Riza Jenkins: Empowering an Equitable Clean Energy Transition 

We recently had the chance to chat with Riza Jenkins, NCSEA’s newly appointed board chair and the first Black woman to hold this position on the board. As Principal at her company The Azir Group and Vice President of Asset Management at PurEnergy, Riza has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to business development and asset management within the clean energy industry. This feature is part of NCSEA’s efforts to celebrate Women’s History Month and the organization’s continued focus on uplifting changemakers within the clean energy space.


Discovering Her Passion for Making an Impact

Growing up in a house where gardening and composting was a part of everyday life, Riza Jenkins was always connected to the environment and sustainability even before pursuing a career in clean energy. After graduating from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University with a double major in business management and marketing, Riza worked within a wide variety of sectors including non-profit, banking, media, and management services. Early in her career, Riza decided to return to school for her JD MBA at Howard University. Recognizing that understanding business and law were essential skills for any industry, she worked hard to gain real world experience and education that would set her up for an impactful career.

Over the course of Riza’s studies and work experiences, her focus was set on generating a positive impact on people and the world. Because of these ambitions, Riza transitioned to the clean energy industry when she started working at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, a conservation garden focused on native plants. Within this role, Riza discovered the opportunity to co-locate native plants and pollinators with utility-scale, ground-mount solar projects typically located within rural areas.

As a non-practicing lawyer with experience in business and real estate that involved working with clients and investors, Riza was then able to translate her expertise and passion for making the world a better place into a position focused on asset management at Strata Solar, a large solar developer. Being new to the clean energy industry, Riza explained that she had to dive into learning about the intricacies of clean energy technology. “My time at Strata involved a lot of training people who had no experience like me and taking what I learned and either finding people to train them or taking the knowledge that I had learned so that we could grow the workforce with other people who were also transitioning from other industries into ours.”

Eventually, Riza progressed from being an asset manager to running the asset management team before transitioning to a role as Vice President of Asset Management at Summit Ridge Energy. After this, Riza entered the consulting world serving as a Senior Energy Consultant at ICF where she explored a wider range of clean energy technologies in what she described as a great opportunity to leverage her subject matter expertise to directly assist clients with managing projects around the world. Today, Riza is the owner of The Azir Group, a renewable energy consulting company, and is the Vice President of Asset Management at PurEnergy.


Opportunities for the Clean Energy Industry

When asked about what she sees as the most pressing issues within clean energy today, Riza cited workforce development as a top need for the industry. With her expertise in operational assets, she emphasized the need to hire technicians, asset managers, analysts, accountants, and many other positions to ensure that clean energy assets are operating effectively. As someone who serves as Vice Chair of the Board of Education for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, Riza further elaborated that workforce development starts as early as elementary school. In particular, she mentioned that it’s vital to get young people excited about clean energy technologies and career opportunities within this industry.

Riza also pointed out the importance of diversifying participation in the industry not only in the context of who is in the workforce, but also in terms of who can access clean energy technologies. Not everyone has the upfront capital to invest in clean energy or even owns a roof that they can put solar PV panels on top of, Riza noted, so we need to remove barriers to accessing the benefits of clean energy through community solar, incentive programs, and other creative solutions. Lastly, she called attention to the value of continuing to improve the efficiency of clean energy technologies so that we as an industry can be less disruptive to the environment.

In terms of crafting clean energy policy, Riza underscored the need to prioritize increasing access to clean energy for everyone. “We need to make sure that the policy is thoughtful and doesn't create barriers. Some of this may involve educating policymakers and community members. I remember going out and doing some community work around that because people get miseducated in terms of the impact of renewables or just the basic science of it. Ultimately, we need to do what's right for our community and for our environment.”


Diversifying Non-Profit Boards

During our discussion with Riza, we dove into the significant barriers that exist when seeking to diversify nonprofit boards. While non-profit boards are getting slightly more diverse, a 2021 report from BoardSource found that only 22% of the boards that they surveyed included people of color. When trying to address these issues, Riza said it is key to first be honest about the board's makeup and respond by identifying opportunities to cast a wider net in terms of board recruitment. “You have to be intentional about diversifying your board and you have to understand the importance of diversity. Look, it's not about putting a token person in a seat. It's about understanding the value that diversity brings to any organization, because if you have the same type of people who have similar perspectives and shared experiences in life, I think your organization may not be fully prepared for future opportunities or challenges.”

Within this process, Riza spoke to the fact that it can feel uncomfortable to reach out to people when looking to diversify social circles. However, she emphasized that these are ultimately exciting opportunities because they allow people to learn from new perspectives. Further, Riza discussed the importance of accounting for all types of diversity, whether that’s race, gender, age, and for the clean energy industry, technological expertise for the wide variety of clean energy resources. “I've always tried to create a team that's diverse, but then also to find an organization that values the growth of its employees, sees its employees, and appreciates its employees.”

As part of her own efforts to build a more diverse clean energy industry, Riza continuously offers her time to support and mentor women of color and people of color. Despite Black women being one of the most highly educated groups in the country, she recognized that this mentorship is vital to addressing the disparate number of Black women in leadership roles. On top of this, Riza noted that Black women are faced with a significant wage gap, which indicates the dire need for pay equity in the clean energy industry and beyond. “We need to be really pushing for pay equity since it impacts the greater economy. I think once people truly understand the bigger economic impact on decisions that we're making in our organizations, we may look at it a little bit differently when we're looking at solving some of our problems that we have in society.”


Looking to the Future

When asked about what most excites her about the opportunity to serve as NCSEA’s board chair, Riza said that the ability to continue learning from experts in the clean energy industry is at the top of her list. She also acknowledged that the trailblazing efforts of past board chairs will inform her own aspirations as board chair. Over the past 5 years that Riza has served on NCSEA’s board, she has always felt energized from being in an impactful space that is shaping our shared history. “I'm just really excited about what's to come in this last year for myself on the board and it happens to be when I'm serving as board chair. I’m ready to see what great work we can do as an organization and as a board as we continue to impact the world with the work that we do.”

We are incredibly grateful to Riza Jenkins for taking the time to speak with us about her professional pathway and experiences working within the clean energy space. We greatly appreciate and admire her indispensable contributions to the work of NCSEA and her dedication to empowering women of color to stand up as bold leaders within the clean energy transition.

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