An interview with Sophia Nortje
A woman of faith, a mother, businesswoman, and entrepreneur, she has her hand in every pie. First and foremost, Sophia is a woman of faith and a mother of (almost) three kids. This not only shapes and influences her personal life but her business life as well.
“I believe in God and this influences not only a little aspect of my life, but this is who I am.”
Sophia is an entrepreneur with a degree in International Management and a double master’s degree in Strategic Management from the University of Waikato (NZ) and Economics from University in Kiel (Germany) – her choice of studies influenced by her love of culture, traditions, and languages. At some point, she considered studying medicine but then chose business as it better enables living in multiple nations.
She studied for a semester in Sydney, moved to New Zealand for 8 years, and joined the solar industry after completing her studies. Afterward, she moved to California, remaining in the solar industry, and then met her South African husband.
“I am a businesswoman and entrepreneur. Owner of Sunor energy.”
Joining the industry
Sophia specializes in renewable energy and has substantial experience in the Solar PV industry in New Zealand, California, and now South Africa. She worked as a project manager for Vector Limited, New Zealand’s main utility company in their renewable energy division. She then moved to California and worked for Progressive Power Group a Solar Engineering, Procurement, and Construction company where she gained further knowledge on residential and small & medium commercial Solar PV Systems (i.e. design and engineering, panel, and inverter product suites, battery back-up systems, and everything else solar).
Before starting her own company in South Africa she worked for a few months at a Solar distributor and helped to teach some Solar PV courses for maxx | solar academy. She then joined SolarEdge as Sales Manager introducing their inverters and optimizers to the South African market.
The start of something
Sophia started Sunor Energy in 2015. In the many years, she had been in the industry she built a strong network and with South Africa in the midst of an energy supply crisis, it meant there was a gap for energy generation and the Solar PV market.
Challenges of starting the business
Being a new company, selling the first system, and building a client database is challenging, as new clients always ask for references of previous installations. Another challenge was to find competent electricians and other employees since Sunor Energy specializes in high quality large residential and smaller commercial systems, and differentiates itself on excellence in product quality, installation quality, and design.
The love for solar
“The joy of meeting new people from different walks of life”
Working in the solar industry has allowed the opportunity to work with people and, to help solve their unique energy challenges with high-quality design and products and being able to tell people about the variety of products on offer applicable to their situation. “I also love being a woman in this field. I believe women that have invested in understanding a technical concept are sometimes at an advantage to explain these to non-technical people”. This is why it is of great importance to know your product suite, not only ensuring that your brand will not be undermined due to poor quality products, but also to provide clients with the best value for money.
What advice can you give to women who want to start a solar career?
Start somewhere, there is a saying “it is easier to move a vehicle in motion than a stalled vehicle from rest”. The first thing is to familiarise yourself with what is happening in the industry. Read articles, books, and magazines – there is a lot one can learn through self-study and research. Be open-minded the solar industry is multi-faceted, from manufacturing to sales, marketing, engineering and planning, distribution, construction, post-installation service, etc. When you decide to join the industry.
“Find your niche, find what you are good at”.
Finding an area that you’re both knowledgeable about and that you love is the sweet spot for identifying your niche. Feeling passionate about a job makes a huge difference in your approach to finding your niche. When you are new to the industry, you need to work extra hours to research, do your homework, and close your knowledge gaps. It’s also important to think about which areas you have special skills or experience in. What do people regularly tell you you’re good at? What’s your training or education? What special skills or knowledge have you developed through your work? Finding your niche is an important step in building and growing a successful business. Focus on your passion when finding your niche. You do not just choose a niche because you are “kind of interested” in it; it should be something, you can see yourself being passionate about for at least 5 years*.
Lastly, learn to be confident about who you are and do not allow anything to stop you. Trust that the right opportunities will open up for you and when they do, grab them with both hands and run as hard as you can.
In celebration of women’s month, we are conducting a campaign to highlight ground-breaking women in the Renewable energy Industry. Read our previous article from the series here: “A Damsel but not in Distress: Portrait of a Female Solar Pioneer”