Editor’s note: The following is the extended version of an interview with Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell. A version of this interview appears in the Autumn 2015 issue of Vermont Life.
Mary Powell, 54, is the CEO of Green Mountain Power, a role she never envisioned for herself as a young, outdoorsy New York transplant. Today she’s one of the most influential Vermont voices in energy, leadership and workplace issues.
VL: You left a corporate gig in Manhattan to move to Vermont. Why Vermont?
MP: My dad’s grandfather purchased a piece of land on the lake in Colchester, I think in 1910. So the family has always come to Vermont, in fact, my family still has that same cottage. Vermont was always my second home, and I usually spent at least half of my summer here. When my parents retired, they retired to Vermont. My sister and her family moved to Vermont, and Mark and I had the opportunity to transition up here — and it was for a lot of the same reasons, I think, that I love Vermont 26 years later; which is, it’s an amazing quality of life. It’s an amazing place to live in.
VL: You’ve worked in business, banking and utilities. What would you tell your younger self who thought these fields were “stuffy”?
MP: I would still say to my younger self, “Don’t work for stuffy, bureaucratic organizations.” Actually one of the lines I like is “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” I think while I ended up in these situations I never thought I’d be in, obviously, I was open enough that at the end of the day I did try (them). So I think staying open and being willing to try different things is really important.
VL: It’s worked out.
MP: It has. It really has. I would also say, adding to that, I would say a huge part of why things have worked for me is that I was always willing to bring my authentic self to wherever I went. That is something I would probably encourage even stronger in my younger self, and I encourage in others, is tap into those wonderful, authentic qualities that you have and figure out how to bring them to the situation and leverage them in a way that’s positive for whatever organization you’re working for. Don’t try to conform. So many times I hear people when they’re going for interviews, they want advice, they’ll research exactly what [the companies are looking] for, and exactly what the companies would want, and they’d morph themselves into that. And I always encourage people: no, just be your authentic self and bring that to the table.
VL: Do you ever get tired of people mentioning “female” and “CEO” in the same breath?
VL: I would imagine.
MP: There can be kind of a monkey in the zoo quality about it. But you know what I’ve also grown to really honor is that, at the same time, we do need to be talking about it. When I started in my career, it was a while ago now, and I honestly don’t feel like there’s been much of a shift in the 30-plus years that I’ve been engaged professionally or at policy levels. I don’t really see that women have become a more significant voice in terms of real economic power. And by that I don’t mean wealth. I mean in terms of influencing decisions that have fundamental impacts on our socioeconomic fabric. And I really haven’t seen that shift. I feel really strongly that a huge part of why I want to see that shift is I want to see [it] on a personal level for my daughter or other people. I want to see a world where there’s equal access and opportunity, but from a societal impact perspective, I believe Vermont would be a much stronger state if we had more diversity in the context of policymakers and those who drive ultimate decisions. So I think a huge part of that is having greater balance in that. So while on the one hand, you get tired of it, I see myself as a leader. On the other hand, I have a great respect for the importance of talking about it.
VL: Now that some time has passed since sharing that you had a double-mastectomy due to cancer risks, how do you feel about going public?
MP: I feel like it was probably one of the better decisions I’ve made. And like most decisions that I make that in the long run are really good decisions, it took courage and there’s discomfort. It has filled my heart — like my heart has been overflowing with the power of the impact I have had on other people by deciding to be so personal. On the other hand, it’s a strange feeling to have so many folks [know about it]. And what has helped me is to have a good dose of humility about it; not everybody in the world has read it. And not everybody in the world cares about my boobs — but [there] definitely is a feeling that a lot of them do.
VL: Yes — it was a big story.
MP: I have become friends with women who were strangers to me before. I’ve been emailing with one woman, we still have not met, she just had hers. And she’s been asking me questions and I’ve been answering them. I’ve been a source of comfort to her. I’ve had men reach out that are facing really challenging health situations and tell me that it gave them the courage to make the choice that they felt was right for them. So yeah, it’s been really powerful. But yeah, a huge dose of vulnerability came with that.
VL: Do you remember what you were feeling the night before you announced it?
MP: That day, I think I was so much in the zone because it was right before I was going into the surgery. I get into the warrior zone, like I’m taking the hill. So that conversation felt OK. The harder conversation, where my voice got very shaky, was when I had gotten my pathology back, and I found out that I was DCIS positive in both breasts. And I decided I wanted to share that with everybody. It was humbling, because I did think I was beating it to the punch. I feel like I won the round in the ring, but it wasn’t quite how I thought it was going to be.
VL: What qualities do you think others recognized in you that made them think “leader”?
