Rachel Sholly; Chief of Program Development; Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources

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The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”

Interviewee: Rachel Sholly
Chief of Program Development, Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Rachel currently serves as the Chief of Program Development for the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources. As an NWF Fellow, Rachel focused on researching the habits of commuters to the University of Rhode Island and used this information to develop a Clean Transportation Policy for the campus.

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as an NWF Fellow help shape your career?
Rachel Sholly:
My project involved surveying commuters at the University of Rhode Island to estimate greenhouse gas emissions from commuting and gather information that would inform some alternative transportation policy recommendations that I then submitted to the administration. It also involved a few pilot alternative transportation programs.

It gave me real world experience in running programs and projects; research; surveys; managing budgets; working with various stakeholders; marketing; social marketing concepts; etc. And that’s basically what I do now - I run programs. And as part of that, I manage budgets and work with stakeholder groups. On a really practical level, I got a glimpse of this project management and coordination role that I’m in now. Overall, it helped me realize that there were things I could do that would have real and positive impacts.

DC: What was the top thing that you learned in your professional development - your top lesson learned?
I thought being in a cohort of fellows from across the country doing all different types of projects was very useful because even if their project didn’t directly relate to mine, there was always something that I could learn from and apply to my own work to make it more successful.
I think the lesson was that you’re not going to think of everything; you’re not going to be as creative if you don’t look at what other people are doing and see how that can relate to and inform the work that you’re doing.
And it’s just cool to have a support group. I like being able to share successes and challenges – not just with people in your own office or people that do the same thing as you, but getting a broader perspective from a wide-reaching support group.

DC: What are you up to these days? What is your role with Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources and why did you choose to work there?
I focus on energy efficiency, not so much transportation anymore, though that will always be close to my heart. For the past few years, I have focused on the municipal sector – helping cities and towns and schools reduce their energy consumption. That’s my primary focus. I’m branching out a little more into the commercial sector in general, and I also staff the Energy Efficiency and Management Council, which is a cross-sector council that oversees our utility ratepayer funded efficiency program.

DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
I like this question, though I haven’t really thought about it in a long time. Something that struck me around the time I was doing the NWF Fellowship was that we need to be institutionalizing sustainability concepts so that the system doesn’t rely on people always making the right decisions. Because if it’s always, “you can choose this more sustainable option or this less sustainable option,” and it’s always up to the consumer to make that choice, you can’t rely on that for major change because there’s so many other variables at play. That’s my opinion at least. There are lots of programs out there that are definitely doing a lot of good, but I think creating policies that institute change on a broad scale where the only option is the sustainable option is ideal.

DC: What motivated you to begin on this path?
I’ve always been sort of the tree hugger type. My grandmother and my parents would always take me out in nature, so I guess it’s all based on my appreciation for the planet and all the amazing things that are on it. And seeing that our presence and our growth is having serious impacts. At a young age I starting feeling like I wanted to do something about it.

DC: More personally, have you had any mentors or career coaches assist you in developing your career path?
In grad school, at the same time that I was an NWF Fellow, I had a great professor who was also my advisor. I learned a lot from him, and I think that was pretty critical for me in realizing what I wanted to do next in my professional life. He would take me to conferences and send me interesting, cutting edge journal articles and make sure that I took the right classes. He was a resource for all of these things that I wanted to be involved in and wanted to be consuming.

He was also super supportive of me personally. He made me feel like I had the potential to take this work seriously and actually go somewhere with it.

DC: The NWF EcoLeaders program emphasizes acquiring project-based leadership and project management experience. Individuals across the country are working on various projects that align with their skills and interests, and we provide resources for best practices in project design and management and give them a platform to communicate and support each other. And then they can apply for and receive a certification of their leadership development and project management experience. Something that they can put on their resume, or their LinkedIn profile, to show that they have experience with project management. How important do you see having project management experience when entering the workforce?
That’s great. Like so many other things, the importance of having the experience is simply that you’ve been through it before. It’s a formula, really. A project is a project is a project, and, generally, you can apply the same formula to different situations. So, I think the importance of having that experience is that you understand how to approach the various elements of the project management formula. Stakeholder engagement, for example, will always have certain characteristics – so you can learn from previous experience and use a similar approach, adjusting as needed. At the same time, I think that there’s a lot of on-the-job learning that’s bound to happen, so not having the experience shouldn’t deter you from trying.
But project management specifically is a really useful skill because it can be applied to just about any discipline and you don’t necessarily need content expertise. There’s a lot I don’t know about energy efficiency, but I’m still good at my job as a program manager because I can bring the right people to the table and look at the big picture. If you’re good at project management, you’ll always have job opportunities.

DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability?
I would say go for institutionalizing change, looking at what kinds of policies you can affect. As opposed to just participating in one-off programs or temporary things. I think that core policy-level is where you’re really going to be able to influence lasting change.

Sustainable Energy

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Date Added: May 12, 2017
Date Last Modified: May 15, 2017