Fresh Energy has a commitment to nurturing talent and building new clean energy leaders. In honor of our 25th anniversary, we are profiling a handful of “Fresh Energy Alums” who worked with us early in their career.
This month, Fresh Energy’s engagement fellow Kirsten Triller spoke with Maria Surma Manka, B2B public relations strategist at Two Rivers Communications, to hear more about her time at Fresh Energy and how it influenced her career. Maria worked at Fresh Energy from 2002 to 2007, beginning as an intern and moving into roles as administrative assistant and later the media relations coordinator.
You graduated from Hamline University in 2002 with a political science and a Spanish degree. What motivated you to come work here at Fresh Energy?
Maria: I always really cared about the environment. I grew up in rural Minnesota and spent a lot of my childhood in the woods. I’ve been hunting since I was 12, and anything related to the environment was really important to me. When the internship at Fresh Energy came up, and later turned into to a permanent position, it seemed like my political science interest was being “married” with my environmental passion. That got me so interested and excited about working at Fresh Energy. I remember telling Michael Noble that I would do anything Fresh Energy needed—mop the floors even—I just wanted to be part of this organization.
What were some of the core projects that you worked on here and highlights of your time at Fresh Energy?
Maria: In my role as media relations coordinator, one of my core projects was working to launch RE-AMP’s website. RE-AMP was a Midwestern coalition for clean energy and it brought together organizations from all over the country (especially the Upper Midwest) to work together to pass clean energy legislation and policies. This website, called The Commons, was where all these organizations got to share information. Fresh Energy was working on getting that website up and running and coordinating with a couple of partner organizations on media and communications. I felt like I was part of something really big and I learned a lot.
We were also working on passing the Renewable Energy Standard. As the media relations coordinator at that time, there was a lot of work to do regarding Renewable Energy Standard. In 2007, right before I left the organization, it passed! For me, that was a huge highlight and I was fortunate to leave on such a high note.
How would you describe your career path since leaving Fresh Energy? Was there anything, looking back, that you learned at Fresh Energy that helped guide your career in business strategy?
Maria: Toward the end of my time at Fresh Energy, I started a blog called MariaEnergia.com. It was about all the great things that were happening with renewable energy and policy. The blog took off and I ended up getting hired by other green news sites to write for them and cover several national events for the next several years—in addition to my day job.
As for my day job, I hadn’t gone to school for marketing or communications, but because of my experience at Fresh Energy I found out I liked it and was pretty good at it. Toward the end of my time there, my supervisor and I functioned almost like a mini PR firm, coordinating messaging and media training with many organizations. This was excellent training before going to work for Tunheim, a public relations agency. At Tunheim, I worked with just about every sort of organization, but I had a particular focus on organizations working in the environmental/energy space. So I was able to continue pursuing my environmental interests.
After I left Tunheim and moved to Central Minnesota, I started my own public relations consultancy called Two Rivers Communications. I work with mostly business-to-business companies on public relations and communications. I don’t work exclusively for environmental or energy organizations, but that’s definitely my sweet spot, and I’m lucky enough to work with Blattner Energy, the Sierra Club, WindShare, Schneider Electric, and others. I love the balance of nonprofit and for-profit organizations as I get to learn about the challenges of balancing policy with practical application. Overall, there’s been a lot of crossover between my passion for the environment and energy and what I’ve been able to do with my career after Fresh Energy.
Is there anything else you want to add about your time at Fresh Energy?
Maria: I have worked and volunteered for several different environmental organizations and I appreciate Fresh Energy’s pragmatic approach. I remember working for Greenpeace in California and I asked a protestor: “Have you talked to the company that you’re protesting?” and she looked at me like I was crazy. Like, “Why would we go talk to them? We’re protesting them.” Whereas at Fresh Energy, I remember Michael Noble specifically explaining to me that whoever we may be on opposite sides with today, we may be at the same table together tomorrow. In other words, we cannot always be firing shots at each other because we’re not going to get anything done that way. We’ve got to figure out how to work together to get stuff done. I think the measured, pragmatic approach that Fresh Energy takes is something that everyone should keep in mind during these divisive times.