How Lynn Jurich Turned an Innate Passion for Saving the Environment into a Definitively Disruptive Energy Company
Thirteen leadership lessons from the Sunrun co-founder and CEO.
With recent extreme weather events and other natural disasters, consumer demand for solar panels and batteries has accelerated. After the Texas power grid failure, web traffic to Sunrun (Nasdaq: RUN), the nation's leading installer of residential rooftop solar panels and batteries, jumped 350 percent in the state. So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with the company’s co-founder and CEO, Lynn Jurich, for Comparably and Entrepreneur’s Leadership Lessons series.
These episodes spotlight the minds of successful leaders — from the CEOs of Zoom and Nextdoor to GoDaddy and DocuSign — as they share one-of-a kind advice for current and future entrepreneurs. My conversation with the brilliant Jurich was no exception.
After receiving her undergraduate degree and MBA from Stanford, Jurich began her career at venture capital firm Summit Partners, where she worked in the financial services and tech sectors and was one of few female VCs who completed investments with an aggregate market value of over $900 million. But it wasn’t long before she found her mission — “to create a planet run by the sun” — which led to the launch of Sunrun 13 years ago. With more than 550,000 customers across the country and more than 8,500 employees, Sunrun has been delivering affordable, clean and reliable energy directly to consumers since 2007.
Here are 13 lessons from my chat with Lynn Jurich:
1. Consider anything within the realms of human potential a possibility for you
Jurich paraphrases Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius when she describes the innate drive and ambition she has harbored since childhood. “I always wanted to do whatever I did at the very highest level,” she says, which included early ambitions to be a scientist, university president or Prima ballerina. She admits to reading nearly the entire biography section of her local public library when she was younger, spending time really digging into what “extraordinary people passed on for us to learn and build on.”
2. Believe in yourself, and you can solve big problems
Jurich has always loved nature, the environment and solving hard problems, like how to use resources more sustainably. When trying to get the business off the ground, she faced some real resistance: “The near universal feedback I got was, ‘This is too sophisticated for you, little girl.’” This small-minded backlash only served to heighten and sharpen her natural competitive streak. She believed Sunrun could disrupt the entire energy industry from having to rely on big centralized power plants by moving it to a more decentralized model. "So we invented what we call solar-as-a-service. We're a SaaS company,” she jokes.
3. Learn how to cold call
Jurich's natural inclination is towards shyness, which she willfully overcame when she started her career as a financial analyst. She appreciated that in sales, the skills you develop are everything. In the early days, her job was cold-calling companies, filling quotas for the number of CEOs she had spoken to and working on the financial model at night. By putting the time in to learn those techniques, the process taught her how to connect with people and also deal with rejection.
4. Don’t be intimidated when dealing with money
In her experience speaking with and coaching female entrepreneurs, Jurich found that women were not as comfortable with financial tasks like raising outside capital or negotiating contracts. She urges people not to be discouraged: "I saw some of the best entrepreneurs asking so-called stupid questions around raising capital, but they weren't intimidated by it because they saw it for what it was.”
5. Consider the non-verbal part of the sale
The energy and presence you bring to a sales call is hugely important — perhaps even more so than the content of the call. One needs to develop an internal mental and physical appreciation for it.
6. Don’t become too attached to a concrete outcome or achievements
If you can let go of that need, it’s a lot more enjoyable and generates more creativity and a better outcome. "You don't really know what is ultimately good or bad in terms of a long-term effect on your career, and that has really allowed me to have more freedom,” admits Jurich.
7. You can be both young and wise at the same time
There’s no reason to wait for wisdom to accrue with age when there are plenty of resources like mentors and books out there. Choosing between youthful energy or hard-earned wisdom is a false trade-off. “I believe in having a conscious leadership philosophy, which is to approach challenges from a place of abundance, curiosity and freedom versus a place of constraint and fear,” says Jurich.
8. Equity is a numbers thing, so use your data
Getting to pay parity and equal representation is not an insurmountable problem. Sunrun is one of very few companies that can tout an executive team that is 50 percent female. It also committed to gender pay equity early on by looking at the numbers and making adjustments where necessary. The same approach is used for other demographics like people of color and the disabled community.
9. Business with a positive societal impact like Sunrun will attract less of a mercenary capitalistic ecosystem
It also gives you the right foundation to attract the right kind of people, with the right kind of motivations, to your company. Attracting talent with a customer orientation versus a capitalistic one is more beneficial.
10. Don’t be too linear in your thinking
People should take a long view of their career path and not attempt to frontload their early years with every achievement as if life is short. Asked what unit of time is most important to her, Jurich intriguingly says: "Generations. I'm 41, I'd like to work for 60 more years. Think about how much time you’ve got and the amount of skills that you can build. You do not need to focus so obsessively on the next two or three years.”
11. Don’t bother trying to hold off life until later, because it has its own schedule
Jurich and her husband waited seven or eight years to have their first child. Despite their prudence, life had its own plans, and it so happened Sunrun’s IPO came just after she gave birth. “I had my first child about a month before the roadshow started, so I brought the baby with me and nursed for that whole 30-city run,” she says. Her second child was born just before a Sunrun earnings call, further illustrating that life is on its own unknowable schedule.
12. Emotions are real and need to be faced
Repression of emotions is not a catch-all method that can work in any walk of life, not even in business. It’s best to be authentic and face emotions head-on so you can move on. "We often repress so much sadness and so many other things," says Jurich. “I try to create a little more space for that in the company, but not in a cheesy or uncomfortable way.”
13. Have a sense of humor
There's a general lack of humor that accompanies most environmental discussions. But HBO's “Real Time” host and comedian Bill Maher had so many challenges getting his home solar setup finalized with state officials that it became a running joke on his show for months. That is, until recently when he thanked Sunrun on-air for helping him get it finalized. “The ambitions around infrastructure are there,” Jurich says of the situation Maher faced in California. “Everything is just too bureaucratic and takes forever to get done. And whenever you can add humor in our industry, it’s so much better, since we’re usually all so serious.”
Whatever the future holds for solar energy in the country, Sunrun is going to be an important part of it — and Jurich is excited about the commitment to carbonized energy and the eventual elimination of the use of fossil fuels.
“Using our existing rooftops, our own cars and our own batteries in our homes, we'll be able to power 30 to 40 percent of the electric needs in the U.S. and even globally, " Jurich says. "The business was first just a ‘solar as a service’ product, but now we're really building a distributed energy system. It's like the energy internet."
Hearing Jurich's passion for the subject, you’ll find yourself as inspired as I was by this brilliant innovator and leader. It’s no wonder why she was named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business in 2013 and Forbes’ Women to Watch in 2015. To learn more about her philosophical approach to leadership and the lessons she learned, watch the full webinar.
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