THE BLOG

Women in Business: Q&A with Kerry Cooper, CEO of Choose Energy

12/27/2013 08:39 am ET | Updated Feb 26, 2014
  • Laura Dunn Social Media and Communications Professional, Founder and Editor of Political Style, Director of LED Media, Journalist and Author

Kerry Cooper was appointed as CEO of Choose Energy in November 2013. Choose Energy is America's largest energy marketplace place, allowing residents and businesses to comparison-shop and switch for their ideal energy supplier online.

As Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Operating Officer, Kerry helped guide the marketing, merchandising, service (fulfillment and care) as well as human resource efforts for ModCloth, an innovative online retailer of independent designer fashion and decor. Kerry joined ModCloth from Walmart.com, where she held multiple executive roles, from running strategy and business development to CMO to helping build Walmart's global e-commerce and multi-channel development.

Prior to Walmart.com, Kerry ran retail and planning for the Dockers® brand at Levi Strauss & Co. She began her career at McKinsey & Company and worked in venture capital and enterprise software before discovering her love of consumer businesses. Kerry has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and an MBA from Harvard.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I started working very young and have had a varied career -- from working in a chemical plant in Northeast Texas to the North Slope of Alaska to supply chain in Taiwan to e-commerce in roles from planning to merchandise to operations to marketing to finance. Building a broad base of expertise and pursuing as many opportunities as I can has been the key to creating my career. It's also afforded me the pleasure of working for and learning from many great leaders. I think leadership is about being authentic, a servant leader who helps build teams and community. Starting my professional career at McKinsey was a great first step. Their value of having the obligation to dissent was freeing to me and helped me ensure I always have an opinion and am comfortable speaking it. It also threw me into many different industries and situations and gave me a great foundation to connect the dots in other industries. I have a favorite Gilda Radner quote: "Some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next."

I have realized how small the world is, living in the Bay Area for over 15 years. You realize that the people you work with will come back to you and learn to pay it forward -- help when you can. You'll never know when it comes back. Also, as a wife and mom to two kids, two dogs and two cats, I appreciate balance and know that every dollar matters and utilities are a big part of our living expenses -- my work and personal experiences allowed me to see the opportunities available to empower consumers in this space.

How will your previous employment experience aide your position at Choose Energy?
In some ways, my e-commerce and apparel background seem a stretch to move over to the energy industry! But in other ways, it's quite similar. While the supply chain is quite different, the target customer is similar. The CEO of the house is Mom who makes the budget and buying decisions. She is looking for help from a trusted partner like Choose Energy and the community to make decisions that are important to the household. What I'm excited about is building a great brand and a great company. This is an industry ripe for building trust and community to make saving money and getting the right plan for our customer easier. Building brand/experiences and scaling businesses has been where I've spent much of my last 10 years.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I think balance requires a very clear definition of your priorities and defining success on your own terms. The question is not "can I do it all?" but "can I do what's most important to me and my family?" I have had to let go of my own expectations in some cases (I love to cook but can't cook most nights), ignore expectations others have (I can't always volunteer where I'd like to), and create balance with my husband in sharing the many, many duties of parenthood. I am blessed to be married to someone who can pick up the slack and share responsibilities. And I've gotten comfortable that it's okay if our house is messy, or as visitors describe it, "so lived in." I truly believe that as a society, we need to get comfortable accepting that being a parent shouldn't be counter to career success, male or female.

How can we encourage girls to get involved in STEM projects and industries?
I think it's a few things. First, it starts early. I am lucky to have parents who both studied veterinary medicine and I grew up around engineers from the national lab in Albuquerque. Engineering and math were part of what I saw as "normal." Girls need that confidence and belief that being good at math and science is a great thing and expected of them. Second, the STEM classes need to find balance to include women and not 'weed out' the first year. The average GPA of the women who dropped out of engineering my first year of school was greater than the GPA of the men who stayed in. We need to get women comfortable with not being perfect and instead, focusing on the learning and the work. The end goal, STEM work, is very female-friendly and a great career. I have loved seeing new schools like Olin College or Neu [a venture Scott Kauffman on our board is launching], which balance men and women and focus on project-based engineering and design, which is more reflective of the 'real world.'

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to work in what is traditionally considered a 'male' industry?
Have passion for what you do. You want to get up every day excited about the opportunity in front of you. If you do, the gender makeup isn't your top concern. Be authentic. Don't try to act differently and be comfortable with your style as who you are. People appreciate you for that authenticity and will see through any "acting" that isn't authentic. Finally, I do think in a more male-dominated industry, you need thick skin. Feedback is a gift; learn not to take it personally or to let things get to you.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
For all parents, it's flexibility -- it is not a zero-sum game where family loses if work wins. I think for women particularly, it's building confidence and risk-taking. We need to get over questioning whether we can do something and rather, have the confidence that we can and will succeed. Being successful can be a challenge and women need the confidence to stick our necks out.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I love that she's raised the issue and created a conversation. I agree with a lot of what she has to say -- bring your whole self to work, don't leave before you leave, a career is a jungle-gym, not a ladder. We need more women to share how they make the balance happen, as there are many, many paths to a flourishing career and family. I have friends who are single moms or dads, who have stopped working and restarted, who have pivoted their careers. I think all of those stories need to be told as we all live in different circumstances with different priorities and finding that highly varied inspiration is important.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
My background is in e-commerce, and I'm thrilled to see many young female founders of great companies like ModCloth, Birchbox, StitchFix. They have done a great job addressing women's needs in a very authentic way -- and building great businesses. And it doesn't stop there -- there are many amazing female entrepreneurs who are building great businesses and breaking barriers. I love that spirit and that ability to get others to follow a vision and scale and build great companies. And no list would be complete without Sheryl Sandberg. As I mentioned, I love her leadership on bringing forward leadership issues to the forefront.

What are your hopes for the future of Choose Energy?
Using the power of technology and online education tools available at ChooseEnergy.com, we want to become the most visited and trusted online energy marketplace in the country. We can help drive a lot of savings in the market and great choices for consumers as this market continues to evolve. We want to build that relationship with our customers so that we're the first place they think of when they think about their energy needs.