Off the Grid

An expert on climate change, Sandra Kwak 04C spends her days educating the public, raising funds, and running 10Power, the company she founded.

By Elizabeth Cobb Durel

10Power Haitian solar installers put solar on UNICEF Haiti Headquarters. It is the largest solar installation on any UNICEF base in the world to date.

An expert on climate change, Sandra Kwak 04C spends her days educating the public, raising funds, and running 10Power, the company she founded. After beginning her career in Silicon Valley focused on traditional clean energy, Kwak reconsidered her path. She spent months in a deep data dive into energy equity and found a handful of countries with high energy costs but low access to energy sources. She launched 10Power to create a model of international human development that provides clean energy and water, regenerates the natural environment, builds local economic opportunity, and respects gender empowerment. In short, to build the world Kwak wanted to live in.

A commercial-scale solar developer, 10Power provides project installation, engineering, and financing. The company has installed solar panels on water purification facilities that provide clean water to micro-enterprise centers supporting more than 300 majority woman-led startups.

In Haiti, 10Power installed the largest clean energy project on any UNICEF base in the world, the first project to include both solar and energy storage capable of powering all operations at the UNICEF Haiti headquarters. While working to promote solar energy, 10Power also strengthens communities by partnering with local installers and maintaining a Haitian-based workforce.

Next in our yearlong series highlighting the 2018 Emory Entrepreneur Award winners, EmoryWire caught up with Kwak 04C, winner in the social enterprise category

Why are you in the energy business?

Climate change. It's the biggest issue that humanity has ever faced. It's up to every single person who is alive on the planet right now to do something about climate change because we are in the sixth major extinction. All five other major extinctions were caused by meteors hitting the Earth or by major volcanic eruptions. This is the first extinction that is being caused by an animal that lives on Earth: humans.

An extinction?

Humans are carbon-based lifeforms, and we’ve reversed the carbon cycle. Instead of carbon being harvested out of the ground, out of the atmosphere by plants, and being drawn down and put back into the ground, we have created a system that takes carbon out of the ground, makes it less useful, and puts it up into the atmosphere. Simultaneously, we’re killing off all the plants that usually harvest carbon and put it into the ground.

Imagine taking a tailpipe of a car and just piping it straight into your bedroom. That's basically what we're doing.

That’s terrifying. What can we do about it?

We need to reverse what we're doing with climate change and go back to the natural cycle, which harvests carbon out of the atmosphere and puts it back into the ground. We need to shift our systems. We need to shift our idea of what development is and how we approach our buildings, our transportation systems, our energy, and electrical systems, If we can fundamentally rethink our economics, then we'll be able to create a system that's not about sustainability, but regeneration.

Does it really help if a person starts with small changes?

It absolutely does. For instance, Americans use 500 million plastic straws every day. We use enough straws every year to cover the city of Los Angeles. So cumulatively, if each American decides not to use a straw, that adds up. That could be one baby sea turtle that doesn't die. Those small, small decisions matter.

What are some bigger things we can do?

It matters even more where your money sleeps at night and where you bank. Align with green banks. Instead of unconsciously having your money in a mutual fund supporting oil pipelines, let it work towards a community based solar project. Surround yourself with daily news of the future that you actually want. Have work align with your values. Quit your job and work in climate.

What drives you?  

My love for all the creatures on planet Earth. Look at all the amazing space exploration and technology we have. As far as we can see in every single direction in the galaxy, we have not found other life in the universe. It makes you think about how precious and rare it is that there is life on planet Earth. We don't truly have an appreciation of how incredibly lucky we are in the space-time continuum. What a great responsibility it is to steward and perpetuate life on this planet. How messed up would that be if life just ended with humans? 

If we have the technology, why aren’t we solving the problems?

There's great work that's been going on in this field for over 50 years. Politicization of climate change should not exist. It’s a global issue, so we really need to depoliticize climate change and come together. The Earth doesn't care what political orientation you are. Our natural systems are severely out of balance, and it's going to take all of us working together to fix that.

Tell me about building your company.

Before this, I was in pure clean tech in Silicon Valley, which has a healthy investor ecosystem. But when you get into the bigger problems—social justice, environments and climate change, and preventing ecological collapse—there’s not a clear path to fundraising. But we’re seeing the market starting to get some momentum.

How so?

I am looking to create a new market mechanism to enable people to put capital into for-profit social impact enterprises. And to be able to treat that capital as a grant and receive a tax deduction for that contribution, similar to a philanthropic commitment.

What's the best advice you could give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Just go for it. As soon as you take that first step into the unknown, it's amazing how resources will continue to surface. When you’re on a mission, the universe wants to help you.

What media do you consume?

Mongabay, which is news about ecosystems, and GreenBiz, about clean technology. I have Google Alerts tailored to the renewable energy industry. In traditional media, I read The Guardian and Mother Jones.

When you think about your time at Emory, what is the one word that comes to mind and why?

Organizing. Emory was a place where I did a lot of organizing within the administration to create an arts major. Also 9/11 happened when I was in college, and we were doing a lot of peace organizing as the United States was starting to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan. It was amazing to connect with different student groups and to create messaging and marches and programming. That's been a theme throughout my life, and I was able to delve into it at Emory.

Editor's Note: Want to know more? Kwak is a member of The Seastars, which offers a strategy for ways to support the environment through your own personal life.

Sandra Kwak is a 2018 Emory Entrepreneur Award winner, sponsored by Emory Entrepreneur Network. Watch her acceptance speech below, and find out how you can meet alumni entrepreneurs like her.

Sandra Kwak's Acceptance

In this month's EmoryWire:

After Barney Gimbel 02C worked stints at Newsweek, the US Department of Defense, and in London finance, the former Emory Wheel editor-in-chief found his professional home in global strategic communications. Read Campus Scandals and Global Crises.

On October 5, 2019, the first morning that finally felt like fall on Emory’s campus, almost 3,500 “Winship Warriors” took their places at the starting line for the ninth annual Winship Win the Fight 5K Run/Walk. Read Sprinting Toward a Cure.

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The Emory Gay and Lesbian Alumni group has changed its name to Emory LGBT+ Alumni, which better reflects the diversity of the LGBT+ community. Read GALA Gets a New Name.