Rolling Out

Powering change with visionary CEO Deana Neely of Detroit Voltage

How Detroit Voltage is electrifying the future and empowering communities through innovation, sustainability, and inclusivity

Deana Neely is an award-winning, distinguished trailblazer in the electrical contracting industry and a true powerhouse in her field. With over a decade of experience in construction, Deana proudly serves as the visionary founder and CEO of Detroit Voltage, Detroit’s leading and fastest-growing 100% black woman-owned electrical contracting firm.

Neely and her dedicated team work closely with industry leaders to champion renewable energy projects and expand electric vehicle infrastructure. They install EV charging stations and provide EV consulting services, actively contributing to a greener, more sustainable future. Her commitment extends beyond business success to uplifting Detroit by creating training and employment opportunities. She supports women in the construction sector through mentoring, coaching, e-guides, and books.

Recognized as an industry expert, Neely has received awards and recognition from Google, JP Morgan Chase, Essence, DTE Energy, Forbes Next 1000 List, Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council, and Great Lakes Women’s Business Council. In partnership with the U.S. Department of State, Neely has also trained and mentored aspiring entrepreneurs globally, with a focus on Africa, through digital courses. In addition to her business achievements, Neely is also a sought-after public speaker and workshop facilitator, sharing her expertise and inspiring others in the industry.

Munson Steed: Hey, everybody! This is Munson Steed, and welcome to CEO to CEO, where we bring the biggest, the best, and the brightest CEOs who are here to share their vision of what it is to bring your company and their company to life. I am so proud to have the one, the only, right out from the D. What up, though?

Deana Neely: What up, though?

MS: What up, though? CEO Neely, how are you?

DN: I am doing well. How about yourself?

MS: I’m phenomenal. When you think of Detroit, the D, and you decided to put the name in your company, Detroit Voltage, what were you powering in the imagination of both yourself and now the world?

DN: Oh, that’s a great question. What was I powering? Initially, when starting the company, I really thought about how I could create new opportunities for others. I did notice the resurgence that was happening within the city of Detroit and just how to rejuvenate and bring back a city that was once thriving. How could I participate and be a part of that?

Visionary reimagining Detroit

MS: So, when you say Detroit Voltage, how charged and how are you charging, and how are you reimagining Detroit?

DN: Yeah, another great question. So, a way that I reimagined Detroit is, being the leader in EV infrastructure. As you might know, we were one of the first—well, we are the first to have an actual road where you can charge your vehicle. Just being groundbreaking and being at the head of all of this new innovation that’s coming. And so, that’s part of how I’ve envisioned Detroit Voltage and being a part of that, and helping to spearhead a lot of that.

MS: So, reimagining, and how are you thinking of infrastructure, and clearly as a sister with superpowers? Infrastructure that you were going to deliver to change and transform Detroit.

DN: Yes. So when my company started eight years ago, my goal was to serve the underserved community, the city of Detroit. I’m a born-and-raised Detroiter, and so I was very passionate about providing services to a community where a lot of contractors would not. And two years ago, I started to notice a lot of opportunities to install electric vehicle charging stations, not necessarily in Detroit, but I started to notice it. And I made a very clear plan to make sure that I had trained electricians so we could pursue these opportunities once they actually hit Detroit. And that’s exactly what I did. 

We ended up being awarded a contract with our local utility company DTE Energy. So we install electric vehicle charging stations as a partner with them. And we’ve also just been doing it throughout the community as well. And so I was just very intentional about being a part of that, making sure that our community had access to charging. We do have a charging desert within the city of Detroit, unfortunately. And so even now, I’m looking to figure out a way to solve those issues.

MS: Thank you. When you think about literally taking charge of your future as a CEO, how important is it to lay that plan and to see the future before it happens?

DN: Oh, gosh! It’s very important. So, I consider myself a visionary. I’m consistently thinking about what’s the next thing? How can I include technology within my business? Am I thinking about the new sectors in which I can grow into? I’m consistently researching and studying and seeing the things that are coming down the pipeline. So that I’m not left out, so that I can take advantage and bring my community along with me. And so that’s a way to do that. But you have to, like you said, planning is so important. But a part of that planning is research and studying to know what’s actually coming before it gets here, because once it’s here, it’s almost too late.

MS: You really talked about training, having a team, particularly in the area of electrification. What would you share with those individuals who, like yourself, would like to participate but really don’t know where they can participate in this whole green and electrical economy?

DN: Oh, gosh! There are a lot of different programs popping up, and even myself, I’ve been working to develop one where we can get people trained and actually out into the workforce. But right now, I mean, the local unions have different training programs. Some of our community colleges have some type of training programs just to kind of give an introduction to this space and just to see if it’s a good fit. So, I would say even starting there would be a great thing. But there are opportunities out there to learn.

MS: Partnering with a major utility, obviously there are utilities across this country. So congratulations on that. But for that young sister, what did you learn when you first started having to work with a huge billion-dollar corporation?

A whole full-circle moment

DN: So, funny thing, I tell people it’s been a whole full-circle moment. I want to say, my second year in business, I ended up participating in a pitch competition, and the pitch competition was held by that very utility company. I did not want to do it. I had never pitched before. I didn’t know how to pitch. I had no interest in doing it. Long story short, I ended up pitching and winning first place. And that was six years ago. And so all of these years I’ve been courting them and trying to figure out a way for me to work with them, understanding my capability and capacity, and not wanting to overextend myself either. 

