This round of “How did you get your start in the grid?” is focused on Heather Rosentrater, vice president of energy delivery with Avista. The monthly feature focuses on utility executives recounting their rise, setbacks and passions.
1. How did you get your start in the grid?
“While in college, I actually focused my electrical engineering studies on electronics, coding, and industrial automation and didn’t expect to work in the power industry. I started at Washington Water Power, back in 1996, before the company changed its name to Avista. When I started, I worked for the company’s Fuel Cell subsidiary supporting circuit board and control system design. However, after the tech industry bubble burst in the early 2000s, I took some advice from a mentor and made a change into the utility side of the business, starting as a Network Engineer supporting system design for Spokane’s downtown grid.”
2. Tell us a little about where you grew up and what your school days were like?
“I grew up in Spokane, Washington and always had an interest in math and science. I actually won first place in my third grade science fair for building a robot. My mom was an electronics technician and both of my parents were very supportive and encouraged me to engage in activities that enabled me to learn about technology.”
3. So it was a love of math that drew you to technology. Did any particular experience spark that career choice?
“Yes, math was my favorite subject all throughout school. I used to ask my grade school teacher for extra math problems to complete and she finally got to a point where she had me make up my own math problems to solve. I also considered being a math teacher or being a biomedical engineer, however, getting the job at Avista while I was a student helped cement my interest in Electrical Engineering. Being able to apply the theory I was learning in school to real life applications and problem-solving was incredibly rewarding and fun. “
4. Women in engineering were not all that common only a few years ago. Did you face any barriers due to gender or was it simply about proving yourself same as anyone?
“Unfortunately, women engineers still aren’t that common and only represent about 20 percent of engineering students, so there is a lot of opportunity to improve female representation in engineering areas. I’ve approached my education and career with a goal to always do my best. I didn’t believe my performance would be judged on anything other than its own merit and I believe, for the most part, that is how I’ve been treated.”
5. Are we as a society doing a better job of encouraging women to enter STEM fields?
“I think there has been a long history of policies and bias that has resulted in a disproportionately low number of women being attracted to engineering as a career. For the last couple of decades, I do agree that society has done a better job of encouraging women to enter STEM fields through an intentional focus on mentoring, support programs, and expanding awareness. However, resulting from that history, there is still bias which discourages girls from considering engineering careers. My experience has been that most of this current-day bias is unintentional, so I’ve focused my energy on helping to create awareness of the unintentional bias and to support girls and women who may be considering engineering or are in the utility industry by sharing my story and experiences.”
6. Did you have a mentor who really influenced your own leadership style? Can you tell us who and what was most important to learn from them?
“I approach leadership with a focus on servant leadership, employee development, and continuous learning. These qualities were reinforced by my mentor and predecessor, Don Kopczynski. The way these attributes influenced how he made decisions and prioritized his time was inspiring.”
7. Do you have any regrets about an event during your rise and anything you’d like to do better this time?
“I’m always impressed by people who say they have no regrets, but I’m not quite there yet. Although, as I gain experience I’ve realized that experiences which I may initially regret are generally useful learning opportunities Early in my career, when I was first considering leadership, I attempted to match someone else’s style who I saw as a great leader. I quickly found that although I appreciated that person’s leadership style, it was very different than what came naturally to me and that trying to copy that style was exhausting and wasn’t working well. I quickly learned that the best way to be successful in leadership was to be myself. Looking back now, that concept seems obvious, but when you haven’t experienced a diverse set of successful leadership styles, you can believe that there is a “right” style. That is one of the reasons I think diversity is critical to successful leadership teams.”
8. Is there anything in the grid industry that excites you the most these days? And scares you?
“I am so appreciative and excited to be in the middle of my career during this time in the electrical industry. Many trends, including the digitization of the grid, electrification, and renewable energy, are creating new opportunities to improve how we operate a safe, reliable, affordable and sustainable grid for our customers. I believe the grid is a powerful asset that can optimize the value and operation of these advancing trends for the benefit of our customers. The biggest concern I have is the possibility that if we as an industry aren’t proactive about taking advantage of these technologies, less optimal solutions will be brought to our customers able to pay for them and those least able to carry the costs will be left with the burden of a non-optimized grid.”
9. What is one of your biggest passions outside of work?
“My kids help to keep me grounded. At a recent conference, I was reminded about the “power of presence” and how important it is to be fully engaged in the activities at hand. In the role I’m in at work, it is easy to be consumed by the magnitude of issues I’m involved with on a daily basis. So, when I’m at home with my kids, being engaging in problem-solving that is top of mind for them, such as combining the correct ratio of ingredients to make a malleable, but not runny, neon green slime, helps me keep the pressures of other responsibilities in perspective. “
10. What is something about you that maybe even casual friends don’t know?
“I love teaching and once I retire, I hope to have a second career teaching math or engineering. I thoroughly appreciate Albert Einstein’s quote, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” and I refer to it regularly. I am excited to apply it in a more formal way while teaching students the complexities and elegance of math and engineering.”
Contact Senior Editor Rod Walton at email@example.com if you know a utility leader with a good back story to be in “How did you get your Start in the Grid?” Following are previous articles in the series.
Ben Fowke of Xcel Energy. Read his story.
Fidel Marquez of ComEdison. Read his story.
Kelly Speakes-Backman of Energy Storage Association. Read her story.
Russ Vanos of Itron. Read his story.
Brian Slocum of ITC. Read his story.
Rick Riley of Entergy Arkansas. Read his story.