‘We Basically Turn You Into A Mini Power Plant’: How A Former Macy’s Exec Founded A Renewable Energy Startup

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
renewable energy
Girard Newkirk, founder and CEO of KWH Renewable Energy. Photo provided

Girard Newkirk had a cushy job as a vice president at a San Francisco Bay area Macy’s department store but he wanted to do more.

His dream was to help 1.2 billion people who don’t have access to electricity in Africa, the Caribbean and other regions.

“I knew God, the universe was pushing me to do something more purposeful than selling high-priced lipstick in the mall,” Newkirk told Moguldom.

Now the CEO of KWH Renewable Energy, Newkirk is looking to help millions of people access affordable and renewable resources. His asset management company has projects in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Africa. KWH was first-place winner of the pitch competition at the World Blockchain Summit in 2018 and was recently one of 11 companies chosen for the Google for Startups Black Founders Exchange Program at the American Underground.

Newkirk and his team have created a successful software solution and cryptocurrency to track and save on energy consumption, launched projects abroad and partnered with one of the largest organizations in the space — Mavericks Renewables.

Renewable energy on the blockchain

KWHCoin is a blockchain-based community, ecosystem and cryptocurrency backed by units of clean, renewable energy. Physical units of kWh energy are leveraged from multiple sources including smart meters, sensor readings and green button data. This measurable output is tokenized on the blockchain to create KWH tokens, according to the KWH Renewable Energy website.

However, being based in the Wilmington, North Carolina area has been a challenge, Newkirk said. The area is known for the horrific events that took place during the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot.

“The residual effects are still very present,” Newkirk said.

Newkirk spoke with Moguldom about moving from Silicon Valley to Wilmington, how his children helped strengthen his passion for renewable energy and pivoting to build a better product for his customers.

renewable energy
Girard Newkirk, founder and CEO of KWH Renewable Energy. Photo provided

Moguldom: Why did you start KWH Renewable Energy?

Girard Newkirk: We started it with a mission. There are 1.2 billion people in the world that don’t have access to electricity. Another 600 million are suffering from energy poverty of some sort with the bulk of this population in Africa, the Caribbean, and the rural areas of North America. We started the company to build clean energy solutions to make energy, affordable, reliable, and resilient. That is our overarching mission.

Our software manages and tracks energy data. You can think of us (as) an energy asset management company. We can determine where your resources are, how much are they producing, what they’re producing, even down to the appliance in a home in some cases. At our heart, we are more on the technology side, with great partnerships that we have made on the hardware and infrastructure side. We have the capability to go into a small island or a remote population area, develop the energy infrastructure, and then use our software to manage it at a much more affordable rate. Our software system manages all of that using sensors and artificial intelligence.

We basically turn you into a mini power plant. We can turn any place, whether it be a commercial building or community home, into its own independent, mini power grid and our software can manage it. We can also turn that energy data into a digital asset.

Moguldom: Are you focusing on solar, water, or wind?

Girard Newkirk: We’re talking about any type of distributed energy resource that could be solar, wind, or hydro-powered. We work a lot with microgrids and energy storage. Because really, the key to what’s happening in the energy markets is not always on the side of producing electricity with solar and wind, but it is also focused on how you store energy so areas can have power during the evenings. Our focus is solar, wind, geothermal, microgrids, and energy storage, but we build a very curated solution based on the natural resources of the areas that we’re in. We focus on whatever type of source and technology matches up best, with the topography of that country, or community.

Moguldom:  You have a political science degree and worked in retail and finance before starting KWH Renewable Energy. How did you transition into building an energy company?

Girard Newkirk: I have two young kids. My son is 7 now and my little girl just turned 5. She had a stroke when she was born. We almost lost her. There have been a lot of challenges, but you couldn’t even tell now. She’s a beautiful, vibrant, very talkative, sweet little girl. Raising her really pulled on my heartstrings and caused me to focus on what is my purpose and what is driving me in life versus just chasing a bigger check. I’ve always wanted to start an energy company, and I’ve always wanted to power Africa and the Caribbean while lowering the cost of electricity. Providing affordable energy is really the key to economic growth and development. I have always researched it on the side as a hobby. I was always looking at the renewable energies that were coming out. But in 2014, I started to focus on how it could become a reality.

After studying and researching it for about three and a half years, I left the cushy job as a vice president at Macy’s in the Bay Area to start this company. For me, my little girl being born and almost losing her, my son is autistic, it really was me trying to make a better world for my kids. I knew God, the universe was pushing me to do something more purposeful than selling high-priced lipstick in the mall. I decided to follow my passion. It’s been a long journey, but now we’re starting to get some traction.

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Moguldom:  People of color have not been leaders in this industry, and it seems as though communities that look like us have been left behind. Why is there such a focus for us by us in the energy space?

