One of the best ways to effect change is to make it happen from the inside out — instead of waiting for the world to change, why not do it yourself? Jen Aitchison, Vice President of Sustainable Energy Insurance at Jones Brown Inc., embraces this concept, offering risk management solutions for companies invested in renewable energy, giving green technology a competitive edge in the business world.
Upon meeting Aitchison, she exudes a strong, confident demeanour. Hanging around her neck is a pendant that says, ‘Fearless’. The necklace was given to her by a family member, and is one of Aitchison’s life mantras. “When I first started down this route, I was terrified of walking into a room full of people and shaking their hands. The best thing I can tell women is eat the fear,” Aitchison says. “Shaking one person’s hand at that event is a success because you can build on it and you realize it isn’t scary.”
Aitchison is one of the first insurance brokers in Toronto to start a sustainable energy insurance practice, and over the last eight years she has helped several companies in solar and wind energy navigate their way through the complexities of risk management solutions in an emerging industry where no standard existed before. Aitchison initially brought the idea of sustainable energy insurance to Jones Brown as a side project. “I asked myself how can I use my eight years of experience in the insurance industry and couple that with my environment and sustainability passions? Maybe there is a way to work from the inside out, this being a bit of a capitalistic environment and a bit of an old boys club here,” Aitchison says. “When I first pitched the guys, they were like that is so cute. They said that I could pursue that pet project on the side, but also asked that I don’t let my normal day job slip.”
Aitchison began researching sustainable energy insurance and visiting various renewables companies. She quickly discovered there was a large gap in the renewables industries when it came to insurance and over the course of six years, worked hard to create a sustainable energy insurance practice. Within the practice, she focuses largely on product development of integral financial instruments such as performance guarantees, educating industry members on risk management specifics for renewables and an annual sales budget exceeding $150,000. After being promoted to partner at Jones Brown six years ago, Aitchison is one of the leaders of insurance for renewables and a leader for women and the environment in the insurance sector.
“That’s how I made insurance not suck, for a lack of a better term. I ended up working both sides, teaching insurance companies what some of the emerging technologies were, what challenges were being faced and what some of the solutions we needed,” Aitchison says. “At the same time, I was teaching the renewable energy sector about insurance and some of the things they should consider when setting up their projects.”
Though Aitchison has achieved great success at Jones Brown, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Being a woman with an environmental agenda in the insurance industry had its struggles and Aitchison had to fight for pay equity as recently as 2015. “I didn’t get pay equity until November of last year and it was a 30 per cent difference. I threatened to leave,” Aitchison recalls. “It was shocking. It is important to talk about that still happening.”
Alongside becoming one of leading environmentalists sporting an insurance portfolio and fighting for her rights as a woman in a leading role, Aitchison also won the 2015 Canadian Solar Industry Association President’s award because of her work as the Fire Safety Committee Chair for the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA). Aitchison helped create a PV Fire Safety handbook to keep firefighters safe in case they encounter electrified solar panels during a fire.
Aitchison is also a founding committee member of Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE), a group that brings women together across various renewables industries. Aitchison is in charge of field trips to various renewables companies, support on networking and awards, and overall direction of the group with the other committee members. WiRE began in 2013 when the initial founding members met at Women of Wind Energy (WoWE), a group supporting women invested in wind energy. “We were talking about being from different backgrounds and that there wasn’t a group that encompassed all types of renewable energy,” she says. “We were frustrated that wind and solar were all fighting for the same piece of the pie. We didn’t want that and wanted to break those barriers down. That’s the type of women we are at WiRE. We see barriers, and we rip them down.”
She also emphasizes it was important to the committee that WiRE was not a ‘hen’s club’ or ‘a clique’ and is a very opening group of women professionals. There is also a mentorship aspect to the group that brings young women and professionals together to collaborate and network. “In the WiRE environment, we connect women with women,” She says. “We also run a speed mentoring event. It is so great to see them succeed and get out of their shell.”
Aitchison is a single mom of two kids, ages 11 and 17, and manages to balance her work life while being an inspiring parent as well. She is currently reading “Bet on Me: Leading and Succeeding in Business and in Life” by Annette Verschuren. In her rare spare time, she likes to play guitar, cycle, draw, snowboard, hike and kayak with her kids. She also builds shelves and other odds and ends on the side, confessing “I’m a bit of a junkie for making things out of nothing.”
Aitchison is a born mentor; she is fierce, empowered, kind-hearted and patient. Her own passions and experience have given her a credibility in the renewables sector that cannot be ignored and yet she is modest and sincere about her successes. If more women like Aitchison join the fight to change the world to a more environmental one from the outside in, sustainability and women leadership will certainly stand a chance to rise out on top.
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