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Strides

It Starts and Ends With Us

You reach a point where you can get too comfortable and it’s time for a change

Dear Women Leaders of Tomorrow,

As I reflect on my journey, I have achieved the distinction of having been appointed by four California governors—Gray Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown, and Gavin Newsom—to top-level state government board roles at the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and the California Public Utilities Commission. Along the way, I ran for office and the voters chose me to represent them on our local customer-owned electric utility, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), for five terms spanning twenty years. My career started at the California Air Resources Board as an entry-level air-quality engineer, and I spent fourteen of twenty years as a supervisor and manager there. How did I do it?

I was born in Lodi, California. My father was a farmworker, and my mother and he would bring four children into the world. My parents, who were children of Okinawan and Japanese immigrants, were born and raised in Hawaii. They moved to California in the early 1950s with high school degrees and a bit of college education. My father was also a United States army veteran, having been drafted into the U.S. Military Intelligence Service in 1945. When they arrived in California almost a decade after WWII, they found a land full of promise but still recovering from the unconstitutional incarceration of 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans in concentration camps, most losing everything they had worked for. As a newborn, my parents brought me to their home, a converted barn. We led a humble and impoverished existence in the 1950s and ’60s.

With family, teachers, and community mentors, I felt valued at an early age. I was given the freedom and opportunity to figure out my passion and choose my path, taught how to communicate to advance initiatives and points of views, counseled on the importance of research, and guided on the organizational skills necessary to meet deadlines and get things done. Further, my parents had a strong sense of right and wrong and tended to speak up, especially my mother. My father, who is still with us at ninety-four, shared with me recently that, from the time I was a small child, I had strong opinions and also spoke up.

For those who came from Okinawa and Japan during the Meiji era, leaving home was a significant and courageous undertaking. An adventurous spirit went along with that and was passed on to the next generation. My grandmother was a “picture bride” who, in 1913 at the age of twenty-one, traveled from Hiroshima to Kobe and boarded a ship to Hawaii to meet her new husband having exchanged pictures. Years later, she encouraged my mother to go to college. My mother would say to us:

“The U.S. is a big open place, so go out and explore it, and decide how you fit into it.”

That was important because in the Japanese culture, there is a stigma around family embarrassment or failure. My family was already breaking the mold by being impoverished. Further, my mother made the difficult decision to separate from my father because he could not walk away from the poker table. Gambling is a common struggle in the Asia Pacific community. Thanks to our community’s help, state programs for families in need, and my mother’s inner strength and grit, she raised her four children by herself.

I must point out here that throughout my life, opportunities have crossed my path where I learned quickly to decide to take them or not. These occurred talking to a teacher, walking down a hallway or down the street and having a conversation, sitting next to someone who shares an idea, or taking a phone call as I did before I decided to run for office. It is important to recognize opportunity, size yourself up quickly, do not be afraid to fail, and grab the ring.

With help from scholarship funds, I was able to attend San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton and then the University of California at Davis, receiving a degree in Materials Science and Engineering. I matriculated during the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and women rights movement—a time of activism and volunteerism. I got involved in my neighborhood association, took up causes, and phone banked for local candidates.

My first full-time job was as an entry-level engineer at the California Air Resources Board. There, I had the opportunity to work with remarkable people who had built the California Water Project, the big aqueduct system that carries water from Northern to Southern California. These people knew how to get things done. My mentors knew how to take a law approved by the legislature and signed by the governor and turn it into tangible results, such as the reduction of air pollution in Los Angeles, the curtailing of toxic air contaminants around refineries, and the analysis of whether a proposed power plant would meet all air pollution control requirements.

I was fortunate to work with supervisors who saw my potential and gave me leadership opportunities. I took the next step in becoming a supervisor encouraged by simple “Go for it” words of encouragement from a division chief. In any endeavor, it is important to earn the reputation for delivering well-researched, well-written, credible products on time. It is important to know how to work collaboratively and inclusively with staff, colleagues, and managers who may have diverse viewpoints and approaches to problem solving.

Some people have potential but may not know how to get to that next step. In my case, I was coasting along in a successful career in middle management. I felt respected and worked with the top management in my organization. I was getting “aye” votes on the proposed regulations my team took to the board; yet at some point, I thought:

“Maybe I need to challenge myself and do something different.”

You reach a point where you can get too comfortable, and it is time for a change.

I ran for Sacramento city council in the mid-1990s. The person who encouraged me to run for office was a Latinx woman already in elected office. She had watched me in my neighborhood volunteer roles and told me it was time to step forward. After a twenty-year career spent successfully working at the Air Resources Board and in middle management, I was suddenly thrown into a completely different environment; walking precincts; and talking to people about safety, potholes, union contracts, and garbage service. I must admit, I thought:

“What have I done?” 

I had willfully decided to put myself in the scrutinizing public eye and to start anew. 

