The unlikely story of a solar engineer turned trend-setting entrepreneur.

A snappy Facebook status dated 23 January 2022 describes the case of a consumer whose electricity use was on that day covered 99 per cent by solar panels installed at their property. There is also a chart that visualizes the data to support this case, and the text concludes with a rhetorical question: „When they work this well in winter, what do you think, how do they work during summer?“

But who says this, and what do they know? The person who says it is Gentiana Alija Shala, solar energy engineer and the only woman founder and CEO of one out of more than a dozen solar companies in Kosovo[1]. She is part of the Women in STEM Network in Kosovo[1] where she has been an active member by sharing great ideas on how to motivate more girls and women to start their careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

She’s also a self-described environmentalist and feminist: two hard-earned qualities, considering the efforts she puts into promoting renewable energy production and into helping fellow women engineers get to a position where they’re empowered to achieve their professional potential. As to what she knows, let’s backtrack a little.

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Gentiana liked being at the center stage ever since she was a child: „I participated in competitions, I was the presenter at end-of-year celebrations — any event that happened at school, I was always there.“ Starting from the fourth grade until high school she had her own radio show on Radio Kosova[1], where she talked to grown-up celebrities about their childhoods.

Apart from being a social butterfly, she was also a zealous student who excelled in physics and mathematics. This affinity for natural sciences guided her in a path of studying them all the way through high school and university, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in Electroenergetics. During five years of studies, she maintained side jobs as a math instructor to her peers and as a lecturer on computer networks.

Her academic and subsequently professional path took an exciting turn one day towards the end of her university studies: while she was unwinding from a busy day, a documentary came on TV that told the story of a guy who had built his own solar panels. This piqued her interest so intensely that it pushed her to learn more about solar energy, going so far as to talk to her mentor and change her thesis subject into a topic exploring this newfound passion.

„I figured I’d write the thesis and learn more in the process,“ Gentiana explains what seems to be the model of thinking she uses generally to achieve her goals.

She studied all the materials she could find through professors and friends that were working in the up-and-coming industry, and when she felt she’d exhausted those, she started making phone calls and writing emails to companies for a chance to work with them. One of those companies gave her a chance, and true to form, she made the most out of it while at the same time indulging her curious streak elsewhere.

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„I started working for this solar panel installation company, and in that process of learning and working, there were things that I did not understand and for which they could not give me solutions,“ she explains with vigor. „So I opened a LinkedIn account and starting training online with some Indian engineers through screen sharing; this way I could see their work process and figure out how they were doing their projects.“

After an intense year of working hard while jumping through hoops to overcome challenges that come as a matter of course for a woman in a field constituted almost entirely by men, she was ready for the next step in her career.

Risking it for the biscuit

When Gentiana started using LinkedIn to fill the gaps in her knowledge and skills, she also took the time to promote her work by posting all her projects on the platform. That’s how she got discovered by a well-established Italian company in the field of solar energy.

Disgruntled by the prospect of continuing her path in Kosovo[1] where all career paths seemingly led her to work in small-scale companies that operate in the local market and excited to be headhunted by an international company, the contract she got offered to work in Italy was initially a no-brainer. But she gave it some thought anyway, and in the end decided to go with another option altogether.

It was time to break the peace she had reluctantly made at the beginning of her career with the fact that no matter her performance and the profits she would bring to her employers, she could never reach a position at an equal level with male engineers. Instead, she felt that she had brought herself to a place where she could take the matter into her own hands.

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Photos: Mustafa Kukaj

„I started to wonder why I don’t start something myself, then I kept thinking ‘No, they will never take me seriously,’ but in the end I decided I’d get it started because you never know,“ she remembers her musings at the beginning of her entrepreneurship journey. „I thought to myself: ‘If I could win big projects for my employers, why wouldn’t I win them for myself?'“

She pitched her idea to a previous colleague who agreed to invest in her company as a co-founder, and she established her own solar company. Starting with small projects for farmers that install solar panels at their farms as part of a grant scheme by the Ministry of Agriculture, she moved on to bigger and bigger projects and eventually got to a point where most of her company Alfa Solar’s market share is outside of Kosovo[1].

Alfa Solar now has three engineers in its staff, all of them women, each in charge of separate projects based in different countries. The company in Italy where Gentiana almost went to work is now one of her company’s clients.

Regardless of the expansion in the international market, she diligently sets up meetings each week to pitch her company’s services to local businesses with high energy consumption.

