Chat with Michelle Van Enige, PE, with Velo Solar

Sharon Lee

Episode Summary:

In this episode, Michelle Van Enige talks about her experience in the solar industry and the very supportive mentors who took her hand in the journey. While she did not have struggles or any discouragement getting into this field, she recognizes that this is a male-dominated industry and is mentoring people to get into it. Finally, she gives some pointers for people looking to enter it.

Sharon Lee

Sharon Lee taps over a decade of solar sales experience, having led the creation of a solar division for a leading manufacturing/construction firm, resulting in over 17 MW of solar in its portfolio, as well as solar ultimately becoming its highest-grossing revenue vertical. Lee has been involved in the GA Solar Energy Association, serving on the board of directors as the marketing chair, organizing the annual conference, as well as vice-chair, and ultimately the first female chair of the organization in 2015. She is also a charter member of the Professional Women in Building chapter of the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders Association, a member of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), and Women in Solar Energy (WISE). Lee earned her B.S. degree in communications with double minors in marketing and psychology from Middle Tennessee State University, after spending three years at the University of Tennessee in the pre-health curriculum. Lee is the mom of two boys, ages 14 and 11, and a rabid college football fan. She and her husband, John, spend most of their free time at the baseball or football fields unless they can steal away for a quick round of golf.

Michelle Van Enige

Michelle Van Enige is a Senior Project Engineer at Velo Solar, an Electricity, Oil & Gas company with an estimated 19 employees, founded in 2007. They are part of the Project Management team within the Engineering & Technical Department, and their management level is Non-Manager. Michelle graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2016 and is based in Atlanta, United States.

Insights from this Episode:

  • Michelle’s background
  • How she got into solar
  • Insights into how women can make it in this male-dominated field
  • Details about her mentorship
  • The importance of communication
  • Her experience in the solar industry

Quotes from the Show: 

  • “I thought electricity was cool, I know it sounds simple, but I wanted to go for something I didn’t know a lot about, and I just went for it” —Michelle Van Enige in “The Sunnyside Podcast”
  • “I don’t remember anyone telling me that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t go into engineering. It was a bit of a surprise when I got to tech, but I kept going” —Michelle Van Enige in “The Sunnyside Podcast”
  • “There are expectations and assumptions that may not be fair, and regardless, they are really not communicated, and different people take different approaches” —Michelle Van Enige in “The Sunnyside Podcast”
  • “It can be harder to be yourself when you don’t see anyone who looks like you and your role or the role you wanna be in” —Michelle Van Enige in “The Sunnyside Podcast”
  • “You have to be yourself. Everyone has different experiences but if you’re able to communicate well and be given the grace to ask questions, you should be able to curve out your place” —Sharon Lee in “The Sunnyside Podcast”

Resources Mentioned

PV magazine

Episode transcript:

Sharon Lee: Welcome to The Sunnyside, the podcast that makes solar energy relatable, accessible, and attainable. Join us as we journey behind the scenes with women taking amazing strides in all parts of the solar industry. I’m your host, Sharon Lee, and thank you for joining us today.

Hello and welcome to the April edition of The Sunnyside. We are so excited that you’re here today. And before we dive in with this next guest, let me talk a little bit about Sharon’s corner and what I’ve been up to since our last episode.

So I’ve been out of town. First, the Velo team did a retreat up in Asheville, North Carolina, which is a good gig if you can get it, let me tell you. We had a great time. It was good to get the team together. We kind of do a little forecasting, what’s going on, what are trends, what can we do for continuing education and that sort of thing. But also, our team just has a good time together. We were able to go on a haunted tour of Asheville. It was actually a haunted ghost tour of Asheville, which was so much fun. And then, we also got some e-bikes. I have never been on an electric bike before, and that is the ticket, let me tell you. If you can do that, go get one, because it is so much fun. We had a great time in the mountains and all that.

On the heels of that, I took off to New York City and went to a seminar put on by SEIA, the Solar Energy Industries Association, and it was a finance and tax seminar. And with all of the language being identified and nailed down in the Inflation Reduction Act, that was time well spent. It was great. I usually wouldn’t call a finance and tax seminar exciting, but it really was, because everybody is hungry to get this information nailed down. So it was a great trip.

So with that, I am going to introduce my next guest. I have asked Michelle Van Enige to join today. She is a PE with Velo Solar. And if you don’t know what a PE is, that is a professional engineer.

And a Sunnyside listener actually sent me an article, and the article was called Giving Women Support to Engineer the Renewable Energy Future. Now, that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it really was interesting. So you all out there listening, if you have something like that, feel free to send it on. I’d love to take a look at it.

But it made my wheels start spinning. This podcast was created to lift up women making great strides in the solar and renewables industries. So the fact that we have an amazing resource right here at Velo to discuss this very topic, maybe reach out to Michelle immediately. So with that, hey Michelle, thanks for joining me today.

Michelle Van Enige: Hi. Thanks for making me do this.

Sharon Lee: A little bit of arm twisting, but no one was hurt in that exchange.

Michelle Van Enige: Correct.

