Equipped to Lead and Succeed

USF Alumna is a National Leader on Solar 

by Ed Carpenter, Office of Marketing Communications

USF’s Jeanine Cotter JD ’93 is the CEO and co-founder of San Francisco’s largest solar installation firm and a national leader in the green economy, having taken part in a recent White House summit on alternative energy. She attributes her success to principles she learned at USF and to running a business that focuses on improving the environment and supporting the local community as much as making a profit.

Cotter puts values at the heart of Luminalt’s business: hiring workforce development employees, preferring customers’ word-of-mouth endorsements to splashy ad campaigns, and choosing nonprofit, small business, and multifamily and single-family home installations that showcase the firm’s innovative expertise.

Built on the triple bottom line

“We believe in the triple bottom line,” says Cotter, who earned her law degree from USF and was an attorney for software maker Intuit before she and her husband, Noel, started Luminalt 10 years ago. “It’s got to be good for business, good for the environment, and good for the community. We’ve raised the standard with that approach, and we want to change the industry.”

It’s proved a successful formula. Last year, Luminalt reported $5.5 million in revenue, an eye-popping surge over the $680,000 it made seven years ago. On top of that, the firm is San Francisco’s only certified Women Business Enterprise solar electric and solar hot water installer. More recently, it added electric car charging station installation.

At USF, Cotter saw that innovation, setting an industry standard, and standing up for your values could go hand-in-hand. “I learned that social justice isn’t a ‘nice to have’ but should be infused in everything you do, and fairness and equity are incredibly important,” Cotter says.

San Francisco's solar leader

Luminalt goes out of its way to partner with community centers and nonprofits, expanding access to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it. In part, that’s because centers and nonprofits offer the most community bang for the buck. People congregate there; and developers, elected officials, and the public see what’s possible because solar is visual, Cotter says.

The Rene Cazenave Apartments, in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, are a good example. Built in 2013, the complex serves 120 formerly homeless San Franciscans and includes onsite physical and mental health care and personal finance and life skills training. Luminalt installed solar that provides 20 percent of the building’s electricity and saves thousands of dollars a year in operating costs.

Luminalt also installed solar for Project Open Hand, which serves HIV/AIDS patients; the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, serving families and seniors, including providing a free lunch; and the Crissy Field Center, an award-winning, multicultural environmental education center.  

A role model for business

Former San Francisco Assessor-Recorder, now California Assemblyman, Phil Ting and the nonprofit Asian Neighborhood Design have both honored Luminalt’s community commitment. The company hires 20 percent of its staff through Workforce Development SF, an investment that provides inner-city jobs and transforms lives and families.

That community commitment extends to USF, where Cotter speaks to business students about creativity and innovation. She also hosts USF class tours of Luminalt’s facilities.

“Jeanine’s experience illuminates the environmentally critical industry that solar power represents and exemplifies how building a better community and a better world often starts with small, local firms,” says Luigi Lucaccini, a USF business professor who introduces Cotter to his classes as a model for business leaders and entrepreneurs looking to leave their mark.

Cotter’s success also demonstrates that a law degree can open doors to a broad range of professional opportunities, even opportunities outside law, says law professor John Adler, who knew her at USF.

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