Updated: Jul 16, 2021
ChargerHelp!’s Kameale Terry is filling a critical EV infrastructure gap while mobilizing disadvantaged work forces.
If you drive an electric vehicle (EV), you’ve likely had this experience: your car is telling you it’s low on charge, you think you have enough to make it home, but you’re not sure. You grab your phone, check for EV charging stations nearby and luckily, there’s one less than a mile from your current location. But when you get there, you discover that the one charging station that’s available is out of order. Arrgghhh! What do you do?
If Kameale Terry, CEO and co-founder of ChargerHelp! has her way, you’ll never have this experience again. Today, her Los Angeles-based startup is helping EV charging network providers address an emerging headache — keeping their stations online and operating properly — while enabling economic mobility for local disadvantaged workers.
Terry’s brainchild draws inspiration, in part, from her childhood in South Central Los Angeles.
“I used to love watching my dad, a networking consultant, take computers apart and put them back together,” recalled Terry. “It instilled in me the idea of being able to create new things without letting perceived barriers stand in the way.”
The concept for ChargerHelp! is simple: hire and train members of the local community to periodically inspect, troubleshoot and repair EV charging stations owned and operated by network service providers such as Chargepoint, EVgo, and EV Connect. ChargerHelp! technicians use a private, company-developed, step-by-step app to diagnose and repair EV charging stations on demand, usually in response to calls generated by network providers’ mobile apps.
“If a station is online, it can send diagnostic error codes to its network provider, but if that station has been vandalized or has gone offline for some other reason, there’s no way to know what’s wrong with it,” explained Terry.
“If someone ran over the EV charging connector or its hose is loose, for example, you would never know what’s wrong if you didn’t physically inspect the station and diagnose the problem. That’s where ChargerHelp!’s localized workforce can make a huge difference getting stations back online quickly.”
Terry’s penchants for social justice and problem solving began at Audubon Middle School in Los Angeles. One of her math teachers would give the class complex word problems to figure out with minimal guidance or context.
“I loved doing these problems, because by the end I would have explored a lot of different ways to solve the problem, even if my solution didn’t line up with the intended theorem,” she remembered. “But it gave me the space to figure stuff out on my own, and then to have someone provide feedback.”
During middle school, Terry was also active in Peace Over Violence (POV), a nonprofit sexual and domestic violence prevention center in Los Angeles “committed to social change … and social justice.” Through POV, she discovered her talent for organizing people around social causes — street performances, protests etc. — experience that would help underpin her current commitment to social change through technology.
Putting Systems to Work
As an undergrad at Azusa Pacific University (APU), Terry zeroed in on organizational leadership as a major, an interest she reinforced with part-time work as an intern in APU’s college admissions office.
“I discovered that I have a real passion for understanding how people work with systems, and how to organize people and systems to get different outcomes,” she revealed.
Terry received her bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from Azusa Pacific in 2012.
After college, she began working for Urban Promise, a Christian nonprofit in Camden, N.J., where she continued honing her skills in organizational processes. Terry helped Urban Promise set up a full college access program for Camden high school students, who worked to thrive in the context of concentrated poverty.
“We had to work through questions such as ‘How do you help first-time college students with a parent who never went to school and may not even know how to read? What types of programs and support systems do these students need to succeed?’” she explained.
Investing in Optimism
While still with Urban Promise, Terry became interested in banking and the financial forces that affect community development. She invested in her own education by volunteering on behalf of Wells Fargo on the Wharton Small Business Development Center.
“My work with Wharton gave me a new perspective on economic mobility,” she observed. “We live in a capitalistic society and people are supposed to be able to achieve (financial well-being) based on their work, but somehow it is not happening.
What things do we have to change to make sure more money flows to small businesses and (more) kids get to attend college?”
Returning to Los Angeles in 2012 to help care for her mom, Terry became fascinated with data analytics and impact investing. Through volunteer work with the Los Angeles Police Department and the nonprofit Dress for Success Worldwide, she began to recognize that many organizations intent on improving opportunities for local citizens often failed to understand the needs and qualifications of those citizens.
“I helped both LAPD and Dress for Success restructure their data systems so they would know, in simpler terms, whether their work in the community was having the intended impact,” explained Terry.
Terry parlayed her growing passion for workforce development into an opportunity in 2018 with LA-based EV Connect. She helped the EV charging station startup staff its customer service department, for example, with employees paid for by LA’s South Bay Workforce Investment Board.
But she also spent more time than she’d care to remember responding to emails from frustrated drivers who were having difficulty using charging stations.
“Those early days at EV Connect made me realize that there was no manual on how to trouble-shoot charging station hardware or software issues,” Terry shared. “We were struggling trying to figure how to fix our charging stations and how to get (repair) people out there quickly.”
Offering an Alternative
She is excited and cautiously optimistic about the startup’s future.
“In 2020, we focused on Southern California,” she advised. “We currently have two full-time technicians and we’re servicing about 300 EV charging stations.” By the end of 2021, she added, ChargerHelp! plans to move into six new markets — Northern California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Washington, and Oregon — secure contracts for 10,000 charging stations and have 33 full-time technicians.
Key to that expansion and finding trained technicians in each area will be a first-of-its-kind curriculum for EV charging station maintenance developed by Terry’s team. The curriculum, which is in its final phase of approval by the U.S. Department of Labor, will be offered at community colleges and worksource centers throughout the U.S. Technicians who complete the course will be eligible to work for ChargerHelp!.
Keeping in Touch
Terry’s work days in South Central begin early, as in 4:40 a.m. Her first order of business, always, is 10 minutes of meditation, to prepare herself spiritually for the day ahead. Then it’s a check of the financial markets via cable outlet CNBC, a few e-mails and fresh pot of coffee.
By 8:00, she’s ready for her daily online workout — nothing but sweat, no shoptalk allowed — with a group of California start-up founders and investors. The rest of the day is devoted to managing the details of raising money, scaling up the business, and developing a dedicated, well-trained workforce. And of course, more coffee, often paired with a nutrition bar.
Like many entrepreneurs and white-collar workers, Terry is working from home these days due to COVID-19. But that doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm for what’s possible and what’s next.
“The thing I’m most passionate about is innovation,” she enthused. “I am so excited for the next 10 years because technology has a huge opportunity to bring more people to the table. If we can harness the innovation of all people, I think we can create things of our wildest dreams.”
When the workday ends, Terry fixes dinner for her mom, cleans out her e-mail inbox, then falls into bed, ready to start the process again eight hours later.
To be sure, ChargerHelp! is still in its infancy, but Terry is excited about the opportunity to demonstrate what can happen when infrastructure pilot funding and equitable access join forces with public private partnerships.
“There is a growing number of thought leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs within disadvantaged communities across America, each of them with solid ideas and solutions that can potentially change the world,” she said.
ChargerHelp!, Terry continues, is uncovering and applying the skills of those innovators to solve a real-world technology problem, while providing equitable and sustainable jobs.
“I’d like to think that we’re actualizing an equitable, green transition to the future for communities like I one I grew up in South Central Los Angeles,” she confided. “The bridges we build and doors we open will help charge up opportunities for generations to come.”
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If you enjoyed reading about EV infrastructure, I think you'll also enjoy my profile of Michael Johnson, a specialist in updating and maintaining California's state highway bridges, another key to safe mobility. If you have questions about or recommendations for my blog, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Many thanks.