Scheele: 'If you're not going to go for it, why bother?'
After seven months of wrangling the logistics, permitting and compliance of a big construction project in Nome and Unalakleet, Jade Smith Scheele and husband Eric were feeling burnt out. They convened back in Montana and over a few beers tried to work out what they should do next.
A map and a dart later they were bound for Austin, Texas, arriving with their two dogs and belongings just in time for New Year’s 2010.
Scheele is a whirlwind of energy, lanky and athletic, with a scar over her eyebrow that she hides with a sweep of red hair. The scar is a souvenir of the time she tried to win the heart of a guy by driving a four-wheeler too fast in unfamiliar territory. “Trying to be the tough Alaskan girl,” as she puts it.
She wound up in the emergency room and, some time later, married the guy. Eric Scheele is now studying to be a nurse, in part, Jade jokes, so that he can take care of his wild Alaskan bride.
“Jade is always up for an adventure,” Eric says.
A year 2000 graduate of Haines High School, Scheele grew up on Fort Seward’s Officer’s Row, surrounded by extended family. Grandparents Ted and Mimi Gregg were among five families who acquired the Fort as surplus from the U.S. government.
Annette Smith, Scheele’s mother, was determined to raise her two daughters – including Scheele’s older sister Christina Smith Baskaya – in Haines. “I had such a fun childhood here, I thought I should let my girls experience that too.” The sisters had a free run of the Fort and the beach and the nearby woods.
“Dress them in red and let them run,” is how Smith characterizes her approach to mothering. Scheele’s interest in science and the environment started early. “She was always asking for telescopes and rock tumblers” for Christmas, her sister said.
Starting at age 7, Scheele gathered pretty rocks off the beach and sold them to tourists off cruise ships for $1 per rock. The business was called Jade’s Gems and was a great success until Jade turned 12 and lost interest.
After graduating from Haines, Scheele enrolled at Oregon State University, where she was underwhelmed by her classmates’ approach to academics.
“I guess, just because of where I was coming from, I expected something different: The classes were too big, the teachers didn’t care, there were lots of fraternities and sororities and it seemed that the students were more interested in socializing than education. I was paying for it myself, I had saved my dividend funds and the money I made as a kid in the summer, and I wanted something more for my money.”
So Scheele transferred to Evergreen College and wrote herself a course of study focusing on alternative energy.
Although she was happy and engaged at Evergreen, it still fell short of Haines. “The best teacher I ever had was (Haines High School science teacher) Mark Fontenot,” Scheele says, and she includes college and graduate school in her tally. “His classes were fascinating.”
Scheele has had encouraging teachers but working in a field that combines science, engineering and construction can be daunting for a woman, she said. While studying she would apply for grant funding to attend alternative energy conferences. “There would be about three women in the room,” she recalls. “You have to be strong and know your own strength.”
Newly arrived in Austin and with the economy in tatters, Scheele didn’t send out resumes and wait for a phone call. “If you are not going to go for it,” she says, “why even bother?” She researched the renewable energy field and narrowed her choices down to two companies that looked attractive.
“It was time for me put all the pieces together. When I look back, now, I can see that everything I had done, it was all building blocks.” From the degree in environmental sciences with a focus on alternative energy, to the unpaid internships she had taken at a solar energy company in Montana. From the surveying work she had done in the summers for her father, to her logistics and permitting experience in Nome.
“Even the job I once had managing a restaurant in Nashville, which was off my path, but was where I learned how to think on my feet and to make decisions in a very fast-paced environment... It all fits together in terms of where I am now.”
She put all the diverse pieces of her resume together into a portfolio and walked them over to the two companies she had chosen. She bluffed her way through security at the first place and got a job at the second. The boss was so impressed by her chutzpah and resume, she hired Scheele pretty much on the spot.
Cielo Wind Power, where Scheele is development program manager, is a privately held company that develops wind energy generation facilities. “It’s extremely exciting to see the turbines spinning, generating electricity,” Jade says of her work. “Above all, I feel a deep sense of accomplishment.”
Recently, Scheele started competing in triathlons. “When I turned 30, I felt I needed to do something spectacular and challenging.” She placed 64th of 685 in her first event. She trains six days a week and is planning to run the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail next summer.
Her warm-up will be an Olympic-distance triathlon in the spring. She plans to be in “marathon shape” to tackle the trail and describes summer training in Texas as “grueling” with temperatures topping 90 degrees early in the morning.
When asked about living in Texas, Scheele wrinkled her nose. Austin is not so bad, she says, kind of like a dry Portland, but it’s hard to get outside and enjoy the wild. She and Eric, a native of Montana, can’t get used to paying to pitch a tent in a campground.
Her next destination, she says, is “wherever the wind takes me.”