Media & Press

Microsoft - Celebrating Black entrepreneurs who are helping to make sure each industry ‘looks like America’


When Gilbert Campbell graduated from Howard University, he had a burning desire to be an entrepreneur in an industry that fit with his values. He was drawn to solar energy, and in 2009 he and a college friend founded a company that finances and develops solar panels for rooftops and carports.

A reality Campbell had always been aware of quickly grew tangible as he worked: Black and African American communities were suffering the most environmental harm — more often located near landfills, coal mines and industrial plants, for example — yet seemed to be last in line for cleanups and renewable-energy projects. It wasn’t something the small business owner had the capacity to tackle, but for more than a decade he made it his mission to engage with political leaders and trade partners about clean energy and racial equity, while living what he described as a “lonely” existence in which he was often the only Black man in the room. That all began changing two years ago.

In 2020, amid social unrest in the U.S. after the murder of George Floyd, Campbell began receiving calls from “companies wanting to make serious and real commitments” to racial equity as they fulfilled their environmental pledges, he says. These corporations needed large-scale solar farms to meet aggressive decarbonization goals but had become concerned about the lack of diversity among their options. A Microsoft executive reached out with a “bold” idea to break down barriers, Campbell says, and with the company as his first customer, he founded a new venture, Volt Energy Utility, and a new foundation, Sharing the Power, working to advance environmental justice.

“Clean energy is transforming all aspects of our society, from the decarbonization of our nation’s electrical grid with renewables and of our transportation infrastructure with electric vehicles, to the electrification of the building sector with smart thermostats and the like,” Campbell says. “Trillions of dollars are going into these efforts. We need to make sure the industry looks like America and make sure the communities that have had most of the environmental burdens are now at the front of the line receiving environmental benefits.”

Man talks to a group of students

Volt Energy Utility Founder and CEO Gilbert Campbell talks with students at the Solar Energy Industries Association. (Photo provided by Campbell)

His endeavor is one of hundreds of minority-led businesses and community-service organizations so far that have aligned with Microsoft’s Racial Equity Initiative, launched two years ago to address racial injustice and work toward more inclusion both inside and outside the company.

The tech company’s three-pillared effort is having a broad-based impact on communities around the U.S. It’s providing entrepreneurs and nonprofits in cities such as Los Angeles and Atlanta with contracts, grants, technology, training and networking. It’s diversifying Microsoft’s banking and supplier ecosystem. And it’s working to double the number of Black and African American, Hispanic and Latinx leaders at the company, among other actions to support systemic change.

The 250-megawatt power purchase agreement between Volt and Microsoft was the first solar farm contract between a Fortune 500 corporation and a Black or African American developer, Campbell says. It not only provides Microsoft with renewable energy, but the proceeds are being reinvested to help clean up communities that have suffered environmental harm as well as to fund internships in the industry for Black and African American students.

“I’m walking in my purpose, where I’m able to combine my business offering in a way that’s impacting communities in innovative and transformative ways,” Campbell says. “You can do good and be successful at the same time. It’s not mutually exclusive.”

Campbell is crisscrossing the country this year, meeting with business and government leaders, speaking at conferences and recruiting student interns from historically Black colleges and universities.

When you’re doing the right thing, others need to be able to see that and hopefully emulate it, and that’s how change comes about.

One such recruit grew up near a landfill in Durham, North Carolina, Campbell says, in a family plagued by health challenges. Communities made up of racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be near toxic sites, causing much higher rates of severe asthma, hospitalization and death for Black and African American children — ailments that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We paid this student as an intern to help build out the internship program for the summer, and she hops on the calls with Microsoft and tells the story in a way better way than I can,” drawing from her lived experience to eloquently share these communities’ needs, Campbell says. “If you have a seat at the table, you should responsibly use it to give a different perspective.”

Along with developing large-scale solar farms for corporations, Volt is investing in community solar projects to encourage developers and banks to participate and is helping low- to moderate-income households get loans for solar panels.

Campbell hopes his partnership with Microsoft will serve as inspiration for others.

“When you’re doing the right thing, others need to be able to see that and hopefully emulate it, and that’s how change comes about,” he says. “This is a great opportunity to reimagine the role corporations can play. To make underserved communities vibrant in a new clean-energy world they can play a vital part in would be a beautiful outcome.”

Learn More