Originally this article was going to showcase the Top 10 API-run green energy companies of Seattle. Then it became Top 8. Then 5. Then it became about how hard it is to find an API-run green company. With recent national efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, the liberal Northwest is a prime candidate to sprout green tech research, yet despite our “granola” reputation in the country, I couldn’t track down many reputable green companies that were founded, owned, or even led by an API.
“You walk into one of these meetings and it’s sort of like the old boys club: a lot of older white males that I think is traditionally the energy industry,” says Kelly Ogilvie, current acting President and CEO of Blue Marble Energy. “You have a very Anglo-dominated, male-dominated leadership.”
Blue Marble Energy (BME), started in 2005, is one of many emerging renewable energy companies in the Northwest, yet is only one of the very few well-known green energy businesses led by an API. In response to an urgent nationwide reform of our energy use, BME has pioneered research methods to convert various forms of biomass, such as algae, plants, food waste, and human waste, into more environmentally friendly sources of energy.
Despite the heavily scientific process described on their website, Ogilvie says one of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to be science savvy to be involved in the industry. The Beacon Hill native professes that, “it is not about expertise, but about excellence,” and contends that involvement in the green energy business is a hybrid of many trades – business, politics, social management, messaging and communication, are a few he mentions.
Of course the evolution of renewable energy would not be possible without the sciences, and Ogilvie is the first to acknowledge that the process involves a much-needed knowledge base in biology and chemistry, but this is also the reason for his surprise at the lack of APIs in the green industry. Given the high concentration of APIs in the university sciences, many, like Ogilvie, would predict that type of academic statistic to translate comfortably into the private sector of renewable energy; yet for APIs, it doesn’t.
“There is this cultural component around Asian Americans in general, meaning good at math, maybe not good leaders,” explains the Blue Marble President. “What I don’t want to do is validate that because in the clean tech space, I’ve seen a lot of people from different backgrounds walk up to the podium and take charge.”
Yale Wong, founder and CEO of another Northwest green energy company, General Biodiesels (GB), shares a similar view regarding the stereotypes associated with the expected careers of APIs.
“The stereotype [for APIs] is you go to college, you become a dentist, or an accountant. But we can be entrepreneurs,” contests Wong. “Asian Americans need to branch out; they need to do new things.”
Often times Ogilvie and Wong find themselves to be the only two APIs, if not the only two people of color, at green energy conventions. Wong contends that it does in fact affect business expansion, as much of entrepreneurial growth is based on network building and finding common ground with your peers, thus making it difficult for the culturally diverse to survive in an aggressively competitive and white dominated industry. However despite these barriers, neither Ogilvie nor Wong uses their race to make excuses for their delayed growth in the industry.
“I think the stereotype is as powerful as you make it,” explains Ogilvie. “If you think that people think a certain way about you, then maybe you won’t take a swing at the bat.”
And it seems that neither CEO at Blue Marble or General Biodiesels allows their ethnicity to hold them back, as both bold entrepreneurs are venturing into a new and unexplored business arena, or as Ogilvie describes it, a “Wild-West frontier where no one really knows who’s going to be winner or loser.” According to him, this is the real advantage for APIs interested in green energy, and capitalizing on that advantage is something the management at General Biodiesel would also advocate.
“Asian Americans need to take more chances,” encourages Wong, a Chinese-American. “They can do it.”