Article & Photos by Editor Mike SanGiovanni
The presentation most closely allied to energy was the following panel, moderated by Avatas Payment Solution’s Co-President, Tracy Richmond. On the panel were Andrea Grant, Esq., a Washington attorney who specializes in the fields of energy and environment, Sharon Peterson, comptroller for Apple Oil in Connecticut, and Megan Smith-Gill, marketing executive with Gault Energy and Townsend Energy.
Grant, a senior partner in what she said is the nation’s largest law firm, DLA Piper, she was the first woman and first female senior partner in the firm. She has worked on issues such as renewable fuels, air quality standards, U. S. policy on renewable fuel and petroleum imports, federal excise taxes and climate change legislation, and frequently addresses Congressional committees on these issues..
Peterson, began her career as a teacher and has been involved in the fuel industry for 28 years. She is married to Howard Peterson of Peterson’s Oil Service. Her professional association with the oil and fuel industry includes Chair of the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association (formerly ICPA), Vice Chair of the New England Fuel Institute, and Northeast Regional Chair and Executive Committee member of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America. Apple Oil is located in West Haven, CT.
Megan Smith-Gill, Chief Marketing Officer for the Fairfield-County, CT based Gault family of businesses, including Gault Energy and Townsend Energy. She is responsible for spearheading the creation of diverse marketing, public relations and advertising platforms to carry each of the company’s brand’s position across all communication channels and media outlets.
By the time her daughter was three, she had divorced, eventually meeting Sam Gault though a mutual friend, a real estate developer. Gault, a fifth generation scion of the Gault family, asked her to manage his marketing companies. In his family, she said, he was the first to be graduated from college. Smith-Gill realized she need to create a marketing department, and that meant taking on three brands and looking for acquisitions.
In charge of marketing, she asked if she could rebuild the organization, realizing there was a real need for marketing expertise. To help in her daily decisions, she gets together with other east coast (non-competitive) oil dealers to discuss problems and management issues. She also took over marketing for Townsend Energy as well.
Evident from her remarks was that to be so successful, a fair amount of organization is essential. She arises at 5:30 a.m., checks and works on e-mail for an hour, then it is strictly time for her children, and after they are off to school, it’s on to the office.
Sharon Peterson noted her experience was somewhat different. Previously, her only experience with male dominated business “…was when I took math classes.” But as it turned out, she was not destined for a career as an educator. “The family called, and asked if I could come in for a little while and help with the family business. That was 20 years ago. “I did whatever had to be done.” Today, she works for three different companies involved in home building and heating oil.
Peterson said her first husband was a professor, and at the time, she worked from home to be with her children. They were living in California. Her husband took a position in Indiana, and at the time, the children were getting older, but she felt “…the schools [in their Indiana home town] weren’t the greatest. I wanted to move back to Connecticut.”
She did just that, and for the next ten years, she lived on the east coast with her two children while her husband remained in Indiana, commuting back and forth.
Such relationships rarely work out and they eventually divorced. Eventually, she met Howard Peterson of Peterson Oil and they married in 2012.
Her professional life is extremely busy, “…you’re kind of always at work.” Peterson also spends time on the executive board of PMAA and other organizations, so she acknowledged such a lifestyle can be a balancing act, of sorts.
The Balancing Act
Andrea Grant said her company, DLA Piper, is the largest law firm in the United States.
“When I started out, I was the only woman there, attending countless meetings on petroleum issues. Fortunately,” she said, “I was able to have it all.” Having it all meant being a full time mother and having a full time career. As the only woman lawyer in her firm, and the only woman partner, “I didn’t really take maternity leave. I sort of wrote my own plan,” part of which included working from home.
“Still,” she said, “…if I had to do it again, I’d take the maternity leave. And now, I’m caretaker for my mother. And I try to be a mother to my [grown] kids and to my colleagues.” Grant said her approach is to try to make everyone feel comfortable, but to lead in a way that fosters accomplishment of the goal at hand. “I try to always be supportive of my team. Whatever you’re comfortable doing, that’s what you should do.”
