Demonstrated Excellence: The 2016 Power-Gen Woman of the Year Finalists

In early 2013, a group of industry women, dubbed the Women in Power committee, assembled in Orlando, Fla., to figure out how to honor women who have dedicated their careers to the power industry. The industry is dominated with men making up more than 75 percent of the workforce, according to estimates.

The Women in Power committee believed that it was time to give recognition to the pioneering women who have worked to advance the power industry in the hope that the women selected as finalists will serve as inspiration to young women to embark on careers in energy. To do this, the committee decided to allow anyone in the industry to nominate a woman for a Woman of the Year Award, which would be given out during Power Generation Week. To judge the nominees, the committee came up with three focus areas.

The first and most important accomplishment that the committee believed a potential POWER-GEN International Woman of the Year should have made is advancing the power industry. In addition, the committee judged nominees by their leadership abilities, as well as the ability to collaborate with, influence, and mentor others. Finally, the committee believed that a potential Power-Gen Woman of the Year should affect her community through industry associations and other organizations. Past winners are Kim Greene, Southern Company (2015); Mary Powell, Green Mountain Power (2014); and Ria Persad, StatWeather (2013).

After two months of collecting nominations, the 14-member committee voted on the nominees and decided upon three finalists, who are described below. One of these three finalists will be named the 2016 POWER-GEN Woman of the Year during the Power Generation Week keynote session, which takes place in Orlando on Dec. 13.  

The 2016 POWER-GEN Woman of the Year will give a short keynote speech during the Women in Power Luncheon on Dec. 13 at the Orange County Convention Center. Following her speech, the finalists will participate in a panel discussion during which luncheon attendees will be able to ask them questions about their careers.

renewable energySherri Blauwiekel — Black & Veatch

As executive director of Black & Veatch’s Global Shared Services for the Power and Oil & Gas business lines, Sherri has more than 2,300 professionals directly under her supervision. Sheri guides all power services operations across the globe, including resources, technology, and offices for project execution.

How has being a woman helped or challenged your engineering career?

Being a woman in this industry brings high visibility. That can be a plus and a minus. You deal with the minuses and go with the pluses. A client I was working with earlier in my career told me, “I don’t know how to work with you because you’re a woman.” The truth was that everyone had a really hard time working with him. I didn’t want him to treat me as he treated the men, so I told him to treat me just like he would his wife or mother even though the right answer is to treat me like everyone else. I ended up being the messenger for our team because he would actually talk with me.

People’s preconceived notions of what a woman is or what she can do are hard to overcome. I even had a supervisor who said, “They always give me the really hard people to work with,” and then he started listing his stereotypes and one of them was “a woman.” He had forgotten in the moment that I was a woman. That was a big success in starting to break his stereotypes.

The key is to demonstrate your qualities and skills. It’s also important in a global business world to understand that each culture is different, and you have to understand that in order to work through those differences. We’re making progress to overcome the challenges, but we haven’t totally moved past it yet. I think we will, and a goal in my career is to make sure it’s no longer an issue.

How were you influenced by mentors along the way?

I’ve had dozens of mentors. Every one of my opportunities has been related to advice I’ve received from people during my career. I have always had people to bounce things off of, including our CEO. I would encourage everyone to find someone whose opinion you respect. I didn’t have female mentors throughout my career. A lot of women in this industry don’t. I recognized early on that I’d be working with mostly men, so I approached it with that understanding. I’ve always strived to not be seen as a woman, but rather worked to draw the emphasis away from that and onto the skills needed. I had so much other support around me, particularly in my family, that gender wasn’t a strong factor in what I needed.

The people that were my biggest influences and that I give the most credit to are my parents. I thought they were just the normal parents growing up, but looking back, they gave me responsibilities, they gave me training, and they challenged me. They were stable. Not a lot of people have that. They are still that stability factor for me today. I give them more and more credit every day.

What project have you most enjoyed working on?

I can list every project that I’ve worked on, and the project experiences have helped me have a rich life. My work is really interesting. Most of my career has been working on mega projects. I have great stories, great experiences, and have worked with great people. I’ve worked in multiple countries, and one project in particular was a plant we built in the Philippines. I have wonderful feelings about that culture and the people I worked with. At the end of the day, it’s about the people.

