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.”