Smith-Gill said that she makes it a point to get done what she wants to get done, noting the challenges in management in a company atmosphere such as hers. “We have such a strong mix of white collar and blue collar workers,” who may, at times, chide her about the difference in working hours. If she came in at 9:00 a.m. or even later, she might get comments such as, “How was lunch?” from workers who generally start at 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. and who are unaware she had already started her day at 5:30 a.m.
Sharon Peterson said initially, she was one of only three women on the PMAA board, and as such, she found herself reticent about participating. “I spent a year not saying a whole lot until I had enough information. It is best to know you’ve done the job you were supposed to be doing.”
Grant added that while she was lucky she didn’t have those challenges, she knows that many women feel they can’t take over a project, put themselves in charge. Women, she observed, generally tend to hold back.
“But,” she admonished, “…do not be afraid to take the risk. [If you want to succeed], you cannot let someone else do it. Speak up for yourself. If you want to be on the executive committee, do it.”
Technology is a big help
One question from the audience was whether technology had helped the panel members do their jobs more effectively. Tracy Richmond said it helped her start a business with her husband 10 years ago. “I love technology! Technology affects our roles. It provides one hundred percent flexibility to exercise the right to work from home, as an example.”
Most also felt that technology overcomes one of the hurdles in maternity issues. It is sometimes simply not worth it to train a replacement for a few weeks. It is often much easier to simply work from home and telecommute.
Sharon Peterson added that technology “…lets all of us do what we do in a better way.” Grant said she was a full time mother and enjoyed a full time career, and technology allows one to do both, although, when she started, “I didn’t have that technology.”
Is there a drawback? Perhaps that technology works too well. “Nowadays,” said Grant, “I have to respond immediately. I had one of the first cellular—mobile phones and I carried it everywhere. I was always available.”
All said they set aside some time for home and family. Grant said, “To deal with the day, I try to set some limits, and only e-mail after 8:00 pm, or something like that. You need time to get some breathing room, but if you have to stay up all night, you do it. Nevertheless, keep in mind there is a real risk,” she cautioned, “of burning out if you are always on.”
Grant said some women feel they shouldn’t compete with other women, especially if there are too few of them in a firm. Nowadays, she said, some law firms are 50% women. You have to set up protocols. When creating teams, she said she tends to choose young persons who are just starting out, in which case she’d almost always pick the woman and mentor her.
“If you don’t do that, it’s very hard for young women to get ahead.”
Richmond added that it is important for those in managerial positions to let employees know they can ask if they need to work from home, for example. “It’s all about making us better at what we do.”
Seeking other challenges and triumphs
The afternoon keynote speaker was Liz Walker, an ordained minster, award-wining television news journalist, entrepreneur and humanitarian currently working in the Sudan.
In the summer of 2002, she traveled to Africa to investigate a controversial slave trade that was part of Sudan’s 21 year civil war. Outraged by what she saw, Walker founded “My Sister’s Keeper,” a humanitarian group which is currently building a girls’ school in the village of Akon, South Sudan.
Walker had also been a television news journalist in the Boston area for 32 years, eventually stepping down to enter seminary and begin the ordination process, and is a founder of Walker Group Communications. Currently, she is the producer and host of the Better Living Health Series on WCVB Television.
An animated speaker, she told the group, “When women are in the game, the game changes.” She said she grew up in the “Leave it to Beaver” days, referring to a popular television show from the 1950s.
Television was quite different then, especially for women’s roles. “The first woman doing the weather was ‘Miss Hotpants,’ “ she said. “They were sexpots,” she added, noting that television some decades ago really didn’t take women seriously. “In my 30-plus years in broadcast journalism, I found it takes a while to get in a competitive position.”
But it was that that job that brought her to Sudan, and that experience “…changed everything about my life. There was a civil war between south and north, and women had been taken slaves, taken to the north by this jihadist group. The only thing I knew about Africa at the time was what I saw on TV: Tarzan.
“But when I got there, and saw the war, saw people starving, I wanted to change my life.” She decided to shoot her own video to tell the story of what was going on. “First lesson: you need passion about what you do. Passion when I saw all the injustice, human rights violations. If you don’t have passion in your work, you need to find another job!”
