The S.B. Questionnaire: Cecilia Villaseñor Johnson

Talking Renewable Energy and Boat Life with the Head of Sun Pacific Solar Electric

Ceci Villasenor Johnson | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

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“It’s very worrisome to see what’s happening to our planet,” says Cecilia Villaseñor Johnson. “We’re destroying our home. Renewable energy is a great solution to combat the crisis.”  

Johnson is president and CEO of Sun Pacific Solar Electric, a family-owned solar energy design, installation, and maintenance company in Santa Barbara. “It’s one of the fastest growing industries in the country,” she says, “and there are more employed in the renewable energy industry than there are in the petroleum industry.”    

She manages a team of 13 employees, including electricians, electrical contractors, and installers. So far, they’ve helped more than 7,000 customers, including the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, UCSB, and the Sea Center, as well as installed panels on Anacapa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara islands.

Johnson is proud to be certified as a woman-owned and -controlled small business. “The solar electrical industry is male-dominated,” explains Johnson. “So to be certified as a woman-owned company is extra special, for we’re a rarity.”

Johnson was born in Mexico. Her father fell in love with the United States while working here during World War II as part of the Bracero program. He returned to Mexico City, where he co-owned and operated a machine-part factory with his brother. In 1981, a doctor told him to take early retirement because the altitude of the city and work stress was taking a toll on his health. He brought his family to Santa Barbara.   

“My father was a dreamer,” says Johnson. “He was always trying to come up with ideas to ease other people’s labors. Before he died, he was trying to come up with a device that could make strawberry picking easier and not break the laborers’ back.”     

Johnson was the youngest of 12 children. “There were always a lot of people around,” she says, recalling 16 people at the dinner table. “It was chaotic but filled with love.” Most os her siblings followed in her dad’s footsteps, working in mechanics and automobiles. 

She remembers arriving in Santa Barbara on a Friday. By Monday, she was attending Dos Pueblos High School. Since Johnson didn’t yet speak English, she was part of an ESL class with students from many different nationalities, including Laos, France, and Venezuela. 

Her next stop was SBCC, where she watched a beautiful boat called ‘The Pilot’ arrive in 1984. “I started asking people about the boat and went to visit it for about a month,” said Johnson, then 19 years old. She soon met the captain, Jay Johnson, and they quickly fell in love. 

A month later, she quit school and work, sold her possessions, and sailed off, becoming the official interpreter for the boat, which ran charter trips. By the time they got to the Panama Canal on their way to the East Coast, she’d become the cook. 

In 1986, ‘The Pilot’ was invited to attend the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. At the end of that year, Jay and Ceci flew back to Santa Barbara to get married. Jay began driving the boats that take oil workers to the platforms. Ceci eventually gave birth to two sons.

By 1991, the family realized that they couldn’t afford a home in Santa Barbara, so they moved to Portland, where their third son was born. Jay found work as an electrician. 

In 1995, they bought their own boat, christening it ‘Pendragon.’ “We gutted it and built all of its systems,” explains Johnson, who did all of the work with Jay, including installing their first solar power system. “It’s the sun giving you energy. It’s quiet. You don’t have to run generators that require fuel and maintenance,” she says, explaining that they wanted to test the technology themselves. “That system is still working today.”

They traveled on the ‘Pendragon’ for the next decade, homeschooling their boys as they saw the world. “The reason for traveling was to show them that there were many ways to live,” she explains. “We immersed ourselves everywhere we went, seeing lives in different perspectives.”

They returned to Santa Barbara in 2004. Johnson opened her own business as a seamstress, doing canvas work for oher boats. Jay didn’t want to return to simple electrician work, so they started doing solar panel installations instead.  

In 2007, they started Sun Pacific Solar Electric. Jay has since retired and one of their sons, Wesly, is the vice president. “We’re the only solar company in town that actually has a solar installation in their business,” claims Johnson proudly.

Cecilia Villaseñor Johnson answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your greatest fear?

I don’t want our beautiful earth to be decimated by our actions any more. We need to make the right choices for all future generations. 

What do you like most about your job? 

I love to be part of the environmental solution and not part of the problem. Every time we finish a solar electrical installation, it’s such a great feeling to know that our customer is now solarized and running on sunshine. 

What is your current state of mind?  

Very focused on growing my company. We hired a few new personnel and I like to make sure they are knowledgeable and can perform to our high standards of workmanship.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Waking up on my boat with my family, watching the sun rise, enjoying the ocean, the wind, water, and marine life.
Who do you most admire? 

People who overcome hardships and still manage to have a sense of humor.
What is your greatest extravagance? 

Eating good food! 
What is the quality you most like in people? 

Honesty and hard work and ability to be able to work with others.
What is the quality you most dislike in people? 

Deceit. 
What do you most value in friends? 

Honesty.
What is your most marked characteristic? 

My friends know they can count on me to be there when they need me. 
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? 

Qué Passion? A play on words: instead of “what’s happening?” saying, “What’s your passion?” 
Which talent would you most like to have? 

I would love to be good dancer.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? 

I would not have given up professional dancing.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? 

Raising my three sons. They were born at home, homeschooled, and raised on a boat while we travelled for decades. People tell me that they are extraordinary people. I am biased so it is so wonderful to hear it from others. 
Where would you most like to live? 

I love living in Santa Barbara. The other place I would love to live is somewhere in the tropics where the ocean is warmer and I could swim every day. For me the water has to be at least 80 degrees in temperature
What is your most treasured possession? 

My boat, which is our home. My husband and I rebuilt it together and have many memories there. The second possession has to be my wedding ring, because it means so much to me. I’ve had to let go of possessions several times throughout my life due to circumstances and hardships, so I don’t put a whole lot of value in possessions. I prefer memories and experiences.
Who makes you laugh the most? 

My husband and children. 
What is your motto? 

Live and learn. 
Which historical figure do you most identify with? 

I don’t have any one single person who I identify with. I have many and they are trailblazer women that broke out of the mold and helped other women along the way. 
On what occasion do you lie? 

I don’t like to do it, but If I feel like I have to, it is because I know the truth would hurt the person more than a white lie. 

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