Terry Jester is a rarity.
And she has been since she attended California State University, Northridge in the late 1970s.
Jester ’79 (Mechanical Engineering) was one of very few female mechanical engineering students during her time at the university, and since earning her degree, she has been part of the small group of women working in the solar industry.
She is considered a pioneer, today serving as an executive in the industry. Jester has earned high praise for her work and received multiple honors — including the 2015 Women in Solar Energy Award from the American Solar Energy Society.
The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., releases an annual job census and reports that in 2015 women made jus only 24 percent of those working ion the solar industry, up 2 percent from the year before. Despite the increase, it’s still a small number.
Jester is an inspiring figure in the industry — proof that women can thrive and become leaders in solar and science.
She is the chairman and chief executive officer of Silicor Materials, a San Jose-based company that produces solar silicon — the preeminent semiconductor in solar cells. Before working for Silicor, she managed large solar operations and held engineering positions at SoloPower, SunPower, SolarWorld, Siemens, Arco and Shell.
Jester has maintained close ties to CSUN since graduation. She served on the College of Engineering and Computer Science Industrial Advisory Board as its chair and on the President’s Associates Executive Council.
“I really feel so strongly about being an inspiration for women,” Jester said. “I will talk anywhere I am asked. I just spoke at my older daughter’s company and last year at my younger daughter’s school, and speak usually at two to three conferences a year. I never miss a chance to do those talks, which are usually technical in nature but are meant to encourage young engineers and young female engineers to get into this industry — and young professionals to consider the industry. The future of the world has a lot of problems, not only energy, but certainly one of them will be to make sure the world gets powered in a responsible manner. So, I don’t only feel like it’s an inspiration, but a duty.”
The National Science Foundation has a data page on its website that shows just how wide a gap there is between men and women working in and studying science. Its most recent figures on undergraduate enrollment in engineering programs come from 2011 and show that only 18.6 percent of engineering undergraduate students that year were female.
During her years at CSUN, “it was probably 5 percent,” Jester said of the number of women in engineering classes. Despite the scarcity of women in her classes, Jester said she received a lot of encouragement and support while studying at the university.
“I don’t know if it’s still there today, but there was this wonderful women’s and engineering group, and we had a great study room,” Jester said. “Bonita Campbell (the first woman in engineering at CSUN to hold a tenured faculty position and to serve as a department chair) helped set it up. It really was extremely helpful to have a networking opportunity with the other women that were there, and frankly, a lot of the men that went to school with us were part of that organization and would study in there, too. It was a really great opportunity to get to know the other women in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, because there really weren’t that many — that’s for sure.
“I really appreciated not only the education I got at Cal State Northridge, but I think the school has a real insight to how to graduate people that know how to work and know how to go out into whatever industry they’re preparing to go to,” she continued.
Jester pointed to professor Timothy Fox as another educator who helped inspire her during her time at CSUN. Though it was more than 35 years ago, Jester still stands out in Fox’s mind.
“I think her success that she had in the industry probably mirrored her success here at CSUN,” Fox said. “She got involved and was a very easy person to work with, to converse with — and yet she had both feet solid on the ground. … Terry rolled her sleeves up. I don’t think she ever thought of herself as a woman in engineering. It was, ‘Hey, I’m an engineer. I can do what anyone else does.’ And she did, and that’s why she succeeded. She wasn’t intimidated.”
Jester said she had little trepidation about entering the field. Whether it was in the classroom, joining the workforce or leading in a predominantly male industry, she never let being the minority affect her.
“It’s been a real interesting career,” she said. “I would say every single day I learned something, and every single day I’m proud that I’ve been in this industry. … And you know, there were times that I didn’t know I would make it.”
During the 1980s, she said it was difficult to convince the world that solar was a viable source of energy and not a fad.
“We thought, if we roll up our sleeves a little further and dig in, we can do it,” she said. “There was a lot of camaraderie [and belief in the industry].”
Jester credits CSUN for helping her rise and boosting her confidence.
“I kind of tip my hat to CSUN,” she said. “I was incredibly prepared and stood shoulder to shoulder with everybody there.”