Alumni Profile: Rhonda Jordan-Antoine
Infinite Careers is a collaboration between Career Services (Career Advising & Professional Development) and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision making. Read profiles of alumni with unique career paths, hear their stories and network at a series of talks.
Rhonda Jordan Antoine grew up in the Washington, DC area participating in the arts and heavily engaged in math and science. Rhonda attended Columbia University in the City of New York where she obtained both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in electrical engineering and researched fiber optics, all the while training and performing with professional dancers from across the world. At the end of her Master’s studies at Columbia, Rhonda decided to take time away from school to determine how best to use her vast engineering skillset to make a positive impact on society.
In the meantime, Rhonda decided to pursue her passion - dance. She performed in North America, South America, Europe, and Africa. Rhonda was honored and privileged to dance alongside Savion Glover, considered to be one of the best tap dancers in the world, on ABC's Dancing with the Stars. Subsequently, Rhonda danced alongside other tap greats like Jason Samuels-Smith, Chloe & Maud Arnold and Bikaari Wilder on CBS's Secret Talents of the Stars, featuring singer Mya. During her travels, however, Rhonda realized that she could use her technical abilities to help poor and impoverished countries access modern energy services. Rhonda then decided to apply to MIT’s Engineering Systems Division and researched power system planning for developing countries.
During Rhonda’s graduate studies at MIT, she had the opportunity to re-visit Africa when she was selected as a clean energy intern at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to work on rural electrification in East Africa. After this experience and with a strong desire to improve access to modern energy in a sustainable manner, Rhonda decided to focus on social entrepreneurship and became one of the founding members of EGG-energy, an energy service company whose aim was to connect low-income customers to electricity. After winning a series of prestigious business plan competitions, the company began providing power via an innovative battery swapping service, then transitioned to serving its customers using solar power. EGG-energy operated in Tanzania from 2009 until 2014.
Doctor Rhonda Jordan-Antoine currently works as an Energy Specialist in the Africa Region at the World Bank. She works on investment and advisory power projects in various countries and leads Geospatial Electrification Planning in the Africa Region. Rhonda penned the energy strategy of the Sahel Alliance - a multi-donor effort aimed at increasing financial and technical resources to the Sahel to address the multi-faceted challenges and drivers of fragility and to promote increased resilience and economic opportunities – provided analytical underpinnings of the World Bank’s Africa Energy Strategy and the Energy LEAP, and is currently developing a regional program for electricity access in fragile areas of the Horn of Africa. Rhonda previously served as lead of the Power System Planning Support Program during which time she focused on least-cost power sector planning to define national engagement strategies, assess the techno-economic viability of specific operations, and help utilities improve power dispatch. Rhonda also served as member of the Bank’s SE4All Corporate Team, led the analytical contributions to the SE4All Finance Committee Report, and developed analytical tools to estimate investment requirements for achieving universal electricity access as part of SE4All’s Global Tracking Framework 2015.
Now with more than 12 years of experience in energy and development, Rhonda has worked across the Middle East and North Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa regions, providing technical expertise in the areas of power sector planning, mini-grid regulation, solar home system deployment, transmission expansion, energy efficiency and smart-meter deployment, grid integrated renewables, and utility performance and financial recovery. In 2014, Rhonda was featured in US Department of Energy’s #WomenInSTEM video-series highlighting the accomplishments of women across the energy sector on the episode “Using Science and Math to Power the Globe”, and more recently in 2018 she was featured in Chevron’s “Thank Your Role Model” campaign highlighting women in STEM and airing on radio, primetime TV, and during Superbowl LII.
What influenced your choice of undergraduate major? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?
I loved math, science, physics and problem-solving. I was looking for a major that would challenge me and push me to my limits. I was hungry to learn and everyone I asked said that EE was among the hardest engineering majors. If it was the hardest, that's what I wanted to try! I think obtaining a PhD is reflective of the desire to challenge myself; and I can honestly say that I engage in problem-solving every single day that I'm working to design and implement energy project in developing countries.
What influenced your choice of graduate program/programs? How has it/have they shaped your career choices and professional ability?
In a graduate school program, I was looking for something that married the depth of engineering with tangible impact in the world today. I was looking for a program that helped connect technology with socio-economic challenges faced around the globe. The Engineering Systems Division (now IDSS) was the perfect place for me. It allowed me to delve into energy and electric power systems, use social science approaches and system dynamics to characterize the impact of systems on people, and use system level optimization algorithms to aid in decision-making. The concepts and approaches I learned and mastered in the program are used to this day in my job at the World Bank.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently or more of while you were at MIT?
PUBLISH. I was exhausted as are most PhD candidates; since there was no hard publishing requirement I avoided it as much as possible. However, this is NOT the best approach. Publishing prepares you for whatever you choose to do next as it forces the practice of synthesizing your work and presenting it in a digestible manner.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
One of the most rewarding moments in my career was seeing analysis that I led directly inform a Government endorsed National Electrification Strategy for a country in East Africa. The work was a critical piece of the strategy that is now under implementation. The country has achieved an electricity access rate of 75% and will achieve universal access once they finish executing the strategy. In a country of over 40 million, the impact is tremendous!
What motivates you to do the work that you do?
I believe that everyone around the world should have access to basic services, like water and electricity. Seeing people gain access to electricity and watching it transform their lives gives me motivation to work each day.
What professional development experiences or opportunities shaped your early career?
The Cambridge area was the home of various business plan competitions; when developing the idea and business plan for the energy start-up, I participated in EVERY competition possible and the team ended up raising enough money to pilot the company. At the same time, the competitions offered excellent networking opportunities and typically the monetary rewards were coupled with business development and mentoring services. There is so much to learn from the experiences of other entrepreneurs. It really helped transform the energy start-up into something implementable and lessons I learned over this time period impact my work at the World Bank today.
What professional development activities do you find really useful these days?
I find that leadership and management training are essential to complement the strong technical ability of MIT graduates; without the ability to lead, guide, direct and manage teams, ideas end up sitting on a shelf to collect dust.
What's the best piece of career advice you've received?
Don't compare yourself to others, create your own path and do what is best for you. Work hard, be confident, be open to and always be prepared for opportunities that may come your way.
What do you like to do outside of work for fun/relaxation/inspiration?
I love to dance, sing, swim, exercise, and spend time with my family. I also volunteer at church or teach tap dance classes whenever possible. Balance is an essential element of success for me!