Always be open to taking appropriate risks. As an innovator, you must be willing to take next steps in order to grow. Joining sonnen allowed me to take these risks and test out ideas that I never otherwise had the opportunity to do.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Blake Richetta, CEO of Sonnen.
Blake Richetta graduated from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelors in Business Administration in 2001 and shortly thereafter he began a 15-year career at Lutron Electronics, the world leader in lighting control. While at Lutron, Blake successfully designed and implemented an industry leading business model for the RadioRA and RadioRA2 products. His approach to building the distributor and installer channels and the overall channel strategy for the RadioRA business advanced the global market for smart home lighting and automated shading, contributing to the overall growth of the home automation industry.
After departing Lutron, Blake joined Tesla Motors as North American Powerwall Sales Manager, bringing his expertise in selling high-end residential technologies to the nascent energy storage industry. After a brief stint at Tesla, Blake joined sonnen, Inc. as Vice President of Sales, drawn by the company’s innovative capabilities and high quality, technologically advanced residential storage products and services. sonnen’s innovation in energy storage goes beyond smart batteries to include the “sonnen Community”, a peer-to-peer clean energy trading as well as Grid Services platform which uses a “Virtual Power Plant” by way of aggregation.
In June of 2017, Blake was promoted to Senior Vice President of sonnen, Inc. and named “Representative of the Global CEO” for North American operations. In his time at sonnen, Blake has led the US organization into a period of rapid sales and organizational growth. Outside of work, Blake enjoys spending time with his family, including his wife Priya, and is an active volunteer and philanthropist in his hometown of Santa Monica, CA.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
After leaving the home automation industry, I joined Tesla as the North American Powerwall Sales Manager. While in this role, I began to wonder why there was a gap between the home automation industry and energy industry when both sides talked about one another and ultimately were after the same goal — smarter energy management. After conversations with colleagues in both industries, I realized that there was a need to bring these two sides together and that’s how I began my journey to combine these two innovation-focused industries, in order to change the way the world uses energy. This eventually led me to join sonnen. Being a part of sonnen is exciting because of the company’s deep expertise and proven ability to meaningfully accelerate the clean energy transition. During my time in both the energy and home automation industries I’ve had the opportunity to meet incredible visionaries who have literally invented a new vertical where utility and energy experts can work together to design and engineer the “futuristic” energy technology that will positively change our world.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I joined sonnen, I was initially charged with leading sales and establishing a revenue base for the very young U.S. entity. Shortly after, I was given a broader mandate, to lead the company. Co-Founder and former CEO Christoph Ostermann truly gave me room to run with ideas and empowered me to take the vision he had created years before into a new market with new challenges and ideologies. By allowing us to execute the sonnen U.S. vision in our own way, by allowing us to build a full US based team, by trusting us to navigate uncharted waters, and tackle challenges along the way, Christoph taught me a lot about empowering and instilling trust in your colleagues. Christoph also taught me how to lead, while providing the room for team members to find their own roads to success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s a lot of great, relevant quotes out there but my favorite has to be, “do not confuse activity with accomplishment.” I have seen a few different citations for this quote, so, I am not certain who to attribute it to. Nevertheless, it is a “guiding light” for my work. I find this to be incredibly helpful when it comes to progressing in business and/or personal life. It’s extremely easy to put in time and call it work, but if you’re not making any type of progress towards a desired meaningful accomplishment, then your time should have been allocated differently. At sonnen, we are inventing new businesses models and pioneering new partnerships on a constant basis. We are truly on the path to changing the way energy is managed in the US and around the world. We are driven by our “vision” of “clean and affordable energy for everyone.” And the only way we can realize our “vision,” is by setting and achieving meaningful objectives on a constant basis, objectives that are viewed by all of us as true accomplishments when the work is complete. And it is these accomplishments that keep us moving forward and inspire us to build a path that others can easily follow.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
First, thank you for stating that I am a successful business leader, although, I must say that I am not sure I deserve this title. I have made a great deal of mistakes and I have failed quite a bit as a leader. However, I have “failed forward,” learned new strategies, skills, and ideas because of my failures and have struggled to advance towards our vision, accomplishing significant milestones in the clean energy transition along the way. Furthermore, I have been lucky enough to have an incredibly supportive organization in both sonnen and Shell behind me. The sonnen and Shell “families” have been there for me and for our sonnen USA team when failures have occurred, supporting us, pulling us up and “throwing us back in the fight.” As a result, we have grown at an unprecedented pace and have thrived. If that is success, then, I am fortunate to be labeled as such.
