Taking up the Baton: Devin Hampton
Meet the Obama alum who is working to create new opportunities for Black and Brown professionals in the clean energy space.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, Devin Hampton, an Obama alum and current CEO of UtilityAPI — a data platform company focused on addressing climate change and working towards an equitable future of energy — spoke out about the lack of diversity in his industry. Then, he took action to address it.
Devin co-founded the initiative Empowering Diversity Climate Talent (EDICT) to create a diverse pipeline for climate-focused organizations, with the goal of fostering inclusive workplace cultures while expanding the network development of rising leaders from minority backgrounds.
We recently connected with Devin to discuss how his experience in the Obama administration shapes his work today and his efforts to make history in the clean energy industry.
Q: First off, congratulations on EDICT! Your 2020 LinkedIn post sparked a new effort to diversify the climate and clean tech workforces. Is that what you hoped to accomplish?
A: Yes, I just didn’t know it would be me.
That post came from frustrations of being the only Black person in the room and being tired of the lack of representation. I left the Obama administration feeling like it was the most diverse administration ever, but when I went to the tech and clean energy space I felt like the only one in the room again.
After that post, Jason Michaels, CCO of Leap, reached out to me to see how we could work together. We saw there wasn’t much being done to diversify the industry, so we went to work and raised money. Six months later, the EDICT internship program was launched in partnership with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, Elemental Excelerator, and FutureMap. The program is a 10-week paid internship at partner employers dedicated to solving climate change.
We wanted to catch people when they’re young and still trying to figure out what they want to do – the climate tech sector is very young, so people coming in at an early age have a chance to grow quickly. The tech space is also risky – companies go out of business all the time. We thought if we got a coalition of companies that all knew each other, if one went out of business other ones would try to scoop up that talent. So it helps de-risk coming to work in the climate and technology space.
Our goal was to create an army of diverse talent for the industry. We all know that if you don’t have a diverse team, your business won’t be as successful. And if you’re serving diverse communities, how are you going to help make decisions for them if you don’t even have a voice in the room?
In June 2021, we started with 25 employers and 30 interns. We more than doubled that the next year. And this year, we’re aiming for over 100 interns at 70 companies. Most of our participants get hired by the companies they intern for or go on to graduate school.
Q: Stepping back—how did you join the Obama administration and what was your role?
A: I’ll start by going back to 2005. I was a 25-year-old who had just dropped out of college. I was working at Alaska Airlines as a ramp agent before I got laid off. I was hustling at different jobs and in 2007, I was working as a bartender at a wine bar around the time Barack Obama began his campaign for president. I knew that I wanted to be involved but didn’t know how.
I started by asking everybody that came into the bar for advice. One day, I met Tim Burgess, who offered me a job on his campaign for Seattle City Council. That job at the Seattle City Council led me to work on the Governor of Washington State’s campaign. While working on the Governor’s campaign, I met someone who said my skills would be a good fit for Barack Obama’s campaign and in May 2008, I was offered a gig to be the advance guy in Pendleton, Oregon.
My job was to tell Barack Obama where to stand or something like that.
After President Obama got elected, I was offered a job and worked at the Department of Energy (DOE) in several different roles. First, I was Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s special assistant, then went on to work for the Deputy Secretary, and then as a senior advisor in the Oil and Gas Office for emerging markets. Eventually, I moved over to the Trade and Development Agency, where I was Chief of Staff for the final year and a half of the administration.
Q: How did your experience working in the administration lead to your work today?
A: It was not only a career accelerator, but a personal accelerator. In seven years I went from being a bartender to the chief of staff of a federal agency, because I was given the opportunity to continue growing during the administration, professionally and personally.
I also had a drinking problem during the early part of my adulthood, which overlapped with the first years of the Obama administration. I got sober at DOE and a big piece of that was because of the support I got from members of the Obama family. My 12-year sobriety anniversary was a few days ago – I’m pretty open about it because I think some people who struggle with addiction feel so alone, and don’t get the chance to do this kind of work. The support I got helped make that possible and it’s a reminder that an addiction doesn’t have to define you.
The DOE is where my passion to fix our energy system expanded. I was learning from the best of the best about the potential of the future of energy and our world. From that experience, I knew that I wanted to take the baton and keep moving this cause forward.
I never wanted to be CEO of a rapidly scaling climate tech company. Working on that campaign in 2008 was a risk – I left everything I knew, and went and did this thing that required getting on a plane without really knowing when and how it would end. In government, I was always open to raising my hand for a new opportunity, regardless if it was the “right” path. It was the opportunity that I was excited about and the chance to do something new.
So when I had the opportunity to come work at UtilityAPI, I didn’t join thinking or planning to be CEO. I came in to do some business development work. I’d never worked in tech or software, but because of my background in the energy sector I believed I’d be able to contribute. I started doing the work and really enjoyed the challenge – I believed in what we were trying to do. Eventually, our founder and CEO got tired of me telling him what to do and decided he wanted to transition back to a more technical role and offered me the CEO job.
Q: To wrap up, as a successful CEO in the clean energy space, what advice do you have for young people who are just starting out in their careers?
A: As much as the Obama administration allowed me to grow professionally and personally, I thought about leaving after the first term. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just wanted to make more money and try something new.
What pulled me back in was the history that we were making. I thought to myself, “All right, man. The next time you have the chance to work for the first Black president of the United States, you can quit.”
I think about that moment and I advise young people to be optimistic, raise your hand when an opportunity comes, and have faith. I live life by the motto, “It’s good news, bad news. Who knows?” I’m one of those people who, even in the worst situation ever, has faith that I’ll be okay. I keep moving forward.