Sharon Lee: A little fear, no pain. But no, just kidding. Before we dive into this topic, why don’t you tell everybody a little bit about your background, where’d you go to school, where are you from, that sort of thing.

Michelle Van Enige: Sure. I’m originally from Crystal Beach, Florida. That’s around the Tampa Bay area. I came to Atlanta to go to Georgia Tech, received my BSEE in 2016, and just recently obtained my PE license in Georgia.

Sharon Lee: Nice. I always like to ask this question, so when you chose to go into engineering, did you have the solar industry in mind?

Michelle Van Enige: No, I was curious about renewables though.

Sharon Lee: Okay. So you weren’t seeking out solar specifically, but you were definitely drawn down the electrical and electrical engineering path. So why is that?

Michelle Van Enige: I thought electricity was cool. I know it sounds simple, but I wanted to go for something that I didn’t know a lot about, and I just went for it.

Sharon Lee: All right. I like it. So going back to the article, women may be hesitant to enter the realm of engineering, due to it being so male dominated. Was that your experience?

Michelle Van Enige: So I didn’t know about the gender ratio or anything like that when I declared my major when applying to Tech. I really don’t remember anyone telling me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t go into engineering. It was a bit of surprise when I got to Tech, but I kept going. Had I known it would be that way, would I have done what I did? I’m not sure.

Sharon Lee: Well, regardless, I, for one, am glad you continued to pursue it.

Michelle Van Enige: Thanks. I think the fear of the unknown can hold you back, but I think not knowing actually helped me back then. Having knowledge of a situation can also hold you back if you don’t feel prepared. And I’ve struggled to find some words of wisdom that would make me feel prepared, that I can give young women considering this field, but I’m still at a loss. What is it about being a woman in a male dominated field that can make it more difficult, the best I can come up with is that there are expectations and there are assumptions that may not be fair. And regardless, they’re really not communicated, and different people take different approaches.

Sharon Lee: That’s right. So all you can do is be yourself, and that’s good enough.

Michelle Van Enige: Yeah. But it can be harder to be yourself when you don’t see anyone who looks like you in your role or the role that you want to be in.

Sharon Lee: That’s a good point. And that’s a lot to chew on. It’s a lot to take on as a young female trying to decide where you’re going to go.

Michelle Van Enige: Yeah, it’s always easier said than done.

Sharon Lee: Right. Well, that’s very true. But let’s build on that just a little bit. I always like to bring up the topic of mentorship, and I think that that goes right along with what we’re talking about. So let’s talk about what you have found in that regard.

Michelle Van Enige: I found a lot of people. I found a lot of great men and women.

Sharon Lee: Well, okay, let’s stop there, and let’s talk about each and how you responded either way.

Michelle Van Enige: My first ever experience in an engineering workplace, I was part of the co-op program at Georgia Tech. I had a great co-op supervisor. He just had a way of not making me feel different.

Sharon Lee: Can you tell me what you mean by that?

Michelle Van Enige: Yeah. So, if we were going to a meeting or a site visit, he would very clearly define expectations and what would happen. He had a way of taking the unspoken and kind of making it spoken, and it made it so I could ask questions, sometimes ones that I didn’t know I had until he said something. I didn’t even know that I was making assumptions until he said something and I realized that I had a question.

Sharon Lee: Isn’t it amazing, how simple something like that can be? But hold on a second, so you did say you also had good female leadership role models as well, right?

Michelle Van Enige: Yeah. My first supervisor in my first big girl job, so right out of school, was female, and we have a great relationship now. We had a little bit of a rocky start. I remember on my first day, we met, we shook hands. She wasn’t involved in my interview process, so we were brand new to each other. And she complimented me on my handshake, and I offered a little anecdote about practicing my handshake while car shopping with my father when I was younger. And she can be quite stoic sometimes, and she was definitely then, and she just looks at me and she said something to the effect of, “Well, my father died when I was two.” Kind of just leaves it at that and walks away.

Sharon Lee: Oh, my gosh, that is brutal. I totally was not expecting that. Great first day on the job, man.

Michelle Van Enige: I was absolutely stricken.

Sharon Lee: As you should be. But things repaired or things got better?

Michelle Van Enige: Oh, yeah. We have a great relationship. We had a good working relationship. I actually followed her when she left that company and worked for her at another company as well. We stay in regular contact. I can’t put my finger on exactly what she did while we were working together that really helped, but just her presence, just having her there. And she always seemed to have an open door, I think that helped a lot. I haven’t agreed with her on everything, on every piece of advice, but I value her immensely.

Sharon Lee: I think that’s very fair. And I think that’s smart, doing your own discernment of that sort of thing. But I guess, once again, you have to be yourself. Everyone has different experiences, but if you’re able to communicate well and be given the grace to ask questions, you should be able to carve out your place. You can’t let one person’s reactions dictate your trajectory.

Michelle Van Enige: Advice like that can be a little too succinct, I think it kind of glosses over the reality. Like I said, I was pretty worried after that introduction that first day. But when a person says something that stings or that scares you, you might feel it for just an hour. It might be that entire week and then you forget about it over the weekend. Or it might be as long as a year. If you’re scared, you just have to continue showing up. There are days where I’m not as brave, but today I’m recording a podcast.

