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Celebrating Women’s History Month: An Interview with Karin Berry

Written By: NTCIC

From overseeing international policy on energy efficiency to managing early-stage renewable investments, Karin Berry has been a major player in the renewable energy space for over 30 years. As the Vice President and Managing Director of NT Solar, she oversees solar tax credit investments and our rapidly growing portfolio of renewable projects. Since joining NTCIC in 2015, Karin has been responsible for over $1 billion in tax credit investments.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Karin to learn more about her early life, her passions, her work across the globe pushing for clean energy use, and her experiences as a woman working – and succeeding – in historically male-dominated professions.

Meet Karin Berry!

Susan Doyle: Tell me about what you were like, where you grew up, and what you wanted to be as a kid.

Karin Berry: I grew up in small-town Texas. My parents were both school teachers, and as a result, in the heart of West Texas, they were liberal, and no one else was. My brother and I got kicked out of my Southern Baptist youth group because we didn’t show up on time for a 7:00 AM prayer group!

As a kid, books were my escape. I got into reading things like Les Miserables, The Three Musketeers, and Russian books. In college, I majored in history and thought what I wanted to do was either be a missionary or an ambassador. I guess I wanted to get out of west Texas!

Susan: Tell me about your first job.

Karin: I had been recruited to the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin by one of my college professors. He said, “You talk so easily; you’re an extrovert you should go to this school.” I didn’t know anything about the school, but I applied, got in, and loved it. My internship the summer between those two years was at the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. I went to a negotiation where we sat around a room in the State Department. The leads were turning around to the staff sitting behind them and saying things like “What’s our best strategy here?” or “What are the facts on XYZ?” I thought it was so exciting. So then, I wanted to be an ambassador or somebody that was negotiating for a living. And here I am now!

Susan: And after graduation, did you pursue those kinds of political positions?

Karin: I worked at the Department of Commerce, Bureau of Export Administration for seven or eight years. I eventually got a detail to Capitol Hill to work on John Heinz’s staff. They were talking about export controls between China and Russia, missile technology control regime, computer technology, and high-performance computing restrictions, which was fascinating to me. Sadly, John Heinz died while I was a part of his staff and his team was reassigned.

Susan: Where did you end up going after that?

Karin: I was recruited to the Department of Energy. They were looking for people in their international programs office and they knew some of the folks that had been in Heinz’s office and the federal government sort of rallied around to hire people from there. And I loved it! I went to the International Programs Office at the Department of Energy. I traveled a lot to Japan, Russia, Guatemala, the Philippines, Chile, and more representing the U.S. government on energy issues. A lot of it was negotiating technology exchange agreements and research funding for different energy sources. Later, I shifted to how to help foreign governments support renewable energy uptake in their own countries by helping them come up with energy efficiency regulations and standards.

After that, I worked on the uptake of renewables and efficiency in the Baltic States. My department was tasked with cleaning up their energy use profile so that they weren’t importing oil from Venezuela or nuclear power or natural gas from Russia. I ended up getting assigned to be the energy adviser to the Prime Minister of Lithuania. I lived in Vilnius for six months and researched how Lithuania could transition away from Soviet-era nuclear technology and the burning of ore emulsion, which is the dirtiest kind of fossil fuel you can burn. Lithuania wanted to join NATO and the EU at the time and that was raising all sorts of political issues at the time.

A lot of my early work surrounded energy efficiency; solar wasn’t a big thing yet. I initially thought of it more as being an element of energy efficiency. But my how that’s changed in such a relatively short time!

Susan: What made you transition from government work to the private sector?

Karin: Well, I got tired of government because it got boring. After I had done a couple of things that were big accomplishments, what was there left for me to do? I was at the highest level of service I could reach. I had been accepted into the Senior Executive Service training program, but they didn’t have SES openings for three or four years and I didn’t want to wait. I was at a point where the boss that I liked had retired and the political appointees had shifted over. They wanted me to just sit still in my office and do nothing. I was like, “I’ve gotta get out of here.”

I had been at a number of conferences we were talking with EXIM and OPEC and one of the guys who was building a new program at Guggenheim Capital in New York came to visit me in DC. We talked about finance and I made it clear that Excel spreadsheets were not my thing, but if you want to know who the players are – I’m the one you want. I know who they are all and can call them all. So I moved from my “cush” government office that was boring me out of my mind to New York where I sat on a trading floor with a bunch of 25-year-olds who were shouting cuss words the whole day. I was 46.

Susan: That took guts!

Karin: Yeah, I rented my house in Arlington and moved to the Upper West Side. I made the shift but the guys on my trading knew I was taking the Series 7 (Broker/Dealer) test and I was so nervous about it. I just thought for sure I would fail. I studied everything. I took the sample tests, all that kind of stuff. Seventy was a passing grade and my coworkers were like, “Your target grade should be 70.”

