Women in Business: Cara Clairman – Leading the road to sustainable driving
Cara Clairman is CEO and founder of Plug’n Drive in North York, Ontario. Since May of 2017, the Electric Vehicle Discovery Centre (EVDC) has been open to educate the public on all things related to electric vehicles. The recent changes to the Ontario Government meant that the not-for-profit EVDC lost its Government funding. I met with Cara at the EVDC for an interview I was working on for Charged Magazine to discuss the future of the EV market in Ontario and Canada.
Cara is very passionate about EVs, and the story of how she started Plug’n Drive and her challenges along the way really resonated with me. I wanted to share that part of her experience here on the blog.
The EVDC has partnered with the OEMs in allowing people to test drive various makes and models of electric vehicles all under one roof. Plug’n Drive also offers help with home charger purchase and installations, making the transition to an electric vehicle as smooth as possible for new owners.
As a respected electric vehicle evangelist and entrepreneur, I wanted to pitch a tent under her massive Chippendale partner desk and chat with her for hours. But after a lengthy interview and a desperate attempt to prolong the conversation as long as possible, she did eventually walk me out.
Also, she’s a Tesla Model 3 and Chevrolet Bolt owner.
I want to be her.
Not when I grow up, but right now.
I’m an environmental lawyer by training. I did my Masters in Environmental Studies, and I’ve been interested in the environment since I was a kid. It’s been life long for me.
I worked ‘in-house’ at Ontario Power Generation, and I was their environmental lawyer. My job was to advise OPG on compliance with environmental laws and how to improve their environmental performance.
Then I moved to the role of VP of Sustainable Development, which meant that I wasn’t their lawyer anymore, but I was in charge of all their sustainability and environmental programs. I was responsible for the company’s compliance with environmental laws but also beyond compliance initiatives, which included energy efficiency, biodiversity and sustainability at work.
It was about ten years ago that I was in that VP position, and I was looking for the next thing. It was 2007 or 2008 when I heard about the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. These cars were not available yet but the automakers were starting to talk about making these consumer-oriented electric passenger cars. Back then, the Ontario Power Generation was getting off coal-fired generation plants, and in my role at OPG, I was keen to help OPG continue reducing its GHG emissions.
That’s when I had an ‘Ah Ha’ moment.
OPG’s GHG emissions from generating electricity were going down to the point that at off peak times (at night and on weekends), most of the electricity would be coming from nuclear and hydroelectric plants so almost no GHG emissions. At the time, OPG was the largest generator (still is in Ontario) and had a massive surplus of low emitting electricity at night.
Think about it like this;
The plants needs to generate enough electricity to accommodate the peak time of day which is the middle of the day, usually around 3 pm. We need to generate enough for days like today, for example; when it’s freezing, and all the offices are running. But at night, people are shutting everything off, but the nukes and the hydro plants are still running. In Ontario we don’t have a lot of storage, so for those plants it’s cheaper to run them 24/7. They don’t turn these plants on and off. A lot of our hydro is a run-of-the-river so you can’t stop it. You have this massive surplus every night and a lot of nights we dump it into other jurisdictions because there is nothing we can do with it. So we frequently send it into New York state and Quebec at a loss. We pay them to take it. So, many nights of the year we’re losing money.
If you have an electric car, you’re going to plug in at home at night, as that is when it is most convenient and also cheapest. So, if we could get people to start doing this, we could suck up that surplus and save Ontario a lot of money and at the same time, GHG emissions from those vehicles drops by as much as 90% that is what you call a ‘win-win’!.
So, with the support of some folks in our Public Affairs department, I went to the CEO with this idea and asked him to provide some funding for research. I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to have the idea but it was early days, and most people had their doubts that EVs would really take off. He was willing to take a risk and did provide some funding. We held a conference, we did events, and we brought in the automakers. We had never met with the automakers before because we didn’t have anything to do with them before except to sell them electricity. We started talking to academics and asking what does Ontario need to do to be ready for this? We produced a report on what Ontario would need to do to get ready for EVs.
Now its 2010 and the first EVs hit Ontario roads. The more I worked on it, the more I thought that it could potentially be huge and it got me really excited. I was doing these little projects, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to get anywhere if I’m only working on these small projects’. I decided to do a proper business case, and I took it to the CEO. I asked him to pay me to leave my job and work on this new start-up full time. I showed him how much we could help reduce GHG emissions from transportation and how much money the Province could save if we could get even one to two percent of people to plug in at night.
To me, this made so much sense, and thankfully, the CEO agreed! I left that meeting thinking; ‘Did I just quit my job?’ I never thought in a million years that he would say yes so I was a bit unprepared for it; I thought it would take a long time to persuade him. He agreed to pay my salary, but I had to raise the money for the initiatives on my own.
