Interview with Marisol Rodriguez, founder of SHAREnergy

Marisol Rodriguez is a design consultant with over 8 years of experience in product innovation, consumer research, prototyping, and business model generation methodologies. Holding an M.S. in Sustainability Management ’15 from Columbia University, she most recently consulted for World Resources Institute, Oxfam and WWF through her capstone and graduation projects; her social enterprise SHAREnergy, an initiative incubated within the co-working space at the Earth Institute, focuses on renewable energy and sustainable development. In this interview, jointly conducted by SUMANI and Women & Sustainability, Marisol tells us about her organization and shares advice for the entrepreneur in you.

By Beatrice Troiano (SUMA 2016)

Please tell us about your organization, SHAREnergy and your role.

SHAREnergy is fundamentally a “virtual energy grid” that connects the developed world where there is (in many cases energy abundance and waste) to the developing world. We connect residential buildings, commercial spaces, and real estate companies in large cities to villages around the world, using kWh savings as capital to install and distribute clean energy products.

Our organization bridges the gap between large energy consumers and the many (BOP) communities living off-grid in developing countries. Our goal is to utilize the collaborative economy as a catalyst to achieve energy equality. Every second of power saved in a large city can translate into more than 6 hours of light or a new efficient cook stove, an opportunity for families to raise themselves out of poverty.

My role as the founder is to build this concept out and validate different pathways of our business model. Our first project was the “sharenergy home challenge” tested in a downtown residential building in NY, where apartments participating committed to save energy through home lighting updates, moving from standard incandescent lights to LED, this small intervention, impacted 450 people in Kathmandu, generating 108.000 hours of home light for Nepali families and  $7,200 dollars in savings in less than 6 months since the project was delivered. Fuel can be a significant expense for people in rural areas as much as $8 per month, when multiplied across all the families in this community, the benefits of switching to renewables are impacting their health and generating opportunities to save money, re-investing in education and their own business.

Refining the operational model is what I do in daily basis. For instance I have recently been thinking, why only apartments or buildings, could we in a long-term work with utilities, or engage the NYC major sustainability department to sign up into our “virtual energy grid” platform at the city level?

What motivated you to launch SHAREnergy? 

 When I attended the SUMA program at Columbia, I was exposed to the energy poverty problem. I took Energy & Sustainable Development class with Philip LaRocco, The assignment required us to study a country, understand its energy context, identify an energy need and build a business plan around it. Even after the semester ended, I continued to study this area through classes as Innovation and Energy markets with Travis Bradford, Lean Lunch Pad with entrepreneur Bob Dorf at the Business School and Human Ecology with Professor Jeffrey Sachs, all of whom are outstanding professionals and leaders. With the collaboration of the (SEL) Dr. Francisco Sanchez and the Earth Institute I gained access to UN Millenium Villages, (http://www.earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/1799) and got to visit Ruhiira in Uganda. They installed micro-grids, that are helping farmers, schools and families to alleviate poverty in the village. I also realized that we need it to support other villages that still lack access to electricity services. This is, when I decided that SHAREnergy should move from paper to reality.

SHAREnergy implements its projects in rural areas empowering women cooperatives. Why is it important to focus on women and children? 

There are several reasons, health, gender equality and economic growth.

Lack of access to clean energy for cooking and lighting disproportionately affects women and children. If you looked at WHO numbers you will find that 1.3 billion people lack access to basic energy for cooking and lighting homes. This limits the opportunity for education and income generation, Air pollution is now more deadly than HIV and malaria combined, and most of the victims are women and children exposed to indoor wood fires in developing countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) study found that 3.5 million people die early annually from indoors air pollution and 3.3 million from outdoor air pollution, also it has been shown that when women work, the local economy grows. In some locations SHAREnergy’s projects might not involve financing community micro-grids, but it could be helping replace dirty cooking devices or kerosene lanterns with cleaner options.

Tell us about your next projects. In which countries are they focused?

