The Women of Borrego Solar: Q&A with Joanie Brooke, Regional Operations Director for Northern California

Our California team recently celebrated a big success of bringing 11 MW of solar online — the most of any commercial solar installer according to GTM Research. We are able to help so many customers go solar because of the hard work of our development, engineering, finance, and operations employees.

At the helm of our Northern California operations team is Joanie Brooke, Regional Operations Director. Joanie is a licensed engineer and classically trained project manager — and one of the growing number of women in technical and leadership roles within Borrego Solar.

As part of our Women of Borrego Solar blog series, we’ve asked her to share her professional experience, career advice, and insights for women in the solar industry.

Joanie Brooke, Regional Operations Director for Borrego Solar
Joanie Brooke, Regional Operations Director, Borrego Solar

As one of the top commercial solar and energy storage companies nationally, Borrego Solar is committed to cultivating long-term career opportunities for women across all areas of our company. The number of women in solar industry jobs has jumped nationally from 18.7% in 2013 to 27% in 2017 according to the National Solar Jobs Census, and we’re proud to be part of this change.

What do you do for Borrego Solar?

JB: As the Regional Director of Operations for our Northern California operations team, I lead the construction side of our business and manage all of the Northern California project managers and site superintendents. My team shepherds projects from initial concept and design through construction. And then we hand a functioning project back to the client when it’s done. We essentially build power plants.

Can you describe your career path so far?

JB: I joined Borrego in 2015 as a Project Manager on the Operations Team, working at the project level. About a year ago, I was promoted to the role of Director.

Prior to joining Borrego, I worked in the private sector doing forensic engineering and enjoy helping my clients solve problems. But I wanted to work within the public sector, so I went back to grad school to pursue engineering and public policy. After graduate school, I consulted with the California Public Utilities Commission, then with PG&E doing project management in customer interconnection. At PG&E, I started focusing specifically on solar interconnection, which is how I ended up working in solar.

What are your degrees, and do you have any certifications?

JB: I have a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from University of California, Berkeley. I also have a Master of Science in Engineering Project Management from the College of Engineering, and a Master of Public Policy from Goldman School of Public Policy, both at UC Berkeley. I’m also a Licensed Civil Engineer.

Did you know what you wanted to do when you were in school?

JB: In high school, I enjoyed doing math much more than, say, writing essays. I chose engineering because I was following what I liked to do. Once I was in the engineering department, I took a lot of the heavy design classes and some very specific technology engineering courses. Those were great, but I also really enjoyed the construction side of things in school. So I have the engineering degree, but I focused a lot on the construction route.

In what ways do you use your background in your role at Borrego Solar?

JB: Well, although I have my Professional Engineer license, I’m not acting as a professional engineer at Borrego. Instead, I’m acting as the director of our project management and our site superintendent teams.

The skills that I bring, and my value, come from being a very classically trained project manager for the construction industry. I’m combining my engineering background with this project management approach to manage a group of people that ultimately deliver projects for our customers. I’m applying my technical background and training to help develop a really sophisticated execution of our projects.

Have you faced any challenges being a woman in the solar industry?

JB: I feel like the barriers in solar are fewer — or lower — than in the traditional construction industry. My impression is that solar is a young industry and it has a different demographic. The solar industry isn’t as quick to put people in boxes of what people can or can’t accomplish — or should or shouldn’t do.

When I was starting out in the construction industry, I once had a job interview where I was asked very stereotypical questions about whether I could handle getting up very early, be willing to chip my nails, or want to work outside in a dusty field. That’s the old-school construction side of the industry, and solar feels different than that. Solar feels like the young side of the industry where we all have opportunities to contribute.

Solar is growing, but the most recent statistics show that women make up only about 27% of the workforce. What are your thoughts about that?

JB: Yes, that’s probably true. A large portion of the solar industry is engineering, construction, and technology. And if you think about it, for people to have these jobs, they have to go to school. We’re not going to change this statistic until we start seeing a change in who is feeding into the schools to fill these positions. To see a change in the industry, there also has to be a change at the college level to prepare students to come into the industry with the engineering degrees in order to fill those engineering roles.

Since you began your career, has there been an improvement in inclusion and diversity?

JB: Yes, it’s absolutely changing for the better. When I started my career, it often felt like I was the only woman in the room. People would assume — or outright ask — that I’d get the coffee and take the notes. Some of that could also have been because I was young, or perhaps it was because I was a woman. Who knows?

When I started at Borrego in 2015, there were fewer than five women in the entire Oakland office. But, in the past few years our Oakland office has more than doubled in size, and women now make up at least 30 percent of the positions here. We’ve also grown in San Diego. We’ve expanded into key markets in Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York — and we are actively hiring new talent.

At Borrego, women are well represented in all areas of our business: IT, engineering, interconnection, project finance, project development, legal, marketing, human resources, project management, and policy. As we grow, we’re definitely seeing more people entering the industry and the pool of people applying is becoming more diverse.

Why do you enjoy working at Borrego Solar?

JB: One of the things that I really appreciate about Borrego is its integrity. I’ve worked for a lot of different organizations, both public and private, and Borrego stands out as a company that has a high level of integrity — and that matches my own professional values.

Also, Borrego encourages each employee to grow and develop, and we hold that as a core value in the company.

Why do you work in the solar industry?

JB: That is an easy question. Beyond enjoying working at Borrego specifically, working in the solar industry is great. At the end of the day, you can go home and feel good about what you’re doing.

I feel like this is a career that I’m building and putting effort into. I want to put my life’s work into something that’s going to benefit my children and our society and make our community better.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

JB: You’re not going to be perfect at everything, or at every stage of your career. I know there are some things I’m just going to struggle through, and some things where I’m going to really find my niche. Every career is an evolution, and I’m always constantly seeking out advice for the phase I’m in. I’m either reading about it or pursuing the best words of wisdom. I also often reach out to teammates and peers for concerns or advice on how to approach a new situation.

You also have to let go of the fear of appearing bossy to get your job done. As the head of the project management team that’s executing multi-million dollar projects, I’m responsible for the budget, for projects coming in on time, and for the team hitting all their contractual responsibilities and obligations.

It’s easy to be afraid of coming across as a bossy woman in a group. But the reality is that here at Borrego, we’re hiring people — men and women — who are stewards of millions of dollars of work for the company. And for that kind of role, you just have to be the boss. You just have to let go of the fear of what people might think and act in your role as the steward of these projects, because it’s your job to make sure those projects get done.

What advice do you have for young women entering engineering, technology, and the solar industry?

JB: Well, I have a daughter and a son at home, and I think about whether I’d advise either of them differently. The advice I’d offer is really geared for anyone wanting to join this industry:

…There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious.
…Keep taking one step forward in the things that inspire you and keep you engaged.
…Once you’ve reached a point in your career where you have authority, don’t be afraid to take ownership of your responsibilities. You’ve gotten this far, so don’t be afraid to take charge.

And finally:
…Solar’s really cool — you can save the world!

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