Real Leaders

Where Does Power Come From?

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Women in power has a double meaning when it comes to Ursula Sladek’s “green power” movement. Her story, and others like it, are becoming increasingly relevant through summits such as The Women in the World Foundation – a powerful initiative dedicated to driving solutions that advance women and girls – convened in early April at New York City’s Lincoln Center.

The Foundation was born out of Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s annual Women in the World Summit, launched by the publications’ editor-in-chief, Tina Brown, three years ago. The summit brings together women from around the world, from CEOs and world leaders to grassroots activists and firebrand dissidents. Each year the summit brings to light the incredible stories of women and girls, looking at their challenges and triumphs and inspiring solutions to many women’s issues.

This year the summit was attended by over 2,500 women from around the world. By her own admission, Sladek (pictured above) was “just a housewife” when she decided to create a power company that has become one of Germany’s largest eco-electricity providers – and the largest that is owned by citizens. In 2011, her publicly owned company was worth 90 million Euros, or approximately $120 million in US dollars.

Her goal is to serve more than 1 million customers. How did she go from housewife to power mogul? In 1998, at age 54, Sladek was a social entrepreneur on a mission, one where she knew she had a lot to learn. So she taught herself to use a computer, speak in public, and run a company – all of which were new and intimidating to her. But she was powered by purpose and passion, and determined to do something to decrease the effects of climate change.

Her mission was to help eradicate nuclear disasters and to put citizens—rather than electric companies and politicians – in the middle of decisions about their own future. Chernobyl was Sladek’s turning point, Fukushima her tipping point. Separated by 25 years, both nuclear disasters have served to bring the energy issues of this planet to the forefront of people’s minds. Because she was firmly grounded in the idea of social change, she took that as permission to reinvent business in ways that allow for the participation of those who can help mobilize a movement.

Her goal, she shares, was not to control a power grid alone, but to have the communities that use the power invest in and own their own grids. Great idea, but first she had to motivate townspeople to invest their money by educating them about all the facets of renewable, nuclear, and coal power, persuade them to take part in creating and finding renewable energy sources, and convince them that this would be a good investment for their money. This hybrid business/social model is not at all common in Germany – or for that matter, in most parts of the United States or the world.

But early on, Sladek realized that starting a movement requires people, and lots of them. They have to be invested intellectually, emotionally, and financially. Her model is for everyone in each town to take part in the solution to their energy needs. By definition the model puts townsfolk in charge of their future. All get to be changemakers in as small or as large a way as they want and can manage. Talk about the rippling effect!

Elecktrizitatswerke (EWS) started in 1997 in one town with 650 local members. It is now owned cooperatively by 1,500 members and supplies energy to 120,000 households representing 250,000 people. The company’s shareholders receive dividends, but all the rest goes into renewable power plants and training and supporting communities that want to run their own “green” energy projects.

What’s interesting is that instead of working with citizens to force change from the bottom up, Sladek is now working with the governments and administrative bureaucracies, coming at it from the other direction. Her model is so successful – it is both financially rewarding to communities and towns, and environmentally sustainable – that it is attractive to citizens and governments alike.

In 2011, London’s The Guardian, profiled Sladek in an article entitled, Ursula Sladek: Power Behind a Green Revolution. The article explains: “British green campaigners often point to Germany as a showcase for renewables – as if this were down to an enlightened government. Sladek’s story suggests that the change was actually a grassroots one, with families and communities working together.”

Here’s to this powerful woman who is creating important change!

Portions of this post were reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from “Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World,” by Beverly Schwartz. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo: With kind permission of The Goldman Environmental Prize


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