Girard Newkirk: I’ll tell you something that was very eye-opening for me. Back in March 2018, we were in Nairobi, Kenya. We were invited to attend the World Blockchain Summit. There we, KWH Coin, won first place in a pitch competition, the Startup World Cup Regional Championship. I got to interact with East Africans. Looking at the innovation and the technology they focused on floored me. They are far ahead of even us here, Blacks in the U.S. You never really hear it reported, but when you get on the ground, and you get to see firsthand and all these technologies, it is amazing. One thing the internet has done is unleash the will. If you have the will and the desire now, you can come up with the resources or medium to express that. I think now, a lot of people, especially blacks around the world, are tired of second-class treatment. They understand the technology provides a medium now to leap forward. They understand that there is a fourth industrial revolution that is happening, and we have an opportunity to be on that cusp of it. I think there’s a level of action happening in our communities around the world that’s going to push us to be the innovators. If you go back historically, blacks were always the most skilled working class. They were always innovating. We were the most efficient, the most productive, the most innovative. It’s just we integrated into systems that we got the lowest possible value. I think now there’s a younger generation that understands this and is much more informed and they want to take action.

Moguldom: You’re headquartered in Wilmington, North Carolina which has a horrific past of injustice for Black people. What is it like as a Black founder today building your tech startup there?

Girard Newkirk: I was in California and moved back here, back home to Wilmington, in November 2018. Silicon Valley was completely different. First of all, what we’re doing is very innovative. It took me about a year to be able to get people to understand. The second thing is being here where Black Wall Street was and the 1898 history. The only coup that has ever happened in the history of the U.S. happened right here on Front Street in Wilmington, North Carolina. The residual effects are still very present.

My wife has been featured talking about the racial divide and how the remnants are still here. Even with all the awards and all the accolades, and all the things our company has won and what we’re doing in the community — we still haven’t had a serious investor conversation with anyone in the network here. We still haven’t had any serious access to capital from our area. So, starting a company here, in the Durham area, versus being in Atlanta or Memphis, has been really eye-opening, because it’s shown me that we have to develop our own inner networks to support each other or this is not going to happen. A lot of the programs that are in place to support are just window dressing. It’s not going to contribute anything actionable to add to the success of Black-founded companies. I have found some very interesting statistics and have spoken on this in detail in another article about the disparities in government contracts awarded. And it really has been a challenge as far as capital access and customer acquisition. And sometimes it feels like it is intentionally not understanding what it is that we’re doing. But we’re chipping away at it.

renewable energy
Girard Newkirk, (front, fourth from left) with alumni of Google For Startups program who recently graduated at the American Underground. Photo provided

Moguldom: Getting access to capital has been a challenge for you in Wilmington, despite winning the pitch competition and being accepted to Google for Startups Black Founders Exchange at the American Underground. You launched KWH Coin to help. How has the coin affected your ability to scale?

Girard Newkirk: We wanted to build a complete end-to-end solution to provide power. Some of the biggest points of friction in Africa are monetary stability, affordability and lack of energy access. The coin, for us, was just a component of the overall strategy. We looked at it as having more value as a medium of exchange in places like Africa and the Caribbean, Latin America, where they don’t have access. It has been a roller coaster with all of that. The value of the coin is having the ability to purchase power in these places and join our network. We pivoted our strategy to go in on the hardware side as well, to become almost like an alternative energy power plant. Using the coin is a way to get access to that power, as a medium of exchange and to get prices lower because you are now part of it.

We didn’t have any major capital raises like some of the other companies here. But I think we now clearly understand our customers. We understand our customers’ needs and how we can add value to our solutions. We had raised Ethereum originally when we started the company back in 2018. We’re still in the process now of talking with some investors. But here is the challenge. If you say you’re going to build or generate power in Africa and the Caribbean, most traditional investors are afraid of the risk. They’re hesitant about investing or spending 10 years developing power plants for the outskirts of Sierra Leone.

We kind of modified our strategy and we have a major partner now in Mavericks Renewables. They provide energy financing and also help develop the energy project. By us partnering with them and becoming a part of that conglomerate, it now gives us the opportunity to go in as an industry company. Where we may not have the financing independently, we can now leverage our relationship to get us the capital we need for today, which has allowed us to be a part of major projects. We really are redefining ourselves. It’s almost like changing the bus tire while the bus is still in motion. Now, we have a much more balanced mix of what we will need in order to begin to secure other projects. And most importantly, get that energy infrastructure on the ground so we can start providing the support these communities need.

Moguldom: What do the next five years look like for KWH Renewable Energy?

Girard Newkirk: We’re going to have 10 million people on our platform around the world. We’ll be providing clean, affordable, and reliable energy to thousands of businesses.

There’s an internet of energy that is rapidly developing. Our company wants to be on the forefront of not only building the infrastructure that’s required to use the internet as a vehicle for energy deployments, and make it cheaper and more accessible, but we also want to provide the technology solutions to enable it to reach the Caribbean and Africa. We want to make sure that not only they get access to energy, but they can also develop their own energy.