Yale School of Management

SolarCity’s Jon Carson on Building a Solar Movement

SolarCity has an ambitious mission: to put solar panels on every rooftop in America, Jon Carson told students on October 20. But that vast task begins with the same elements that are required to advance any agenda: a good idea, sound policy, and a strong organization.

Carson, the company’s new senior director of solar ambassadors, spoke to students from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Yale School of Management as part of the GE Colloquium on Sustainability Leadership, a lecture series presented by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment.

Frances Beinecke, YC ’71, FES ’74, former president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and McCluskey Fellow at Yale, moderated the discussion, which was also part of a series titled “Diverse Voices: Environmental Leaders on Climate Change and the Environment.”

Before joining SolarCity, Carson was the executive director of Organizing for Action, a successor organization to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. He is also the former director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and deputy assistant to the president.

With the threat of global warming increasing, Carson said, the time for solar power is now. “But you need good organization and hard work to move ahead,” he said. “It’s people who make it happen.”

The ambassador program that Carson directs at SolarCity enlists customers in the company’s mission, encouraging them to act as “ambassadors” for solar power.

When potential customers consider whether to switch power sources, “nothing is more important than do they have a friend who went solar,” Carson said. “No demographic considerations outweigh that personal endorsement.”

SolarCity’s employees are also key to its success, just as they are in any business, Carson said. Because personal enthusiasm for solar power and belief in its merit are so central, Carson said the company seeks employees who will fit in the “SolarCity Family.”

SolarCity, which currently operates in 19 states and employs 14,000 people, including sales force and installation workers. “The solar power industry now has more employees than all of the coal companies in America, and it’s only going to keep growing,” Carson said.

The company offers competitive salaries and opportunities for advancement, two hallmarks of organizations that want to retain talent, Carson said.

The solar power industry now has more employees than all of the coal companies in America, and it’s only going to keep growing.

“No matter what sector you work in, it’s all about the people,” he said. “Individuals need to feel that they matter. They want to be special, and they want to be part of something bigger.”

SolarCity is building its own manufacturing plant in Buffalo, New York, where it plans to begin making—and thus ensuring the quality of—its own solar panels next year.

“What’s critical is that we’re all in this together, every employee,” Carson said. “We like to call it, ‘one team, one dream.’”