Authority Magazine: Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Lauren Flanagan of Sesame Solar Is Helping to Change Our World
October 28, 2022
The article "Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Lauren Flanagan of Sesame Solar is Helping to Change Our World" was published by Authority Magazine on October 28, 2022 and written by Martita Mestey.
A lifelong entrepreneur, Lauren Flanagan is an early SaaS pioneer who worked with Steve Jobs at NeXT as a leading NeXT software developer. After witnessing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, she was inspired to start her 5th company, Sesame Solar, the maker of the world’s first 100% renewable mobile Nanogrid. Using solar and green hydrogen, the mobile Nanogrids generate clean, off-grid power and can be quickly deployed to provide power to communities impacted by a disaster. The Nanogrids come pre-fabricated to meet essential services and emergency response needs across a variety of scenarios, and most importantly, they are 100% fossil fuel free.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I’m a native Californian, born in Southern CA and grew up in the Bay Area before moving to the lakeshore in SW Michigan about 17 years ago. I was an avid reader and a geek, wanting telescopes, microscopes, and chemistry sets as birthday/holiday gifts, and I even had a ham radio. As a very young insomniac, I listened to broadcasts from around the world, which gave me a lot of interest in travel and learning about other cultures. My stepfather was an engineer and taught me to solder. I would help him a little with making small remote-controlled planes which we would then take out flying. He was also an audiophile and built tube amplifiers and had some top-of-the-line equipment. I learned how to make reel to reel playlists by splicing tapes!
My father was in real estate sales (I love sales), my mother is an artist (she encourages me to always be creative), and my grandmothers also had a big influence on me. One survived extreme poverty and developed a successful real estate business and rentals portfolio. The other worked for NASA in the space program. So, I felt completely natural and confident in starting tech businesses and had an early entrepreneurial bent.
I was a jock in middle and high school, and learned my best lessons for business by playing team sports: softball, basketball, field hockey etc. Anything with a ball! I survived a bad car accident and had to undergo many surgeries, which ultimately left me partially disabled, but I still played team sports. Oldest of 5 children, I was generally on the student council and/or an officer of my class, sometimes captain of the teams I played on. I studied philosophy and biochemistry in college and took every early morning natural science class I could.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Sesame Solar’s mission is to make Mobile Renewable Power fast-to-deploy and easy-to-use to help adapt to the existential threat posed by climate change. Our Mobile Nanogrids are powered by solar and green hydrogen and in addition to providing 100% fossil fuel-free power, they provide essential services after emergencies, including medical, communications, clean water, EV charging and more.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was my epiphany that all of us have to work to address climate change. So many lives were upset, and still are. I’m good at starting and growing businesses and I was looking for a way to address extreme weather events. The status quo is sending fossil fuel powered generators after disasters, which compound the environmental damage by contributing particulates to air and water systems and contribute to climate change itself. I wanted to break this cycle and figure out how we could make 100% renewable power fast-to-deploy, easy-to-use, and scalable to address a massive global problem.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I’ve been motivated my entire career to make a difference by making people’s lives and jobs better through the products and services my companies have built. Extreme weather events are increasing in severity and frequency since Katrina. I knew I had to do something, and that I could do something to help. Sesame Solar is a purpose-built company. We focus on People. Planet. Profits.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
We had to figure out a lot of high-tech and low-tech problems to make complex technology, easy-to-use, rugged enough for emergency and austere weather conditions, and simple enough that specialists and additional installation aren’t needed. It needed to be a complete solution, with everything required shipped and integrated inside the Nanogrid and ready to start generating power and essential services within 15 minutes. It also needed to be mobile to get the power and help to the people when and where needed. We needed scalable designs to avoid being in the custom development business. We targeted our first deployments for the Caribbean, thinking if we couldn’t successfully deploy there, we didn’t have a business — better to fail fast! Proud to say that our first two deployments in Dominica are still going strong.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting story so far is our recent launch of Sesame’s Mobile Nanogrids powered by solar plus green hydrogen, the first in the world!
