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LA’s transition to green energy is driven by this inclusivity-focused cleantech incubator

·5 min read

Kameale Terry never set out to be an entrepreneur. A former banker, the South Los Angeles native was just content finding flexible work to help pay for her mother’s medical bills.

But when she applied for a job at EV Connect, a software provider for electric vehicle charging stations, she noticed a big void in the market. Chargers were constantly breaking down, prompting her to dispatch electrical contractors. Yet, those same workers struggled to diagnose the issues with their skillset.

“We relied on electrical contractors but 80% of our issues were non-electrical. They were communication, they were software, they were firmware,” Terry said. “There were reports coming out that 30% to 40% of the infrastructure was inoperable, it was broken. You can't do EV adoption like that.“

Those frustrations inspired Terry to develop a curriculum to train workers on how to repair EV chargers at Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), a private nonprofit started in partnership with the city in 2011. LACI operates as a green innovation hub and job training site. It has worked with nearly 300 startups and helped to raise more than $600 million in funds, with an acute focus on founders from underrepresented communities. Blacks and Latinos account for more than 30% of the incubator program.

When Terry's classes began to fill up, she came up with another idea — to create a startup, to hire the very students she was helping train. In January 2020, Terry co-founded Charger Help!, an on-demand repair app for EV charging stations, with $2.75 million in funding secured with the help of LACI.

“I never necessarily wanted to be an entrepreneur. I like working for people. It’s a lot easier than trying to run a company,” Terry said. “I just thought this was a really big problem.”

'Overburdened by pollution'

Terry’s success story is part of a broader effort by LACI to accelerate the transition to green energy in a city that has set the nation’s most ambitious targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Under Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles has pledged to slash its carbon footprint by 45% by 2025, and reach net zero by 2050.

LACI provides office space to startups, along with access to its debt and investment funds, mentorship, introductions to investors, and legal and government affairs support. The organization takes a 1.5% to 3% equity stake in startups, a number that varies based on factors including the diversity of the startup’s founders.

Matt Petersen, the president and CEO of LACI, said LACI aims to build a more inclusive green economy, particularly with low-income neighborhoods disproportionately affected by climate change.

“If you go into lower income neighborhoods, predominately Black and brown neighborhoods, [they] are overburdened by pollution,” said Petersen, who is also LA’s first chief sustainability officer. “We have an opportunity and a responsibility. Not just to drive forth the innovations from our startups, but to make opportunities for founders as well as potential employees available for everybody.”

Building an equitable 'ecosystem'

LACI’s programs have helped create more than 2,300 jobs so far, and aims to create 600,000 more in Los Angeles County by 2050.

Petersen is hopeful, it goes beyond that. As the Biden administration looks to make the economic case for cleaner energy through the Build Back Better Act, Petersen said LACI offers a lesson in how to make that transition equitably. In addition to its incubator program, the organization offers job training courses for community members on everything from electric vehicle maintenance to software programming.

“[If] we want to install 84,000 chargers across the county, we're not going to do that ourselves,” Petersen said. “We have to work to create the ecosystem with the partner manufacturers, the employers, agencies, investors, etc, in the county to create those jobs.”

Electric Vehicle charging station, Los Angeles, California, USA. (Photo by: Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Electric Vehicle charging station, Los Angeles, California, USA. (Photo by: Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The pressure is on, to move quickly. With Los Angeles hosting the Summer Olympic Games seven years from now, LACI has partnered with the mayor’s office, the county, and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to develop a roadmap that ensures 80% of all cars sold in LA county are electric by then. The plan has also attracted private partnerships from the likes of Audi, BMW, and Proterra.

For Terry, LACI’s response to climate change is personal.

Growing up in South LA, Terry said her mom, a special education assistant for the Los Angeles Unified School District, made no more than $29,000 a year, despite a 30-year career.

When Terry started Charger Help! with her co-founder Evette Ellis, the two made a conscious decision to pay livable wages to its 32 employees. Today, every technician makes a minimum $30 per hour and has a guaranteed 40-hour work week. Each employee owns shares in the company and has health care benefits.

The startup has built a nationwide network responsible for 30,000 charging stations.

“Everything that we did was because of our background and our views. And LACI saw that as an additive to the industry. Here we are today, working with the largest manufacturers [of EV chargers],” Terry said. “We're able to help solve issues for them in a very reputable way because of our background and how we see the world right.”

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita

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