Soul Project creates paths for Sacramento-area youth in the solar industry

From left: CEO Dariyn Choates, Stephon Stroman, Isaiah East, Kevin Nguyen Vo and Darrien Wriedt at the Soul Project orientation on March 20. (Photo by Keyshawn Davis)

By Keyshawn Davis

Dariyn Choates came to Sacramento from Monterey County’s Seaside on a full-ride scholarship to play football for Sacramento State from 2016 to 2019. After graduating with a degree in sociology, he went into the solar industry, eventually starting his own company.

Choates described getting into the solar industry by fluke. After graduating college, he felt the only option he had when it came to his future was to make it to the NFL. When prospective employers looked at his resume, they told him all he had on it was college football. 

Choates, who had an interest in working with SMUD and PG&E, said he was blessed to be contacted by a nonprofit outreach program called Clean Energy Career Pathways from GRID Alternatives in 2021, which partnered with SMUD and taught him how to install solar panels. He said the program attracted young people who didn’t know anything about solar power and they paid them to learn about it. 

With what Choates learned through GRID Alternatives, Soular Cleaning, a mobile solar cleaning company serving the greater Sacramento area opened for business in January 2022. The business also serves the Bay Area, Central Valley and Monterey County. 

Choates said he wanted to be part of the solution to creating opportunities for youth through outreach programs, like the one that helped him get his start in the solar industry. In March, Choates created an outreach program within his company for youth ages 16-26 called the Soul Project. 

“I was blessed with opportunities,” Choates said. “I want to do the same thing for kids that are fresh out of high school that don’t know they want to go to college. Or do the same for kids that graduated college and still don’t know what to do, and my cleaning company could be an entry-level [step] into the solar industry.” 

Soul Project’s introduction to solar

The Soul Project is a workforce and development program where eight to 10 youths learn about the solar industry. They have online courses and training — teaching them about solar sales, installation and maintenance. The program lasts six weeks and participants will graduate OSHA certified, ensuring participants can put safety training on their resumes, and receive a stipend of $250. Choates said the goal is to make this a recurring program.

“They’re gonna put 80 hours into this whole program,” Choates said. “I’m paying them stipends,  taking care of lunches, just bringing them out on the field, teaching them about solar and making it a fun experience as well.”

Choates said he has resident clients that he’s built relationships with  that are letting them use their property to provide the training. 

“It’s a win-win for the kids to learn, but at the same time you’re getting a full exterior of your home cleaning service,” Choates said. “Then I’m there to make sure everything goes good. Somebody’s going to get a free gutter cleaning, roof cleaning, windows clean, panels clean, so their house is going to be looking brand new by the end of the training day.”

Choates said he learned over time that panels lose efficiency and stop working well after being exposed to debris and dirt piles. He thought that solar cleaning was something he could bring to the market to help solar owners keep their panels working at a high efficiency rate and save money while doing it.

Choates partnered with the Sacramento nonprofit Racial and Gender Equity Project (RAGE), which is providing the funds and allowing him to host the program at their facility in South Sacramento as well as providing some of the first cohorts of the program. He said he also teamed with GRID Alternatives to get safety training. 

RAGE Program Director Janne’ Ault-Brown said their mission is to harness individual and collective transformation through four pillars that are incorporated throughout all of their programming. Those four pillars are: healing, education, advocacy and research.

Ault-Brown said Choates was a part of one of RAGE’s fellowship programs when he was building his business. She said she and Choates talked about a youth program centered around the solar industry.

“The RAGE Project has been supportive in getting him from focusing on sales and delivering the services, to now being able to teach and mentor younger youth work,” Ault Brown said. “It’s just really cool that it’s an opportunity for younger youth to not only be exposed but to also receive a small stipend for their time and understand their value in this world.”

Goals for the youth

Youth will be taken into the field and be taught how to walk on tile correctly, strap down a ladder, and operate a high pressure system in the back of a truck, among other things, according to Choates. 

Choates said he wants to teach the youth about entrepreneurship, and his goal is to have a ceremony when the youth complete their training and to have potential employers there. He said he’s going to have sales companies and installation companies present as well. 

“My goal is to get all 10 of these kids hired in the solar industry if they’re interested, but these jobs will be available, right off the bat,” Choates said.

Darrien Wriedt, a 16-year-old who attends Westlake Charter High School in Sacramento, is one of the first participants in the Soul Project. He plays basketball at his high school and said he wanted to learn another trade to dip his toes in different fields.

“I am excited to learn another trade,” Wriedt said. “I still have ambitions to play basketball after high school. But if I don’t end up doing that, I would love to jump in any type of trade, if not [the] military or Marines.”

Choates said the project is important because it creates opportunity and he hopes it will help get youth into that field. 

“These are things where I feel like I could be the stepping stool to great opportunities to come,” Choates said. “I think a lot of kids lack the opportunity to be great. They’re at the age where they’re hungry, they want to get there, and they know they have the fire inside them to go do something great. They just don’t know how to get there. And I want to be that stepping stool for these kids to go ahead and take the initiative.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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