Striking out; women crafting a life - Lisa

Lisa Congdon

 Iceberg by Lisa Congdon

Iceberg by Lisa Congdon

When Sara and I were kicking around the idea of a blog that featured women doing amazing work in and outside of energy, Lisa was the first non-energy person I thought to include. Years ago, well before I started ILLUME with Sara, I went to breakfast with Lisa and her wife Clay. As we got to know each other, Lisa relayed how she came to be a full time artist and I found it absolutely inspiring. Lisa, in an objectively successful career, decided to pursue art. Of all professional risks, you might say this is one of the greatest. Creative work is hard, it can be thankless, and it is deeply subjective. I was in awe of her bravery and later her extraordinary success. 

I resolved to be similarly brave someday. It took me five years to feel comfortable taking a similar leap, and I have to say, it's stories like Lisa's that inspired me to do it and to stay the course. I hope Lisa's story, and others we post, inspire more women to muster their courage and confidently craft a fulfilling life. 

Learn more about Lisa's story below. You can also find links to her art and blog here. 

 Lisa Congdon

Lisa Congdon

How would you describe your current life’s work?

When I first saw this question I had to think about it for a very long time. I think I am still trying to figure out what is my life's work! I am a work in progress. My career is a career in progress. Mostly, I want to wake up every day and feel happy and that I have some positive purpose. I feel so lucky that I get to draw and paint for a living now, and that some people find joy in looking at my work or reading the essays on my blog. I feel so grateful that publishers and cool companies pay me to illustrate things or that people want me to make a painting for their home. But aside from making art, I also want to be kind and generous thoughtful as a person, and for my work to emulate those values. It's so hard sometimes to do, and I stumble, but I work at it. 

Was there a particular moment when it was clear to you that you needed to pursue a different path? Where were you in life literally and metaphorically? Why did you need a change?

I worked in the world of education for many years, both as a teacher, and then at two different school improvement non-profit organizations who worked in low income schools. I loved that work very much, but in the background I was always making art or yearning to make art. I am self taught and art-making originally was an outlet from the stress of my job. At some point I realized I was spending almost every waking moment that I wasn't working at my job either thinking about what I was going to draw or paint next or actually drawing or painting. I had a studio that was one block from my office and I'd go there every evening and on the weekends. Eventually my work began to sell, and I realized that I could make at least a portion of my living from it. So I asked the director at the non profit if I might work part time so I could test the waters of being a working artist. She was very supportive of my endeavors and agreed. So for awhile I transitioned to professional art making by working part time at my job, and then eventually I left my job completely. It was both the scariest and most exciting time in my life. But when you discover what you need to do, you do it, risk and all. I had the privilege of some savings and a supportive family. But it was risky because at the time I was single and supporting myself. I had a great career in education and worked with wonderful people doing stuff I was passionate about. And at 39 I gave it all up to become an artist. 

Were there any key people in your life who inspired you to take the leap and/or supported you in doing so?

My family was wonderful. My mother and sister are artists (my mom is a textile artist and my sister a photographer), and I think they saw that I had found my calling, so to speak. I am sure my mom and dad were incredibly nervous about my leaving this stable, honorable, well-paying career to become an artist at 39. But, for the most part, they kept their worries to themselves, and lent me money more than once! I think they could see there was no stopping me. I remember the first year that I earned more as an artist than I did at my previous job (which happened about six years into my art career) my parents made a toast to me over dinner. It was a simple gesture, and it meant a lot to me. I was nervous for awhile there I wouldn't make it. Part of my anxiety was that I would disappoint my parents. Sometimes anxiety about failure can also be a great motivator. 

What would you say to other women who are considering a big professional change? 

Take it slowly and in phases, especially if it's a big change or one that involves risk or temporary financial instability. I kept my job for a long time and then went part time before striking out on my own. For a couple of years owned a store front with a friend to help pay the bills. I was very intentional about every step. I planned and plotted. I hired an accountant to help me manage my finances and make smart choices. Also, use your passion for your professional goals as your motivation. Adopt a positive orientation. Waking up every day and telling yourself I can do this sounds hokey but it works. Persevere through difficulty and setbacks and learn from them instead of allowing then to kill your goals. Big professional changes -- especially those that involve eventual self-employment can be really hard and can take years. Understand that bumps are normal. In this day of technology, we want everything to happen quickly. We can become so impatient. But sometimes big professional changes can take time, effort and sacrifice -- things like taking classes to learn new skills, or taking a pay cut in the beginning, or hiring someone to coach or mentor you. 