On Sunday, April 4, 2021, I was musing over my morning tea about the future of our company after losing out on an energy contract we had really worked hard on and hoped to win. Our Mobile Solution was primarily solar powered with energy storage, but we also offered backup diesel generators if additional power was needed. We got dinged for fossil fuel use. I sat up straight, said to myself, “eff Diesel, we’re going to use green hydrogen as backup power from now on.” I called my brilliant co-founder, Namit Jhanwar, who was in Mumbai at the time, and told him what I wanted to do. He said “I don’t know much about green hydrogen.” I responded, “me either, but we’re going to learn.” On June 16, 2022, we launched the world’s first 100% Renewably-powered Mobile Nanogrids and already have customers like the US Air Force, county governments, and large telco/broadband companies. If you visualize it, you can achieve it!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I’ve been fortunate to have some truly great mentors and have participated in some transformational accelerators. My first was Springboard Enterprises in 2000 in Silicon Valley. I learned the language of fundraising and subsequently raised $23mm for my company, WebWare, after going through the Springboard program. It’s also a tremendous expert / peer network and I am still very involved, having served on the Springboard board of directors for 15 years.
In 2021 my Sesame Solar co-founders and I participated in the PAX Momentum accelerator, which focuses on commercialization and repeatable sales processes — some great learnings for our team. It was a virtual program due to the pandemic, but PAX is based in the Washington DC area.
Earlier this year, my co-founders and I participated in the Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation Lab in New York City where we focused on how to scale our business and innovated our “Go Big” business model, Mobile Renewable Power as a Service (MRPaaS). To be in the Morgan Stanley “Family” is a very big deal with compounding benefits.
Finding the right accelerator for your business can be game-changing. Make it a priority to get expert help, including top legal, financial, and PR advisors.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Actually, the Biden administration has done a tremendous amount of good for our planet and the problems Sesame Solar is solving between the Infrastructure and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. More funding and tax credits are available than ever before to help shore up our country and help us address climate change. Incentivizing good behavior works! See Pavlov. Like to see more young people choose careers to address climate change.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
The way to build a successful business of any size is to solve an urgent problem or pain point with a must-have solution. If you can solve the problem sustainably and/or while reducing greenhouse gasses, there are customers who will pay a “green premium.”
There are an increasing number of federal, state and corporate mandates for energy resiliency, net carbon zero, and carbon negative targets. Climate change poses an existential threat to our planet and our current administration and Department of Defense have deemed extreme weather events to be national security risks. The value of solutions for these problems are priceless. Selling real solutions into mandates can command premium pricing.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
1. Hire people who get things done right.
Character, values, curiosity, coachability, and work ethic are much more important than pedigree. Some of my best team members over the years did not go to college. Underestimated folks can be the true diamonds in the rough. Dedicated and diverse teams with complementary skills achieve the best results. Building a culture of mutual respect brings out the best in teams.
2. Learn to fail fast.
Fake it 'til you make it, then break it, if it’s not a profitable business. Restart or pivot based on your learnings to get to success faster.
3. Get to breakeven fast.
Being profitable allows for greater selectivity when seeking investors and partners. There is almost always a way to break even — it’s important to find it.
4. Keep Cool.
It’s a marathon not a sprint, and there will be rollercoaster days, weeks and months. Staying emotionally level and outwardly calm and positive are key to successful team leadership. Effective stress management is a vital skill to learn as is compartmentalizing problems so you can still make forward progress on some fronts even if stalled on others.
5. Enjoy the Journey.
Celebrate all the wins, big and small. Laugh with your team as much as possible, and always be learning and innovating. Work on or for things you can be proud of.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
There is no planet B. The future of our planet is up to all of us. Be part of the solution.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
ABL: Always Be Learning. It makes you more ABLe to succeed.