Mark Bortman, founder of Exact Solar (No. 320 on the 2018 Top Solar Contractors list) in Philadelphia, has long prioritized travel and cultural exploration—he even moved his family to Costa Rica in 2004 to learn more about alternative energy options. So when his friend at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission told him a Malaysian solar entrepreneur was coming to Philadelphia through an exchange program in 2017, he quickly agreed to spend some time with him, entrepreneur to entrepreneur.
The U.S. State Department’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Professional Fellows Program, in conjunction with the DVRPC, sponsored Noor Shahiwan (Iwan) along with 29 other Southeast Asian entrepreneurs for a two-week visit to the United States. The program is designed to connect Southeast Asian young professionals with American counterparts in individually tailored work placements.
Iwan is the owner of Kuala Lumpur-based off-grid solar company SunCrox Solar that he founded in 2011. While Iwan was in Philadelphia, he came to Exact Solar’s offices and warehouse to learn a bit about the business. He also got the chance to tour a couple of the company’s solar jobsites, both residential and small commercial.
Bortman emphasized that the exchange program was meant to be a reciprocal cultural learning experience.
“It was not a program where we were supposed to be teaching him something. The idea was not, ‘Oh you know these American companies are great and you have a lot to learn from them,'” he said. “It was more just a sharing of ideas.”
When it came time for Iwan to head home, Bortman figured he wouldn’t see him again. But then Bortman’s friend at the DVRBC contacted him again with a new opportunity. She said the State Department had a reciprocal fellowship program he could apply for to go learn in Malaysia.
“When someone offers you something like that, we said definitely,” Bortman said. “I applied and was luckily accepted and had the chance to go over to Malaysia and visit Iwan.”
After 24 hours in the air, Bortman made it to Malaysia for his two-and-a-half-week immersive experience at the end of February 2018. He stayed with Iwan and his family, eating with them and learning about daily life in Malaysia. Iwan is well-connected to the entrepreneur community in the country, so he set up many different meetings for Bortman where he could share his story of building Exact Solar and learn from other entrepreneurs.
The two also toured some of SunCrox Solar’s off-grid projects on food carts and bus stops. Bortman’s favorite part of the trip was getting on a four-wheel drive vehicle and driving deep into the jungle to check on some really off-grid solar customers.
“There are these villages of indigenous people that are way back off the electric grid, but Iwan has worked with them a lot in the past to install small off-grid solar systems to give them lights and phone charging and stuff like that at night,” Bortman said.
Since it’s so remote and the people don’t have cell phone service out there, Iwan isn’t able to help troubleshoot anytime the group had a problem or question. So instead, Iwan has been teaching one of the residents how to fix problems himself to help the community be more self-sufficient. Click here to watch a video of their trip to the aboriginal village.
Bortman’s trip to Malaysia came during an interesting time in solar foreign policy. The module tariffs took effect that month, and the topic did come up when he toured one of JinkoSolar’s manufacturing facilities in the country.
“These guys at Jinko, this huge panel manufacturer, that was certainly a concern for them and something that we did talk about,” Bortman said.
Despite the trade unease, Bortman said Malaysian hospitality was on parade throughout his trip.
“The people over there are just very nice, very friendly, and I highly encourage anyone, whether they can go through some kind of exchange program or not, to get out there and see what things are like in other parts of the world,” Bortman said.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2018 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.