In Alaska, it comes down to this: If you can do the job, do the job.
Male or female, young or old, experienced or novice, it hardly matters in this northern world where the extremes of weather, distance, geography, and lack of supply and infrastructure conspire to create constant challenges for even the most routine tasks.
That helps explain how four women serve as electric cooperative chief executives, including the statewide association. Women also occupy many board positions in Alaska’s 18 co-ops, and until recently, the Alaskan Energy Authority, the state’s lead agency for energy policy and program development, was headed by a female engineer and former board chair of
Chugach Electric Cooperative.
“Alaska is not judgmental. You are permitted to prove yourself when opportunities come up, and there are a lot of opportunities,” says Meera Kohler, president and CEO of
Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (AVEC).
Kohler, who also represents the state on NRECA’s board of directors, has led AVEC since 2000. The co-op supplies more than 11,000 consumers in 58 villages spread among some of Alaska’s most far-flung communities, many reachable only by sea or air.
“The challenges never end,” Kohler says. “And that would be true for anyone in this job.”
Her own career path in Alaskan electricity was one of saying ‘yes’ to opportunities as they arose. After earning academic degrees in economics and business administration in her native India, she was persuaded to come to Alaska by a Peace Corps volunteer (whom she eventually married) in 1976 and later took a job as a bookkeeper/accountant for the new
Cordova Electric Cooperative.
That job exposed her to every aspect of a utility, which soon opened doors to general manager roles, first at
Naknek Electric Association in 1990, then Anchorage Municipal Light and Power in 1997 and AVEC three years later.
In each position, she was the first woman to occupy the office.
“Meera shattered the glass ceiling in Alaska in the state’s power industry,” says Crystal Enkvist, executive director of the Alaska Power Association, which represents the state’s co-ops and municipals.
Kohler’s view of her career progression is pragmatic.
“The whole time, I never thought I was breaking new ground or doing something strange and different for a woman,” she says. “It was not conscious. I just took on each job because I was qualified when it came up as a career opportunity. I loved the challenges in each.”
Janet Reiser is the former executive director of the
Alaska Energy Authority (AEA). She chose the state as a career destination in 1985 to put her training as a chemical engineer into real practice. Before moving to Anchorage, she had worked about a decade in various engineering and scientific positions, including a petrochemical plant in Houston.
“I wanted to go where it would matter,” says Reiser, who has headed her own engineering consultancy for about 30 years. “When I came up here, the power industry was the likeliest place to go for someone with my background.”
In 2008, she was elected to the Chugach Electric Cooperative board and served as chairman for 10 years until taking over at AEA. She lost that position in January as part of a large-scale government shakeup under newly elected Gov. Michael Dunleavy.
She’s now evaluating her next career move.
A native Californian who was educated in Colorado, Reiser says she had always been sensitive to gender issues in the workplace.
In her role at Chugach, she says she deliberately recruited female board members with scientific engineering and business backgrounds. For years, Chugach’s board was female dominated.
“Nobody handed us anything,” Reiser says. “We have persevered.”
Women and power have always gone hand in hand in this do-it-yourself state.
One of the earliest leaders was Justine Parks, the first female representative on NRECA’s board.
She and her children joined her husband in Chugiak in 1944 at the close of World War II, when the region around Anchorage was buzzing with troops and wartime construction projects.
Running a small coffee shop with a small electric generator, she pushed hard for electric power from the
Matanuska Electric Association (MEA), Alaska’s first co-op, which was founded in 1941.
Parks’s popular business, plus her natural energy and personality, cast her as a community leader that enabled her election to MEA’s board, where she served as president from 1951 to 1956 and as NRECA’s Alaska representative. A substation in the area is named in her honor.
The “can-do” examples of Parks, Reiser, and Kohler underscore the findings of a 2018 University of Alaska study that found the state leads the nation with 26 percent of all businesses owned by women.
Female business leadership in Alaska can also be explained by the importance of community to women and the willingness of women to get involved as a way to serve, Enkvist says.
“You will find that many of us serve on multiple boards and work to fill voids where we see them in businesses or various economic sectors,” she says. “If a job needs addressing, it is always a matter of who is willing and who is capable.
“Then we show up.”
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