Q&A with Mark Nolte of Moxie Solar

Mark Nolte is best known by most for his time leading the Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD). Nolte spent fourteen years at ICAD, successfully driving local economic development and helping Iowa companies and entrepreneurs succeed.

More recently, Nolte joined North Liberty-based Moxie Solar, where he is serving as president of the company’s new manufacturing enterprise – a venture that will make Moxie one of just a handful of companies assembling solar panels in the U.S.

A native Iowan, Mark believes our state’s best days are ahead of us if we continue to innovate and support each other.

Our Q&A is below:

Have you always had an interest in entrepreneurship and community building?

Growing up in rural Iowa I had the opportunity to be engaged in working for small business owners from an early age. When I was 14 I started working for a nursery/Christmas tree farm and by the time I graduated high school I was managing a small team of workers, many older than I was.  Then, after my wife struggled to start her business, I got engaged in microenterprise development, helping people start businesses as a way to better their lives and in some cases get off public assistance. Then I worked with people with disabilities specifically helping them start businesses because the unemployment rate for that segment of the population was so high.

After a run for the State House I started working for ICAD helping to transition a traditional economic development entity into more entrepreneurship and community building as a more sustainable way to serve the region. 

You recently started a new role as President of Moxie Solar.  What does your role consist of and how are you settling into the position?

Through my work at ICAD, I had been talking to Jason Hall over the last couple of years about how we could help them set up a solar panel assembly operation. This fall as we continued to discuss, he suggested that I come on board to help make it happen. We kept discussing and in December we decided to go for it. 

My role is to figure out how we can successfully compete in this market while creating great jobs here in Iowa. So it’s a steep learning curve but we hope to be in a position to move forward very soon. 

What are the biggest challenges for a solar energy company like Moxie?

On the panel production side, it is finding our niche and being able to make a high-quality product that can compete with imported panels made in countries where labor costs, lack of environmental and safety regulations and currency manipulation make it difficult for the playing field to be even. So we will need to be smarter and more nimble and build the trust of customers that we can be their partner to advance solar energy in the US.

Moxie recently launched an all-electric car dealership in North Liberty. Can you talk about the dealership and the decision for Moxie to expand into electric vehicles?

Moxie realized there was a gap in the information available and access to electric vehicles via traditional auto dealerships.  So the team here can help you find the right vehicle for your family or business’s use. If you’re making solar power on your roof, these cars are essentially batteries on wheels that help you make the most of your solar investment, so it was a natural fit for the installation business.

Prior to going to Moxie, you spent 14 years at ICAD. Could you talk a little about your time there and the impact it had on you as a community builder and leader?

It was an incredible experience to be in that role for the time I was and help serve companies and entrepreneurs to strengthen our local economy. The team there is amazing and I know they will continue to keep advancing the right ideas and actions to keep this area thriving. I learned so much in that role and am forever grateful to all the people it allowed me to work with at the companies, on the board and on the team. 

14 years is a long time to spend at an organization. What are some of your proudest accomplishments from your time at ICAD?

I think the overall thing I’m most proud of is helping make sure that we innovated in the field to be focused on the needs of the existing companies and spurring a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem. We looked at the problems differently. 

One example, instead of wringing our hands about how hard it can be to hire talent, we worked to advance better company cultures with our employers so they would be more attractive to young people.  Now I see other economic development entities doing similar things and I’m proud that we helped advance that movement. More recently ICAD partnered with Ed Morrison to bring Strategic Doing training to Iowa. This is a way to drive change in a company or a community and I think its the right role of economic development to bring these tools to our communities. 

Where do you see Iowa’s startup ecosystem being at five years from now?

I think it will continue to grow and become stronger at helping the right ideas move forward and helping those who have ideas that might not have market fit become more aligned to a solution that is viable. I hope we have more access to supportive capital that is really there to advance company and job growth in our state. I think more young people will gravitate to entrepreneurship if we keep exposing them to it while they are in school.  We need more kids learning the mindset and skills, programs like STEM innovator are critical.

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

As the parent of children in this age range, I am pretty confident that I wouldn’t have listened either, but had I the opportunity I would want the 18 year old me to see faster than I did that the world needs us all to be caring for each other more than our culture has led us to believe. The only way forward is for us to see us all as connected and work more for the “we” than the “me.” This idea of the rugged individual is bogus. As humans, we were meant to work socially as part of the tribe. Those values are still here in Iowa so we can be a leader in showing the rest of the world how to reorganize around the common good.  

Are there any additional thoughts/comments you have on Iowa’s startup ecosystem that you’d like share?

If Iowa is going to have a future, it needs to be led by Iowa’s entrepreneurs creating value and products that bring jobs and wealth to our state. We can’t recruit companies in to extract wealth from our state anymore.

I’ve been pretty open about potentially running for Governor and these would be the themes of our campaign. Leveraging the best aspects of our past in terms of community and cooperation with the needs of the future for better food, a cleaner environment and an approach to education that creates human beings who can live a life of purpose, joy and service. We can be the model for the rest of the world and we need to start soon.

Previous coverage

Nolte: Parting thoughts on economic development -Jan. 22, 2020

PastPresent: a new way to tell your stories -July 01, 2019