I was like, “No, I want to ace it!” So they had a bet on the floor as to whether or not I would pass and what the spread would be – how much over 70 I would make. So I bet $20 on myself to pass and make more than an 80. I took $1,500 off those guys because I got an 88. I printed out the score sheet, went back into the office holding it up, and said “Pay up, pay up!” That was fun.

Susan: From being one of few or the only women on your government teams to flying solo as one of the few women in your new role, was it a similar situation?

Karin: The [private sector teams] were much more discriminatory, crude, inappropriate, foul-mouthed. You know, investment bankers — I think they thought they were supposed to be like that. There were some nice people there too, but it wasn’t as easy for a woman. It was “eat what you kill.” There was one other woman on the trading floor, out of 45 people. I was in New York from 2006 to 2008, when the financial meltdown happened.

Karin and the NT Solar team celebrating the largest solar investment in company history.

Susan: Talk about some of the women that have inspired you over the years, as well as other leading female role models in your industry?

Karin: I worked with women like Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, the former President of Latvia, and Melissa Wells, the U.S. ambassador to Estonia when I was there. They were just fascinating. Rebecca Geigen, another contemporary of mine, and I would sit and talk with Melissa and just be in awe of some of the things she said, which are still so relevant now. I got to sit around with them on many occasions because we were the staff writers for what was happening in the Baltic States, and they all had a hand in it. My 20-year-old brain was exploding during all of this.  And my mom – of course! She’s a peach.

Susan: Who do you see as other leading female role models in your industry?

Karin: Lynn Jurich, who’s head of cofounder and CEO of Sunrun. She’s just really been a lightning rod. She had great ideas, pursued them, raised money, and is really getting things done.

Abby Hopper, who’s the head of SEIA (Solar Energy Industries Association); she’s impressive too. She is a good manager, a forceful presence, and a fun person. She’s delightful to talk to in person. Those are the two that really stand out in the solar industry.

Susan: What’s one thing you know now professionally or personally that you wish you knew back when you were younger?

Karin: I’ve been in the workplace for a while now. When I first entered the workplace, I tried to be “more like a man.” Peoples’ advice would always be like, “You’ve got to be competitive and kick a$$. Better to ask for forgiveness, not permission,” and all that.

I wish I had known that women have certain powers that don’t come so naturally to men and are very useful in negotiations and come from a place of listening and being empathetic. Force is not a very effective negotiating tool.

The thing I would do differently — and the #metoo movement opened my eyes to this — I wouldn’t have laughed at many of the crude jokes being told by the men around me in the workplace. I wish I had said “Oh really, you know, I don’t think people like that. You know you don’t have to do that.” I think the men thought it was what was expected of them. I think people would have appreciated me being honest about it.

Today, I tell women coming into the industry to try to avoid the stereotypical male chest-pounding and be better listeners, to learn their own worth, and respectfully hold their ground. And learn how to read contracts and interpret spreadsheets!

Susan: What can the solar industry do to better support women?

Karin: I think you have to start at the college- and grad school-level and identify, create, and market opportunities for women to be engineers. In recent years, the solar industry has made strides in increasing representation, particularly in sales, finance, and legal. However, we need to get more women in accounting or engineering.

Susan: What has been your biggest career achievement?

Karin: Twenty years ago, I led the U.S. Efficient Energy for Sustainable Development initiative at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. The initiative highlighted energy efficiency improvements led by government regulations for public facilities, using the U.S. military as the U.S. star example. The event itself was mind-blowing with ~20,000 people as official delegates and NGO participants from more than 100 countries. The U.S. delegation had about 120 people and was led by Colin Powel. I got to sit next to Secretary Powel, Tony Blair, and Silvio Berlusconi during one of the General Assembly meetings (taking notes of course)! Chills. There was also a 100-acre “Cultural Heritage Center” for demonstrations of sustainable culture from all 100 countries represented. And Ladysmith Black Mambazo was singing at the airport as delegates arrived!!

Susan: Final question. NTCC is somewhat unique in that our leadership is primarily women and the majority of our employees are women. What strengths and benefits do you find in this and how do you see it impacting our industry?

Karin: I think NTCIC is sort of a kinder, gentler form of syndication company. I think between our company size and our leadership team, we can be mindful and deliberate with who our partners are going to be long-term and get a fair deal. NTCIC has also given me the ability to build a brand that had already had some existence in community development. Also, women don’t see the world in terms of constant ambition, a zero-sum game, win/lose. We see it as progress and partnerships. I think women are better at seeing the big picture.