Amy Francetic, executive director of Clean Energy Trust,

Amy Francetic, executive director of Clean Energy Trust, has a succinct view of measuring the nonprofit's development of clean-energy businesses in the Midwest. "If we're really good at it" she said, "we'll be extinct in 10 years." (Heather Charles/ Chicago Tribune / February 18, 2013)

Amy Francetic was at a child's birthday party in 2004 when she decided it was time to leave Silicon Valley.

   "I was sitting there listening to 6-year-olds talk about IPOs and whose house was bigger and how much a wedding dress cost," she said.

   By then, she had traveled the world, making money for some of Silicon Valley's most brilliant innovators and investors. She had been a photographer, a toymaker and a video game producer; a mother, a wife and a CEO.

   "I said to my husband, 'Jason, if our 6-year-old is talking about an IPO and the cost of a wedding dress, we have failed as parents,' " Francetic said.

   That's how, after about 20 years in California, Francetic and her husband, Jason Rubinstein, made the difficult decision to escape the culture of the Valley and move back to the Midwest with their two young girls.

   "It was a life choice," she said. "It wasn't a career choice."

   Now, at 45, her mission is to change the world -- preferably within 10 years.

   As executive director of Clean Energy Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the development of clean-energy businesses in the Midwest, she works with a board of Chicago's most powerful and wealthy investors -- Nicholas Pritzker, Michael Polsky and Paula Crown among them.

   "When you are a billionaire, you can pick and choose what you want to do," she said. "So they want to do stuff that matters."

   In returning to the Midwest, Francetic wanted to apply the lessons she had learned in Silicon Valley to a broader policy problem.

   "We think there's a problem when you're so dependent on hostile countries for your energy -- the lifeblood of your industry and your way of life," she said. "We have the technology to become energy independent. It exists today. But it's going to take investment. The Midwest can be a leader in that."

   She'll know the goal has been accomplished when Clean Energy Trust no longer needs to do the work it's doing; when scientists are busy creating companies and investors are rolling their profits into an ever-longer list of them.

   "If we're really good at it" she said, "we'll be extinct in 10 years."

   'Something more fun'

   Like all interesting stories, Francetic's past is about someone who was on a straight path then turned, who stumbled but discovered, who fell but got up.

   If Francetic hadn't done those things, she'd be a lawyer in Washington instead of at the helm of one of the Midwest's most powerful engines for clean-energy technology.

   That was her plan when she left her middle-class family in Racine, Wis., to major in political science and psychology at Stanford University on a scholarship. But a semester as an intern at the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Georgetown University Law Center made her change direction.

   "I wanted something more fun," she said. "I went back to school, I took this photography class and I loved it. I knew I wanted to do something more creative."

   Francetic dived into documentary photography and filmmaking. After college, she said, "I decided I wanted to go to Africa with my camera."