From Fashion to Solar, How Kent State Alumna Became the CEO of a Solar Company
Alumna Emilie Oxel O’Leary, '93, is the CEO of Sunshine Solar, a woman-owned mechanical installation company that partners with major brands such as L’Oreal and Amazon by installing solar power to support their overarching goals of being sustainable companies.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” O’Leary said. “But I knew I needed a good education. I couldn't just go out and start a business and not have good support.”
O’Leary graduated from Kent State University with a degree in fashion merchandising. With an interest in fashion, she started her first business when she was just 16-years-old before even attending Kent State. She called it For Your Fashion and did makeovers for cancer patients.
After graduation, O’Leary worked in retail, but knew that wasn’t where her heart was. She packed up her belongings and moved to Atlanta, Georgia where she landed a job with the Olympics in 1996. From there she worked at The One World Trade Center while pursuing a masters degree in business with a concentration in e-commerce.
With all this experience and knowledge that she had gained, O’Leary founded her own consulting business called Oxel Company. During that time, a client hired her to work with him in a construction business, leading them to dabble in solar projects, which helped her realize the value in supplying solar power.
“Even though I had zero experience in working in construction or working in solar, I just knew as an entrepreneur this is a business I wanted to start,” O’Leary said. “So I moved on from my consulting business and opened Sunshine Solar in January of 2016 and really just dove in. I used a lot of my past experience to run the company.”
Sunshine Solar’s first solar project was installing a solar carport for the Atlanta Falcons stadium. Since then, the company has installed solar panels to Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Verizon and FedEx whether it be with carport tops, rooftops or solar fields.
Just before the pandemic began in January 2020, O’Leary sold the business but remained CEO. Sunshine Solar has since tripled its business, making it a pivotal turning point for the company.
“Being a woman-owned company differentiates us from other solar businesses,” O'Leary said. “There are not a lot of women-owned solar businesses out there, so when I first started Sunshine Solar, it took a lot of time and a lot of effort to get to where we are now.”
She attributes many of her successes to her undergraduate education for providing her with a solid foundation.
“Kent State is 100% a factor in my success, and I say that because the instructors were very practical. It wasn't just textbook knowledge, especially in the fashion world. They had real life examples that I could completely relate to,” O’Leary said. “I feel that Kent State really provided me with not only a good education, but real world experience and knowledge.”
Additionally, O’Leary admires Kent State’s commitment to being more sustainable. In 2018 the university adopted a 10-year Master Plan that embarks on a $1 billion transformative journey of the Kent Campus to better serve the needs of students and the entire Kent State community. The plan includes the addition of solar panels to each Kent State location.
“Kent State is such a great foundation for students,” O’Leary said. “I love to see the growth Kent State is making, and how the university is embracing renewables on all their campuses.”
Her story is proof that with a solid foundation, students can pursue any career they set their minds to.
“I hope my story can inspire others to explore careers outside of your major,” she said. “The field you study can open doors that you didn't know were possible.”