The most important character traits or virtues, in my opinion, are fortitude, empathy and wisdom. The first being fortitude because in any difficult situation, you must keep going and rise above when being challenged. This virtue is somehow greater than simple resolve or persistence, as it includes the mental and emotional strength that enables courage and perseverance to overcome adversity and difficult situations. So, when one possesses fortitude, they are not simply enduring to achieve their goal, but are indeed able to meet a truly difficult and perhaps even emotionally or physically painful situation and “rise above” it. My sincere hope is that overtime I can continue to learn more about this virtue and gain its incredible power in my own life. I am certainly no expert, but I believe that I have experienced a “taste” of virtue in multiple situations, and it is these situations which have proven to be pivotal in my life and my professional development. The second trait is empathy. I believe that one of the most effective methods of leadership and one of the most effective methods in general for success in business or personal life, is to strive to have genuine empathy for others. With empathy, you can build a hardworking, passionate, and truly respected organization for your career and for the careers of your employees, as empathy forges a naturally strong bond between people, one which will stand the test of time. Furthermore, you can build healthy personal relationships and a loving family dynamic, by deploying the power of empathy. During my time at sonnen, we’ve grown tremendously, and it wouldn’t have been possible without understanding the struggles, feelings, and unique perspectives of our team members. This, I believe, has dramatically improved the company as a whole. Lastly, my pursuit of wisdom has played a pivotal role in my career. I view this pursuit as the confluence of knowledge gained from experiences, from learning from others, and by academic learning and the application of this knowledge in everyday decisions.
Which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
The whole sonnen team is working tirelessly to harness the true potential of solar power, in a smarter way, one which will lead to a clean energy future. More specifically, our overarching mission is to transform otherwise intermittent, erratic renewable energy resources like solar and wind, into firm, dispatchable grid assets, which can actually replace fossil fuel based power plants. Solar and wind power are both incredibly important sources of energy generation for our future and a key to a decarbonized, decentralized energy grid but only if managed properly. In other words, in order for renewables to reach their ultimate objective of fully decarbonizing the energy system, intelligent energy storage technology must be utilized. sonnen helps to enable this noble clean energy future, by swarm controlling hundreds, thousands, and hopefully someday millions of individual renewable energy based batteries, forming a hive of intelligent, responsive “energy nodes,” which can act as one, all managed by the greater energy grid. In this case, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and traditional power plants can be retired and replaced, hence the term “Virtual Power Plant.” In addition, considering the continuing trend of extreme weather events and extended power outages, which seem to be a feature of human caused climate change, sonnen continues to develop intelligent, residential energy management technologies to help customers better protect their homes during power outages, storing energy for when it’s needed the most. Finally, we are trying to solve the problem of battery longevity and safety by delivering one of the world’s safest, longest-lasting, and highest quality battery solutions and providing power safely to homes.
How do you think your technology can address this?
sonnen is currently working to install Virtual Power Plants (VPPs) across the United States as the need for reduced CO2 and the desire for clean energy based communities continues to grow. Not only do these VPP communities add a sense of security during storms and outages, but they also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions allowing customers live healthier through improved air quality. sonnen has had the opportunity to work with forward-thinking utility providers in different parts of the country on achieving their clean energy goals by establishing large-scale, carbon-free communities powered by swarms of dispatchable, solar + storage assets. Our technology gives utilities a highly effective load flexibility tool, one that is quite nimble and responsive to the immediate needs of the grid. Our technology is designed to increase the value and the overall viability of renewable energy within the greater grid and therefore, for society as a whole.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
For many years, I have been passionate about the decarbonization of our atmosphere and the overall health of both humanity and the planet’s ecology. Further, years ago, I decided that my limited time on this planet should be utilized pursuing true purpose. And, from the perspective of my life’s work, this purpose should be one that leads to a better world. So, it was natural that at my “career inflection point,” I would choose the clean tech field for my future work.
From my early 20’s, directly after graduating from university, through my mid-30s, I worked for Lutron Electronics, the world leader in lighting control and a wonderful company. And, although lighting control is a fun and a growing field, an inflection point occurred when I felt that my career should be focused on a greater overall societal impact and purpose, compounded with my belief that my career at Lutron was no longer fully utilizing my potential for leadership and productive work. To clarify, I spent 15 great years at Lutron and for the first 10 years, I felt “challenged.” However, in the final 5-years, despite still loving the company and the people, it had become very clear that I was only using a small portion of my potential. Once I joined Tesla, that began to change. However again, at Tesla, although I was working on a cause that I truly loved and I was using more of my potential, I was not using my full potential, not even close. Finally, 5-years ago, I joined sonnen and I was challenged to grow immediately and very quickly. I was challenged to make significant decisions and to take risks and to make a true impact every day, at a pace that was like no other time in my life. From rushing into Puerto Rico to build microgrids after Hurricane Maria, to building the worlds’ first master planned apartment community solar battery virtual power plant, to scaling an organization by 10x in 5-years, I have truly experienced the difficulties, the failures, the successes and therefore, the growth, of my full potential. And all the while, working on a cause which I believe in.
