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Women in Renewables: Maria Cahir

Maria Cahir is a senior manager at Tesla and leads Tesla’s Sales and Business Development team for industrial energy storage projects across Australian, New Zealand, Korea, South East Asian and Pacific Island markets. Maria shares her career journey, has advice for other women and shares the advice she once received "not to confuse confidence for competence".

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Tell us a bit about yourself personally and professionally?

Growing up in rural Ireland and educated by nuns in an all-girls school, there weren’t many career options or role models for a young woman who loved maths and science. Fortunately, I was encouraged by my father to study Engineering at University as he believed “there are not many women Engineers and you will always have a job”.

Following a degree in Mechanical Engineering at University College Dublin, my early career was diverse, from developing more efficient mechanisms for harvesting peat moss for horticultural purposes in Ireland, to a “character-building” assignment in Northern Russia commissioning an alumina ship unloader in the port of Murmansk. I then worked in the healthcare sector specialising in pharmaceutical manufacturing for 10 years, before moving into renewables in 2009.

I have been fortunate to travel extensively over the years – I arrived in Australia as a backpacker and never left. I now live with my husband and daughter in Sydney and enjoy the great outdoors and everything this beautiful country has to offer, including the beach, camping, hiking and good food and wine. Working mums are constantly trying to get the balance right – I’ve learnt it’s important to accept you cannot get it right all the time and that’s ok, and to ask for help when you need it.

In addition to my role at Tesla, I am a Director of the Clean Energy Council, a member of Transgrid’s Advisory Council and I proactively participate in industry events as a speaker/panelist. I am particularly passionate about the advancement of women in renewables and am currently a mentor in the Clean Energy Council’s pilot mentoring program for women.

Where do you work and what do you do?

Reporting to the Director of Energy Products, APAC and part of the senior leadership team, I lead Tesla’s Sales and Business Development team for industrial energy storage projects across Australian, New Zealand, Korea, South East Asian and Pacific Island markets. Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and in Australia we have successfully delivered several landmark energy storage projects, including the renowned Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia.

Our team supports Tesla’s growth strategy in APAC by building on Tesla’s leading market position in Australia, leading new market entry in key growth countries in Asia, as well as enabling non-core Pacific nations achieve their emissions reduction targets by displacing diesel. I also support Tesla’s advocacy for policy and market reform to enable the full technological capabilities of energy storage to be successfully monetised and grow the market.

How did you get into the renewable energy industry?

In 2009 I made the conscious decision to move into the renewable energy industry so that I could align my skills and experience with a sector that I was passionate about. Looking back, I had no idea how I was going to make that happen, but I do remember saying “maybe I could work for an oil company developing green energy”. When BP Solar advertised for a Project Development Manager to deliver their utility-scale solar strategy in Australia, I knew I had found the perfect role.

Even though I didn’t have the prerequisite “industry experience”, I called the hiring manager and pitched myself for the role over the phone and shamelessly begged for an interview. Following a rigorous recruitment process, I was offered the job and joined the infamous BP Solar alumni. Over the next 3 years, the team was selected to deliver some of the pioneering solar farms in Australia, including Greenough River in WA and Moree in NSW.

What do you like most about your job?

At Tesla, I work with some of the smartest people in the industry who are passionate about accelerating the transition to a sustainable future and highly motivated to deliver on the company’s mission. In my role, I am also fortunate to work with many great leaders across the Australian energy industry who share Tesla’s vision, as well as a few non-believers we converted along the way!

Tesla is continually innovating its products and leveraging technological developments across the business to drive down the cost of electric vehicles and energy storage. The product portfolio has evolved significantly over the last 5 years to address an increasingly complex range of applications and it is very rewarding to be part of rolling out these new services in the market.

In the past, renewables were good for the environment but required subsidisation or other policy drivers to secure investor confidence. Now, with renewables being the cheapest form of energy and energy storage a key enabler of the transition, the market is poised for significant growth as traditional fossil fuel generators are retired. The future of energy is bright (and clean) and I am excited and privileged to be part of such a buoyant industry.

What have been the biggest challenges for you as a woman working in a male dominated industry?

Throughout my career, I have found the lack of female role models in senior positions to be one of the greatest challenges. I had to come to Tesla to have my first female manager who was incredibly supportive and encouraged me to own my achievements and take my rightful “seat at the table”.