What outreach activity do you most value?

I value things that make a meaningful change in someone’s life. That’s what life is about. I’m always humbled that “little old me” could make a change in someone’s life. Even a small thing can have an effect years later. I try to find those moments and reach out when I can. I recognize that change doesn’t always happen, but that time you really make a difference is wonderful.

One outreach I love is playing the harp. A memory that has stayed with me is playing at the funeral of a coworker. I didn’t know his family, but I reached out. I didn’t know how it would go. It ended up being extremely meaningful to his wife. It was really calming for her. She gave me a hug and wouldn’t let go. It was really great. I played for a friend’s dad in hospice who was on palliative care. I played for an hour and you could just see the stress level going down. There was no reaction from him, though. I found out that he passed away as I was going to my car. Hearing is one of the last things to go, so I like to think it was helpful to him in some way. Now I’m best friends with the family. I did something meaningful in their lives, and we will never forget that. We now have a connection we never had before and couldn’t get another way. Even playing background, the harp often makes a connection with people. It can be trancelike. There can be 500 people in a room, and it can be completely still. You can feel a pin drop. Sometimes people come to me in tears. Sometimes you can have an effect when you don’t realize it. It’s really cool.

What are you most looking forward to in the rest of your career?

I like what I do. I like helping shape our business. The biggest piece of that is shaping people. My role has a lot to do with matching up people with our business needs and helping the younger people understand those needs. I love sharing all the things I learned along the way so they don’t have to learn the same lessons. I mentor a lot of people and my office is open. Our world is changing a lot. Life has accelerated ever since stores were open on Sundays. The “Andy Griffith sitting on the porch on a Sunday evening” is a little bit lost. The world is faster. You can instantly transfer data, so there’s no downtime, which means everything happens faster, everything changes faster. How do we stay on the leading edge of that? How do we get our professionals to stay on the leading edge of that? How do we make them synergize? I look forward to keeping us on that edge.

I’ve had a great career. I wish everyone starting at Black & Veatch the opportunity to be able to have the kind of career I’ve had. I want to do everything I can to help them get that.

renewable energyRoxann Laird — Southern Company

Roxann’s current responsibilities include executive leadership of the National Carbon Capture Center where she manages more than 200 employees with an annual budget in excess of $40 million. This world-class neutral test facility, managed and operated by Southern Company for the U.S. Department of Energy, plays a pivotal role in acceleration of advanced carbon capture technologies. 

How has being a woman helped your engineering career or how has being a woman challenged your engineering career?

While engineering remains a male-dominated field, I think many of the challenges faced and what it takes to succeed are similar regardless of gender. A successful engineer must have a solid technical foundation, a strong work ethic, effective communication skills and the ability to build successful relationships. While some women, especially when they are younger, face the additional challenges of balancing career and family, they also bring an element of diversity strengthening any team. For example, women may have different leadership styles than men, and those very attributes can make us very effective.

How were you influenced by mentors along the way?

I have been blessed with several great mentors who helped me develop not only technical expertise but leadership skills. I was heavily influenced by my father and his strong military background. All of my mentors encouraged me when I faced challenges, provided candid feedback when I needed direction and were sources of guidance, advice and inspiration. Their support was critical in my becoming the person I am today, and my success would not have been possible without the investment of their time and knowledge. So I realize the importance and value in mentoring young women who are making a start in engineering today.

What is your best lesson learned?

Effective communication and productive collaboration is critical in addressing complex global challenges. Being willing to move out of your comfort zone and investing in developing relationships to leverage the technology advancements around the world yields a tremendous payoff and provides optionality for technologies to move the utility industry forward. 

What inspired you to go into engineering?

When I was preparing for college, my school counselors recommended that I pursue engineering — the typical route for young people talented in math and science. This seemed like the right fit for me, since I had always been interested in understanding how things worked and liked experimenting with whatever I had at my disposal — creating a very high level of stress for my mother when I was a child! When my sister was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia at age 15, I began to focus a lot on the disease and what caused it, including environmental factors. These influences led me to chemical engineering, and ultimately, to an emphasis in environmental engineering.

What are you most looking forward to in the rest of your career?