How do you think this might change the world?
Myself, along with the rest of the sonnen team is working toward a clean energy future which we hope to achieve by maximizing the efficiency of renewable energy sources, creating firm dispatchable grid assets. Aside from this, we are also developing residential energy management technologies to help consumers protect their homes during extreme weather caused by climate change. All these efforts are in hopes of shifting renewable sources for a clean energy future.
Can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
There are certainly drawbacks to battery energy storage. Most importantly from my perspective, the safety and longevity of the battery — which we address at sonnen and are in fact at the vanguard of the industry when it comes to innovation around battery safety and longevity.
Next, there is a real concern regarding the supply chain of Lithium and other rare Earth elements utilized in the metal oxide of the cathode of the battery — most prominent of these elements being Cobalt. This concern includes, again, battery safety when considering specific battery chemistry, energy density and cell build, CO2 footprint from supply chain and cell build, human rights concerns around mining practices, national security concerns arising from the control of production, supply chain scarcity in lite of the electric vehicle “revolution” and finally, ease of recycling the current Lithium Ion battery cells, when they reach end-of-life. sonnen, again, addresses several, but not all of these concerns, with our Lithium Iron Phosphate battery chemistry. That being said, I personally do not believe that all of these concerns will be addressed until Lithium can be removed entirely from the stationary energy storage system and replaced with a safe, abundant element, forming an innovative new battery chemistry where both electrodes and the electrolyte no longer contain Lithium.
Cost is also a concern and sonnen continues to pioneer lower cost solutions, in order to alleviate this and enable mass scale.
Finally, long-term storage and discharge duration is a concern, as battery energy storage is not currently an economically viable solution for long-duration “seasonal” grid energy storage. This has produced an exciting new area of energy storage research, known as “Seasonal Storage.”
Based on your experience and success, can you please share “five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”?
I do not know “five things that you need to know” in order to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact. However, I am happy to share five things that have proven critical for sonnen, in our successful quest to build a technology of positive social and planetary impact.
- The first would be execution, once again, never confusing activity with accomplishment. Specifically, making sure that you’re accomplishing meaningful objectives, building real technologies, commercializing products, and launching projects to advance the cause, as opposed to being in “analysis paralysis” and remaining “in philosophy mode” for years. Instead, “just do it,” trust in the “real-life” innovation process and learn as you go. In other words, “just build something!”
- Keep your mind open to ideas and partnerships. sonnen was already proud to be a pioneer in residential energy storage when we were acquired by Shell New Energies 2019, but that endeavor immediately opened us up to countless new opportunities and resources we simply wouldn’t have had access to if we’d remained a private startup. This transition required the sonnen team to remain open-minded to working with an established, global oil super-major making an extraordinary effort to become a leader in clean energy transformation.
- Don’t let one failed attempt keep you from continuing your journey. In business, it’s important to stand back up after a failed attempt because if you give up after your first failure, your ideas will never come to life.
- Always be open to taking appropriate risks. As an innovator, you must be willing to take next steps in order to grow. Joining sonnen allowed me to take these risks and test out ideas that I never otherwise had the opportunity to do.
- Strive for genuine impact results. If you are trying to build a technology that can change the world, never loose site of that fact and that all your milestones of accomplishment must serve this “true north.” Too often, I believe, an innovator gets lost in simply completing the product, in order to begin selling, without keeping a firm standard around, “how does this product make an impact, what are the precise applications?” And “how will I be able to prove this?”
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The desire to work towards a purpose and specifically the purpose of making a positive impact on our environment and or society, must come from within. In some cases, like my own, it was an internal process, one of introspection and analysis. So. I may simply ask this question to young people: “Do you wish for your life’s work, during your brief period on this planet, to be one of positive environmental and social impact, one of purpose or do you wish to spend your life working on something that has no real effect on the betterment of people, animals or the planet?”
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
I’d have to choose Marcus Aurelius because of the way that he led the Roman Empire during “Pax Romana,” or at least the manner in which we believe he did. History teaches us that Marcus Aurelius, as the most powerful person in the civilized world, was indeed a very humble man possessing great virtue — not least of which included wisdom and courage. Emperor Aurelius was apparently loved and revered by a substantial portion of his country and was just. He never stopped learning, bettering himself and his work, yet he understood his own limitations and faults. And from this style of leadership, work ethic, discipline and character, Marcus enjoyed extraordinary success.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.