By Kat Boogaard
With over 10 years of work experience in the solar and energy storage industries, an MBA from The Wharton School, and a brand new role as the senior director of grid modernization for 3M, it’s safe to say that Kate Sherwood knows a thing or two about building a successful career.
In just a brief conversation with Sherwood, you’ll quickly realize that she has unmatched drive, a go-getter attitude and refreshing honesty. In fact, she’ll be the first to admit that nothing about her career journey has been easy. But, through the hills and the valleys, she managed to stay focused and continue pushing forward.
Needless to say, we all have something to learn from Sherwood. So we connected with her to find out more about her background, her new role and her best advice for women who are also hoping for a bright future in a male-dominated industry.
With a bachelor of science in public administration from George Mason University, Sherwood didn’t start her career in the solar industry. Instead, she worked in government, technology and strategy consulting for a number of years.
But, 10 years after completing her undergraduate education, she got the itch to go back to school. “I got my MBA while working because I always knew I wanted an advanced degree and wanted to lead something bigger than just me,” she explains. “When I’d first left undergrad, I thought my goal was to lead a nonprofit or to hold a senior executive service (SES) position in the federal government. But, by the time I applied to Wharton, I knew I wanted to make a larger impact than what most nonprofits could offer.”
Sherwood and her oldest son at the Women's March in Austin, TX.
Shortly after obtaining her MBA, Sherwood made the move to the solar industry in 2006. “I joined the solar industry after looking out my window and seeing the smog over the San Francisco Bay and realizing that, while I was learning a lot in consulting, helping big companies make more money wasn’t getting me out of bed,” Sherwood shares.
So, she decided to focus her career on two things she cared about: solar and women’s issues. She was fortunate that there were a number of companies that fit the bill in the San Francisco Bay area.
“A friend of a friend introduced me to the IT guy at a hippie little solar company in Berkeley: PowerLight,” she recalls, “So I accepted a 50 percent pay cut from strategy consulting to ‘carry a bag’ as a salesman.”
Making a splash in a new career
Anyone who’s ever made a major career change is sure to tell you that it can be a challenging experience. Sherwood is no different. She freely admits that she had very little idea of how to be a successful salesperson when first making the move to PowerLight (now SunPower Corporation, Systems).
That somewhat intimidating entry to a new career field was compounded with a few other important facts: Sherwood was the only woman in sales, and just a few weeks after joining the company, she discovered she was pregnant with her first child.
Understandably, she was nervous about breaking the news to her executives, Dan Shugar and Howard Wenger. She feared that her sales manager would take her biggest account, Macy’s, away from her.
“To their credit, their response was quite the opposite,” she says. “They said, ‘If your clients don’t want to work with you because you’re pregnant, then we don’t want them as clients.’”
Sherwood credits that supportive and heartfelt response from her leaders as her motivation to throw herself into her work until the day her child was born — closing the biggest deal of its time there.
“I’d found my passion, I was good at it, and I knew I was supported by my executive leaders,” she adds.
Since then, Sherwood has continued to make her mark on the solar industry and recently joined 3M as their senior director of grid modernization. “I was recruited there, based on my experience in building businesses in solar and storage,” Sherwood explains. “In my role, I will focus on creating a growth platform for modernizing the electrical grid.”
Finding Pink Petro
A Pink Petro member since early in 2016, Sherwood discovered the platform when she was looking for a networking tool within the industry. “Though petro is about as far from solar and storage as you can get, I wanted to stay in Texas. So I wanted to meet like-minded professional women in energy here,” she says.
“I spoke with Katie Mehnert after a LinkedIn meeting, and in 15 minutes, I realized she’s a force of nature and someone I knew I wanted to work with,” Sherwood adds.
Sherwood has enjoyed finding ways to interact with the community and watch it flourish. “I’ve watched the network and online tools grow from early 2016 when I first joined, to now where the community is a robust online tool,” she explains.
Moving Forward: Sherwood’s Best Advice
With such an impressive resume, Sherwood undoubtedly has plenty of sage advice to offer all those — both men and women — who are eager to grow their careers and go after what they want.
Sherwood also thinks it’s important to keep one eye on what’s next for you. “Whatever role you’re in, have your own process to get from where you are to where you want to be,” she explains.
Finally, Sherwood can’t overstate the importance of asking for the things you want. As an example, she asked for administrative support in her new role at 3M — and she got it. “I just asked, and it worked,” she said. So don’t be afraid to ask for what you want or need. If you don’t do it, nobody is going to do it for you.
When it comes to the best piece of advice Sherwood has ever received, she cites a Wharton professor, Dr. Jitendra Singh, who still serves as a mentor to Sherwood. “He likes to remind me when I share stories of frustrations or injustices, ‘Don’t get mad. Don’t get even. Get ahead.’”
A cartoon that inspired Sherwood to always keep going.
Based on Sherwood’s success and the big things we know are coming up next for her, we think it’s safe to say that she’s managed to do just that.