When she saw the atrocities, she said she needed to tell that story, to express what she called, “My passion.”
“We are women,” said Walker. “We are passionate. We need to use that passion.”
The next characteristic a woman needs is courage, she said. “I think we are risk takers, as women. Risk taking is stepping out of your comfort zone. That’s why we need more risk takers in business, in educational institutions. For example, a pediatrician got me to go to the Sudan. Business people should also do something toward the greater good, and I believe we have to take risks to make something better. That’s why I took the risk of getting out of TV.
“Being a reporter was the best thing I could be, but stepping out of that comfort zone….I travelled to Sudan for several years; I knew nothing about national affairs, about starting a school. You have to be flexible and adaptable.
“In Sudan, women want change. Women all over the world in non-western countries are not educated, and men in those countries do not want change—but women wanted a school for those girls, and for the past 11 years, I’ve been going back and forth to get this school built.”
Walker said the Sudan taught her many things, most importantly that the world is in need. “We have the power to change. You must have the confidence,” she told attendees, “to know that your ideas count.”
Travelling throughout the country to raise awareness about “…this little girl’s school in Sudan,” she somehow piqued the interest of country singer Kenny Alphin (a.k.a. “Big Kenny”), who said he wanted to help the “…little church lady from Boston. So a country rock singer from Nashville helped us to raise $100,000 to finish the school. We took him to Sudan and he performed the first country rock concert in Southern Sudan.”
Walker said when the K-8 school opened, more than 1,000 girls arrived, many walking from villages six hours away. She was overwhelmed. “The idea was change.”
Walker closed by pointing out that often, “We are so afraid ‘cause the world tells you to be afraid. You could own the company. We, as women, have the power. You can change the bottom line. In Sudan, we went to save the world and the world saved us.”
Closer to home
Susan Osborne next addressed the group as the day wound down. She presented an overview of
appropriate business attire, noting that there are various levels of business dress. A consultant to corporations, Osborne said the highest level, that which might be deemed the most professional, of business attire is considered “Traditional.”
That is followed by “Business Appropriate,” then “Business Casual.” That latter category, she cautioned, means business clothes “…worn casually, not casual clothes.”
Her bottom line: “Be your own brand. You need a strategic way of communicating, and it may not necessarily be verbal, but may include appearance and body language as well as tone of voice,” all which say professional and competent. In the business world, said Osborne, a person is perceived by other people visually (55%), by tone of voice (which counts for 38%) and only 7% by content.
“How do you want to be perceived?” she asked.
The Women in Energy Summit concluded with an inspirational presentation by Lauran Star, who told the group that each individual needs to see her personal power and keep it. One needs the ability to get what one wants, albeit tactfully. “You need to give yourself the power to say, ‘Hmmm. I’m not going to take that right now.’”
Star said all too often, “We give away the power, not taking the credit, saying things like ‘So and So provided a huge contribution to this project.” She suggested a woman should take credit when credit is due, to acknowledge, in her head, that “This is my brand, a style comfortable for me.”
And that includes risk. “A risk,” she explained, “is an opportunity to grow and stretch your muscles. You have to have career goals, have aspirations. Success does not just happen. The days of the company developing you are really over.”
On each table, Star had placed a number of Q-Tip® cotton swabs. “How do you build your personal power? How many of you journal? If you want to journal, you can increase your personal power, professionally and personally. Emotions,” she said, “love to eat personal power.”
And how does one control destructive emotions? She suggested everyone take the Q-Tips and tape them up somewhere in their business or home where there is a stressor. Then when a situation arises, or an unpleasant individual encountered, the Q-Tip reminds one that it also stands for QTIP, or “Quit Taking It Personally.”
Said Star, “Personal power is being able to not take on other people’s issues.”
She said it is important that women who wish to succeed also network, to have an alliance of people (not always women) who “…have your back. We as women think we need to go it alone.
And get a theme song,” she suggested, a ditty one can sing to one’s self to help pick up one’s spirits. “Different ones for different, sticky moments. “
Although not scheduled, most attendees said they’d be willing to attend next year’s Women in Energy Summit, if held.