Finding a voice and landing opportunities through mentorship and career-focused volunteer work

Sara Emmons’s commitment to sustainability is well documented, starting with a high school psychology paper penned by her brother. Emmons was the 9-year-old subject of the assignment. When asked about the biggest concerns in her life, her first and only response was, “How do we take care of our environment?” This driving concern — and curiosity — has driven her life and career ever since.

Emmons is the Operations Manager for the new Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, which is tasked with accelerating an electrified transportation system so everyone can ride and drive electric. She spends her days supporting the current administration’s goal of building out 500,000 new electric vehicle chargers across the United States by 2030. The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, so her work has a big impact on the U.S. goal of cutting emissions 50–52% below 2005 levels by 2030. 

In short, she’s doing exactly what she’s always wanted to do: take care of our environment. Emmons credits She’s in Power with giving her the tools to land her dream job.

She’s in Power is a Colorado nonprofit dedicated to advancing women and those who identify as female in clean energy. Its mentorship program pairs women interested in the industry with experienced mentors to work together on real-world clean energy projects. Emmons found the group after moving from Denver to Fort Collins.

“I was looking for an opportunity to volunteer locally where I could make some new professional connections,” says Emmons. “At the time, I didn’t know a goal of mine was to find mentorship or experience professional growth. I was just trying to build a sense of community for myself.”

Emmons reached out and was invited to sit in on She’s in Power Board meetings. Initially, the experience was intimidating. Emmons was working in the clean energy arena as a government contractor.  She considered it an  administrative role. At She’s in Power Board meetings, she says, “I was surrounded by all these powerhouse women and was feeling ill-equipped to sit at the table with them. But I showed up anyway.”

Emmons found herself more and more involved. She was asked to serve on the Mentorship Committee, then the Board itself. She was the Volunteer Program Manager for a year. All the while, she was acquiring and honing skills in her chosen field, project management, as well as in nonprofit oversight, board involvement, leadership and executive decision making. And the women she found so intimidating at first ended up becoming trusted mentors and friends. 

“I watched them and learned by example. I leaned on their insight and expertise when I had key career decisions to make,” says Emmons. “But one of the best things they gave me is a voice.”

Emmons continued to pursue additional clean energy roles as a government contractor. Her views were rarely, if ever, solicited by the team members she supported. She’ll never forget one meeting in particular: “I was in a room full of men, and I was told to be quiet and let the smart people in the room handle it.”

“What She’s in Power gave me was the opportunity to learn how to use my voice when I wasn’t able to in my paid work. Here, I had a seat at the table. And if I wanted to commit the time and energy, I was able to take the lead on work that allowed me to grow in a way that I wasn’t growing at work. If I hadn’t volunteered at She’s in Power, I don’t think I would have gained the confidence to interview as well as I did for my current role.”

Emmons also gained a fuller understanding of her value as an experienced project manager. “I used to feel like there wasn’t a place in the clean energy arena for individuals who didn’t have technical expertise. Now I see just how critical the work that I’m doing is. I no longer feel like my piece of the puzzle is less important than the technical team members,” says Emmons. Every skill set is important. “You don’t need to be a technical expert to be a part of the clean energy movement.”With her career in full swing, Emmons is transitioning from mentee to mentor, helping others on their clean energy career journeys in her professional life and through her continued Board work at She’s in Power. “The three components that are really going to help women and those who identify as women to grow in their career are confidence building, hard skills they can put on their resumes, and relationships to help find and land opportunities,” says Emmons. “She’s in Power gives participants the chance to get involved in an actual hands-on mentorship project, where you can gain experience, expertise, confidence and connections.”