A lack of female role models can result in younger women feeling unsure of how to behave because they don’t have many examples of female leaders paving the way; if we are assertive or promote our achievements, we are told we are not a team-player; if we don’t speak up in meetings, we are told we are too timid! It has taken me a long time to find the self-assurance to back myself and believe that I have a valuable contribution to make.

Another key challenge was not having the confidence earlier in my career to call out poor behaviour; not having the courage to “choose to challenge” for fear of being labelled “difficult” or not liked by colleagues. People in senior positions (male and female) need to make these calls to show that the behaviour will not be tolerated and for others to also feel empowered to challenge the status quo.

What do you think would encourage more women to enter the clean energy sector?

It’s really encouraging to see such incredible female talent in the sector, across a diverse range of roles and organisations and the Clean Energy Council has shown great leadership in promoting women in the industry through the “Women in Renewables” initiative.

We are also quite fortunate to have inspiring role models such as Tesla’s Chair Robyn Denholm, as well as strong female leaders across key energy organisations including Dr. Kerry Schott at Energy Security Board, Anna Collyer at Australian Energy Market Commission, Clare Savage at Australian Energy Regulator and, until recently, Audrey Ziebelman at Australian Energy Market Operator and the Chair of the Clean Energy Council, Rachel Watson.

To entice more women to enter the clean energy sector, our leaders need to be champions of change; we need to encourage flexible working arrangements, proactively promote women, celebrate their successes and regularly “choose to challenge”. This might be as simple as refusing to participate in a speaking panel that does not have any women or, at the very least, question why.

Finally, we need to promote our industry to young women, to encourage our girls to pursue STEM in school and university and share our experiences with them. The next generation are especially aware of how crucial the clean energy transition is so we need to promote how exciting and impactful working in this sector can be, and show what pathways are available to them.

What advice do you have for women looking to enter the clean energy sector?

After years of flip-flopping Government policy and investment uncertainty, the transition to a clean future is well underway and we need a diverse range of talent to deliver on our ambitious targets. For anyone looking to enter the sector, I would say “just go for it”! Call up the hiring manager, network at industry events, connect with people on LinkedIn. This industry is full of people who care passionately about the future of our planet and we recognise that in others.

I would also advise to simply “be yourself and back yourself”. On my first day at Tesla, I was quite intimidated by all the smart people I had met. My current (male) manager must have seen that I was bit overwhelmed and advised me “not to confuse confidence with competence”. It was sage career advice in that moment (and for life) and is something I would strongly recommend.

Finally, there has never been a better time to enter the sector. Every State and Territory has billions of dollars of projects in the pipeline, which require a diverse, competent workforce to bring to fruition. Not many other industries can offer such growth trajectories and, if the last 12 years are anything to go by, I can promise you, it won’t be dull!

What do you wish you were told when you first started out in our career?

If you are given an opportunity, grab it with both hands and take your seat at the table. You can work out how to fly the rocket later. For example, in mid-2016, I joined Tesla to support the growth of the newly formed energy storage business; less than 12 months later, I found myself working on the world’s largest battery, Hornsdale Power Reserve. I was in that fortunate position because people had believed in me and offered me an opportunity at a time when I was at a crossroads in my career and my life. As a part-time working mother to a 2 year old, I wasn’t a typical Tesla employee, nor was I sure how secure the role was or where the market opportunity for industrial-scale batteries would emerge. However, the success of Hornsdale put large-scale batteries firmly on the map and demonstrated to the world what Tesla and its technology was capable of.

Sometimes in life, you have to take risks to progress, even if the path ahead is uncertain. I will always be grateful to the people throughout my career who took a chance on me and believe it is important to now give back to other women. Empowered women empower other women.

In what ways can we challenge gender bias in the workplace? Where do you think it is most effective?

Challenging bias in the workplace starts with awareness and confronting people about their (sometime unconscious) biased behaviour is a good starting point. This might involve a difficult conversation but generally most people respond positively, once they are made aware of the impact of their actions.

Culture in an organisation is usually set by the example of the leadership team. Having strong leaders who challenge any bias sends a powerful message that “this is not how we do things around here” and outdated attitudes and beliefs will not be tolerated. This also has the impact of empowering others to have the confidence to “choose to challenge” at different levels throughout the organisation.

We can all challenge gender bias in our circles of influence, whether in the workplace or through more equitable sharing of household chores and childcare in the home. This has the effect of progressing equality at work and enables parents to role model behaviours and mindsets for their children that shape the expectations of future workforces. The global pandemic has created a unique opportunity to address this imbalance and I, for one, am excited to see how we move forward in a post-COVID world.