Senior Director of Programs at Student Energy
Olivia is Student Energy’s Senior Director of Programs, responsible for the oversight, development, and implementation of Student Energy’s program portfolio. Since joining Student Energy in 2015, she has co-founded the organization’s global Chapters program, co-designed and launched the organizations’ Fellowship program, and has overseen the development of the suite of programs now offered under Student Energy’s Programs Ecosystem. Olivia has a passion for leadership development and creating opportunities for youth to shape their own energy futures. Olivia holds a Bachelor’s in Business Administration with a concentration in Non-Profit Management from Mount Royal University. When she’s not working, Olivia is happiest with her hands in the dirt, working on the farm she and her partner co-founded. She’s always keen on a good conversation about the agriculture industry and its role in the sustainable energy transition over some delicious local food.
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
Energy is incredibly interconnected. Social impact and sustainability affect almost every facet of the energy system. There is, therefore, an incredible opportunity that came with the creation of the SDGs. SDG 7, “Affordable and Clean Energy”, focuses on energy, but energy interconnects with many other goals, illustrating how intersectional and embedded energy is to sustainability and social impact. Within my role at Student Energy, working directly with youth, it is incredible to see how socially aware, and sustainability-conscious youth are. We understand the interconnectedness of these issues and we sincerely believe at Student Energy that energy and equity are deeply intertwined.
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
Originally, I thought I wanted to work in the communications and design space, I was drawn towards the visual side of marketing and design. In my early career I got the opportunity to try design work and I actually really didn’t enjoy it. I realized that I loved the communication piece, I loved navigating challenging conversations and I like working collaboratively with people, but I didn’t like the design side of things. This was a big switch for me. Now, I think my focus in the energy space has really been on mobilizing youth. Being able to work with Student Energy over the last seven years, definitely sparked the passion in me about the importance of empowering young people and giving them the tools to be able to make an impact in this space. All of the things that I was getting excited about were happening from my peers and fellow youth in this space, I wanted to do my part to make more of that happen!
How did you enter this space?
It was totally unexpected. I was doing my undergraduate studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary and I was very much interested in the nonprofit space but really had no specific inkling or interest in energy. I applied to a role with Student Energy that was really oriented around designing a programming platform and so that to me, felt really aligned as I could test some of these design skills, build a web platform and put my business management degree to use. In doing that I kind of fell into the world of energy; and particularly the world of energy within Alberta, which was so polarizing. In my early days with Student Energy, I got to spend a lot of time working in the Calgary climate and energy space. It was a difficult space to navigate, and it didn’t feel particularly youth-friendly, and I found myself drawn to that challenge, particularly unpacking the marketing and communication challenges that went alongside a sustainable energy transition. Then as we got the program built at Student Energy, I got to start one of the first Student Energy Chapters and work with peers around the world that shared this passion for the energy transition, and that’s really when it clicked for me.
Did you always want to work in the impact space?
I picked Mount Royal University because they had a Bachelor of Business degree with a focus area on Nonprofit Management. I was really lucky because I knew since I was in grade eight, that I wanted to work in a nonprofit. So, I knew I wanted to be in the impact space and it just happened to be that as my career got started I began in the energy industry.
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
I feel like there is a lot of momentum right now with existing companies and organizations starting to recognize the innate value and importance of working with youth, and the opportunity for intergenerational cooperation. When I started seven years ago, it felt a little bit more like we were always trying to convince people that it was a worthwhile opportunity to engage youth, but now some of that momentum, I would say, has started to shift. It feels like we are being sought out as an organization for the work that we are doing and the opportunity to connect with a global network of youth. I also am always excited about the pace that young people work at, I am pretty involved in our youth-facing work at Student Energy and I am constantly inspired by how quickly folks are able to accomplish things!
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
There are many, but I think the one that I like to highlight because it’s one that was a misconception on my part as well, is that the energy space is only a place for engineers. I really thought that before I got involved in the industry, but we really do need multidisciplinary thinkers who can understand both the intricacies and nuances of the energy system but can also bring different perspectives other than the technical one to the space. We have always said at Student Energy that working in silos is unproductive and we really do need creative solutions to be able to meet the transition. The only way that you are going to have creative solutions is by having different types of thinkers and different perspectives as part of the industry and the solution. Personally, I did not know that I had a place in the energy industry, until I realized how important it was to have different educational backgrounds, perspectives, lived experiences, and, bring those to this space.