Sharon Lee: Whoop-whoop.

Michelle Van Enige: But the time it takes to bounce back from whatever may happen doesn’t define your value or your strengths or your competency.

Sharon Lee: Right. Well, speaking of your value, I don’t know what in the world I’m going to have to pay you for this, we’ll figure that one out off-air.

But no, that is really well said. And continuing on with this mentorship focus, it’s hard to find others to relate to, especially when you are newly getting into the workplace and that sort of thing.

So that brings me though to the solar industry. So you have found your way, lucky you, somehow further into this male dominated area, engineering within the solar industry. Now, that’s made up with a lot of dudes.

Michelle Van Enige: Yeah, there are a lot of men. It does have a little bit of a different vibe though compared to the building MEP industry, which I was previously in. I’ve just known anecdotally the crowd is a little bit younger, very hungry for talent right now, and I think that can make it a bit easier for people who might not fit the traditional mold to succeed.

Sharon Lee: I think that you make an excellent point. My experience with the solar industry is that it is very inclusive. There may be fewer women in the industry, but women are taking very important roles on, from advocacy efforts to CEO positions, to tax and finance roles, to engineering. So if young women are considering engineering as a career path, what are some words you would want to share with them?

Michelle Van Enige: There’s no question that the power sector, not just renewables, we need more engineers, we need more electricians and other technical staff. So if you’re interested in this technology, please pursue it. Just like the article says, don’t let fear hold you back. What I liked about the article too was that it called out the gender disparity in trained electricians as well. If you want to work with your hands, do it.

Sharon Lee: Right. There’s so many places where you can really carve out your place and make it your own. So this is a really diverse and fantastic industry. So I wholeheartedly agree with what you said about, yes, seek this industry out, all of these industries, the utility, renewables, solar, and these areas within those industries. There’s just so many opportunities.

But then going to the total opposite perspective, so let’s speak to mentors already in the industry. So let’s assume a female joins their team, what would you say to those mentors?

Michelle Van Enige: I’m at an interesting point in my career, where I’m starting to mentor, but I’m also still very much a mentee. So what would my younger self need and need more of, what do I still need? Open communication is a given then and now. Setting expectations is extremely helpful, to the point of giving them a play by play of the situation. Maybe we should start calling them coaches instead of mentors. Make the coach analogy with the direct supervisor and have the mentor be someone that’s not connected to your paycheck.

Sharon Lee: Hold on just a second, so I’m trying to absorb this. I’ve never thought of breaking this into two segments. Although, again, mentorship is a huge part of what we talk about on this podcast. So let’s dive into the distinction between the coach analogy and the mentor not connected to you financially a bit further. So where did that idea come from?

Michelle Van Enige: Well, your direct supervisor is helping you navigate the day-to-day, just like a coach is there for every practice and every game. A mentor should be someone with industry knowledge, who’s not connected to your paycheck, at the very least, not in your reporting structure. And they can share industry history, trends, their experiences, other companies. They can be ones that can just answer some questions that you might not feel comfortable asking your direct supervisor.

Sharon Lee: Okay. So your career path isn’t defined specifically as you start out. So I think you’re exactly right, if you’re in your current role, you’re going to be told your day-to-day, what to do and all of the things as it fits that company. But you’re exactly right, if you seek out some mentors within that industry, it gives you a little bit more of a colorful perspective to figure out how to go from point A to point B.

Michelle Van Enige: Yeah, your direct supervisor is helping you find your place, find your value as an employee at your company. And your mentor is doing something similar, but focusing on finding your place and your value to the industry as a whole.

Sharon Lee: Right. Well, I love that, and you’ve actually given me a whole lot to think about today. So we’ve kind of gone full circle in the conversation. So it has been great chatting with you today. Normally, you and I are strategizing on tilt angles and solar design and energy usage from different customers and that sort of thing, so it’s nice to talk about something a little bit more on the personal side. So on that note, when you’re not in the thick of solar design and that sort of thing, what do you do for fun?

Michelle Van Enige: You know me, I don’t like fun or games of any kind, really.

Sharon Lee: I have this sick and twisted joy in making you love fun and games. That’s why we work so well together, or at least I think so.

Michelle Van Enige: Exactly.

Sharon Lee: Right. Oh, my gosh.

Well, if someone would like to reach out to you, what is their best way to find you?

Michelle Van Enige: LinkedIn, really. As long as you’re not a head hunter or a robot, I’ll respond to you.

Sharon Lee: Fair enough. And we’ll put a link to your LinkedIn profile in the chat. So thank you so much for joining me today on The Sunnyside. This has been fun and you’ve survived. You’re a survivor.

Michelle Van Enige: Thanks for having me. It’s really been a great experience.

Sharon Lee: All right. Well, I am here for you. See you next time. Thank you.

Thanks for listening to the Sunnyside Podcast. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review. You can also email questions, suggestions, and compliments to The Sunnyside is produced by the Podcast Laundry Production Company and executive produced by Sharon Lee.

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