Climate Stories Episode #5: Phyllis Newhouse, CEO, Entrepreneur, Leader

Episode #5 of Climate Stories is a little different. It describes the innovative solar technology of Heliogen, a renewable energy company. But it is also an interview with a remarkable entrepreneur and visionary, Phyllis Newhouse, whose SPAC, Athena Technology Acquisition Corp, merged with Heliogen in mid-2021 in a deal that valued the joint company at $2 billion.

“I collect what I call ROCs. That means resources, opportunities, and connections. We’re always just one ROC – one connection or opportunity – away from changing our lives.” – Phyllis Newhouse, Heliogen board member and investor

Networking is an art form that often bears fruit. A friend of a friend of Jacqueline Adams learned about her Climate Stories project with Harvard Business School’s Business and Environment Initiative. She suggested an introduction to pioneering businesswoman Phyllis Newhouse, whose SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) had just bought Heliogen. The company is developing a solar solution, aligning an array of mirrors to reflect sunlight, with potential to eliminate the need for turbine engines. The goal is 100% carbon free energy.

As exciting as Heliogen’s technology sounded, it paled in comparison to the story of Phyllis Newhouse herself, the first African American female CEO to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Below is an edited version of the conversation between Newhouse and Adams.

When and why did you consider launching a SPAC, a special purpose acquisition company?

When I left the U.S. Army after a 22-year career, I launched Xtreme Solutions, an information technology services provider. I knew I could start a successful business in the private sector because failure wasn’t an option. I had run the Cyber Espionage Center at the Pentagon. I had built great teams and run large organizations. I hired other former members of the military and won a major contract from AT&T within 30 days. The company grew to 5,200 employees.

At the beginning, I wrote a check to myself for $1 million and dated it 2002, three years into the future. I put that check on my vision board, and three years later, I walked into a Bank of America branch in Jonesboro, Georgia and handed it to a teller. I didn’t wind up depositing the check. It was a symbolic gesture. It confirmed my belief that if you see it, you will believe it.

2018 was an important year for me. I was named Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year in the technology category. My company was ranked number five on the Women Presidents' Organization’s list of the 50 fastest-growing women-owned/led companies.

(Note: Phyllis met multiple award-winning actress Viola Davis during this period and together they formed Shoulder Up, an organization dedicated to educating women about finance. They have also founded Shoulder Up Ventures, the first women-founded and women-led influencer fund, aimed at creating wealth by and for women worldwide.)

Two years later, I began thinking about a suggestion for a women-led SPAC. So, I developed a 90-day plan, which involved learning about capital markets, investment banking, SEC rules. And on day 89, I was ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange as CEO of the Athena Technology Acquisition Corp. and co-founder with Isabelle Freidheim. Eight months later, we rang the bell again when we announced our purchase of Heliogen for $300 million. We hope to grow to become a $10 billion SPAC.

(Note: Phyllis’ website provides additional details about those intervening eight months: “Athena closed a $250 million IPO in March 2021, making it the only SPAC listed on the NYSE with an African American female CEO. In July 2021, the company announced it was taking concentrated solar power company, Heliogen, public in a $2 billion merger.”)

Why was Heliogen your first deal? How did you know it was a good opportunity?

We started with analyses of some 25 companies.

Heliogen’s leaders had strong technology backgrounds. We were looking for companies that caused disruptions in their industries. Heliogen had a great management team; it had the potential to be a technology game changer into the future; it was scalable to a global market; the company had a Black female CFO, an Asian American attorney as well as a number of women engineers; the company was already in alignment with Athena’s goal of putting more women on public boards and in the C-suite.

How does Heliogen’s technology work? How much CO2 and NO2 can it remove from the atmosphere?

The company’s number one goal is carbon free energy. Its technology can remove all CO2 and NO2 emissions coming from any large manufacturing plant. The vision is to eliminate the need for turbine engines.

Here’s how it works in simple terms. We unlock sunlight to replace fossil fuels. 1000 mirrors mounted on a tower can deliver 1600 degrees of solar power 24/7, not just when the sun is shining. It’s the second technology that has used computer visioning and AI together. A large manufacturing plant might need four towers. The more mirrors you have on a tower means more energy.

One tower could reduce electricity costs by 53% in the first year for a manufacturer or a refinery or an airport.

Rio Tinto has invested and is building its first tower. We are currently moving from prototype to our first customer. We hope to be operational by the beginning of 2023.

To scale this effort, we have hired a lot of SpaceX engineers and we are creating partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as well as engineering programs for women.

Tell me your story. Why did you join the military? How long did you serve?

I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina as the 10th of 11 children, seven girls and four boys.

My father was a major inspiration. He gave each child a special card and he told me: “I’m going to give you a value card and it will always win. It will always travel with you.” He said that I was a “warrior” and that I would be the greatest leader.

In 1979, I was a student at the University of North Carolina, majoring in computer science. I visited my sister who was in the Air Force. I saw women on the flight line at Pope Air Force Base, and frankly, I thought that their jumpsuits, their “pilot uniforms” were cute.

I wound up joining the Army and during my 22-year career, I worked for the White House CyberCommand and ran the Cyber Espionage Center at the Pentagon.

Explain your philosophy of life and business.

I collect what I call “ROCs.” That means resources, opportunities, and connections. We’re always just one RO – one connection or opportunity – away from changing our lives.

Thanks to my father, I knew what my value card was. I was intentional about taking risks.

I always say: “Be a student of the game first. Then, you own the game if you play it well. Sometimes, you get to create new rules of the game.”

When I first rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, only 24 women in history had rung that bell and not one of them had been a woman of color.

My 89-year old mother said: “Know that today you are ringing the bell for those who couldn’t and those who will. It’s symbolic of all the bells that should have been rung and weren’t.”

She added: “Anyone can make history; the second time, you make a difference; and the third time, you make change!”

Are you hopeful about the planet?

Yes. I am hopeful about the future of the planet because our younger generation doesn’t check their mores at the door. They hold us accountable to Mother Nature and they are outspoken. They possess the technological capabilities to solve real problems, to innovate to solve big problems like climate change.

I am encouraged by the next generation of leaders. So I can get out of their way and bring these future leaders forward.

(Cover Photo Credit:

About Climate Stories

Climate Stories is a series researched and written by Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) and Produced by Lynn Schenk, Director, Business and Environment Initiative

The HBS Business and Environment Initiative is excited to launch Climate Stories, a series of researched blog posts that tell the unique stories of the business leaders–CEOs, founders, advisors, and more–who are enabling climate solutions to thrive by seeing new business opportunities and focusing on the people who make those solutions both necessary and possible.

To accomplish the mission of Climate Stories, BEI is grateful to be working with Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978). Adams has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. Over the next few months, she will share a variety of stories that we hope will teach, inspire, and motivate our readers to create their own positive stories - ones which prioritize the human side of climate change.

About the Author

Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. She and Bonita C. Stewart (MBA 1983) are co-authors of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” as well as a series of groundbreaking proprietary surveys, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©.