences represented in an organization, particularly as you move up to the senior leadership and executive levels. Being the “only one” or the “first” of a particular background is not easy. This is what drives me in my volunteer leadership efforts. There is nothing I can do to change the past, but I can play a role in ensuring the clean energy workforce of the present and future is diverse and inclusive for all.