"We did not build great technologies and great companies because we sat on ideas, we built them because we had the courage to act on our ideas!"
Inspiring. Enlivening. Inventive. Giving. These are the words that pop to mind when we think about Bobby Ram, the Managing Director of SunPower. Our region has benefitted tremendously from Bobby's ideas and influence. It was in 2011 that he met with outgoing Porterville Unified Superintendent Dr. John Snavely to find a way to create a career exploration experience students to learn about renewables. Now, this week, the Tulare-Kings Solar Energy Academy will celebrate its fifth year!
Since 1985 SunPower has been leading global solar innovation in residential, commercial, and utility markets. It is based in Silicon Valley. To learn more, visit sunpower.com.
We interviewed Bobby about his upbringing, how he stays energized and recharges, the history of the Solar Energy Academy, and his life mantra. Here's what he had to say:
I read an interview that shared you “grew up in Fiji Islands among a family of 15 living in a 2 room bure, wood –and-straw hut with a thatched roof – and no electricity.” What did you learn from these early experiences?
Growing up in an extended family in a fairly remote settlement lacking many of the amenities we take so much for granted has played an integral role in shaping who I am today. I understand the power of mutual respect and strength in acting as a community. We never worried about what we did not have but rather focused on how much we could accomplish with what little we had. It also taught me that life is about choices and courage. My mother chose to encourage my father to seek higher education. She wanted a better life for us. My father had the courage to leave the Island and return 3 years later from Tasmania with his Bachelor’s degree. That changed the course of our lives forever. The transformative power of education and its impact in a community is indeed very powerful. I’ve been witness to that. I’ll also add that as I reflect on my early childhood, I understand why I am so passionate about solar. I have a true appreciation for the power solar has in transforming lives.
It’s obvious you are very passionate about exposing young people early to careers in renewable energy – what is your source of inspiration? How do you see solar changing our lives?
It is unacceptable that in this day and age there are 1.3 billion people without electricity, 1.1 billion people without access to water, 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation. Through the work of our employees, the industry as a whole and the great advances in technology, solar is beginning to address all of these issues and is impacting communities throughout the world. But we are far from done. At SunPower we are firm in our mission to change the way our world is powered and creating a sustainable energy future that drives economic and environmental security for all. 2015 was the third consecutive year in which solar employment growth was at 20% in the US. The industry has created jobs at a rate 12 times higher than employment growth in the overall economy. This presents a huge opportunity for us to ensure that we are making the needed investments in preparing our youth with the 21st century skill sets and knowledge to fill these new high wage jobs and build a strong, highly qualified talent pipeline.
My passion for working with K12 students and teachers stems from my own experiences, challenges and lessons learned. I am firm in my belief that there are certain characteristics that truly define who we are and are the foundation for our success and I try to share these with every student I come in contact with-
- Be not just a good human being but a “great” one. That starts with mutual respect, tolerance and acceptance.
- Be true to yourself. Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses. Through shared learning and purpose, we accomplish a lot more. We leverage our strengths and weaknesses for collective gain- that is how we grow as individuals and succeed as teams.
- Find your passion and once you do, work will never seem like work. If you are passionate about something, you will be good at it, work harder at it, and you will be more successful and happier in life.
What was the impetus for the SunPower Solar Energy Academy?
This all started with a meeting I had one day with Superintendent John Snavely in 2011 when the Porterville Unified School District awarded a contract to SunPower to install Solar Energy Systems throughout their district schools. We realized the opportunity this represented to us beyond the solar project. At the time, teachers were ill prepared to teach solar and very little relevant resources, if any, were available. That visit inspired us to begin looking at creating programs and curriculum that delivered targeted and relevant, work-based learning opportunities for high schools students, and that aligned with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math standards. As more and more schools were selecting SunPower as their solar provider, our leadership at SunPower became very committed to creating high value, high impact education programs. Through our partnerships with teachers throughout the state of California and organizations like Project Lead the Way (PLTW), the concept of a week long summer learning experience focusing on renewables was born. The program has now become a model industry-led, work-based learning academy that covers entrepreneurship, sales, marketing, finance, engineering, business ethics, public policy intertwined with soft-skills training. By the end of the week-long academy, students create a business, design a residential solar system complete with electrical line diagrams and ROI calculations, prepare a PowerPoint presentation, then pitch to a panel of judges comprised of industry professionals, community leaders and educators.
These students who graduate from our programs do so with greater awareness of high-wage careers in the solar field, and are equipped with a competitive advantage as they apply for jobs in the future. The underlying benefit is also significant. We aim to create those “wow” moments when students dig deep and realize their true talent and potential. We believe these investments will inspire a greater number of students to seek higher education. They will have a better chance at higher wage jobs which equate to reinvestments into the local economy driving economic growth. And of course, this helps to build a strong talent pipeline.
What started as a Solar Science Academy has grown to much more. Today, through our SunPower Horizons™ program, we offer professional training and certifications programs for teachers, internships for high schools students through a partnership with the Rising Sun Energy Center, and provide opportunities for students to participate in building solar projects through our partnership with GRID Alternatives and the Solar Futures program. Grid Alternatives is a non-profit organization that provides solar for low income families and education partners which include PLTW, NAF and Linked Learning Alliance.
Where do you go to recharge? What do you do?
I go home to recharge. I have been blessed with a pretty awesome wife, Jenny, who stood by me and supported me through some very difficult and trying times during the early start-up days of SunPower. She has enjoyed an impressive career as a Director of financial operations at a major law firm in Silicon Valley after graduating from Golden Gate University with an MBA. I have two amazing kids. My son, Calvin, completed his MBA at Santa Clara University and currently holds a management role at Facebook. My daughter, Jodi, became a doctor last year. She completed medical school at George Washington University and is now doing her residency in Rochester, NY. They keep me grounded and are a constant reminder that we work hard every day not just for ourselves but for our family too. My wife and I love gardening and travelling. I pick up my guitar for a few minutes every day, which is a hidden passion I’ve had since I was a teenager!
Do you have a mantra – if so, what is it?
An idea is only as good as the mind it resides in. It serves no greater purpose or value to anyone other than the mind within which it resides. When that idea is acted on however, all sorts of great things happen. When we share our thoughts and ideas, they have the potential to go from just an idea to reality. Others chime in adding more value and this starts a string of activities. Even if the original idea doesn’t come to fruition, we create many new opportunities, solutions and discussions. That is innovation. We did not build great technologies and great companies because we sat on ideas, we built them because we had the courage to act on our ideas!
If you could give your younger self advice, what would it be?
Education is the fundamental foundation not just for careers, but for life in general. Pursue higher learning. I reflect on my career and often wonder how much more I might have accomplished through pursuit of higher learning.
Anything else you’d like to add?
In 1993 I joined Dr. Richard Swanson as he started up SunPower. What started with just a handful of us has grown into one of the world’s leading solar technology companies with over 7,000 employees and $2.6 billion in revenue. Today, we are a leader in delivering innovative energy solutions to California school districts. Twenty three school districts across the state have installed SunPower solar systems, totaling more than 90 megawatts, which is enough to power an average of 22,500 California homes.
As part of the startup founding team, I am extremely proud to be part of an organization dedicated to changing the way our world is powered. We are doing that through our technology, our employees, our customers, our vendors, and through our investments in K12 education. Since 2012, over 1,000 students and more than 110 teachers have participated in our summer academy.