Sunrun CEO: Why #MeToo Hasn’t Had More Impact on Silicon Valley
Until the culture values things other than dominance and independence, women will continue to face an uphill climb in Silicon Valley.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
In 2007, Lynn Jurich left what she describes as a "cushy job" in venture capital to co-found Sunrun, pioneering the solar-as-a-service business model. Eight years later -- and less than two months after giving birth to her first child -- Jurich took Sunrun public. When I met with Jurich at her San Francisco office this summer, she was seven months pregnant with her second child, and now running the largest solar installation company in the country. Jurich, whose company now has a $1.6 billion market cap, revealed what it's like to bring a newborn on a roadshow for an IPO, the benefits of imperfection, and being a woman in Silicon Valley in the wake of #MeToo.
Sunrun is known for financial innovation as much as technical innovation. What was unique about Sunrun in the early days?
Our innovation was really to make solar as a service. To do that, we had to invent this new asset class. We started in 2007, and banks were really interested in this because it was a frothy market for lending. Then we powered through the recession, which still in retrospect seems improbable. We were relying on consumer credit on homes, in the middle of this consumer credit crisis, and it was unknown technology, and we were trying to get 20-year contracts financed. It was an achievement that we were able to raise the capital and get the business up and running during that time.
Plenty of entrepreneurs say they're going to disrupt an industry. But you've been challenging huge utility companies for more than a decade. What advice do you have?
You have to deliver something that customers want so much that they will help you in your efforts. They're your advocates. You also need to invest an incredible amount of money in regulatory and political efforts. Last year there were 250 rate structures proposed that would change the value of rooftop solar for customers. We spend a lot of dollars to intervene in each one of these. It's a real tax on us as the market leader. But we are proud to do it. It is important work and it needs to get done.
What's the biggest challenge in your industry?
It's a 100-year-old industry, with very little innovation. The business model has been that a utility can go to a regulator and say here's how much new investment I need to make in transmission and power plants, and the regulator lets them earn a return on it. That's worked as the need for electricity has increased.
Today power consumption is flat, thanks to energy efficiency. But because our grid is old and frail, we are on an investment cycle where we have to spend $2 trillion over the next two decades on energy upgrades. The U.S. has more power outages than any other developed country.
You worked in venture capital before becoming a founder of Sunrun. How was that an advantage?
I've seen tons of pitches, and I'm really comfortable with the structuring side of things. I had so much exposure to so many different CEOs. That gave me confidence. I thought, okay, these people are impressive, but I can hang.
One of the cool things I saw while I was in venture capital was that some of the most experienced investors ask the most basic questions. A lot of the more junior people will pretend to know all the answers, because they don't want to look stupid.
Entrepreneurs fall victim to this too. Maybe they don't want to look like they don't know what should be in a Series A term sheet. You're the entrepreneur! You shouldn't know this. Don't feel like you need to have false confidence.
Have things become any easier for women in Silicon Valley after the Ellen Pao trial or after #MeToo?
In my ten-year experience, I have not perceived biases against women getting better. Until we actually change what we value and reward as a society, it's not really going to get better. We need to value things other than dominance and independence. We need to value community and some of these other qualities that tend to be thought of as feminine. Until we have a system and a culture that values more of that, I don't think the problem gets fixed.
What advice do you have for other women entrepreneurs?
Don't be afraid of the money side of things. And have the confidence that if you work hard and you're ethical, you can overcome anything. No one is ever going to disrespect that.
There are some perfectionist tendencies that we somehow cultivate in women. That's not good. You want to be savvy in what you're approaching, and of course you don't want to be stupid. But you also want to understand that a few failures are okay.
You took Sunrun public when your daughter was less than two months old. You even took her on the roadshow. How did that happen?
We planned the IPO around when we needed to raise capital. Unfortunately, that coincided with birth of the baby. I made a decision that even though bringing her on the roadshow would be challenging and tiring, it could be done, and would be an amazing life experience. I brought my mother with me on the roadshow, and a baby nurse. I felt like the baby was in good hands and it was a fun experience to have my family there for something that was so meaningful. Obviously my co-founder and CFO were fantastic supporters, so it worked.
But sleep deprivation is for real. Given my support system, I felt like I was able to be present and nurse and bond with the baby, and I did not feel like I had to compromise on that. But what fell away was my own health, and that was definitely the hardest part. I very much prioritized baby first, company next, Lynn's health after that.
What would you tell someone else who was considering going on a roadshow with an infant?
The anticipation can be worse than the actual events. Don't let yourself worry and get anxious about outcomes that haven't happened. I was fortunate that I could afford to have people helping me and I was able to keep very fit. All those things are not available to all women. But don't let the anticipation be the worst part, or you could end up talking yourself out of some very meaningful experiences.
Sunrun was the first time you managed other people. How did you learn to do that?
I really work hard at it. It's a combination of great advisors, a lot of reading, and a lot of self-reflection. More recently, the concepts behind conscious leadership have been very influential to me.
The best personal advice I've ever received--and I use this for my morning meditation, every day--is the concept that all people and all circumstances are my allies. That every single interaction is an opportunity to learn. That's made me more comfortable with risk-taking and failure.
If I feel like an employee didn't do something I wanted, well, maybe this situation is an ally to me. Maybe I wasn't being clear. So I need to think: Who else am I not clear with?
How do you train new managers at Sunrun?
One of my favorite phrases is, "Always make impeccable agreements." In many cases new managers are not making their expectations clear with employees. When a new manager is frustrated with employee performance, the majority of the time, the manager was not absolutely clear in what they wanted. They need to really ask themselves, "Am I providing the right context, and have I been absolutely clear in my expectations?"
It's the opposite of the corporate nod, or when someone asks you to do something and you're like yah, I'll probably get to that. If you're making impeccable agreements, then you, as a manager, don't allow that kind of answer.
Do you invest in other entrepreneurs?
I just backed a female entrepreneur this week. Her name is Lauren Dunford. She is really terrific. Her company, Safi Analytics, is delivering energy in factories in the developing world, starting in Kenya.
Why do you have such confidence in her?
She put in that on-the-ground effort. Founders need to be feeling the customer pain and iterating the product. She has really embodied that. She's spent hours on factory floors in Kenya understanding the needs of the factory owners. I really respect that. It's not glamorous. That's what I did with this company too. I had a cushy venture capital job and I went to selling solar at a farmers' market. That kind of work is how you build a successful business.
This interview is part of Real Talk, a series of candid conversations with women leaders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.