2016 will be an exciting year, we are planning to continue the “home sharenergy challenge” in other neighborhoods around New York, which will help us to provide home light to an estimated group of 2000 people in Uganda and Colombia. We will be validating our business model at the commercial and corporate level; simultaneously we plan to have an online tracking platform that will provide transparent information of kWh and GHG emissions saved and generated in both sides of developed and developing nations.

For the long term, through our “VIRTUAL ENERGY GRID”, we will love to see our platform mobilizing kWh savings from New York City to Nepal, from Abu Dhabi to Colombia, or Geneva to Uganda, this is a bit further in our plans.

What are three most important skills needed to innovate, or to move from idea to revenue?

Innovators need to have strong technical skills, understand systems, know how to break a problem down from macro to micro details, and for social enterprises you need +200% of “empathy”, to understand the economical, social and environmental challenges of the beneficiaries, which most of them, leave under the poverty line, earning less than 2 dollars per day. Also, as a leader of the project, sometimes you may be working alone; you must develop strong leadership skills to engage with multiple stakeholders, focus on setting appropriate goals, and track the progress and don’t be discouraged by failure, continue working to achieve the goals you have set.

Does this differ for a woman entrepreneur, if so, then how?

This doesn’t change for a male or female. The process is exactly the same. Where it may differ in, is when raising capital. US statistics say that investors are more likely to invest in enterprises run by men. But I think businesses are changing – social enterprises, philanthropic organizations and impact investors are focusing in the advantages of having women leading companies. It’s a bright future for woman entrepreneurs and for conscious-responsible business.

Tell us how your corporate world experience and the SUMA program have helped you with starting SHAREnergy?

My background was in design, research and manufacturing. But, I was looking to improve quantitative and scientific skills to validate the progress and impact of the projects I was designing. While doing my master, I took classes at the business school such as Lean Launchpad, SIPA classes to have a deep understanding of sustainable development. At SUMA program I would definitely recommend Greenhouse Gas Emissions – Measuring & Minimizing Carbon Footprint with professor Dickinson, the content of this class is fundamental for any of the sustainability challenges you may be facing as a professional.

What do you find most challenging about your industry or role?

At SUMA everyone cares about sustainability and social development, but that changes quickly when you start working in the real world. Some of our potential clients may understand the implications of their decisions as energy consumers, but some are simply not interested in the topic. Awareness and education are a huge part of what we do, communicating to families, building managers and companies, that we need to work in global solutions, this is not an easy task, but is not impossible either. Our goal is to communicate that sustainability produces economic, social and environmental benefits.

What advice do you have for young women interested in social enterprises?

If you have a solid project, or an innovative idea, work to validate your concept with solid data. While you are at university built the necessary skills to move your concept into a reality, there are a lot of opportunities within Columbia community network, learn from other entrepreneurs, and most important be persistent.  I think women have the potential to lead the social enterprise revolution. Is the perfect opportunity to do business and do good, without sacrificing any side, we can drive change and create empathy. Any women or men, can be innovate as a entrepreneur, as an employee, or student, the responsibility of creating a more sustainable and fair world is the same for everyone.

What are four organizations you’re excited to follow over the coming years? Why?

Acumen – Ame Igharo, an outstanding SUMA graduate and classmate, is an Acumen Fellow, she introduced me to the impressive work of this non-profit, they just started operations in Bogota, my hometown. The first company they are investing is called Siembra Viva, which provides a technology platform that connects smallholder farmers selling organic produce to customers in cities.

Team Rubicon http://www.teamrubiconusa.org. Employing military veterans to work as a support teams for disaster relief around the word.

Little Bits http://littlebits.cc – Founded by a woman engineer, using toys as a platform for young kids to learn simple technology concepts.

Student Energy https://www.studentenergy.org/Co-founded by Janice Tran a SUMA classmate, a platform to inform the next generation of energy leaders.

To know more about our SHAREnergy initiative, watch our video https://vimeo.com/147730527  and follow us on Linkedin SHAREnergy.world

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