I am looking forward to the opportunity to mentor others and share my lessons learned with the next generation of engineers in the power industry.

What project have you most enjoyed working on?

The National Carbon Capture Center has been the most exciting project I have worked on in my career. As a focal point of national efforts to develop advanced technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal- and natural gas-based power generation, the National Carbon Capture Center is a unique site where we test new, low-cost carbon capture technologies that can make potentially huge impacts on the economy in a time when carbon emissions are regulated. It’s exciting to host visitors, scientists and technology developers from all over the world and to be able to offer our support for the most promising new projects. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from being part of a team that overcomes the substantial hurdles that go along with development of industry-leading, first-of-a-kind processes.

What outreach activity do you most value?

I love spending time with young people who are interested in pursuing engineering. I am a member of the Auburn University Samuel Ginn College of Engineering’s 100 Women Strong organization, which supports female engineers through scholarships, mentoring and campus events. I also enjoy attending high school events to promote females pursuing engineering, and I host many high school students interested in pursuing engineering at the National Carbon Capture Center.

It’s my goal to help young girls and women understand the different fields of engineering and what engineers actually do on a day-to-day basis, and to provide them with direction and encouragement in using their talents and knowledge to contribute to society in a positive way.

renewable energyCaroline Winn — San Diego Gas and Electric

As chief energy delivery officer for San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), Caroline began her journey in the power industry as one of only a handful of women determined to pursue electrical engineering. Today, she is spearheading SDG&E’s efforts to be a leader in the energy industry’s transformation by harnessing technology innovations for the benefit of customers.

How has being a woman helped or challenged your engineering career?

Being a woman in a male-dominated field is incredibly motivating. There is something about challenging the status quo that is exciting — from my determination to pursue engineering at a time when there were very few female engineers, to continuing to have a career and family at a time when women were under a lot of pressure to choose career or family — I find that I flourish in a time when I go against the “norm.”

A lot of my drive comes from the fact that I know my daughter and her friends are watching, and I believe in the importance of being a good role model for the next generation of leaders.  

I think one of the biggest challenges that women face is overcoming their own self-doubt. More often than men, I see women downplaying their efforts, questioning themselves, spending extra time triple checking every “i” is dotted and “t” is crossed.

It is important to be thoughtful and humble and always recognize that you need to earn respect and trust, but too much second-guessing can stifle innovative thinking and career growth.

How were you influenced by mentors along the way?

There were many people who influenced me along the way. I would credit my drive and determination to be an engineer to my parents and the values they instilled in me at an early age. I’ve also learned from the many leaders before me whom I’ve had the opportunity to work for and learn from and who have taught me how to be a better leader. I ask a lot of questions to educate myself and truly believe that anytime you’re in a meeting, you’re there to learn, especially if it is in an area outside of your current role, and be thoughtful with your time and the other people in the room.

Every experience — from serving on a rotation through many SDG&E business units — generation, procurement, construction operations — to the fact that I have the benefit of working closely with Debbie Reed, Sempra Energy’s president and chief executive officer, who exhibits inspirational drive, perseverance and mental toughness—has shaped who I am as a leader.

What project have you most enjoyed working on?

When I reflect on my career, I am most proud of an initiative that changed our company culture to focus first on the customer. This initiative set the stage for how we innovate, embrace technology, and become a company that truly makes our customers’ lives better—to me this is incredibly exciting.

I am proud that when our employees see an area to improve the customer experience, they take action. For example, when our employees started to see an influx of applications from customers for private solar and recognized a way to improve the process to get customers connected faster, they created a new online application system, developed a process where we can interconnect solar the same day an inspector deems the system safe and invented a new technology that saves customers time and money installing solar — all of these efforts have made it possible to connect the more than 100,000 private solar customers relying on our power grid today. At the heart of these innovations is our focus on the customer.

As I look to the future, I am excited about my next project — making SDG&E known as the cleanest, safest, most reliable energy company.

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Robynn Andracsek, PE, is an air permitting engineer from Burns & McDonnell in Kansas City, MO. She has a BS in mechanical engineering and a MS in environmental engineering, both from the University of Kansas. She has 16 years of experience in air permitting with emphasis on the utility industry. She is a contributing editor to Power Engineering magazine where she writes a monthly column.

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