You have an impressive social media presence and following.  How did you build it? What tips do you have for others looking to create a meaningful social media presence?

I am sort of lucky that I came into the art word when I did -- at a time when there were all of these burgeoning opportunities to share my work with people for free and with a click of the keyboard -- first through blogging, Twitter and Facebook and then on Instagram. In the old days as an artist you had to have representation by a gallery or agent or have a lucky break to have your work seen by so many people. It's so different now, and it's both broadened and leveled the playing field. I started using social media early on, and then kept using it, even when I had a very small following. I was perseverant and steady, and eventually I gained a following. I didn't give up in the beginning because no one was listening. I just kept at it. I am lucky that enough people find the content on my blog relevant and keep coming back to read more. I write about my own work and process, but I also write about my life and my struggles. And I think when you are willing to share your story, people connect with you. Not everyone connects, but some people do. And social media is a way to share with people and connect with people. That's all it is. If you think of it like that, and not as a popularity contest, that's helpful. I also write and tweet about what inspires me -- other artists' work, people I admire. And so it's not just about me, it's about being part of a community of artists and makers, supporting and lauding my colleagues. I feel there is a generosity amongst many artists to support one another. I like being part of that. In whatever you do, find a community online, and be a supportive, positive part of that community.

What I love most about your artwork is your use of color and your focus on the natural world. What inspires you to paint the natural world?  Why do you choose to pair it with such vibrant colors? 

I love the outdoors. I am my happiest when I am hiking or in a beautiful outdoor setting. I am so drawn to the structure in trees and flowers and the beauty of animals and insects more than just about anything. Recently I have begin painting abstracts, and even those are influenced by things like clouds, and the colors in the sky, and patterns in running water. I love bright color -- even color that you don't find in nature that often (neon pink, for example). So I combine bright color with nature in my work quite a bit -- even in ways that don't seem to make sense. I think when I paint ordinary things like a forest of trees, I like to add some quirky element in color or pattern. An old painting teacher of mine always encouraged us to add something to our paintings that didn't make sense. That has stuck with me, and I think my use of color has become my signature. 

Two days in San Diego

I have had quite the business trip. From my home base in Detroit to Cancun to Toronto to San Diego and then off to Washington DC, it has been a challenge to keep up! Staring this trip down a few weeks ago, I resolved to travel differently. I would work hard when I worked and make a point of "living" in the cities where I was working. 

For those of you planning to take a weekend after AESP, I thought I would share a few of my experiences. 

Leave downtown

If you're looking for a place to stay in San Diego and are tired of the hotel scene, check airbnb. You can find amazing condos for significantly less than hotels and support local people. I stayed in this adorable casita in North Park, which sits right on Balboa Park, a gorgeous and active urban park full of trails for running and hiking. 

If you stay in North Park, I suggest starting your day at Caffe Calabria and get their Vienna Latte, a delicately honey and cinnamon-flavored latte.  

If you love a diner breakfast, I suggest checking out Lucky's. An old-timey neighborhood staple, Lucky's has all the character you want out of a diner (formica counter tops, men who have been meeting each other there for 50 years) and many unexpected quirks: coi wallpaper, to-go boxes for your eggs (so endearing!) and fortune cookies for the road. 

After you spend a day in Balboa Park, grab a light lunch at Veg n Out, which feels like the hipster staple you expect from similarly titled establishments. I loved this neighborhood for its mix of gritty city elements, gorgeous mission-style homes, and up and coming restaurants and cafes. 

Hit the board walk

Take a walk along the board walk in Pacific Beach, where you will find the best surf in city of San Deigo, and as I learned, plenty of eager people looking to give you a high-five while passing you on their bikes. 

