Solar Industry: It’s Mostly A Man’s World
By Larry Jaffee
Laura Azpilicueta is the London-based Senior Vice President of Global Sales & Business Development for EVASA, a manufacturer of encapsulants that protect solar cells. Originally from Spain, she talks to Women Across Frontiers about working as an executive in a male-dominated industry, and how solar energy figures in the future of our global needs.
Women Across Frontiers: How does it feel to be working as a woman in a male-dominated industry?
Laura Azpilicueta: You could say happy, although at times a bit lonely. I love my work. I would not change technical sales for anything. I love to travel and be in contact with people from different countries and cultures. I consider myself a very fortunate woman in that my work satisfies so many of my personal as well as professional ambitions. But few women dedicate 75% of their time to travel, and that means that my core group of colleagues and friends are men. They are great and take very good care of me. We have discussions on just about everything, but obviously men and women are different. And at times I really miss having dinner with a female colleague.
I have to say that due to the fact that there are few of us women at this level in this market I believe it drives us to be more corporatist and work together to create a solid network for each other. It is worth it. We need to support and motivate younger women coming up in this field.
WAF: Have you experienced sexism in solar any more than in general life?
LA: Absolutely no. I believe, in fact, the contrary is true. This is a relatively young market that has a far more open viewpoint on everything. In solar, I can honestly say that I have had very good and positive experiences with the companies I have worked with at all levels including colleagues as well as with clients.
I am not sure if it is because I started my solar photovoltaic (PV) career with an American company as the European Sales Manager. The U.S. is particularly open towards women in higher positions. My experience was a good one. I previously worked sales in Spain for the textile machinery sector, which is a tougher, more masculine-driven market. I feel unfortunately that my country is not yet ready to see women in higher corporate positions.
LA: When you decide to do work like what I do, you have to respect different cultures and know certain countries you will visit will impose restrictions on you because you are a woman, something as simple as not being allowed to move around certain places alone.
I have traveled all of Europe alone. We decided that strategically for the company I needed to set up base in London, and that was not a problem for me. I travel alone to most key trade fairs. Certain countries do not permit me this freedom because of my gender.
Something that has affected me as a woman – and as person – is to see in how I am treated by clients in certain countries versus how they treat and behave towards women, who are their own citizens. As a European and businesswoman, I am treated with a level of respect that they do not in turn impart of their own citizens. Clearly, there is a stark difference and inequality. Women aren’t considered equals in the workplace.
Once at a trade fair, one of my client’s quality engineer, a woman, hugged me and cried while we were alone at the end of a meeting because I had made an effort to speak to her. She told me I could be an example to many women, so they could see that a woman can and does have the same job, responsibility and professional status as a man. Moments like those make you realize just how lucky we are to have been born into a society where we at least have a choices that we can make for ourselves as women.
There’s still lots of work that needs to be done, and as women we need to help each other and support one another. Equality will only be a reality when all women have the right to choose and decide for themselves how to proceed with their lives both personally and professionally in the same way that men do.
WAF: Are there women decision makers in the solar business?
LA: You will find women directors in laboratory, quality control and marketing, although I believe there is still more that can be done. I am hopeful that we will see more women in positions of higher responsibility.
A study from the Peterson Institute for International Economics analyzed gender diversity more than 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries in such sectors as industry, telecommunications, finance, health and energy. The study confirms that companies that have at least 30% presence of women in high executive positions have 15% more profits than the companies that don’t have the same ratio of women in those positions.
Unfortunately, gender diversity is still an issue in industry. By the way, the highest percentage of female executives is in the finance sector and the lowest percentage in the logistics and energy sectors.
There are initiatives to promote gender equality in corporate positions. In the U.S., for example, the 2020 Women on Boards campaign aims to have at least a 20% female presence on boards by 2020. In the United Kingdom, the 30% Club has an objective of 30% of board members be women on the FTSE index.
WAF: To what extent will solar energy will help meet future global energy needs?
LA: There are several opinions as well as many economic interests at a global level.
In November 2015, 196 nations assembled at the Paris Climate Change Conference, hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and pledged to limit greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to avoid the worst effects of climate change. This agreement marks an extraordinary diplomatic feat that has eluded negotiators for decades. However, it is vague and aspirational, outlining no legally binding emissions cuts and no concrete pathways for how to achieve them.
In my opinion, the solar industry is ready with more efficiency modules, cells and installations within an affordable cost (the price for PV hardware, modules, racking, etc., has dropped by 60% in the past five years).
Before 2020, global demand growth for natural gas will surpass that for oil and coal as more sources of liquefied natural gas and shale gas become available. Economic growth will raise demand for coal in emerging economies. China consumes half the world’s coal, with which it powers more than 80% of its energy needs. Wind power will make strong gains in the US, the UK and Germany, while solar power production will expand notably in America, Germany and China.
European analysts estimate renewable energy will account for 20% of the total demand of energy in 2020. Solar PV ranks third among renewable sources behind hydropower and wind, and already contributed in 2014 1% of the electricity demand for the 29 countries that participate in the International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems Program. PV penetration is still higher in the EU (greater than 7% in Italy and Greece) and increasing elsewhere globally (2% in Australia and Japan).
Last year, the U.S. solar market experienced a year-over-year growth rate of 17% and, for the first time ever, solar beat out natural gas capacity additions, with solar supplying 29.5% of new electricity generation.
WAF: Tell us about your job as Senior VP of Global Sales & Business Development for EVASA, and what does the company manufacture?
LA: EVASA is a company that manufactures a part of the photovoltaic modules: the encapsulants that protect the cells. My work involves the development and strategy for company expansion and growth, opening new markets and recruit representatives who can help us in every area we are aiming to grow. The relationship we have with our clients goes beyond simply customer-supplier. It is more of a partnership. We understand their needs and help them be competitive in their markets.
I oversee the sales team and technical support at our headquarters. To do my job, I must assist the principal trade fairs in the sector, conferences and visit client factories all over the world. I currently head an industry initiative on quality at the global level, while there’s pressure to reduce costs in our sector. Solar energy is the technology of the future and we can only convince the end user it is the best option with quality products. I love my work in a sector that has the potential to do something great for the world.