In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating the contributions made by African Americans and other members of the African diaspora in society, industry and history with our Innovators in Energy series.
Curtis Wynn was born and raised in Graceville, FL, a rural community located near Tallahassee. Wynn’s father was a farmer, so his passion for rural America started at a young age. While in high school, Wynn landed a job at West Florida Electric Cooperative, a non-profit rural utility headquartered in Graceville. He washed trucks, cleaned out the warehouse, and dreamed of one day becoming a line technician.
“I always knew that I wanted to work at the co-op,” stated Wynn, but it was a supervisor who encouraged a young Wynn to go to college, so he attended Troy University, a small public university located in Troy, AL close to Montgomery. Wynn graduated in 1985 with a degree in business and information systems.
Wynn returned home and took a position at West Florida Electric. He would eventually spend 17 years at the company and become Vice President with a range of oversight that included information technology, marketing, and member services. Wynn hoped to lead West Florida Electric when the role became available, despite feeling more than qualified, the Board of Directors made up of 9 white males rejected his bid. “It was the first time I felt any resistance to upward movement at the company,” Wynn shared, “I believe they wanted someone who more closely resembled the local demographics.” Less than one percent of Graceville’s population is African-American.
Wynn prides himself on maintaining strong relationships, and it was a close friend that would bring him to Eastern North Carolina. Roanoke Electric Cooperative had gone through some changes and they expressed the desire to have an African-American lead their organization.
Wynn had never visited North Carolina, had no relatives in the state, but applied for the open position. Within 45 minutes after his interview, Wynn received a call when he arrived back at his hotel; they selected him to become their new President and CEO. Wynn is the first African-American to serve in the role, but made it clear that he doesn’t want to be the last.
“I was excited, I knew the corporate culture and people were the right fit,” said Wynn, “you don’t always need an engineering background to run an electric co-op.”
During his tenure, Wynn has led a number of initiatives designed to enhance the quality of life for Roanoke’s members. Roanoke’s energy efficiency program provides members with “on bill” financing to make critical upgrades at their home, leading to as much as 35 percent in savings in a market where families may choose between paying the electric bill and putting food on the table.
Under Wynn’s leadership the cooperative established a partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture in a sustainable forestry program. This program specifically targets black landowners and provides awareness and education on how to setup forestry programs and other revenue producing activity. Many black families lose their land due to unpaid taxes or they may not have a will in place to properly transfer ownership. The program has assisted over 200 landowners with selling timber for maximum dollars, abating taxes, and the implementation of forest management practices.
Wynn’s vision of utilizing the organization to provide broadband services in rural areas will improve the quality of life and strengthen the community. Just two years later, the COVID-19 pandemic would provide real life case study the importance of broadband connectivity in rural areas. This vision launched Roanoke Connect. This program has its origins in Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s focus on economic opportunity for its Member-Owners. The program’s foundation of smart grid and internet technology is poised to provide a brighter future for members and the community.
In 2019, Curtis Wynn became the first African American President of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Please stay tuned for additional Innovators in Energy profiles throughout the month of February.