Cynthia Adams Steps into the Linda Wigington Leadership Award in 2018
Cynthia Adams, CEO of Pearl Certification Systems, accepted the Linda Wigington Leadership Award at the Home Performance Coalition National Conference in Pennsylvania this spring. I was lucky to catch her by phone at the end of her workday on a Friday evening for an inspiring conversation.
Cynthia Adams (CA): At Pearl, we have created a home certification system that takes in data on a home’s performance features and translates those data into meaningful content to help homes sell for more and faster. For real estate agents, that meaningful content also includes a Multiple Listing Service report, so they know what data fields have been verified in the home that they can check off. Giving contractors and real estate agents a turnkey product that helps them market differentiate and enables a higher level of service is fundamental to what we do.
Leslie Jackson (LJ): What prepared you for this work? A real estate background? Construction? Public policy? Environmentalism?
CA: Of the things that you’ve named, it’s construction, but I didn’t start there. I have a master’s in English and out of college taught at the university level. I did a career pivot when my husband and I renovated our first house, then two years later built our own house. These experiences led us to start our own construction company whose building practices aligned with our values. We wanted to create a sanctuary space for a family, via a house that was energy efficient, made with locally sourced materials, had beautiful spaces and fine craftsmanship. These were our guiding principles when we started our construction business.
LJ: You were building a house for yourself; it began with the personal, and then as you learned more, it became a passion, and then you wanted to keep rippling out to others.
CA: You’ve nailed it. It became a passion. Yes, first it was our building company. Then I took a job where I worked with lots of other builders. Then I ran a nonprofit whose work was at the city and county level. Next, I started the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council, a nonprofit whose focus was at the state level. Now Robin LeBaron and I have launched Pearl Certification, whose impact will be national. So, my career evolution has continued to expand with opportunity for impact, and I’m grateful for that.
LJ: What advice do you have for people coming up in residential energy efficiency?
CA: For those who are just getting started out of college, trade school, or through online learning, get out into the world and use your skills as soon as you can. Try for an apprenticeship or internship with a business that you admire—be it with an architect, a builder, or a home improvement contractor—while still training. It’s important to learn the sometimes messy customer service aspects of home contracting “hands-on.” Sales, conflict resolution, price negotiation, etc. are important skills for a successful business that need development and practice—beyond all of the technical knowledge you need to do your job.
LJ: How are you treated as a woman in your leadership roles in a traditionally male industry?
CA: Well, I ran construction crews in Idaho for eight years, and sometimes, I‘d show up to a jobsite to hear catcalling. Occasionally a new sub didn’t know who I was, and so inadvertently catcalled their boss. The other guys would just let them do it, because they enjoyed the discomfort that happened after. I didn’t appreciate the experience, but there were harder moments than the sexual harassment.
The hardest part was being a mother. No one talked with me back then about how to juggle motherhood in the workforce—particularly when running your own business. There was no communal problem solving for it and no social media groups through which to find support and commiseration—at least not back in 2000. Working mothers had more of a suck-it-up attitude. It turns out that when you are not conflicted, you not only feel better about yourself, you do a better job for the company. We haven’t solved this problem, and I feel for women who have to make difficult choices.
LJ: I missed your acceptance speech. May I have a highlight?
CA: For those people who care about climate change, we as an industry are doing amazing work; let’s not lose focus on that. It’s critical-path work.
This past year, the news was full of stories on wildfires, hurricanes, and floods. Climate change via weather disasters is just starting to have an effect on home insurance and property values. Zillow estimates that there are almost one trillion dollars in potential stranded assets from sea level rise alone. To say nothing of the damage done by weather disasters. A lot of people seem to be taking a nap on the tracks; but there’s this freight train—both environmental and economic—coming right for us. The great thing about the people who work in our industry is that they are not napping on the tracks. Every day they make our houses more healthy, comfortable, and energy efficient; and in doing so also make a positive impact on climate change. It may seem incremental, but it’s critically important work. We should be proud of that.
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