I lost the city council election by less than two hundred votes to another woman of color. That could have been it for me in terms of deciding not to run again and going back to what I was comfortable with. In fact, I did go back to my role at the California Air Resources Board but continued to be active in the community. Barely a year later, in 1998, a friend informed me of a public office vacancy, the Ward 4 elected director position on the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) Board. He encouraged me to stand for election for the vacancy because I had the qualifications as a neighborhood activist and my experience reviewing power plant proposals. I was hesitant because I had lost the previous election.

However, I decided to go for it because I decided it would be an opportunity to do more for the community. I knew from my roots what it was like to be poor and a person of color, and my community had helped me succeed. I carried aspirations from my mother, the community, my teachers, and those who made it possible for me to garner the scholarships that had made all the difference for me. I now had an opportunity to give back and serve on a board to help customers with their bills and essential services and advance clean energy and innovation. I was going to take that opportunity. I won and served on the board of SMUD for twenty years through five elections, including serving as the president of the board, chosen by my colleagues several times.

The SMUD Board of Directors is like a corporate governing board insofar as you are not an employee. You meet several times each month to vote on budgets, initiatives, and policies. Hence, I also continued my full-time job at the Air Resources Board while contemplating my need to challenge myself even further and do something different in terms of my career.

While I was attending an art reception at our local museum, another Latinx woman shared there were vacancies at the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the farmworker collective-bargaining board. She thought I would be a good candidate as a farmworker’s daughter and my knowledge of government and the legal processes. I sized myself up (it would be labor law not air pollution law), talked with friends and mentors, and decided to apply with the support of my state senator (who had been the one to encourage me to run for City Council), state assembly member, and many others. Governor Gray Davis interviewed me, liked my credentials, and appointed me, and designated me as chair of the board. I was reappointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Governor Jerry Brown, who signed the original law creating the board. Each time, I also stood for confirmation by the California State Senate after a hearing by its Rules Committee. Having grabbed the ring, I had a rewarding second twenty-year career.

At the age of sixty-five, I am now in what I call my third incarnation, the Air Resources Board being my first, and my time on the SMUD Board and serving simultaneously on the Agricultural Labor Relations Board as my second. After deciding not to run for election to a sixth term on the SMUD Board in 2018 and looking ahead to retirement, in early January 2019, I learned about a vacancy on the California Public Utilities Commission. I quickly sized myself up, concluding I had more to offer the people of California with my forty-plus years of experience, including twenty years serving on the SMUD electric utility board, and applied for the position. Governor Gavin Newsom liked my credentials and appointed me later that month. The Senate confirmed me a few months later to a six-year term.

I do not think I am unique, although I realize my life experiences have set me apart. When I encounter a woman with potential who may not recognize it, I want to say to her:

“If I could do it, so can you. Let’s talk about our experiences and commonalities.”

That is to say:

“ Don’t be afraid to fail. You bring something valuable to the table.”

Being unafraid to fail is hard because reputation is a big factor in success. In the end, it is the substance you bring to the table that matters.

You build your successes and earn your reputation. You raise your hand and speak up, break into a conversation, and add valuable insight. Even if it may feel awkward at first, do it anyway, and then deliver well-written, well-researched, well-thought-out products on time. The ability to write and communicate is essential, so seek training, mentorship, and observe those who are successful. I do that to this day. There is always something new to learn.

The U.S. does not rank high in female board representation. Germany and Great Britain have had women occupy the highest roles, which the U.S. has yet to achieve. California’s new law requiring female representation on corporate boards is an important step. The benefit is that it jumpstarts inclusion. When I became a supervisor in 1984, affirmative action was the law of the land. When we interviewed candidates for a position, there was a heavy push to casting a wide net. We interviewed women and people of color. I saw tangible results in that qualified people, who would not have been given a chance otherwise, had the opportunity to interview and accept a job. This, in my view, produced outstanding teamwork, innovation, and productivity. With the adoption of California’s Proposition 209 in 1996, which outlawed affirmative action, these proactive efforts went away.

I believe the grassroots approach is also an effective approach. Some nonprofits train women for board roles. Alternatively, there are opportunities for women to speak on panels or conduct brown-bag lunch hour talks. Many of us are looking at the talent around us to see who displays potential. If I can, I reach out to share my story and hopefully put a spark in someone to challenge themselves. We are not born with the ability to share our story with a group, speak in front of an audience, raise our hands, and weigh in on a subject. It takes practice, nurturing, and training.

I’m always scanning the room and wondering:

“Could she run for office?”

“Could she serve in my place on a board?”

“Could she take over a seat on a corporate or nonprofit board?”

Mentoring is an important obligation given the support and opportunitiesI have received. It is important to build the bench for those who will be ready to take your place. I am a firm believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point” in that one thing can make a difference. Again, recognizing opportunities, knowing when to seize the moment, whether it is for yourself or your community, putting aside your fear of failing—the journey is boundless.

Many did that for me, which inspires me to do so for others. I leave you with the advice to take the time walking down the hallway or sitting next to someone to have a conversation and discover new opportunities for yourself.

Yours truly,

Genevieve

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