She’s Taking on Elon Musk on Solar. And Winning.
As the head of Sunrun, Lynn Jurich won’t rest until the photovoltaic cell module is as common as the fireplace.
By David Gelles
Jan 23 2020
Lynn Jurich, the chief executive of the residential solar company Sunrun, starts every morning with a mantra: “All people and all circumstances are my allies.”
It’s a relentlessly positive outlook, and one that has served her well as she overachieved her way from the woods of Washington State to the pinnacle of Silicon Valley. A bookish child, she overloaded on extracurriculars and got into Stanford. After a stint in private equity, she went back to graduate school and wound up cofounding Sunrun.
There were clouds along the way. She and her husband were stretched emotionally and financially as they both got companies off the ground, his the skin-care brand Tatcha. Sunrun’s stock sank after its initial public offering in 2015.
But today, Sunrun is the leading installer of residential rooftop solar panels in the United States. Last year the company overtook Tesla, which got into the solar business after it acquired SolarCity, which was founded by Lyndon Rive, the cousin of Tesla’s chief executive Elon Musk.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted in New York City.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Tacoma, Wash., in the woods. I was a voracious reader, and I wanted to learn everything. I wanted to do everything at the highest level possible, and was into self-improvement at a very young age. My sister tells stories about how I would make a to-do list at age five which would be: “inventing, practice ballet, practice the piano, singing, read the dictionary.” If there was something to do, I was going to do it, and try to do it at a really high level.
Did that come from your parents?
Not at all. My father was a dentist, and first person to go to college in his family. My mother worked for the government, originally just taking claims for Social Security, and then made her way up. I remember them trying to say, “You’re going to the University of Washington, that’s the school you go to.” And I said, “No, I worked a little bit too hard. I’m going to apply to some of the top schools.”
I was very disillusioned with adults at a young age. I was like, “Hey, you’ve had this whole life to be wise and to learn things.” And I just found them to be a little sloppy and hypocritical.
Do you still feel that way about adults?
I have more empathy now.
So where did you go to school?
Stanford. In my college application essay, I remember I wrote about the importance of leisure, which is so hypocritical. But I feel like that was always lingering in the back of my mind. Like, “Oh, there’s this whole other way to experience the world.”
College was easy after having so many demands on my time throughout my childhood. I worked for a couple professors doing research on how technology would shape work, and that became my day trading strategy. I would interview Silicon Valley companies, and I could basically kind of get a read as to how well the stock was going to do, and would do a little investing on the side. I remember thinking I was a genius, because it was really easy to make money then.
What did you do after school?
I got one of the very top jobs out of my undergrad class, which was hard to do in 2002. It was a tough economy. It was an offer to work for Summit Partners, a private equity firm. I showed my dad, and was so proud, and he was like, “Hm, have you thought about dental school?”
It was a tough job. I basically had to cold call C.E.O.s and try to sell them money, and the evenings were spent building financial models. I learned all sorts of creative ways to get in front of a C.E.O. Like, become friends with their assistant so you can get a seat of the airplane next to them. Figure out which conferences they’re going to be at. And know the right time of day to approach: never approach somebody on a Monday.
I’m a very, very strong introvert, and I really chose to push myself into cold calling. It was uncomfortable for me, but I’m so glad I did it.
Did you know at that point that you wanted to start a company?
That experience is what helped me know that I wanted to. I got to meet so many people, and they were impressive, but I was like, “O.K., I could do that.”
How did you get the idea for Sunrun?
I was at school at the Stanford Graduate School for Business, and went to China for an internship. There was all this building happening in Shanghai, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, we need to figure out how to build things more sustainably.” When I went back to school, one of my classmates said, “Oh, I have this friend who has this solar idea.” And I was like, “Yes. Love it.”
Had you been interested in the environment before that?
Absolutely. Growing up in the woods and trees, I was a little bit of a naturalist. I love bird-watching, and my daughter and I do that every morning. We mark which birds we see. It’s good to actually listen to the birds.
How did you get Sunrun off the ground?
My husband and I both wanted to be entrepreneurs, and we were just married, and were both in business school. There was a little bit of an agreement that whoever gets their company going first gets to do it, and then the other person has to support them. So we were both pursuing entrepreneurial ideas. When my classmate said solar, I was like, “O.K., let’s do it.” And then my husband went back into private equity and supported us.
After Sunrun got up and running for a while, he left and started a company with a classmate, Tatcha. It was so stressful. There were times in 2013 when Sunrun wasn’t profitable yet, and Tatcha was needing capital. And so before we really had any real assets to our name, we were taking the money we were making from Sunrun and investing it into Tatcha. So those were some stressful times, but we earned it. We came by it honestly.
With Sunrun, our idea was to target residential customers. I went through the Stanford database and used my cold-calling skills to call pretty much anybody I could find that had energy or utility experience. One hundred percent of people said it wouldn’t work and gave me this dismissive message. “Well, there’s a lot of sophisticated people working on that stuff. Go home, little girl.” Fast forward to today: We have almost 300,000 customers and $5 billion worth of solar.