Take in the coast

If you're looking for something more touristy, you must rent a car (or a bike if you are exceptionally fit) and hit highway 101. It's a California must-do no matter where you fall along the coastline. I took myself to Solana Beach, famous for it's surfing and design stores. Not a surfer, I arrived Sunday morning to take in the design shops, the farmers market - and yes - admire the painfully fit Southern Californians cycling to and from the beach in wetsuits with surf boards in hand. I have dubbed this city the "the place where the happy people live." I was taken aback by the generosity of the store owners. From Paul at The David Allen Collection, who referred me to Lucky's and drew a personalized tourist map of North Park for my visit, to the ever-so-nice vendors at the Sunday Farmers Market. 

I ended my design tour with the world's best fish tacos (two for five!) at the Farmers Market and happily drove back to North Park for my last good, long walk before jumping headlong into the conference. 

Striking out; women crafting a life - Sara

We are excited to feature the accomplishments of women entrepreneurs on our spark this year. Each featured woman has been an inspiration for us and we are so grateful to have the opportunity to share their inspiration with you.

Each woman will answer the same set of questions related to their work, what inspired them to take a professional leap, and provide advice to other women itching to do the same.


I am proud to highlight ILLUME’s co-ower, Sara Van de Grift, as our first respondent. Sara has been an inspiration to me – Sara has unrivaled tenacity and focus when she sets her mind to a goal and her sheer force of will is not to be underestimated. As a business partner, I am lucky to witness and learn from her might. Sara also has a remarkable ability to temper this focus with extraordinary patience, empathy, and fearless loyalty – traits rarely combined in life and most certainly in business.  Here are Sara’s responses to our questions, as well as a few additional questions about her tenure at AESP.

How you describe your current life’s work?

I view ILLUME and the work we do as enabling constant improvement and innovation in energy efficiency, demand response and renewable energy programs.  Our focus is on providing unbiased and objective insight and information to improve programs, to reach more customers, to achieve higher savings, to make our industry better.

Was there a particular moment when it was clear to you that you needed to pursue a different path? Where were you in life literally and metaphorically? Why did you need a change?

I am not sure I can say I had a profound “spark” moment rather I had a confluence of moment that cultivated gradual awareness.  Things like moving from implementation to EM&V, seeing others take risk and being successful, watching work I would love to do pass by all had an affect.  If I have to call out a moment, I would say it was over a breakfast with my now business partner Anne, we were half joking about starting our own firm and about halfway through the conversation it seemed to occurred to both of us that this didn’t need to be a joke, we could do it.  It was an inspiring moment, we were there and we knew it.

Were there any key people in your life who inspired you to take the leap and/or supported you in doing so?

Obviously my family, my kids, I want as much for them as I can provide but leaving a good job with a steady paycheck is hard and doesn’t always seem like the best decision but, my family was so supportive, my friends, they gave me the strength to do this.  In addition there were friends in industry who helped provide me the confidence needed to take this leap, of particular importance were my colleagues on the AESP board and some of my personal mentors like Janet Brandt and Sue Nathan.

 What would you say to other women who are considering a big professional change?

We are so often restricted only by ourselves; fear, thinking we need certain things to be okay. For me I had to lay out the worst case scenario and see that it was not that bad. If you wait for the right time, the perfect moment it will never come. Get ready enough, accept that there is some risk but rationalize how bad that risk really is, lean heavily on your family and friends for moral support and then leap.

You’ve spent the last four years on the AESP board and assume the board chair seat this year. How has AESP shaped your professional career?

My involvement with AESP has provided me greater professional opportunity than anything else I have done over the course of my career.  Every moment has been a labor of love. Over the course of my tenure on the board I have been fortunate enough to develop strong relationships with  top leaders.  It offered me amazing mentors, women like Carol White and Meg Matt.  When you are young or new to industry it can be incredibly hard to navigate, you know who the looked to leaders are, you see them speak, hear their names but figuring out how to connect, how to make your mark, can be hard.  Volunteering with AESP provided an opportunity to connect with leaders outside my own company.

 What influence did AESP have in the formation of ILLUME? 

My involvement in AESP influenced the formation of ILLUME in multiple ways. It gave me a view and visions, the courage to leap and an amazing support network.

AESP provides an interesting way to step out of yourself, your firm.  When you serve you have to put the Association first, your board work cannot be about personal gain, it cannot be about creating competitive advantages for your company. Instead it must be about devotion to and support for growing the industry.  When you dissect yourself from your company, your specific job, you are able to get a better view and vision of the industry you serve.  My work with AESP gave me a scenic overview from which I was able to step back and see the whole landscape of our industry, including gaps, places where there was clear opportunity.  

