Charging Up: A chat with Jess Brooks, chief…

Canary Media’s Charging Up column chronicles gender diversity in the climatetech sector. Part one is a short Q&A with an industry role model about their career path. Part two features updates on career transitions. Please send feedback and tips to [email protected]​canarymedia.​com. Canary thanks FischTank PR for its support of the column.

Jess Brooks: A business leader on a mission to increase access to solar

Jess Brooks is chief development officer at Sunwealth. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.

How did you end up on this career path?

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I came to clean energy by way of community economic development. I spent close to two decades helping investors put their money to work in affordable housing, childcare, schools, community health centers and nonprofit organizations at a national CDFI (community development financial institution). The common thread that connects that work and my work at Sunwealth is using capital to unlock access to opportunity. 

The community-based solar market, where Sunwealth invests, has tremendous potential to deliver real economic benefits to low-income people and communities in the form of clean energy access, energy savings and green jobs. This is a pivotal moment for clean energy. The decisions we make today about how to invest will have lasting repercussions, determining who has a stake in our clean-energy future and who gets left behind. I want to make sure all communities — especially those that have borne a disproportionate burden from pollution, climate change and high energy costs — have a seat at the table. 

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What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

This comes from one of my solar heroes, Lynn Benander of Co-op Power, who was quoting Angela Davis: I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”

What is a barrier you faced, and how did you overcome it? 

When we started Sunwealth, people said that community-scale projects delivering savings to low-income people and nonprofits weren’t an investable market — that the scale was too small. We’ve overcome it with disciplined underwriting and a community of partners willing to adjust their lens and think more holistically about the outcomes we’re trying to create. It’s not just how much solar we build; it’s who we partner with to build it and who benefits.

What do you think are some interesting, overlooked career opportunities in climatetech? 

Everybody likes to focus on the moonshots — the large-scale, gigaton drawdown opportunities and new technologies. I see real opportunity for impact in the proven technologies that exist in the here and now, like making solar accessible to individuals and organizations across the country through innovative financial structures and back-end systems that extend access and savings. We need people who haven’t traditionally considered careers in clean energy — women, people of color, people who grew up in under-resourced communities — to bring new ways of thinking, seeing and investing to the deal table. Sure, there’s a lot we can do with new technology and new policies, but there’s a lot we can and need to be doing with the tools we have right now.

What is your superpower?

As a mom of two boys, I’m used to balancing competing priorities — school, work, home, extracurriculars — and optimizing for the overall health of our family. As investors, we need to do the same thing: think holistically about the outcomes we want to achieve and the pathways that will get us there. The real solutions aren’t going to come from compartmentalizing. They’ll come when we embrace the complexity of the challenges we face — climate change, inequality, structural racism — and tackle them together.