Green Hero: Sonita Lontoh

January 13, 2014 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

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Sonitah Lontoh captured by Niken Photography

More Asian Americans than ever before are becoming pioneers in the sustainability movement. Because of this, we are running a series to recognize all the Asian American “Green Heroes” in our community. This month, we are recognizing Sonita Lontoh, an Asian American green tech executive who is passionate about encouraging a green economy between Asian and Western countries.

Lontoh received a Masters of Engineering from MIT and has been recognized with a 2012 contribution to American Public Diplomacy by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

1. What got you started in green space?

SL: I first got interested in greentech space while pursuing my graduate engineering degree at MIT and MBA at Kellogg (Northwestern University). As I was looking to continue my careers in technology, I had this guiding principle that I wanted to work in an area that contributed something larger to society rather than just selling a product. I find working in green technology personally and professionally satisfying as it is a complex space where technology, business, and policy intersect, and I’m contributing something larger to society.

2. What is your ultimate green dream?

SL: I[…]would like for the general public to be more aware and care about the planet and the environment that we are living in. That “green” becomes a mainstream way of living.

3. Why should Asian Americans care about green?

SL: According to Pew Research’s Social Demographic Trends, Asian Americans are one of the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. The survey found Asian Americans to be more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and place a greater value on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success. To continue on this positive momentum, Asian Americans should not only care about green, but also practice it and perhaps advocate for it. As a group that cares a lot about education, it is perhaps fitting for the Asian American parents and teachers to start educating young children on the importance of sustainable living. When you make green education fun and start at a young age, it becomes a good habit that the children continue to bring to their adult lives and beyond.

4. Some Asian Americans feel like going green is not economically viable or not important…what would you say to them?

SL: I think it’s a misnomer that being “green” is expensive. Perhaps what most people are thinking are expensive solar panels or electric vehicles. While those are good, there’re many other things you can do first that don’t cost that much money. Being “green” can actually save not only the environment, but money, in the long-run. For example, when you change your inefficient incandescent light bulbs with more efficient CFL light bulbs, or even more efficient LED lights, you not only use less energy, but you’ll also save money b/c the more efficient bulbs use less energy and lasts much longer. The same thing with investing in energy-efficient electronics, appliances, and insulating your homes the right way, you’ll save energy and money in the long-run. Moreover, “green” homes are also usually higher in value and better for your health. All in all, being green will also pay you green dividends in the long-run.

5. What is one thing that Asian American families can do today to go green?

SL: The easiest way is to start at your homes. Use energy-efficient lighting, electronics and appliances. Another is to do a home assessment. There are many tools out there, for example, at your local utility’s website, etc. With a home assessment, you can:

1.    Compare your home’s energy use to a similar-sized homes and climates across the country to see how you measure up against your neighbors

2.    Find the recommended home improvements at Home Energy Advisors

3.    Get practical tips on making your home more energy-efficient from Energy Star Home Tool

4.    If you feel you need a professional, you can get a home energy audit. Some utilities also offer this service, some can do it from an online Energy Analyzer tailored to your home.

6. What is the most exciting thing to you in green technology right now?

SL: From a possibility perspective, one of the most exciting things is the big vision of the “Internet of Things” or “Smart Planet.” In this concept, we put sensors/communications/IT technology to connect billions of devices around the world to make them smart, and enable a true machine-to-machine communication and automation where human intervention is no longer necessary. This will result in a more efficient, cleaner and smarter way of living.

7. Best moment in your seemingly illustrious career?

SL: Although in my career I have been lucky to have had the opportunity to meet some world leaders and be invited to the White House, I would say there is really no one best moment per se, but more of a continuous personal and professional growth. Throughout my career, I’d been in situations where I  was “stuck” in roles or environments that were not a good fit for me, nor good for my growth in the long run. Biggest take-way is that even in those “miserable” situations, there is always something to learn and grow from. That it’s important to stick it through and have a transition plan and not be tempted to just quit on the spot to pursue your “passion,” especially if you’re not sure if your passion can really be a career or is just a hobby.  Instead, work on a transition plan and focus on finding a purpose where your passion and skills could be put to use to help solve a problem in this world. People who are working hard to solve the biggest problems are often compensated in the biggest ways, not just in financial terms, but also in human satisfaction terms. Having a purpose shifts the focus from you to others. It shifts the conversation from what you like to do (having a passion or hobby) to how you can be a valuable contributor in helping society solves its problems (having a purpose). This paradigm shift in thinking is empowering as it shifts the frame of reference from the self to how we can help others. People become less self-absorbed and ironically, more likely to be genuinely happy. Don’t you sometimes find that you’re happiest when you don’t think too much about how to become happy? True happiness comes from the intersection of doing what we love, what we’re good at, and what the world needs.

8. Biggest challenge facing us today regarding sustainability?

SL: One of the biggest challenges is to align the right technology with business models and most importantly, a long-term, sustainable, and comprehensive policy. To make green work, we really need our leaders and policy makers to have the strategic vision and political resolve to build a long-term, comprehensive and sustainable green energy policy. In the US, our energy policies seem to be short-term focused, based on election cycles. We need longer term-focused energy policies, both at the federal and state levels. We need a comprehensive green energy policy at the federal level, where the government recognizes the strategic importance of the energy sector to American competitiveness and puts resources where it matters – on research development, funding and incentives for deployments, on manufacturing, and on training our human capital for the smarter energy future. If not, we may be left behind in the green technology race of the future, to maintain our competitive leadership in the 21st century and beyond. Last but not least, we also need to do a better job in educating the general public on the importance of green and sustainability. The more we are able to articulate the benefits of green to the general public, the more support the industry will get and the more likely we will be able to realize a sustainable, better future for all.

Asian Fortune is an English language newspaper for Asian American professionals in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Visit fb.com/asianfortune to stay up to date with our news and what’s going on in the Asian American community.

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