Our latest DEI Changemaker is AJ Perkins, Co-Founder of CLENECT, the new social media platform where Cleantech connects. AJ was selected by Business Talk Magazine as one of the "Influential Business Leaders of 2021," and was named one of Fortune India's Unstoppable World’s Business Minds. A highly-visible serial entrepreneur, AJ has grown and scaled many startups including a microgrid integration and aggregation company, Instant ON, which was recognized as one of the CEO Views' Top 50 Most Innovative Companies to Watch in 2020. During our time together we spoke with AJ to learn more about his journey as a leader and founder in the tech industry, and his impact as a changemaker for the AAPI community.
Tell us a bit about your journey. How did you get to be where you are today?
As the eldest of three boys, we were always competitive. This set the tone of my entire life. I always look to be the best in whatever I set out to do. Coming into the cleantech world is a new path for me later in life. I don't have an engineering degree or deep academia background so I started from the ground up. I did in-home sales for residential energy efficiency. After being one of the best, I moved to the commercial and industrial market and after being one of the best there, I was fortunate to meet some people with money who said, "if we gave you $1 million dollars, what would you do?" So my partners and I set off to build Instant On into one of the fastest growing microgrid companies in the country with some big name partners.
What are some of the lessons you learned along the way?
This industry has been around for a LONG time. Those in the industry have built some of the most amazing technological advancements mankind has seen. This innovation continues to this day and at a much quicker pace. Being able to bridge what was and what can be is both a challenge and an opportunity. This is where new thinking can occur. If people can come into this industry with a willingness to learn and with an openness to innovate, there can be breakthroughs if you have the right audience willing to listen and/or support. The possibilities are endless.
What does being an AAPI leader mean to you?
As a Native Hawaiian with Chinese, Japanese, English, Irish and Portuguese descendants and growing up in Hawaii, I am a proud AAPI. As an AAPI leader, I do it with a sense of stewardship to pay honor and tribute to those who have come before and those who will surely follow. My ancestors taught me of Kanoho Pani hakahaka - The empty chair - it really is never empty. I was taught to think about those you are accountable to, because that is what that chair represents. Those that have no voice, those that may not be here, those that we represent. I was taught that before we speak, before we act or react, that we consider our ancestors who sit in that chair. Also those descendants that will come in the future who will sit in that chair. The whales, trees, nature that feeds them and us. This is who is in this empty chair. Always consider who we are accountable to and who it is in your empty chair.
Are there any stereotypes that you've had to overcome?
This industry has been largely dominated by the good ole boy's network. I have heard how this is challenging for women and people of color, but I guess I kill them with kindness. It's hard to be mean to someone who shows up with a lot of Aloha, especially when I am the one bringing the projects to life. I count my blessings.
If you had to list three traits or attributes that have been pivotal for your success, what would they be?
- Humility. As someone who doesn't have an advanced degree or grow up in the industry, I had to really learn and watch. It was brutal at times, but I was taught "always make your learning greater than your experience."
- Grit. A person with true grit has passion and perseverance. Goals are set and followed through.
- Vision. This is what makes me what I am. Being able to see what others can't and communicating the plan to achieve it allows us to motivate masses with passion and purpose.
How are you making a difference?
I just keep working. I don't try to impress anyone, I don't try to win accolades. I just keep doing the best I can to serve as many people as I can. I believe if I do this and do this well, my efforts will be rewarded. Over time, this aggregate of serving as many people as we can starts to add up and you start seeing the fruits of your labor. The work we do may not always reveal the fruits for us, but in time, they will start to reveal the beauty that you have helped to create. Just keep working.
What's one myth you'd like to debunk about your line of work?
Myth: The sector depends on regulatory support.
Fact: As the industry continues to mature, policy and regulation is becoming less relevant for success. Other factors can support deployment and success such as cost, access to capital, the go-to-market strategy. Regulation is also part of the equation, but it is only one part.
In your opinion, how can we make the world a more inclusive place?
Coming from Hawaii, I have always felt like it was the melting pot of the Pacific. Interestingly, it was the white person who was the minority and and getting pushed out. Now that I live in California, I see what the world sees, which is opposite. So I guess there is a little bit of this kind of discrimination happening all over. I think the way we change that is being more accepting ourselves and doing our best to include others in what we are doing. Invite people of all types to learn and share with true openness. It's Aloha in its truest form.
What does the future look like for you?
I will continue to serve as many as I can, growing companies and doing the best work we can. I will be coming out with a children's book with my children later this year and doing a book launch for our Mahalo book. We will be looking to help more people live with Mahalo (gratitude).
What words do you live by?
When I was in fifth grade, my dad told me: "Shoot for the stars cause if you miss you'll still be in Heaven." This has been my mantra my entire life: Go big or go home!
Any final words of wisdom?
I come from a very special place and it’s called Hawai’i and the meaning guides us and directs our behavior.
The word HA, which means breath, life, the essence, the space and the atmosphere. This is Ha. It’s the first breath you take when you come to this planet. It’s the last thing you give back when you leave. And in between the first breath and the last breath, you never own it.
It is the WAI, the water that we drink. It’s in and within each of us.
It is the ‘I, the spiritual force, the creative energy that some would call God, the cosmos or nature. It allows us to recognize one another before we’ve introduced ourselves or shared our backgrounds.
The HA, the WAI and the ‘I, it is the mission statement that guides us that says, “Care for the air, the water and spirit of the land. Watch what you eat, what you serve others, and how you treat your friends and your places. Our kuleana, our responsibility, is to do just that. To care for the air, the water and the spirit of the land for ourselves and for others, for the present as well as for the future as we honor our ancestors in the past. This is Hawai’i.