Expert Says Diverse Workforce a Key to Industry Growth

Born and raised in Detroit and a product of Detroit Public Schools — she’s a graduate of Pershing High School — Dr. E’Lois Thomas said she always wanted to be Wonder Woman — “I try to live up to it daily!” she says now — and then thought about becoming a nurse before realizing she was “not too fond of blood.”

But, because she had a love for math, Thomas realized accounting could be a good fit for her. Her educational path includes a master’s degree in management, with the core of her electives being finance-related courses.

After building a hugely successful career in the energy industry, it’s safe to say Thomas, the president of SEEL, LLC (Solutions for Energy Efficient Logistics), has found her niche.
“Finance impacts every facet of a business …. I am enthusiastic about solving problems, and my background in accounting is the foundation for my leadership style,” Thomas said. “This skillset complements my love for precision and detail work and allows me to lead from an informed position.

“When I transitioned to the field of energy, I found an area where my passion for numbers met my purpose for helping others,” she added. “Every day, I not only get to use my love for numbers but help so many people in vulnerable communities. Because of my love for math, accounting seemed to be a good fit. I chose the corporate rather than public route because taxes were not really my area of passion. In the energy space, I am dealing with budgets, megawatt hours, therms, etc. … so the love for numbers continues to flourish as SEEL continues to grow.”

Thomas and her husband, Charles Thomas, Jr., have raised two adult sons, Charles III and Isaiah. She recently took some time to discuss her life and various issues:

Corp! Magazine: SEEL is the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council’s Supplier of the Year for the fourth time. You’ve called it “SEEL’s greatest and most meaningful” accomplishment. What makes it your most meaningful accomplishment?
Dr. E’Lois Thomas: It is one of many of our most meaningful accomplishments. SEEL is grateful for every single award we have won from the Andromeda Star of Energy Efficiency within our second year of operation to the ones noted here. Being recognized by our regional diversity Supplier Development Council is incredibly meaningful because of the support MMSDC provides within our professional network. Being a part of such a vital piece of the equity movement in industry is a privilege and honor. We hadn’t won since 2020, so bringing it home this year was a very meaningful accomplishment to our testament toward driving economic growth within all of the communities that we support.

Corp!: You say SEEL has “innovative workforce development initiatives” with a focus on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. What’s your most innovative program in this area?
Thomas: Equitable professional development initiatives are a key pillar of creating a diverse local energy efficiency workforce. Our most innovative program, executed in partnership with a Midwestern utility, delivers wraparound services for returning citizens in energy efficiency jobs. Creating holistic support
systems is extremely important if we want to give marginalized communities a real chance at success in such a relational industry. In addition, locally we offer BPI training which provides certifications for entry level and growth positions in our industry. BPI stands for Building Performance Institute, and this is the nation’s premier standards development and credentialing organization for residential energy auditing and upgrade work.

Corp!: Why is it important to you for SEEL to be successful in that arena?
Thomas: We want to be part of a professional network that uplifts unique voices, and so we take every opportunity we can to strengthen our business with partners who are dedicated to diversity. This is important to SEEL because as veterans in this space, we have a fiduciary responsibility to share our story, train others and welcome them into the careers where they live, work and play.

Corp!: You not only embrace a diversity of perspectives yourself, but you urge your entire professional community to do the same? Why is that important to you?
Thomas: Innovation happens when we make space for unique
people who have a diversity of perspectives. As a minority owned business, we want to be a part of making sure the energy efficiency industry reflects the populations it serves. We want to be a part of abolishing the myth of “hard to reach” communities. We believe that everyone deserves a path to energy efficiency, and as implementers, cherish our role in building meaningful inroads with consumers from all walks of life.

Corp!: SEEL has a vested interest in mentorship, community-based leadership, and educational support. Why is that level of community involvement important to SEEL? How does the company benefit from it?
Thomas: Community based workforces are central to advancing energy efficiency interests. We specialize in exploring and maximizing the intersections between community and industry. Mentorship means creating a two-way street that allows consumers to engage meaningfully with utilities and broadens horizons for youth who are able to see firsthand where a career in energy efficiency might take them. SEEL has always been community focused and an advocate for those without a voice prior to my studies. During my doctoral studies, I completed a qualitative multiple case study on small and medium businesses and have published work showing that community focused companies that invest in training and their workforce are the most successful companies. Our commitment has been further amplified under leadership.

Corp!: Three of your favorite outreach partnerships this year include growing your relationship with the Detroit Police Athletic League, volunteering with this year’s cohort of SEEL interns, adopting a school to donate supplies, and attending the annual Making Strides of Detroit walk at Hart Plaza. What’s so special about these types of initiatives?
Thomas: Engaging with the next generation of energy efficiency professionals is key because pathways into the industry are not often clearly defined. We make the most of our opportunities with students and interns to increase awareness about careers in energy. Education is key, and the diversity of education is not often acknowledged — energy efficiency career paths do not HAVE to start at a four-year institution, but can also be jumpstarted at two-year institutions, trade schools or within programs like SEEL’s BPI training center. Organizations like Detroit PAL that help youth find their greatness benefits youth throughout our region and hiring students for internships gives them relevant experience in our industry.

Corp!: How important is supplier diversity these days?
Thomas: Any industry looking to grow must learn to make space for a diverse workforce. Real diversity happens when people are willing to grow and make space for just and equitable practices. Supplier diversity is critical these days and SEEL makes it a business practice to spend at least 25% of our procurement spend with diverse vendors. Supplier Diversity is a significant tool for economic growth and job creation — especially in often — disregarded communities.

Corp!: There’s a real push by some to kind of downplay diversity, DEI efforts, etc. Does that make your job harder?
Thomas: Our professional network is built on partners who are open, willing, and ready to engage with DEI in the energy efficiency space. Our focus tends to be on challenging those exclusive systems that are entrenched in everyday practices, and not by
outright bad actors or intentionally discriminatory persons. Our
job is to challenge those systems or practices that block diversity, equity, and inclusion wherever we find them. As an MBE, we
must evaluate ourselves as well — we are not exempt from these learning experiences.

Corp!: With the push for energy efficiency, and especially for Electric Vehicles, what can SEEL do to position itself as a leader in those areas?
Thomas: Marginalized communities are often left out of discussions centered around sustainable infrastructure. We believe it is essential to open up the EV conversation to include a variety of communities, and to consider inclusive infrastructure. SEEL offers installation and maintenance support for electric vehicles, as well as outreach and education to ensure all communities are a part of the movement toward electric vehicles.

Corp!: Is there anything SEEL can do to help with that?
Thomas: SEEL is licensed in 22 states throughout our country, and we are poised for more in 2024. We can leverage our unique experience and skillset in collaboration with community partners to increase awareness. We are not just in the community, at SEEL, we ARE the community. By addressing a lack of awareness of benefits and suitable use cases for EVs, dealing with the struggles with up-front and ongoing burden for the purchase of EVs, and addressing the perceived complexity of charger installation offerings, we believe that we can help with EV adoption and other electrification offerings. Outreach and education are critical in this regard with stakeholders who have a vested interest in the community, like SEEL.