Dr. Deb Wojcik is the Director of the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster, a Raleigh-based nonprofit organization that brings together industry, academia, government, and other nonprofits to advance the cleantech economy. She works to understand the needs of stakeholders to facilitate clean energy innovation and adoption of clean energy technologies. We talked with her for this feature as part of NCSEA’s celebration of Women’s History Month and our ongoing initiative to elevate exemplary individuals across the clean energy community.
Maintaining a Learner’s Mindset
With a background in academia, corporate, and nonprofit work, Dr. Wojcik’s experiences have shaped her understanding of the way stakeholders can connect for mutual success. For her PhD, she studied natural resource management in southern Africa, where she learned about community-based decision-making and stakeholder engagement. For her post-doc, she studied interorganizational network analysis around environmental learning in the San Francisco Bay area. These experiences taught her about the importance of including diverse perspectives in the decision-making process as well as the need to understand and facilitate strong communication to address complex problems like climate change.
After years in academia, Dr. Wojcik wanted to become more directly involved in work advancing the clean energy transition and benefiting the people, economy, and environment in her adopted home state of North Carolina. She took a “mid-career safari” to learn about key issues and opportunities and landed at Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster (RTCC).
Dr. Wojcik’s role requires that she continues to constantly learn about the ever-evolving clean energy field so she can contribute to solutions. She said she loves being surrounded by experts in the field so she has the most opportunity for growth. Additionally, Dr. Wojcik works to build the clean energy workforce of today and tomorrow. Her job reflects her passion, as she loves to apply her social science and biophysical science background to connecting people with the knowledge and opportunities they need. For instance, she can connect clean energy companies with municipalities seeking to reach their decarbonization goals through clean technology solutions.
It’s other learners who are most inspirational to her. She explained, “The people who are forever learning are the people I try to find in my career.” She also noted the importance of “doers” who carry out visions. Moreover, students are another type of inspirational learners for Dr. Wojcik. While directing the career center at the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, Dr. Wojcik was in awe seeing the motivation among the global leaders of the future working toward solutions to environmental issues.
Why Focus on Clean Energy in North Carolina?
Having grown up in the northeast, Dr. Wojcik first moved to North Carolina while attending Duke University as an undergraduate. She then stayed in Durham for her master’s degrees. After this, she worked at the North Carolina Coastal Federation and the National Estuarine Research Reserve in Beaufort. “You can't be in those estuaries and not appreciate the importance of our state’s natural environment and what a gift we have here,” she said. “It’s just so overwhelmingly beautiful and life giving … I want to leave it better than I found it,” she said.
Following graduate school, Dr. Wojcik lived in many locations, from Massachusetts and Florida where she pursued her PhD, to Botswana, the Peruvian Andes, and California. After experiencing so many different places, she felt a pull to return to North Carolina.
Dr. Wojcik has a love for North Carolina for several reasons. First, she explained, “I appreciate that North Carolina is a place of innovation and collaboration. I love the fact that we are known as a state that can work together across partisan lines and across ideologies to do what's right for the economy, the residents, and the environment. Our population is diverse and dynamic, and we work hard to work well together.”
“The reason I'm so passionate about the clean energy ecosystem in North Carolina is because I have been in a lot of spaces where either being a woman or not having the same background has been hard to navigate, and it has been anything but that here. I’ve found it to be a welcoming, friendly, supportive community. There is a great deal of respect for people wanting to make a difference,” she shared. For instance, Dr. Wojcik has found the women in NCSEA’s Women in Clean Energy (WICE), namely Dr. Rita Joyner, to be very inspirational and supportive in the clean energy space.
Narrowing Individual Niches in Energy
Throughout our conversation, Dr. Wojcik expressed the importance of finding a place for everyone in the clean energy space. She explained that we need to find ways to build the clean energy workforce in a just way by engaging women and underrepresented minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields early in their educational journey. We must also make sure the clean energy economy attracts people in positions like marketing and human resources. “Everybody should have a place in the clean energy economy,” she emphasized.
“I have a personal philosophy that if we all just figure out how to do our best work in the best way possible and use our knowledge and skills and connections in ways that benefit us all, we can meet our clean energy goals,” she voiced.
From entering the energy space with a broader environmental background and working in environmental education, Dr. Wojcik is applying her past experiences to, as she puts it, “engage with people at all stages and ages of life and learning to facilitate critical thinking and creative problem solving.” She continued to explain that growing the clean energy ecosystem can involve engaging with children, individuals entering the workforce, people in the middle of their careers, and retired people who want to contribute to the clean energy transition.
The question Dr. Wojcik continues to think about is: “How do we best engage people— whether it's through their jobs, through their communities, or through their neighborhoods—to allow everyone to find their passion and place so that we can create benefits and achieve our goals together?”
Dr. Wojcik shared some advice on how to solve this inquiry and grow the clean energy community. She said leaders should find ways to bring others along by not just listening to underrepresented populations, but by giving them space to participate. Generally, she finds that the energy space is welcoming of diverse perspectives, and she emphasized the importance of including many voices in collaborations. There are many resources and significant amounts of money flowing from the federal government, for example, and people should share ideas and support others’ work rather than feel they have to compete, she said.
She stated that the clean energy community is well-connected and expanding rapidly, so nonprofit leaders are able to collaborate creatively. There are many communities, like WICE, that support clean energy leaders. Plus, Dr. Wojcik urged that we should look for stories of leaders and celebrate their hard work.
Envisioning an Environmentally Friendly Future
Continuing to share her optimism about clean technology in North Carolina, Dr. Wojcik said she has hope that our future will keep combining benefits to the economy, the people, and the environment through the clean energy transition.
“My vision is that we continue to grow our collaborations and share knowledge in a way that we've never seen before. Rather than treating information as something we should protect, we share insights because we're all in it together,” she said. To achieve this vision, she explained that North Carolina needs to continue to attract and retain businesses investing cleantech including offshore wind, solar, carbon capture and removal, transmission upgrades, and other emerging industries. If we are successful, this will enable our state to lean into the strengths we have connecting university research, industry investments, and on-the-ground deployments, while also building a diverse workforce across the state.
At NCSEA, we are thankful for Dr. Wojcik’s leadership in clean energy to build a just and sustainable future. She is connecting people and organizations to find their place and participate in the change.