WVU Solar team Part 1: Learning Curve
Posted 6/18/2013 by Katie Frye, financial lead for the West Virginnia University Solar Decathlon Team
For the West Virginia University Solar Decathlon Team, I have been the finance lead since … yesterday.
Wait, let me back up. “What is ‘Solar Decathlon’?” you ask. No worries -- I had no idea what it was a mere five months ago. At that time, I was finishing up my first semester at WVU. I had just graduated from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., last spring and was pursuing my master’s e degree in professional accountancy. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have any experience in accounting (my bachelor’s degree was in economics and environmental policy) and was taking undergraduate classes as prerequisites. In one of these undergrad classes, some students came to talk to us about – you guessed it -- the Solar Decathlon.
Basically, a bunch of students (mostly engineers) had formed a team and been selected to compete in a prestigious international competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy. They were going to build a solar-powered house and compete on technology, innovation, efficiency, attractiveness and affordability of the house. They had come to speak to my class because they needed business majors to help raise money and land sponsors to get this house built. Since I had a degree in environmental policy (and was in desperate need of accounting experience), I was ready to join!
A computer-generated rendering of the Solar Decathlon 2013 concept of West Virginia University
At that first meeting in the beginning of January, I was ready to be the drone they needed. Needless to say, I was surprised when the finance lead asked me to be his replacement since he was graduating this May. I was hesitant at first. Here I was, at my FIRST MEETING EVER and I was supposed to be in charge of an entire Finance Team? He assured me that he would guide me every step of the way and I would just be a regular member until a month or so before he graduated. Oh, and the team needed a secretary. But, they would ease me into it, until I got the feel of it.
Katie Frye, financial lead for the West Virginnia University Solar Decathlon Team
Yeah, no, there was no “easing.” Right off the bat, I have been communicating with potential sponsors, trying to secure necessary donations to build and transport this house. The biggest challenge was (and still is) having very little knowledge of engineering. I had no clue what HVAC was (I still don’t, really, but I just fake it when donors asked anything technical and tried to pawn them off on engineers who know what they’re talking about).
Well, now it’s go time. The previous finance lead is graduating in less than a month, and I am inheriting all of his responsibilities. Also, the members of the engineering, communications, design, and landscaping teams have worked their rears off planning, and here I need to get all of the materials and money they need, or all of their hard work is for naught. Right now, I am trying to procure 120 house jacks, or they can’t even START building. You have no idea how slow going it is to try and get the manager/owner of a company that you’ve had no contact with to give you 120 products FOR FREE. Now imagine that you have no idea how to use house jacks and all of the specifications mean nothing to you, but you are responsible for picking out the right one or bullying someone else into it. Yeah, it’s rough.
A computer-generated rendering of the interior of the Solar Decathlon 2013 concept of West Virginia University
But overall, it’s been a great learning experience. I am so much more confident in asking potential sponsors for donations and communicating the goal of the WVU Solar Decathlon Team. I know that I will use these skills as a CPA once I graduate. Hopefully, that will give me the edge I need when I’m applying for real jobs. However, we have some huge hurdles to overcome. With time ticking, I can only hope to be successful and give back to the team. I owe it to the team for all it’s given me.