Women Lighting the Way: Carla Walker-Miller

Published on March 6, 2023 in

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re talking to women who are lighting the way in their communities alongside United Way for Southeastern Michigan. We’re discussing their experiences, sharing their passions and motivations, and spotlighting the people who have inspired them along the way. 

Below, we talk to Carla Walker-Miller, founder and CEO at Walker-Miller Energy Services – one of the largest African American and woman owned energy efficiency companies in the United States. 

Carla, some might call you the queen of the pivot. You left a career in technical sales, reinvented your company during a major recession and then turned your focus toward the energy efficiency industry. What gave you the courage to take those leaps and what advice to you have for other women who are considering or navigating shifts in their own lives?

My pivots were all of necessity. When I first started my company in 2000, my “first pivot”, my courage came from finally embracing how I saw myself in God. When I started my business, I was in a season of unquestionable faith, believing that I could do all things through Christ who strengthened me, and that God had specific plans to prosper me, give me hope and a future, and that his promises to me were going to increase my territory.

Even after starting Walker-Miller, there were times, especially during the recession, when I couldn’t see my way forward, but I still knew that I was on the right path, so I kept going. That was my second pivot, into the clean energy industry.

My advice to women who are navigating shifts in their lives is to know who you are, deep within. Know what drives you, and if you truly believe you are on the right path, keep going. But stay open to the possibilities, even those that scare you.

I like to quote myself, and my favorite quote is “Courage is a renewable resource.” None of us is perfect. There are times when we fail to walk boldly into our destinies. But often, we get second chances, we must move forward with courage.

Great advice. Tell us about your experience as a Black woman in corporate America and how you’re creating space for other Black women.

I often speak about the corporate “trauma” that I experienced as a Black woman during my nearly 2 decades in corporate America. I grew to believe that no matter how smart, credentialed, and experienced I was, I realized that I couldn’t ‘outwork’ the perception that I still wasn’t good enough. I have found, to my dismay, that many Black women have similar testimonies today.

Eventually, I had to accept that I would never be viewed as the ideal candidate for any position I aspired to. I used that knowledge to help make a place for myself as a business owner Now, it is imperative to me to create space for other people, Black women in particular, and people of color who can rise to be ‘best in class’, as subject matter experts. I want the demographics of the clean energy industry, where Black people, are woefully underrepresented, to reflect the communities in this country. That means positioning talented people in leadership positions who represent the diverse society that we live in.

Sounds like you did it your way and you’ve created a hugely successful company. Of course, a key part of that success is the people and the organization’s culture. Tell us about the culture you’re mapping for your team and what it means to embrace “kind excellence”?

We have a saying here at Walker-Miller Energy Services, and that is: we’re looking for “Good People, Bad Asses”. We want the baddest of the bad as it relates to your area of expertise, your knowledge, what you do well – but at the heart of that, we want good people; people who are humble and kind, no matter their title. When we say we hire for character, we really mean that. Because you could be the foremost expert in your field, world-renown and heralded all across the globe, but if you’re just an unpleasant person to work with, people will begin to create workarounds. The minute that happens, productivity is compromised.

Our culture of ‘kind excellence’ values kindness nearly as much as talent. It is one of the reasons why we consistently have the highest customer satisfaction ratings across the industry. It is also why we are a multi-year ‘Cool Places to Work’ winner – our team and our clients love us because we genuinely believe that being easy to do business with, internally and externally, is part of what makes us who we are.

Courage is a renewable resource. None of us is perfect. There are times when we fail to walk boldly into our destinies. But often, we get second chances, we must move forward with courage. – Carla Walker-Miller

You’re also well-known as an equity champion and have taken steps to hire from the urban areas you serve. Why should other organizations also make that a priority?

We are not just an employer; we are truly a steward of the livelihoods of our diverse team. We embed equity into every facet of our operation. The fact that we are one of the most diverse teams in clean energy is a major contributor to our success in engaging communities that have not traditionally participated in energy efficiency programs. That means creating onramps, going into communities and intentionally inviting great people into the industry.

The transition to a new low carbon reality is happening right now, and it is critical that we position historically excluded communities to fully participate in the benefits of this transformation. This participation includes clean energy jobs, the opportunities to create new businesses, and the privilege of retrofitting every neighborhood, creating healthier spaces.

Clearly, you’re a very busy person with no shortage of things to do, but we notice you still dedicate time to being a mentor for other entrepreneurs. Tell us about why that’s important to you.

The road to profitability can be so very tough, and I made so many mistakes along the way. In some ways, we make entrepreneurship look so sexy and empowering. It is all of those things when we are winning. It is also painful and demoralizing when we have done everything we know to do and are struggling. Studies show that entrepreneurs trust advice from other entrepreneurs, so it is important to me to support other entrepreneurs with time and energy, sometimes financial investment, and crisis support. It is a responsibility I enjoy, and one that I take very seriously.

Wow, that’s powerful! How about mentors in your own life. Who would you say has been instrumental in your journey?

I didn’t realize it growing up, but parents were the first entrepreneurs I ever knew. They set a standard for hard work and tenacity I could never live up to. I have the benefit of knowing so many amazing entrepreneurs. There have been so many people who have helped me along the way. I thank God for the inspiration, and I credit the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program for the training program and Invest Detroit for the initial access to capital that enabled my success.

Lastly, your company was a presenting sponsor for this year’s Women of Influence Summit. What does it mean to you to be a woman of influence?

I know what it is like to be unheard, unseen and unappreciated. That is why I so value the platform I have been blessed with. My vision for my company and our communities is driven by a commitment to empower people and enrich communities by advancing equity in clean energy. We are making a difference. It is my hope that what we are doing inspires others to invest similarly in the advancement of women and girls to excel across all industries.

Thank you for sharing so candidly. Any final words?

Thank you for valuing my voice.