Heather Nelson is the co-founder and president of Seal Solar, a company leading the way in energy solutions and solar design and installation from its headquarters in North Little Rock. We caught up with Nelson — who recently took home the title of Business Executive of the Year at the 33rd annual Arkansas Business of the Year Awards — to talk career challenges, mental health and why you should rethink passing on a male-dominated business.
You're a veteran of the solar industry. What drew you to it initially?
We founded our firm in 2012 as part of the Clinton Foundation’s energy-efficiency incubator program. We knew the challenges, and the opportunities, that came with operating in an emerging industry and were considering investing in solar. Our decision to forge ahead was solidified for me when I met an engineer from one of the nation’s largest energy providers while in Port au Prince. I told my business partner, Josh Davenport, if they could figure out solar power in Haiti, we could build a successful model for it in Arkansas. And we have. To date, Seal Solar has completed more than 450—approximately one in five—solar projects in the state.
What's something you wish you'd done differently early in your career?
Entrepreneurship is both daunting and exhilarating. I’m fortunate to have a strong system of mentors that have guided me on this journey. In hindsight, however, I wish I had been even more intentional in cultivating my personal board of directors. It could have helped me avoid some unforeseen landmines along the way.
What do you see as your biggest challenge as an executive?
Every day, I find myself wishing I could clone myself or my team members. Often, there are simply not enough hours in a day. It’s the blessing, and sometimes the curse, of having a successful and rapidly growing business.
What advice do you have for women looking to get into a career in STEM?
Along with building a network of mentors, take the time to learn about the industries that interest you and stir your passions. Take advantage of the unlimited information available online. Also, don’t dismiss a heavily male firm without an interview. Initially, I was the only woman at Seal Solar. But we were cognizant of that and focused on recruiting additional female talent. If you pass up opportunities without finding out more or asking the tough questions, you’ll never know what path the company is on or if you are just what it needs to advance.
What's one lesson you've had to learn over and over?
It’s been a constant challenge to know my limits, create boundaries and stick to them. As a small business owner, I often use my energy to support my team. But it’s important for me to remember to fill my own tank, too.
You've said getting outdoors has been key to keeping your sanity over the past year. What other practices do you employ to maintain your mental health?
My commitment to walking five miles nearly every day and hiking on the weekends has helped me weather the challenges of the past year. I also do yoga and meditate daily. I love to read and spend time with friends, thankfully now more in-person with COVID-19 vaccines. Thanks to reminders from my new Apple Watch, my friend and mentor David Russell can finally take a break from sending me emails that say, “Breathe.”
Want more insight? Read Nelson's profile as a Little Rock Soirée 2020 Woman to Watch.