So, a part of that is knowing what you can do and making sure that you are prepared to take on such a task. Because working with a major utility company, it comes with a lot. There are a lot of things you have to be able to afford up front and, just be able to manage something like that. And so, just really preparing for what you want.

MS: You literally said it, but when you’re dealing with a large conglomerate, how have you brought along your banking partners and other individuals to kind of share in your success as a CEO? And how important is it to grow your banking relationships when you’re growing your business?

DN: Oh, it’s very important. So, one of the lessons that I learned earlier on, as I ran away from taking on debt. I learned that it’s better to take it on before you need it than to wait until you actually need it and try to get it. So one of the things that I even teach my mentees right now is to make sure you prepare for where you want to go. If you know that you have these large conglomerates or corporations that you want to work with, what type of funding will you need in order to be able to float particular jobs? Like, can you pay for payroll? Can you pay for materials?

Like all of these things you have to consider before you even go after these opportunities, because the last thing you want to do is get in the door and fail. It’s difficult to get in the door, as is, especially as people of color. But when you get that opportunity, you want to knock it out of the park so that way you can open up the door for others to come in, and that should be the goal.

MS: When you talk about that, just being a woman in an industry, working in a male-dominated industry like auto, how do you encourage both young and old women to get in these industries and match their wit, their ingenuity, and their strength, to know that there is an opportunity and to take up space?

DN: Yeah. So not only do I mentor women, I actually have a book that I’m launching soon. But in doing all of these things, just showing people and allowing them to see me and what I’ve been able to accomplish, like, look, I didn’t have—like, I started with absolutely nothing. And if you can just use me and just watch the way that I’ve maneuvered this, you can as well. I think it’s important to be able to give back and to show people, like, I’ll hold your hand if I need to, whatever I need to do. You can do this as well. You can be a disruptor in this space. 

And so, as I looked at statistics around woman-owned electrical contracting firms, only 9% of electrical contracting firms nationwide are women-owned. 0.3% are Black women-owned. And so just to be a part of that statistic right there is like a game-changer. But I’m like, listen, we can do this. I’ve been in business for eight years now. We’re consistently growing and scaling into different markets, into different spaces. And so if I can do it, certainly you can as well.

MS: If you were going to give a speech at a Howard, or a Fisk, or a Tennessee State, or a Spelman, what would you challenge the next generation of African American professionals and visionaries to do? What would the title of your speech be, and what would be the three things that you would challenge them to do?

DN: So, I have a few, but I’ll just pick one. One of the things that I have learned to do is to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Oftentimes, I am in spaces where I am the only woman. Of course, I’m the only Black person, even in some cases in these rooms, and that you have to be comfortable taking up space, no matter if you feel like you belong there or not—you do. And so, some of those topics would be—you told me to come up with, give you three that I would address, right? So in being comfortable being uncomfortable, just to walk into every space as if you belong there. That’s one. That’s something that I always do. 

No. 2 is to hold your head high and pull in the next person with you. So, if you have access to these spaces, this shouldn’t be something that you’re doing, and only you’re doing, and you’re never bringing up the next person with you. The third thing would be to consistently create opportunities for those that are around you, right in your space, making sure that you are, if you’re a trailblazer, like literally be a trailblazer. Show people the way. Don’t be afraid to disseminate this information because it’s not just for you. It’s not for you.

For Neely, ‘a sense of pride I just can’t shake’

MS: When you took on the opportunity and you saw the first time that you installed an EV charger and knew that it was in, it was ready, and it could charge a car, how did you feel, and what did you feel about the dream that you had before you had ever done it?

DN: Wow! I was super—I’m always very excited about any project that we complete, but having an opportunity to be a part of building out this EV infrastructure. This is like the new wave. It’s almost like when you think about when the Internet was introduced to us, and to be able to be a part of this new revolution that’s happening is amazing to me. It’s a story that my children’s children will be able to tell. My grandmother had this company that did these amazing things, and they were the ones that installed these. There weren’t EV charging stations at one point. There weren’t electric vehicles. And just to be a part of that, it’s a sense of pride that I just can’t shake.

MS: Lastly, when you think about it, for all those individuals who are dreaming, how important is it to really dream, like to take a breath, to say a prayer, and to dream about something really big? How important is dreaming to a CEO like you?

DN: So important. I told you I’m a visionary, but dreams kind of go along with that. I feel like, as a believer, that if you have a dream, then that means it’s something that you can actually achieve. It’s for you to walk that dream out. So, we see all of these amazing things, and we think that’s so far-fetched that it can never happen for me. But for me, I dream big. I shoot for the stars, and I go after these things with everything that I have in me. So I think it’s super important to never stop dreaming.

MS: Well, CEO Neely, I’m really proud of you for all you continue to do, to be a sister with superpower and light the way for us to see a brighter future. I’m Munson Steed here at CEO to CEO, and this is CEO Neely at Detroit Voltage. Thank you so much.

DN: Thank you so much for having me.

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