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New MBA student’s startup boosts solar energy and equity

Stephanie Speirs named 2015 Echoing Green Fellow and Soros Fellow

September 9, 2015

Stephanie Speirs

Stephanie Speirs and John Brennan, then assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, brief President Barack Obama on the Arab Spring uprisings in Yemen in 2012; Photo: The White House Photo Office

The co-founder of a solar energy startup, Stephanie Speirs, MBA ’17, first realized the importance of energy to world affairs while serving as a policy director at the National Security Council at the White House.

“I read intelligence about people in Yemen lining up at gas stations because of fuel shortages, and I realized that an average Yemeni’s primary day-to-day concern was not counterterrorism—it was finding fuel for their own livelihoods,” said Speirs, whose White House job involved briefing the president on Arab Spring uprisings and policy concerns.

“I realized that at the heart of all these economic, political, and social problems was the need for basic power," she said.

Speirs left Washington for Princeton University, where she earned her master’s degree in public affairs. She also completed an internship in Pakistan focused on identifying renewable-energy investment opportunities for the Acumen Fund. Upon graduation, she was chosen from a pool of 1,200 candidates to become one of Acumen’s 12 Global Fellows for 2015 and spent the past year leading sales and marketing for a solar power company in India.

Speirs returned to the United States just in time to start at MIT Sloan, where she is one of 30 recipients of the 2015 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. The Soros Fellowships provide up to $90,000 in tuition and stipend support for immigrants and children of immigrants to attend graduate school. She was also recently selected as a candidate for a 2015 Echoing Green Climate Fellowship, which offers seed funding and resources to emerging social innovators.

Speirs said she chose MIT Sloan because she was attracted to its collaborative environment and saw it as the ideal place to hone the business skills she needed to ensure the success of her new venture, the Solstice Initiative, a nonprofit she cofounded last fall to provide community solar power for underserved Americans. Working with developers and community organizations, Solstice enables individuals without their own rooftops, such as renters or condo owners, to buy shares of solar projects and reap the benefits on their utility bills. Sandhya Murali, MBA ’15, and a recipient of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Certificate, serves as Solstice’s chief financial officer.

The objective of Solstice, Speirs said, is to make energy more accessible and affordable for all Americans. Social equity is a motivator for Speirs, who said she hopes to benefit people like her mother, who worked three jobs to raise three children alone.

“The [Soros] fellowship honors the sacrifices immigrants go through,” said Speirs, whose mother emigrated from South Korea. “We grew up on food stamps and my mother went hungry so her kids could eat. She pushed education as the way out of poverty, and she was right. I hope to spend my life working to ensure other families have the same opportunities I’ve been fortunate to receive.”

Speirs said she hopes to learn from MIT’s resources to help build the Solstice Initiative. “We’ve come a long way but the bigger our organization gets and the more complex our decision-making processes the more we need advanced help,” she said.