Today we’d like to introduce you to Megan Birney.
Megan, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I’m a solar nerd. My first job out of graduate school was for a nonprofit that wanted to end our dependence on fossil fuels. I was in charge of helping people switch to solar. We did a lot of education and advocacy at first, but it was a challenge to get people to make the investment in solar. At the time it was still quite expensive.
Then I learned about a program up in Oregon that was having huge success creating group purchasing programs for solar. The pilot was funded by the Department of Energy, but they had some success with a follow-up program funded by the solar installation companies. I knew I needed to bring this program to California, and in 2011 Solarize Santa Barbara was born. It was a huge success and continues across California today.
Importantly, it got me hooked on a sustainable business model. We could help people make tough decisions, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, generate revenue for the organization and help the local economy. Wins for everyone.
From there, I went to work for a solar financing start-up. Entering the for-profit world was a great learning experience on how businesses work and don’t work. In the end, the business wasn’t successful, but it gave me the skills and confidence to take the next jump in my career: back to the nonprofit world, but as President of a small organization, Unite to Light.
Has it been a smooth road?
Most roads aren’t smooth in life, but we get to decide if we see those bumps as opportunities. I like to learn and have always placed myself in positions where I get the opportunity to learn and grow. One of the steeper learning curves at Unite to Light had to do with manufacturing. I had never worked in manufacturing, and I was brought on to run an organization with several overseas manufacturing partners.
We ended up dropping one of those partners quite quickly due to quality concerns and inconsistency. It was a tough decision that left us without product for six months, but it gave us the opportunity to find a new partner and make a better product. Shipping is another interesting challenge. We’ve shipped lights to over 70 countries.
Early on, many of those were hand carried as luggage on passenger airplanes, but that was not sustainable as our business grew and received increasingly large orders. We had to learn about importing and exporting all over the world, and how to roll with surprises. In some places, you have to pay to play.
We’re careful not to ship to those countries twice, but when you’re confronted with paying a small amount to ensure your lights get where they need to go or pay significantly more to ship them back to the US, you pay to get them to people in need.
So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Unite to Light story. Tell us more about the business.
There are one billion people living without electricity around the world. Unite to Light believes that access to clean, affordable light and energy are critical to improving health, education, and prosperity globally.
As a not-for-profit, we manufacture and distribute efficient, durable, low-cost solar lamps and solar chargers to people without access to electricity. Since 2011, we have delivered over 110,000 solar lights to people in 70 countries. We focus on projects that help children learn to read and study at night, equip midwives with the tools they need to do their job, and to offer relief to those suffering from disasters.
My favorite part of the job is the people we get to work with. We’re a small organization, so we depend on on-the-ground partners to ensure that our lights and chargers get to people who need them the most. These can range from individuals to multinational NGOs, but they all share a passion for helping people and have a deep knowledge of the community.
I also love that such a small device can make such a huge difference. Our solar Luke Lights cost just $10 and in places like South Africa and Haiti we’ve seen increases of 20-30% in graduation rates when students have access to our lights. These students are smart and want to learn, but are often limited by circumstances. Giving them a light helps them access their potential.
One thing that sets us apart is that we’re a “one-for-one” company. We sell our products here in the US, and for every product we sell, we donate one to someone in need. We like to call it BOGO: Buy One, Give One.
Where do you see your industry going over the next 5-10 years? Any big shifts, changes, trends, etc?
I would love to be out of a job in 5-10 years, but that’s not reality. One in seven people still lives without electricity. If you add the word “reliable” in front of electricity, that jumps to almost two in seven (or two billion people living without reliable electricity). Access to electricity is a global problem.
Luckily, there are many interesting solutions from pico solar (small, individual solar products like our lamps and chargers) to community micro-grids that might supply an entire village with solar electricity. Many of these models are circumventing the centralized grid as we know it, and that can be a good thing.
Individual and micro-grid projects can be tailored to the community need, resources available, and can help build the local economy. I’m excited to see communities take more control of their energy future. At Unite to Light, we’ve started to pilot projects where entrepreneurs living in places without electricity can buy our products at a discount and then resell them to their neighbors.
Our solar light can pay for itself in a couple months because the customer no longer spends money on expensive and polluting kerosene, and the entrepreneur is building a business and the local economy.
- $20 Luke Light
- $50 Solar Charger & Battery Bank
- Address: 1117 State Street Santa Barbara, CA 93101
- Website: www.UnitetoLight.org
- Phone: 805-617-0590
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/unitetolight/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/unitetolight/
- Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/unitetolight/
- Other: https://www.youtube.com/unitetolight/