Michelle Chislett - Vice President & Country Manager SunEdison

An electrical engineer by trade, Michelle Chislett was bitten by the renewable energy bug and decided to complete her MBA to broaden the roles she could play in the field. She is passionate about the ever-changing renewable energy field and advises women interested in the industry to “join us!”  As 2015 WiRE Solar Power Woman of Distinction Award, Vice President and Country Manager at SunEdison Canada, former Chair of Canadian Solar Industry Association, and mother of a young daughter, she feels the work of organizations such as WiRE are crucial to make sure women feel they can share their voice in the industry. 

1. General info: Current place of work and a bit about what you do:

Michelle is the Vice President and Country Manager at SunEdison Canada. SunEdison is a global developer of renewable energy projects and manufacturer of PV modules. In Canada, the focus is on development of renewables projects (including rooftops, small ground mount, going all the way up to utility scale).  SunEdison goes through the entire process with many of its projects, including everything along the way such as economic to environmental approvals. 

Previously Michelle worked at International Power Canada, which was bought out by GDF Suez Canada Inc.  The company was involved in many forms of renewable energy including solar, wind, and hydro. In that role as VP of business development.

She studied electrical engineering and specialized in wireless communications, and then decided to get her MBA from Schulich (York University) to support her decision to work in the renewable energy industry.

2. What has your involvement with WiRE been to date?

Having worked with one of the founders (Rebecca Black) several years ago, when WiRE came about she had several conversations to learn more about what the organization was trying to accomplish to see how she may be able to support.  In 2015, Michelle won the WiRE Solar Power Woman of Distinction Award, highlighting her contributions to the field. More info about the awards can be found here: http://www.womeninrenewableenergy.ca/new-page-1/

3. What made you interested in renewable energy?

Michelle started out working in wireless communications, but at that time the telecom revolution had already taken off. Michelle felt a desire to be part of making big changes to better society. Renewable energy seemed like a perfect place where her technical background would be useful, but could be complemented by her other skillsets to bring her passion for making positive change.

4. Do you have any advice for women in the RE field?

“Join us!” says Michelle. It’s an exciting sector that has undergone transformational changes. Come to industry events and meet others working in the field.  She also stresses that she has experienced women holding back their opinions even though they have significant value and contributions to add, so she encourages women in the field to make sure their voice is heard at the table.

5. What challenges have you faced in the industry, and what actions have you taken to overcome them?

The reasons why renewable energy is an exciting field are the same reasons why the field can be challenging. The industry is full of change which can be exciting, but sometimes frustrating.  Companies go through highs and lows, there is consolidation, companies going in and out of business, changes for the better and for the worse. It’s not as simple as someone doing their job in a typical day-to-day business, there are many levels of complexity that are added in because of this constant change which can make work developing projects challenging. You need to be ingenious to bring in financing sometimes, but it also forces you to be innovative to navigate the industry. It’s never boring.

6. What are you proudest of in your professional life?

Leading the team that developed Canada’s first fully operational Utility Scale Solar farm named “First Light”. I found the work so interesting and rewarding- I felt like I was helping make real change.

The other proud accomplishment is maintaining her identity and balance between her life as a businessperson and as a mother and wife.  It is a constant challenge to balance these roles, not sacrificing family at the expense of work and keeping a challenging career. But she concludes that it’s a privilege to work in something that she believes in and hopes she is a positive example for her daughter.

7.  What’s your favourite innovation in renewable energy so far?

While apologizing that it’s “boring” because everyone says this, energy storage is something that Michelle thinks is a key innovation. Dealing with storage is the “big kahuna”, there is still so much to be fully proven and commercialized, and as a result everyone’s eye is on that sector of the industry.

Michelle also pointed out an often overlooked area of innovation in the field – that of innovative government policies. Citing the tremendous leadership in the Ontario Government’s policy, which has recently been followed by Saskatchewan and Alberta. While saying that it can often be controversial, the incentives created built the solar industry and put a price on the value that renewable energy brings to the grid. 

9.  What’s a quote you really like?  

Michelle keeps two quotes in her phone:

The harder you work the luckier you get.

Don’t mistake busyness for momentum.

9.    Anything else you’d like to share?

The work that WiRE is doing is important to Michelle, especially as mother of young daughter.  She’s noticed from the women she’s mentored and learned from that women often get overlooked, and sometimes it can be a matter of getting out of their comfort levels. It’s important that women take on leadership positions and share their opinions because it will make the industry better. Not just for the sake of diversity, being included as a “token” is insulting, but as people who earn their places just like everyone else. Michelle views WiRE as a way to burst through the barriers that exist, some which women themselves create. Another important piece of the puzzle is finding ways to invite men to the conversation so that we can work together on these issues and not repeat mistakes made in the past.

By Victoria Alleyne, Chief Executive Officer at CatalystsX and WiRE Volunteer