Once I had the view I needed the courage.  When I was first approached about running for the AESP board I was terrified, but I did it and I won, when I was then asked to join the Executive Committee I was scared, but again I did it .  Each time you take a leap that scares you, it gets easier, you enjoy the rush a little more and the belief in yourself deepens.  Being involved in AESP made it easier to take the leap it required to launch ILLUME.  It provided me a network of mentors and friends who I knew would be there to pick me up if I fell upon landing. 

What is your perspective on the current role of women in the energy industry? How do you see that changing in the next 5 years? 10 years? 

I have seen an amazing change in the numbers of women in this industry. I remember attending my first industry conference and being a) one of the youngest people in the room and b) being absent the white beard that seemed to be a requirement to lead in this industry.  And while I knew age would come, I spent years worrying about the fact that the white beard never would. Instead of taking that as status quo, I decided to lead. It takes action, as women we must act with confidence, be brave and unapologetic, we must challenge the status quo.

One of my favorite moments in 2013 was at the ACEEE conference in Nashville it was called out that there was a need to move more women into leadership roles.  It's that type of proclamation and quite frankly the outpouring of support and excitement Anne and I have received from other women in industry as we launched ILLUME that gives me absolute faith that the role of women in leadership in this industry will grow and that soon we will see women leading major companies and contracts at the same rate as our male colleagues; that we will be paid equally for this work and that we will be able to do this without giving up our other wants in life, family, art, dancing, balance. 



A Mantra for 2014

 As the world looks forward and reflects on the past year, I have been doing my own soul searching on what 2013 meant for me and what my goals should be for 2014.  What did I learn in 2013? What do I need to learn in 2014?

2013 was a year divided.  My year began in a state of professional and personal frustration. I was exhausted. Exhausted from frustration, from feeling ineffectual, from stagnation.


That said, frustration was also my greatest blessing of 2013. It pulled me out of my inertia. For the first time in years, I surveyed my situation with a focus on my potential instead of my obligations to work, to family. I acknowledged my unhappiness. I named it. I called it out. I decided it was not good enough for this short life.


Between here and there I found my courage and creativity again. I discovered an overwhelming and unrelenting desire to create, to grow, and to give. I felt truly illuminated again. Excited. Hopeful.

My second greatest blessing in 2013 was finding my desire to create reflected back to me in Sara.  We shared the same vision and together we found the courage to act on it.


In 2014, my goal is to take our budding company and build a business model that supports, fosters, and shares growth. We are exploring unconventional ways to build – from profit sharing models with those people courageous enough to co-create with us – to applied-academic partnerships – to expanding and learning from other applied work that serves the social good.  In 2014, I will live by this quote:

“Life expands and contracts in proportion to one’s courage.” – Annais Nin.*


In 2014, we will use this blog to share the stories of other women who have lived in the spirit of this quote. We hope to use their stories to inspire more searching, greater creativity, fierce tenacity. 

I will count their inspiration among my blessings.

*I first discovered this quote at which features 52 impactful women. If you're in need of a bit of inspiration, I suggest you check it out. 






Winter has arrived in southern Wisconsin. We have a few inches of snow and arctic-like temperatures that ensure the snow will stick around. With the snow comes a completely new experience on my morning bicycle commute. During spring, summer, and fall my route is an easy few miles through mostly residential streets. While riding I can plan my work, think about what to make for dinner, or just daydream.

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But now, winter requires changes in my routines. A route that once allowed for daydreaming now requires deliberate attention as I dodge rutted tracks and look out for black ice and sliding cars. Road conditions change daily so complacency is not possible.  I could trade the bike for a car (or bus) ride, but I don’t because with the small risk and heightened attention come rewards: doing something I enjoy year-round; a new challenge every day; noticing my usual route in a new way as a snow-covered wonderland.

In some ways, winter came early for me this year. In November, I traded a comfortable job for an exciting new opportunity at ILLUME. With that risk has come great rewards: I’m able to do work I love with intention and each day brings new challenges and new ways of advancing an industry that is important to me.

I’m thrilled to be part of the ILLUME team and honored to work with industry experts Anne and Sara. I look forward to each new challenge this adventure brings me…assuming I dodge that black ice on the way to the office.