SunPower mentored four engineers from Africa this fall through a program called TechWomen.

Above, from left: African engineers Sara Benyakhlef, Cecelia French, Joy Makumbe and Rai Ngapare spent several weeks at SunPower learning about careers in solar energy.

By Ellen Lomonico and Shelby Sugierski

In the tech world it is common for a woman to be the only female on a team. Although women comprise 51 percent of the U.S. population, they make up only 30 percent of workers in the tech industry¹. In Africa, where some regions still struggle to offer populations a basic education, the representation of women in tech is even more dire.

To help make a difference, SunPower participated for the first time in TechWomen, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. TechWomen is a mentorship and exchange program designed to help advance the careers of female leaders from Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East by giving them experience in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.

SunPower employees from the Commercial Marketing and Utility Sales team recently spent several weeks working with four engineers from Africa. Joy Makumbe, Rai Ngapare, Sara Benyakhlef and Cecelia French traveled to the Bay Area from Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Morocco and Sierra Leone, respectively. More than 1,000 female engineers applied to TechWomen 2015, and these four were among 90 impressive finalists.

At SunPower the engineers increased their professional network and gained experience in the solar industry. Each woman worked on a project that both supported the SunPower team and matched her own professional and academic interests.

For example, Benyakhlef, a Ph.D. candidate in renewable energy technology from Morocco, researched solar market feasibility for SunPower's Utilities team. Makumbe, founder and project manager of Majorlic Construction Ltd., built a SunPower webinar for agricultural professionals. She plans on introducing a similar effort in her company.

The women also learned about lean production, visited dealers and installation sites and attended the annual Women in Construction expo. Their favorite experiences included having lunch with SunPower CEO Tom Werner, visiting the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond, C.A., volunteering at a solar installation with Grid Alternatives and participating in a We Share Solar workshop.

Immersed in Culture and Tech

TechWomen provided Makumbe, Ngapare, Benyakhlef and French with an unparalleled cultural immersion. This was their first time visiting the United States, and the TechWomen program offered numerous culinary events, educational experiences and field trips to give the participants cultural experiences. French, a maintenance engineer at Total Sierra Leone Ltd., found the cultural aspect of the program to be invaluable.

“This mentorship was a good way for me to see whether I could work outside Sierra Leone,” she said. “The interesting and open attitudes of the people I’ve met and worked with have really helped.”

 The cultural exchange was two-way. SunPower employees learned about the solar industry in Africa, including the challenges women face in the workplace.

Stelli Munnis, Public and Federal Marketing Manager, was an internal champion of the TechWomen mentorship at SunPower. Cynthia Leung and Moulay Mrani from the Utility Sales team joined Munnis as mentors for the engineers.

Munnis believed the program's first year at SunPower was both a success and a learning opportunity for those at SunPower.

“I was impressed by how eager the women were to learn about solar. Each of them saw solar as a viable solution to the energy crisis they’re facing in their home countries. I wish they could have stayed with us for several months. Sixteen days is not enough time.”

Extremely dissatisfied with the lack of access to solar energy in Africa, the women returned home motivated to enact change.

Ngapare, regional delegate of water and energy in Cameroon and co-founder of a residential solar company, said, “My community faces daily power shortages on the national grid. I’m going back home with the general knowledge and tools for solar rooftop panel design and installation that I will implement in order to help my community.”

Ellen Lomonico and Shelby Sugierski are participating in fellowships at SunPower through the Bay Area Climate Fellows program.

¹CNET.com “Women in Tech” report.