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A World Without Lights

Photo of Seattle Academy Alumna Nithya Menon '12

Photo of Nithya Menon '12 

Many of the elements that are in our everyday lives are things we each take for granted. We flip the switch on and have lights to help us see, turn on the stove to cook a meal, and crank up the heat to keep us warm on cold days. Where the electricity comes from is something that we generally don’t have to worry about, in fact, it’s often something we overlook in our busy lives. However, not all of us are so lucky. There are still 1.1 billion people throughout the world who don’t have reliable access to electricity and cannot live safe and productive lifestyles. A company by the name of Okra Solar set out with a mission back in 2016 to end the challenge for these 1.1 billion people by providing clean and reliable energy access to those still living off the grid. 

Okra Solar has quite an ambitious goal and challenge on their hands, so they need a strong team to help them accomplish this feat. Seattle Academy alumna Nithya Menon ’12 has been a part of that strong team since 2018. After graduating from Seattle Academy, Nithya attended Harvey Mudd College where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Engineering. She used both her experiences at SAAS and her engineering degree to help her work towards a career goal of empowering marginalized and developing communities worldwide. 

“The SAAS experience nurtured in me the most crucial “soft skills”: clear written and spoken communication, critical thinking, leadership, stepping outside my comfort zone, and the confidence to go after what I want. I attribute so much of my journey as an adult to these skills because I see how difficult it is to learn these things later in life and I see how crucial they are in taking any risks and going after big dreams.” Nithya Menon ’12

Nithya spent two years after college in India, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Mali, working in clean water, agriculture and energy. She then started working with Okra very early in the company’s origins. At the time, Okra Solar was a start-up based in Cambodia and when offered a position, Nithya happily took the risk. She moved herself to Cambodia where she was one of two people working on the design and build of their products. After several years in this area, she shifted into the role of Head of Product Development, where she currently drives the direction and strategy of all of Okra’s technology by taking into account the needs of the whole company. Nithya is strategically situated in the office to receive feedback, ideas, and demands from the outward-facing teams such as sales, marketing, fundraising and project delivery. Nithya takes these demands, along with the demands of various stakeholders, and decides what new features and products need to be created to help Okra Solar work towards their overall mission.

Nithya shared with us that the work she is doing is incredibly meaningful to her. She remembers a moment from her very first project a few years ago: “The sun had set but all the homes were illuminated. The technology I had built was now deeply integrated into their lives, and I felt the link so strongly between our hard work and our mission." 

As the company has grown, so have the stories. "Recently we saw an urban business equip one of our rural communities so they could run an Okra-powered face mask factory,” says Nithya. “Farmers in Cambodia showed us how they use electricity to incubate frogs and crickets, local delicacies. A woman from a Philippines project said she recovered from an illness because the doctor could give her IVs at night. Even today, after over one year in lockdown, it's memories like [these] that continue to recharge me."

Nithya explains that electricity is the foundation for so many aspects of our lives. The most basic impact is from lighting which enables people to make use of dark hours of the day, whether for work or education, and improves safety. After lighting, electricity brings access to information, through phones, radio, and tv. Quality of life and health are improved through removing the need for dirty, kerosene and diesel light sources, and appliances like fans help manage intolerable heat. Clinics and local shops need electricity, which provide essential services to the communities as well as economic opportunities for the owners. Appliances like fridges and freezers save fresh goods from spoiling, which is especially important in agricultural or fishing communities. Rice cookers and washing machines save tremendous amounts of time, especially for women, which result in greater flexibility and freedom. Appliances like incubators and sewing machines can help generate new revenue streams for households. The list is endless, but ultimately electricity is a critical piece in connecting remote communities to modern economies and opportunities.

Thanks to the work that Nithya and her team at Okra Solar do on an everyday basis, over 2,500 people have since been equipped with electricity in their communities and that number continues to grow each day. Their work results in large-scale impacts, though at their core they utilize the same skills we learn in science, technology and engineering classes. “In recent years, I know SAAS has really expanded into the STREAM fields and there are so many classes that I drool over, knowing that I came across those subjects later in life and they changed the trajectory of my career,” says Nithya. “I couldn’t be on this path at all without the foundation SAAS helped me build.”

When asked about the future, Nithya says, “I’ve never really had a detailed five- or ten-year plan because honestly nothing about the past five years could have been predicted and I couldn’t be happier about it. I plan to continue bridging my technology background with my passion for global social impact and I will always go after work that makes me excited to get out of bed in the morning.” 

Thank you, Nithya, on behalf of the SAAS alumni community for the wonderful impact you make on the world, each and every day.