In addition to being a super-smart cleantekker with a resume that includes Sunpower, Stem, Solazyme, an MBA, and yes, Sunday Night Football with NBC, Russell is a friend of mine from college. I really wanted to profile him because I know how passionate he is about cleantech and I thought he’d be able to drop some unique wisdom. As usual, he knocked it out of the park. Enjoy.
Name, Title and Organization
Russell Sprole, VP Product and Strategy, Admirals Bank
Educational Background (e.g., college, major, any graduate school or additional certifications)
Yale University, BA Political Science; Wharton, MBA
How do you stay informed on your sector (e.g. blogs, books, podcasts, people you follow on Twitter, etc.)?
Journalism and Whitepapers: Greentech Media, Cleantechnica, Rocky Mountain Institute; Books: Upcycle, Reinventing Fire; Podcasts: Greenwich Media, a16z (entrepreneurship and VC); Twitter: @katiefehren, @greentechmedia, @cleantechnica, @makower,@algore, @HuffPostGreen, @billmckibben
How would you describe what you do in your current role?
In my current role I lead the product management organization as well as strategy for my company, a specialty finance lender in the residential solar and home improvement sector. As head of product management, I lead a team that builds financial and software products from idea through execution. We have to account for numerous stakeholders in our product management process, including our customers, competitors, financing partners, regulators, and internal stakeholders. As head of strategy, I help drive the companies product, sales, marketing, financing, and technology strategy, working with the executive team to synthesize industry leading trends and deciding what to focus on today and what to save for the future.
Why did you first want to work in cleantech?
My path to cleantech was somewhat indirect as my first job out of college was in sports television. After a few years in TV, I realized that I wanted to have a career with a more tangible positive impact on the world. Having always been passionate about the environment and seeing the challenges and opportunities arising around climate change, I decided to switch gears and leave the bright lights of Sunday Night Football and start a new path towards a cleantech career.
What are your two favorite aspects of your job?
I thoroughly enjoy the ever-changing aspect of my current job, as every day presents a new challenge to overcome and new opportunities to learn and grow as a cleantech professional. I also love the fact that my decisions directly impact the effectiveness of our company and our products to lower the cost of financing for residential solar and energy efficiency.
If you were interviewing someone to replace you in your role, what should they focus on demonstrating in the interview to give themselves an advantage?
My replacement would need to be someone who has experience leading product teams in the cleantech and/or specialty finance sectors. This individual would need to show a deep appreciation for and understanding of all three of our customers: contractor partners, borrowers, and financial partners. Lastly, this person would need to convey that they have the ability to take charge in an organization that may not always provide clear direction.
To perform your job well, what is the most necessary skill or personality characteristic, and why?
Empathy for customers. As head of product, having empathy for customers is most critical. Understanding their pain points, their needs, and how to satisfy these needs is a core competency of great product managers.
What is the one bit of advice you would offer a young person hoping to break into cleantech?
BREADTH, DEPTH, AMASS SKILLS, and FIND A MENTOR. Gain breadth of knowledge about the cleantech sector through reading, networking, and whatever else to understand the broader energy sector and all the key clean technologies and innovative business models that are emerging. Gain depth in at least one function whether that be sales, marketing, software development, hardware engineering, finance, human resources, or whatever function mosts interests you and aligns with your abilities. Beyond gaining a certain amount of breadth and depth, you should spend your first 5-10 years after college “amassing skills”, take every opportunity you have to learn new skills – excel, powerpoint, software coding, speaking and presentation skills, and much more. Many of these skills can be learned via free or very cheap online programs. In order to hone any learned skill you need to use that skill whether that be in your job or outside of your job in a side-project. Lastly, make sure you get at least one mentor prior to the age of 25, if not earlier. Your mentor can be someone at your company, but ideally it is someone in your industry (outside your company) that is a decade or so ahead of you and has accomplished what you want to. I still haven’t found someone who I truly consider a mentor, but I am searching hard and I would love to be a mentor to aspiring cleantekkers.
What is something you have learned in your job that surprised you?
I am surprised every day on the job, but here are some key things that are more business related than cleantech related. (1) Great ideas and technology don’t necessarily translate to a great company. Companies are about the team and the people as much as they are about the technology or the ideas. When joining a company you should be as excited about the people as you are about the product. (2) “Experience” doesn’t necessarily mean that someone really knows what they are doing. The business world is evolving incredibly fast and functions are rapidly changing. If someone found great success a decade ago, their skills and experiences may not be relevant today. The best people will evolve and adapt their skills over time but many people don’t and try to apply past experiences to current challenges and they fail.
Other than the focus of your work, which realm (technology, geography, or other) of cleantech is particularly interesting to you right now and why?
Technology: Artificial Intelligence and its applications to energy. A.I. applied to the distributed energy sector can transform our grid and allow for batteries, solar, wind, and other resources to come together in an economical and subsidy free way. A.I. can help take the IoT (internet of things) from a fragmented and staggering category to a trillion dollar industry.
Geography: China is fascinating from the shear scale that things are being done and the money that is going into cleantech and helping to scale the industry. India is fascinating from a policy and technology perspective. On the one hand, India has terrible infrastructure and is in need of power generation resources such as solar, which is well suited for India. On the other hand, India’s government has put up trade barriers keeping out innovative technologies and companies.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than a paycheck, what would it be?
Additional education. I love to learn and in the cleantech world there is always more to learn. If I couldn’t take money, compensation with further education in engineering (software and hardware), data science, and other technical disciplines.