„The first step is the promotion: I present to them how much carbon dioxide they would save in a year; I illustrate using the number of trees it would equal planting — I try to show the environmental profits as much as the financial ones,“ she explains her approach in these meetings. „It is interesting that many businesspeople are interested in making a difference starting from themselves in this aspect; they say, ‘Someone might see me [make the shift to solar energy] and so the idea might spread around.'“

Gentiana sees the potential of renewable energy in Kosovo[1], where progress towards such a shift has been slow partly due to heavy dependence on its large coal reserves, and is determined to do her part in speeding things up. „A big problem we have in Kosovo[1] is that many don’t see the value of solar energy and don’t trust it because they don’t know that solar panels can be connected to the grid — so solar panels are the primary source of energy, and when there is a lack of production, the building receives it from the electricity distributor,“ she explains.


A good example of this sort of exchange is the Municipality of Prizren, where through UNDP’s pioneering climate action project “Support for Sustainable Prizren – Initiating Urban NAMAs (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions)” solar panels were installed on top of the Municipality Building. Not only does the system produce around 30 per cent of the building’s energy needs — cutting carbon emissions by roughly 2,000 tons per year — but based on an agreement between the municipality and Kosovo’s[1] energy distributor, any excess electricity generated in this manner will be exported to the grid and then compensated.

Rising by lifting others

Talking to Gentiana, it’s easy to discern that she has found her calling and now eagerly wants to make a mark on the world by sharing it with others. „The way I see it, my role is to promote the [solar energy] sector in Kosovo[1]; it’s not technically my job but I do it passionately because my vision in light of the climate crisis is to contribute to the transition from coal dependency towards increased use of renewable energy.“

A photo in this story
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She’s quick to admit that juggling the several roles she’s undertaken hasn’t been an easy feat, and she’s given some thought to the steps that the responsible authorities can take to lighten the load for Gentiana and others like her.

„The Minister of Economy has taken a step towards cooperation by inviting each [solar panel system] installation company to ask us for ideas on what we can include in the strategy,“ she notes, referring to the Solars’ Forum organized in the summer of 2021, where Minister Artane Rizvanolli said her team were listening „with pencils in hand“ to learn from the attendees in order to inform upcoming policies in the field.

„What I said there was that we [the entrepreneurs] need to be relieved from the responsibility of promotion: We need to be at stage two, where I go to a meeting with a potential client without having to promote solar energy but where we both know what we’re talking about,“ she explains. „And another thing, we need training — bring foreign experts to teach us or take us abroad to learn so that we don’t have to keep looking outside Kosovo[1] for professional staff.“

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When she recruited her team of engineers, Gentiana explains that before they could start working, they underwent a period of training during which she prepared them for all the stages of a project. „Now they no longer need to come to work in the office and can carry out projects in the way they choose, as long as we can stick to our deadlines,“ she says.

Knowing the importance of role models in personal development, she tries to set an example for her colleagues as well as other women in her line of work and beyond. „I used to suffer from a complex of inferiority; when I went to client meetings, some big bosses would sit at their big tables and they’d invite me to sit at a low table in the corner where I felt small and inferior,“ she remembers.

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„I kept thinking, ‘What can I do that will make me feel powerful?’ until it hit me: heels. I can’t help but feel confident when I’m wearing heels so I started going to meetings dressed to the tee and always found reasons to be standing up — either by doing a presentation of my work or by observing the building — so that they could see that I proudly take up my space.“

„I don’t sit in the corner where I’m told to sit.“

Her piece of advice to young women dealing with similar issues is to focus their attention on the everyday things that make them feel confident, and to put effort into making those things a part of their routine, whatever they may be.

Another piece of advice that has carried her through quite some situations is to learn to take some annoying but ultimately harmless behaviors in her stride. To illustrate what she means, Gentiana uses an anecdote from one of her countless experiences while at work.

„Once I went to measure an object for a large project, and after greeting the owner, I was ready to get handed the keys to the building, but he just kept standing there as if waiting for someone. After some time, I said, ‘Do you know what we are waiting for?’ and he asked who would be coming to take the measurements, so I told him that that’s what I was there for.“

She was expecting the funny-in-a-dismissive-way comments that followed, so, determined to be unbothered by them, she set up the ladder and climbed onto the roof.

FootnotesStory by Tringë Sokoli
1[] All references to Kosovo in this document shall be understood in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999).