Sequoia Energy Services: A Model Social Enterprise
Inside Sequoia Energy Services’ new training center, which opened last month in Visalia, California, there’s a miniature model home, painstakingly constructed with leaking air-ducts, cracks in the siding, faulty windows, and poor insulation.
The home offers apprentices at the training center just a taste of what they’ll find in many real buildings in Tulare County. Some of the most dilapidated appliances actually come straight from homes that Sequoia Energy Services has retrofitted with energy saving technologies.
Sequoia Energy Services (SES) has provided energy efficiency upgrades and weatherization for Tulare County homeowners—improving homes, decreasing energy bills, and creating jobs—for over 10 years. With the opening of the training center, which offers classes for valuable building analyst certifications, SES is amplifying its reach, helping California train the large, skilled work-force it will need to fulfill its energy mandates.
Many of those receiving training and experience with SES come from the Sequoia Community Corps, a program run by the non-profit group Community Services and Employment Training (CSET) in which at-risk youth learn trade skills and participate in community service. Not only does SES help train the young Corps members, it’s also integral in funding CSET’s Sequoia Community Corps. SES’s support of the Corps is a particularly visceral example of how the advanced energy economy is tied to the well-being of the next generation.
SES will help fund the Sequoia Community Corps program through what its chief executive, Steve Earl, calls “the ultimate Social Enterprise model.” Here’s how it works:
SES is a for-profit company, but it’s also a wholly-owned subsidiary of the non-profit company, Community Services and Employment Training (CSET), that runs the Sequoia Community Corps, among many other things. That means that CSET owns all of SES’s stock. SES generates revenue through its for-fee services, but all of the net proceeds go back to CSET, the holding company. Then through CSET those net proceeds get funneled back into the community.
Before the integration of Sequoia Energy Services, CSET, like many non-profits, relied almost entirely on grant money to run programs like the Sequoia Community Corps. The Corp’s Construction Trades training program, for example, usually gets $1.1 million from HUD every 2 years. “Last year,” says Steve Earl, “we reapplied and the grant was declined due to insufficient funds. We lost 50 youth Corps positions. They were midstream in their program. We don’t want them to have to get a job at a fast food restaurant.” To keep those youth Corps positions, CSET is replacing lost funding with revenue from Sequoia Energy Services.
CSET’s approach to their funding issue is creative, but not new. Other non-profits have established for-profit companies or ventures to generate revenue. For example, the Girl Scouts sell cookies to raise money for their programs. Selling goods or services is fundamentally different from asking for donations, and many non-profits balk at the idea. But in a rough economy with fewer donations available, Earl says non-profits “need to take control of their own destiny, control their own stability.”
Carolyn Rose, the Executive Director of CSET, added, “In Tulare County we have a chronic unemployment and poverty problem. We’ve had double digit unemployment since 1982. With CSET we’ve done so much for the community, but we really haven’t created jobs. One reason we decided to get into Social Enterprises [like SES] was to sustain the parent organization, but the other was to create jobs.”
SES is particularly effective in leading under-served youth to employment because its work is in the rapidly growing advanced energy industry. There’s some poetry in the idea that the green construction techniques that Sequoia Community Corps members learn through participating in CSET and SES projects will improve not only their job prospects but their future living conditions and those of their kids. Rocio Duran, who participated in the Sequoia Community Corps and now works full time for SES says, “I love my job. Most of all, I leave work every day satisfied, knowing I’m making a difference for our residents and the environment.”