As the City of Fort Collins Sustainability Coordinator, Michelle Finchum looks at energy use at a municipal level. Her job is to look at how much energy the community uses, and how we can shift to lower usage levels while utilizing renewable resources, such as wind and solar power. She negotiates how to get more renewables for the city, and ensures operations are running as efficiently as possible. For example, evaluating lighting, user behavior and processes in buildings in order to use the least amount of energy possible. Michelle previously worked for Fort Collins Utilities and taught people how to use energy wisely. Michelle has always been passionate about conservation. She has a bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Louisiana State University (LSU), a master’s degree in Natural Resource Management from Colorado State University (CSU) and is a Peace Corps alumnus, where she was based in Ecuador.

Take those opportunities that don’t seem like they fit you. Be open to those opportunities. Be curious, and keep that curiosity with an open mind — and always be asking questions.

How did you arrive in the clean energy sphere?

At the beginning of my career, getting hired at Fort Collins Utilities was a breakthrough that began my path towards clean energy. I didn’t know much about clean energy or energy in general — I had more knowledge in water. But then I got really involved with the conservation side of things, such as helping our community understand why it matters what appliance you buy. I just got more and more involved with energy and the importance of efficiency. Energy is considered a natural resource — and certainly one that needs to be taken care of. Having a background in natural resource management has helped me gain more knowledge to inform the community of clean energy production, especially by mixing my two backgrounds of utilities (16 years) and municipal sustainability (1 year). We are really in the intersection of a transition for our  community.

What role has mentorship played in your career?

Mentorship is huge in so many ways. It helps people develop leadership skills, helps you understand how to get your work done and much more. And it’s not always about the subject matter — you need someone to help you understand the workplace, but it’s also about how to make relationships and connect with people. I am helping start a mentorship program here at the City of Fort Collins, where we host about two sessions per year. It really is not only about work, but also about balance and personal strengths, which helps everyone grow differently.

What career challenges have you had to navigate?

I struggle with traditional career growth. I seem to always be given projects and exciting things to do. However, people peg you for what they think you can do best, but they don’t know you can do other things, too. Taking on projects outside your perceived path and showing people that you can do it is a priority in order to grow and get a foot in the door. For example, you could be hired to be a writer, but you have the capability to do other things, too, and it is important to show that.

What challenge does the industry face that makes it less equitable for women?

Pipeline talents are not there. Going way back into high school, I don’t think girls see themselves naturally as engineers, statisticians, etc. Going into schools, my audience would always be boys and very few girls. Science, math and engineering — girls are not getting into these fields at a young age, and it bleeds into college and the workplace.Even though a company says today that it wants to hire more women, there are not a lot of options. We need to fix it from an earlier stage and communicate how many different kinds of jobs are associated with these fields. It’s not about wearing a hardhat; we need diversity at all levels.

What advice would you give to your younger self and/or young women who want to pursue a career in clean energy?

Be open-minded. I was pretty sure I wanted to go out and save the rainforest and got my degrees, and I was just not open-minded. I didn’t know the world of clean energy existed. I would say take those opportunities that don’t seem like they fit you. Be open to those opportunities. Be curious, and keep that curiosity with an open mind — and always be asking questions.

What do you want your legacy to be?

Personally, I want to leave a better place for my children. Overall, I want to make a difference in my career and in my life, not just for children but for everyone. I want to be able to say that I did my part, and I did it while thinking about people and the environment — that I was not one-sided and was thoughtful in all my decisions in order to make Fort Collins better for the future. 

How do you think C3E can encourage more women to pursue a career in clean energy?

I think the programs we have are solid if we can figure out how to partner with the schools and continually mentor and showcase these fields to girls and women — show them how they can apply their natural skills to these fields. We need to grow and get the word out about this career path. Women and girls need to be encouraged to get involved. If you’re good at something, all fields need to be explored — not only energy fields, but fields in art, public speaking and more.