The Minnesota Women in Energy series highlights influential women who are part of our state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy industries. CERTs is highlighting these leaders during the month of March in 2018, which is Women’s History Month, culminating in a reception at the 2018 CERTs Conference in St. Cloud on March 28th.
As part of the series we interviewed Kate Wolford, President of The McKnight Foundation, to learn more about her work, what inspires her, and how other women can get involved in the industry. Read on to learn more!
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do in the energy world in Minnesota?
I serve as president of The McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation. One of our goals is to foster midwest leadership in accelerating the transition to a low-carbon future. We support policies that spur market innovation and adoption at scale of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example in energy efficiency and renewables. We also support programs like CERTs that bring the tangible benefits and cost-savings of energy efficiency and clean energy into people’s daily lives.
How did you get into this work?
Prior to McKnight, I was engaged in international work at the intersection of poverty reduction and natural resource management. I worked mostly in rural areas with no access to electricity—it is exciting to see more and more of those areas leapfrogging to distributed solar energy. When I joined the Foundation, I worked with our board of directors to deepen our understanding of climate science and support economic solutions that safeguard our planet for future generations. We pursue decarbonization goals as an institutional investor as well as a grantmaker.
What is a typical day like for you?
We have a diverse set of programs so I find myself from toggling across many issues. On any given day, that could span from electrifying transportation to closing opportunity gaps in education to the latest advances in neuroscience research. My role is to ensure alignment with our values and optimize the use of all our resources to advance our goals and public benefit.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
Best Part: The best part is working collaboratively with the business, civic, and public sectors on some of society’s most pressing challenges and opportunities. Minnesota’s cross-sector leadership created our pioneering bipartisan Next Generation Energy Act in 2007 and other market-friendly policies. Fast forward to the present. In Minnesota, jobs in renewables grew 15% since 2015 and energy efficiency is helping towns across the state save money. Instead of breathing dirty exhaust from a school bus, kids in Lakeville, MN ride an electric bus powered by wind. The result is cleaner air and lower operating costs. Now imagine if that scaled to every school across the state. This is the future—the question for us is whether we lead or lag in getting there.
Worst Part: When Minnesota leads, it is because of pragmatism, not dogmatism. So I worry about the state following the national trend of entrenched polarization and political dysfunction, fueled by the bots and ‘gotcha’ sound bites of social media feeds and other forces we are just beginning to understand. That makes it more difficult to forge common sense solutions.
What about your job inspires you?
Being surrounded by creative, curious, purpose-driven staff and grantees inspires me every day. In terms of the shift to clean energy, this sounds super geeky, but I am inspired by cost curves! Seriously, given advances in technology and the rapidly falling costs of solar and wind, unsubsidized renewables are now cheaper than coal and natural gas. Sound policies can send the right signals for future waves of business innovation and scale.
What advice do you have for women who are thinking about working in energy?
The economy of the past was built on fossil fuels, but the economy of the future is clean, renewable and resilient. I am thrilled to have a college-age niece who wants to become an engineer to expand clean energy access across the globe. You can be part of this exciting transformation in business, policy, and civic sector organizations.
Kate Wolford is president of The McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation that seeks to improve the quality of life for present and future generations. In 2016, the Foundation had assets of $2.2 billion and granted about $87 million in the following areas: arts, education and learning, Midwest climate and energy, Mississippi River water quality, the Minneapolis/St. Paul region and communities, agricultural research, and neuroscience research.
Wolford has led The McKnight Foundation since 2006. During her tenure, she has spearheaded the development of the Foundation’s climate mitigation and sustainability efforts, and its impact investing program, which further leverages the Foundation’s endowment to achieve its goals. This work has included earmarking $200 million for higher impact investments; and developing a new lower carbon investment product.
Prior to joining McKnight, Wolford spent 13 years as president of Lutheran World Relief (LWR), a global grantmaking and policy advocacy organization. Wolford has a B.A. in history from Gettysburg College, an M.A. in public policy from the University of Chicago, and an M.A. from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.
Join us in celebrating Kate and other leaders at the 2018 CERTs Conference!
Join hundreds of Minnesotans exploring their clean energy options March 28-29 at the 2018 Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) Conference! The first day ends with a reception honoring women leading Minnesota’s clean energy industry and featuring dinner-worthy appetizers, drinks, more networking, and games. Learn more and register >>
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MN Women in #Energy: Read our interview with Kate Wolford (
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The Minnesota Women in Energy series highlights influential women who are part of our state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy industries during Women’s History Month.
All 2018 Interviews