We spoke to our Director of HR Michelle Ochoa to learn more about building an employee-focused culture and Diversity, Equity Inclusion, and Justice at ForeFront Power.


Where are you from originally?

MO: I am originally from the Bay Area. I grew up in the San Jose/Los Gatos area and I am one of the few people that have multiple generations from the Bay Area. My grandmother actually grew up in San Francisco. 


Do you have any hobbies you’re into? What do you like to do in your free time?

MO: I’m really into movies and now TV as it’s become more like long-form movies. I participate in a semi-competitive Oscars Watch Party, where several of my friends and I try to watch all the films nominated for Oscars. I worked for film festivals for many years before joining the solar field, so I’ve seen a wide range of films. My favorites are Federico Fellini movies, old Italian films, obscure movies, and film noir.  I also enjoy traveling although I have not done as much traveling in the last few years. Before the pandemic, I used to travel as much as I could. 


What was your childhood like? Did you have any childhood heroes when you were growing up?

MO: My second cousin is Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina woman to go to space. I followed her journey going into high school and looked up to her. She was a big influence on me. I don’t think I realized how important it was at first. Then I learned more about her journey and actually got to go see her get inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. She went through all of these obstacles to get to space. Professors didn’t believe in her and even discouraged her, but that didn’t stop her. That’s been a good lesson throughout my life. She’s inspired me to push the envelope and always think greater than you think you could possibly achieve.


What did you want to be when you grew up?

MO: There were a number of different things that I thought I wanted to be. I think I wanted to be an architect at one point because I was really into building design. Later I switched to wanting to be an interior designer. Then I thought I was going to sell real estate. There were a lot of things that I wanted to do.


How did you end up working in the renewable energy field?

MO: It’s actually kind of funny the way that I got into solar. I was introduced to working in the energy field through Burning Man. The last company that I worked at was a sister nonprofit of Burning Man. It formed when we built a solar array to power the Man in 2007, and they wanted to take those panels and build a solar array for a school near Burning Man. They thought they were only going to do one or two installations, and then they realized that they could do this all over Nevada. In the end, we built over 100 installations, all for other nonprofits, schools, hospitals, and a lot of Native American tribes throughout Nevada.


How did you find ForeFront Power?

MO: A recruiter found me, and it was perfect timing. My last organization ended up shutting down and I was the last employee. I laid everybody off including myself. I was going to take a few months off, and then three months in I wanted to look for a job. All of a sudden multiple recruiters started calling me. I had a couple of different great prospects lined up, but I wanted to stay in the solar industry. ForeFront Power was a company just starting up in the solar field back then. It was an attractive opportunity to me, so I decided to join the ForeFront team.


What are your main responsibilities as ForeFront’s Director of HR?

MO: It’s evolved over time. When I first joined, it was about setting up internal HR policies, practices, and processes. We were using a professional employer organization (PEO) when I was first started so all of the HR was mostly outsourced. I built all our HR systems and brought them in-house. Now that those systems are working and a lot of that heavy lifting is done, I get to focus on ForeFront’s culture and performance management. I’m figuring out how we can enhance benefits programs, treat our people exceptionally well, and make sure that we stay ahead of the curve as an organization.


How have you helped improve the ForeFront Power employee experience since coming into your role?

MO: I believe the employee experience is much better since coming off of the PEO. Back then you were getting your paycheck from this other entity and had to go through all their onboarding. It almost felt like you weren’t working for the organization because there was less control over things. Bringing HR in-house has allowed us to be employee-focused and provide better customer service. There’s always room for improvement in anything, but I think the new systems that are in place for onboarding are better. I constantly look at how we can improve and evolve our internal systems, especially as we grow.


What important lessons have you learned throughout your career?

MO: Be persistent and if you believe in something, keep pushing it, because you’re not always going to get everyone on board right away. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone and constantly re-educate yourself. As part of my HR certifications, I have to do recertification, whether that’s spending time on webinars or attending conferences and things like that. It’s the constant evolution of knowledge that you have to keep up with.


The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) recently announced ForeFront Power as one of its first Silver Certified Companies in its new DEIJ Certification Program. Can you touch on how ForeFront achieved that certification status?

MO: The SEIA DEIJ certification is a new certification program geared to help companies evolve their diversity, equity, and inclusion practices. We started early on and are pretty excited to be the first company to go Silver, which is a big deal. It involves several modules you have to go through that teach best practices. Then as an organization, you submit what you’ve done in that realm, whether that’s career development or evaluating your hiring practices. It allows you to evaluate your DEI stats. We were able to get to Silver so quickly because we had already started forming our DEIJ practice over the last couple of years. We’re trying to think about it programmatically, and how we want to approach things on different levels like, how do we hire? How do we advertise in more diverse areas? How do we train managers? How do we train employees? 

We’ve taken a multifaceted approach to evolving our DEIJ efforts and have also been very transparent with our organization regarding what we’re doing and what we’re seeing. I’m proud that the work we had already been doing was able to help us achieve this certification status. The point of the certification is both to evaluate what you’ve already done and learn tips and recommendations for what you can do. It’s meant to help bring everybody forward.


How does the company plan on continuing this work?

MO: Everything that we put in place will continue and we’ll also continue to add on to that. I want to evolve some of the training that we’re doing for employees and get involved in job fairs or different areas where we might find different diverse candidates. The marketing team and I are also doing some community outreach and combining our efforts to show that DEIJ isn’t just about HR and how we treat employees, it’s how we engage in the community and how we engage as an organization. Making DEIJ a whole organization approach is really important.


Do you have any organizational goals for ForeFront Power? Where do you see the future of the company?

MO: One goal of mine is to continue fine-tuning the internal systems to make sure that we’re set up efficiently for scaling as an organization so as we grow, we can always continue to work. COVID took a big hit on our ability to have in-person contact, which in turn impacts our culture. We have to figure out how to maintain that and get back some of that culture as we move into different phases. I want to help evolve the culture, creating a place where people can come and develop their skills and their careers, and continue to be engaged. We as an organization want to stay at the forefront of having great benefits and an employee-focused culture.


What do you believe makes ForeFront Power’s culture special?

MO: I think one of the things that makes ForeFront Power’s culture special is how much autonomy the organization has in developing its own culture. For example, we’re part of Mitsui, but I’ve been able to drive all the HR-focused things without their input or their control. We get to shape our culture, we get to shape who we want to be as an organization.


What would you tell people interested in joining ForeFront Power?

MO: I would tell people that it’s a very friendly, passionate organization where people work hard on this main goal of installing as much solar as we can. It is also a great place to be yourself, have great benefits, and develop skills in the solar industry that will benefit you for the rest of your career.