Up until then, I had worked in a law firm and large utility - I didn’t know anything about raising money! I started doing research and asking myself what can a small NGO (Non-governmental organization) even do to make a difference? I realized that I wasn’t going to make cars or charge them – but I could educate. I would talk to my friends, who were very educated and worked in energy, and they didn’t know what I was talking about. There was a big gap here, and that’s where I started. I pitched an educational initiative I called the ‘EV Roadshow’ to some like-minded companies. It helped that I had been a VP in a big company and that I knew other VPs in other big electricity companies. I started pitching to them to say that they should support this, and then one thing led to another. First, it was just me, then it was me and a new grad, then we had an admin, and it grew.
The deal with OPG was to get the venture to a point where it could pay me. They agreed that if it didn’t work out, that I could come back to OPG. After a couple of years, I couldn’t go back of course because it was taking off and I realized I had something. Without OPG’s early support, none of it would have happened. They supported me then, and now they have continued to be one of our most important sponsors to this day.
So you know, sometimes you have to ask. Sometimes that’s the key to success - just ask!
Then you grow.
We started with ‘EV roadshow’ events, where we would bring a few EVs to events and let people try them. We realized that the key to getting people excited about EVs was what the OEM’s learned long ago – butts in seats! Then we did research reports where there were gaps in the market, we offered to consult, and we started the online store to make it easier for consumers to find home charging stations. Every year, we’ve added some new program or service. The big one was the EVDC, which we opened in May, 2017, where you can try all the makes in models in one place with no pressure to buy. We now run a lot of programs from the EVDC, and it’s become our hub and really the hub of the EV industry here in Ontario.
Women in the business:
I am a woman and my COO at Plug’n Drive is also a woman. We try hard to have balance in here to the extent that we can. We do find that more men than women are interested in electric cars right now, although we are seeing it change slowly. There are other like-minded groups, such as CUTRIC- electrifying transit/rail transport - and Electric Mobility Canada – the industry association for EV – both these groups are also headed by women. With automakers and the electricity sector, there is work to do there but things are moving in the right direction.
The rewarding part of the business:
It’s always nice to win awards and be recognized, but the thing that’s most rewarding is when I get calls from students who say they want to work for Plug’n Drive or that they’re inspired by what we’re doing. It’s incredible that we have people who want to work for a company that is doing something good and making a difference and that makes me feel good. I do love that.
Challenges of the business:
The biggest challenge has been raising money, and that’s tough whether you’re in a non-profit or for profit business. Perhaps the most difficult is the realization that the raising money part never ends. A lot of people come into a new venture thinking that they’re going to raise money, and then they can do these cool things, and that’s it. But you don’t realize that you always need new money. It never stops, and a lot of people have distain for the money raising. If you believe in what you’re doing, you can get over the money-raising part of it. Honestly, you can’t do anything without money, so you have to learn to accept that as part of the process. I’ve noticed that, especially in the charitable sector, where there is this a distaste for raising money, you have to be bold about asking and back it up. People feel very awkward about asking, and you have to come right out and ask for what you want and what that money will do for you and for the sponsor. You have to be ok with getting some negative responses, because it’s not for everyone and that’s fine. I would rather someone just told me no than to drag things out and waste my time and their time. That’s a lesson to learn and handle because you’re going to get a lot of rejections. You have to get a lot of no’s before you get the yes’s.
The ups and down with changes in the Government have been challenging as well. You realize that there are good people in every organization and it takes time to find them and get to know them and build relationships. So much of success is about those relationships, and when things change, you have to start over. It can be exhausting! That’s true in companies too – the leadership changes and you have to start over. That’s where there is some of the hardest work in the NGO space, generally, and there is less and less money to be had. Lots of organizations are tighter than they use to be and you have to really work at it.
Be resilient –grit, determination, and resilience – you have to be able to put the negative behind you and go on to the next day. For some people that doesn’t suit them, and I understand that’s not for everyone. I’m that kind of person who is not willing to give up.
Some people have told me that it was because I was so relentless (but in a nice way!) that they decided to support us. Maybe they were just sick of hearing from me, but it works!
The saying that the squeaky wheel gets the oil is true, but you also have to be likable. You have to be careful about it, and when you notice that you may be overdoing it, you have to have the intuition to know when to stop. People who are good at this, can read others well and see that they’re getting in the way. So much of success in any job is about building relationships, being reliable and doing what you said. People see that you’re doing your very best and you really care, and that counts. People give money to people – not so much to the project. In a way, I had an advantage because I did this towards the latter part of my career where I had already built up a lot of relationships and hopefully, some good will. I admire the people that do a start-up out of university or early on and they don’t know anyone. I don’t even know how they get their first meeting with anyone. So much of it for me was built on my relationships to do that.
Every once in a while I do get the odd job offer at a big company, but I couldn’t do it now. I’m so committed to this and feel like it’s going to succeed no matter what. I can’t see giving it up until the day when it’s not needed anymore. I hope that we do get to that point where an organization like Plug’n Drive is not needed, and then I’ll sail off into the sunset into my retirement. When EVs will be everywhere.