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
Student Energy’s team is international, so we are spread across multiple time zones! Since I am based in Vancouver, it usually makes for some pretty early mornings. I would love to say that in the mornings, I get up and stretch, make a big breakfast, take a walk, but that is just not true. For me, work-life balance really looks like acknowledging that my mornings are usually pretty chaotic. Given the spread in timezones, mornings are usually the only time my whole team is online which makes mornings the most collaborative parts of my day.
So once I wake up, I spend a good chunk of my early day in meetings, usually from 6 am to 11 am Pacific time, but I appreciate having that extra time to work with my team. My balance comes in the afternoon where I try to hold space for exercise, get away from my desk, move my body as well as dive into my more individual work tasks.
I think work-life balance can be really hard when you are passionate about the work that you are doing. I have been really working over the last couple of years to build healthy boundaries that allow me to sustain this work and navigate the energy transition, as it is a marathon, not a sprint. Although it took me a couple of years before I figured that out, I feel like I am just now starting to have really solid boundaries and am figuring out what the right rhythm is for me in this new work environment.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
It is the lack of trust in the youth’s ability to deliver on the deployment of projects, particularly when it comes to funding projects. It is really difficult for youth to get access to funding to deploy the incredible, innovative solutions they have. A lot of that has to do with trust, so a big piece of the work that we are doing is trying to de-risk youth investment and show a proven track record that young people can deploy these types of projects. I think it is starting to shift but it is challenging, especially when people get so excited about young people and the projects that they are doing, but then they are unwilling to financially unlock their ability to deliver.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
At Student Energy, we recently launched a pretty ambitious UN-Energy compact goal, along with our Solutions Movement to mobilize $150 million by 2030 to fund, support and deploy 10,000 youth-led clean energy projects. On a more personal note, over the last year, my partner and I have started a farm outside of Vancouver. This year really proved the remote working concept for me and it just unlocked this level of flexibility that I enjoy a lot. So I think I see myself working in the energy space and definitely continuing to work in the youth engagement space, but, I also see my hands in the soil, farming, and spending more time doing that. So I think there is an extra layer of balance that will come with those two pieces of work that I am both deeply passionate about over the next few years.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
For my position in particular, which is pretty management-oriented, the underpinning skill of my role is project management. Other key skills include:
- A strong passion for organization
- managing competing priorities
- Intercultural communication
- Group facilitation
Whether it’s from your own path or the ones from your colleagues and friends who have a similar profession, how important is it to have a specific degree to be able to work in your industry/profession?
I definitely don’t think a specific degree is needed unless you want to pursue a technical role that requires a certain level of specialization and niche knowledge. For example, if you want to be a wind turbine engineer, then you should probably have an engineering degree. But I would say if you just want to work within the energy space, more generally, what your degree is doesn’t matter as much. Within our Director team at Student Energy, we have folks with business degrees, geography, art and history!
What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone you’re interviewing/working with?
The one that I thought of right away was the ability to ask questions, particularly in an interviewing space. I always really appreciate it when we get to the end of an interview, and the candidate has really good questions about the organization or the role itself. It just shows that you have invested time and that you are interested in what you are interviewing for. I also really appreciate when someone has self-awareness of their working style and is able to articulate how they can best be supported in their role. Knowing what you need to succeed in a role and being able to advocate for that is such an important skill.
Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career? If not, why and what is your best life or career advice for youth?
My advice is to try, try try. You may think you will love a certain type of work or certain role and then you try it: you might love it, but you might also, like me, completely change your mind. The more experiences that you can have, the better equipt you will be able to find the right fit, the right role for you. But also keep in mind that nothing is forever. I put a lot of pressure on myself coming out of University to find the perfect job right away. We can sometimes become paralyzed by choice, so I think the best thing to do is just jump into something that feels good, and then see if it is the right fit. Remember that if it is not, you can always change and that experience will serve you in whatever is next.