MP: When I was real young, at summer camp, and they’d have those sessions, and you’d all tell someone something you liked about them and didn’t like about them, and I remember I was told I was bossy. So I don’t think that’s a leadership trait, but maybe it was my first attempt at trying to. I love to organize people and things and get people together and try to accomplish something. I guess the first time it was recognized, it was recognized in a negative way. I remember the company that I started at, one of the founders of the company said — and it’s funny because I didn’t see myself this way at all — he said, “You’re like a Pied Piper. You just start heading in directions and next thing I know people are following you.” That was the first time I remember hearing anyone describing an attribute and that’s what it looked like to him.
VL: And that came as a surprise to you.
MP: It did. I think my natural wiring even today in terms of my approach in leadership is driven largely out of excitement to get some place that I see that is much better than where we are today.
VL: Will Vermont ever become a 100% renewable state?
MP: Could we be 100% on the electric side? I think that’s absolutely achievable. It’s probably going to take a couple decades to fully realize, but we see a transformation with renewable distributed generation — largely solar — but other technologies are coming along. Storms are a big issue in this state. When big storm systems come in, no amount of tree wire, storm hardening or vegetation management is going to stop all of that tumbling down. If you think about it, if you distribute close to the source of where you’re using energy, that’s obviously more resilient than having to have it travel 25 miles to get to you.
VL: I hear you have quite the menagerie of farm animals. What do you have, and who is the biggest character?
MP: We’ve got four horses, five goats, a pig (Oddball), three rabbits, five dogs and three cats. I think.
VL: What would you say to someone thinking about moving to Vermont but who is scared of the drastic change from city work or suburban life?
MP: I have recommended Vermont to just about anybody and everybody. When you work in these big complex organizations or big complex cities, it is so much harder to make a difference. And in Vermont, if you have a spirit of collaboration or innovation, I feel like there is no end to what you can do in a positive way. If you want to collaborate or innovate, and you’re an optimistic person, whether you do work with the Green Mountain Club or Green Mountain Power or a small bakery, it really provides access and the ability to innovate in a way that larger states just can’t provide.
VL: Where do you think Vermont’s biggest opportunity is for economic growth in the future?
MP: Coming up with an approach that is around innovation, collaboration and investment. I think that there is tremendous work that we can be doing to further that even more. That is the work that if we brought those three pillars to all the different work that’s going on in the state, I think there are things we could do to make Vermont more affordable, and that should be part of our economic strategy going forward. But I really see this incredible Vermont niche continuing to grow around innovation. I travel the state all the time, and I think we’re doing some neat things, we’re lowering rates so that the large businesses that have been around a long time can compete and prosper. I don’t talk about innovation at the expense of feeding and watering our existing base of really important Vermont employers. But the future is so much around our ability to incubate ideas and get them to market quickly.
VL: Do you think there is a healthy pool of candidates to be the next leaders of Vermont?
MP: I was just chatting with somebody who used to be the commissioner of Economic Development a long time ago, and I talked about the gray ceiling that we have in Vermont because we’re an older state. And I think this is a phenomenon that is happening as a result of the baby boomers. I think there is amazing talent out there. And I think that the unfortunate part is that we don’t know where it is because I don’t think we’ve done enough to discover it and foster it. I grew up in business and life at a different time because I’m part of the baby-boomer generation. By the time I was 26, 27, I was a key member of a leadership team running a $3.5 billion fund in New York City. I think what’s remarkable about that isn’t, look at me, I was so young doing something, it’s that a lot of people were. When I look at … jobs that are advertised … at how we have complexities … and what experience you have to have and what kind of degrees you have to have, I think we’ve really lost sight of a key part of how we develop the next generation, which is to take much more raw, talented folks and give them tremendous opportunity to lead really bold, ambitious projects.
VL: I’ve wondered if that is a Vermont thing or a broader thing — that the old boys’ club can be tough to crack.
MP: One of the first things I noticed, I didn’t feel young for what I was doing. Then when I came to Vermont in my late 20s, one of the first things I noticed were comments like, “Let’s see what the young lady has to say,” when I was in the Legislature testifying. And I thought, “Hmmm, it’s a little different here.” I don’t think there’s any negative intent there. I think it’s maybe a byproduct that we’re one of the oldest states in the nation.
VL: That you’re sort of an anomaly when you’re a younger professional?
MP: Right. That’s why I say I worry about the gray ceiling. I wonder if there’s more at that level that folks should be doing … say, instead of circulating around more folks in leadership, taking some more chances. Like when I started my career — giving much more power and authority to much younger folks.