March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 is International Women’s Day. What better time to shine the spotlight on some of our organization’s outstanding women?
Whether they work in a bucket truck or a boardroom — at the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC)/Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc. (AECI) Little Rock headquarters or at one of 17 distribution cooperatives around the state — they are high-energy producers who not only keep the lights on but serve as guiding lights in our co-op community.
Paige Kizzia, First Year Lineworker Apprentice, South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative
A few years ago, Murfreesboro native and Henderson State University graduate Paige Kizzia says she had a business degree and little direction.
Today she is a “superhero.”
How did you begin your cooperative career? After working for an emergency response company, she says, “I decided that I wanted to do something different, and I was looking into different trades.” She reached out to a relative who is a lineworker and asked, “‘I know this is going to sound crazy, but what do you actually do? Do you think that I could physically make the requirements?’ I’m not naive enough to think that I’m stronger than men. I mean, maybe some men, but not all men, and I’m not a real huge person. He said, ‘I think you probably would be really good.’” He recommended she reach out to South Central Arkansas Electric, where she became a groundsman in 2020 and has since been promoted to First Year Lineworker Apprentice. She expects to complete her training in three to four more years.
How did you like the work at first? “There are days that I was mentally and physically exhausted. The first month that I worked here, I felt really defeated. You use all kinds of muscles that you don’t even know that you have. It’s very physically demanding and requires learning a whole other language. … There’s a Henry Ford quote, ‘Whether you think that you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.’ I pushed through, and looking back now on how much I’ve learned just in the short amount of time that I’ve been here, it’s crazy. It almost seems unreal.”
What kind of response do you get as a woman “lineman?” “It was different for the crew; it was not the norm. ‘OK, what can she do? What can she not do?’” And now, she says, “My boys are my boys. They have adjusted to it. Running into other linemen from other co-ops at other sites, if anything, they probably respect me more because they understand how hard of a job it is. And, so, they get it. They’re like, ‘That’s awesome. You keep on.’”
What challenges do you have as a woman in your position? “I knew that there were going to be things that I’d struggle with, as far as the physical demands of the job, but I just have to find different ways to get it done. Even just reaching out of the bucket, I can only reach so far; I have a smaller wingspan. I have to get creative in order to make things work.” Other times her smaller size comes in handy, she says, like when her tinier hands can better maneuver tight situations. “It can have its advantages.”
What do you like best about your job? Sharing stories of traveling to assist storm-ravaged regions without power, she says, “I can’t think of anything else that’s better as far as a career or more rewarding than being able to help people. When we go on some of these storm trips to devastated areas, nobody has electricity. To them, we are pretty much superheroes.”
Geraldine Allen, Dispatcher, Petit Jean Electric Cooperative
Clinton resident Geraldine Allen technically “retired” as a Petit Jean dispatcher in 2013 after 17 years. To this day, the tireless Allen comes in at least once a week to work an overnight shift to assist people with electricity — something she did not have in her early life.
How did you begin your cooperative career? “I was working at a day care center, and my good friend told me there was an opening at Petit Jean as a dispatcher. And I said, ‘Does it have anything to do with computers?’ And she said, ‘Well, yes.’ I said, ‘That’s OK. I can’t take it. I don’t know anything about computers!’” She eventually got the job and mastered all needed skills, with assistance from her peers, she says humbly: “Everybody was just so good to me and helped me so much.”
What appealed to you about working for the cooperative? “I think electricity just does something for me because, as a little girl, I never had electricity. I lived in the corner of Van Buren County; we did not get electricity over there until 1961, I think it was. I was already grown, married and had three kids. … So, I have an appreciation for it.”
What’s a typical day — well, night — for you? “I clean the building; I answer the phone. And when calls come in for an outage, I call the service guys for them to go take care of it. Those guys just go out in all kinds of weather, and I tell everybody, ‘I just sing their praises.’ They’re just good guys.”
What do you most enjoy about the job? “There’s something about knowing that dispatchers help people. I love to think that I might be helping people. You have a good feeling when someone calls back and says, ‘Thank you so much for helping us get the power back on.’ I just love it.”
Leslie Holloway, Member Services Manager, Ouachita Electric Cooperative
Arkadelphia native and Henderson State graduate Leslie Holloway walked into her electric cooperative to pay her bill, a move that would really pay off for her career.
How did you begin your cooperative career? “I stopped to pay my electric bill at South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative. A lady who worked there and knew me from the community said, ‘Would you want to work here? Our secretary is retiring. It’s a good job, and it’s fun to work here.’” It was so much fun that Leslie never left the cooperative world. She was hired for an entry-level position and quickly advanced to a management position at South Central. Four years ago, she moved to Ouachita Electric Cooperative to manage Member Services, a position that she says “encompasses a lot of different areas,” such as managing the customer service department and energy efficiency program. Leslie has continued to pursue her education, recently obtaining her certification in NRECA’s Managment Internship Program. She says, “There have only been a few times that I’ve specifically sought out positions in my career. There would be a hole, and someone would say, ‘Why don’t you come over here and work on this for a little while?’”
What is a typical day for you, if there is such a thing? “I fight fires every day. But a typical day is making sure the processes are running correctly, that everyone has what they need to do their jobs. We have a cycle of (disconnection) and billing that I oversee, and I’m usually discussing a bill with a member every day, if not more than one. We’re constantly reaching out to members about making their homes more efficient.”
What do you like best about your job? “I like finding solutions that benefit the members.
I like thinking outside of the box, and I like accepting challenges — I call them ‘opportunities.’”
What advice would you give young women who want a career in this industry? “Traditionally, this field is male-dominated. Don’t let that hinder you. Pursue what drives you. If you’re interested in STEM-related fields, go for it. Be flexible, don’t limit your capabilities, and find a mentor.”
Martha Pennington, Secretary/Treasurer, Ashley-Chicot Electric Cooperative Board of Directors
Martha Pennington of Hamburg has accomplished a lot of firsts: First woman board member at Ashley-Chicot Electric Cooperative and first woman to serve as Board Chair for both AECI and AECC. But first, she worked at her co-op’s front desk.
How did you begin your cooperative career? “I was probably 4 or 5 when my brother-in-law was a lineman at Ashley-Chicot. I grew up knowing him and the guys who worked for the co-op. Mr. White, the manager, had been a lineman, and I knew him from when I was small. He hired me, and I worked in the office from 1989 until 1995. I was the lady at the front desk; I was the cashier when they came in to pay their bills. I knew everyone who came into that office. …Then I ran for the Ashley-Chicot board and won; I was the first woman.”
What do you enjoy most about serving on the co-op board? “We’ve always had a wonderful co-op; it’s like a family. It’s member-owned; members have a voice, and they elect the directors. I always wanted to do my best for the members.” And do her best for the cooperatives, as a whole.
What advice would you give to women interested in getting involved with their cooperatives? “Oh, I wish they would. I always say, when I retire, I hope I can encourage a woman to take my place. There needs to be women on the board because we think differently. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. We look at things differently than men. I would encourage women to learn about our cooperative principles: to provide electricity that is affordable, reliable and responsible. And to never forget the little old lady who lives at the end of the line.”
Samantha Renard, System Engineer, Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative
Samantha Renard, a Louisiana native who graduated with an electrical engineering degree and a master’s degree in engineering management from the University of New Orleans, has only been with Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative for five months, but she’s already making history as the cooperative’s first woman engineer.
What got you interested in electrical engineering? “My dad went back to school for electrical engineering while I was in high school. He would bring me along to his study sessions and group projects. I’d hang out and do my homework while they met, and it gave me a lot of exposure to the projects they were working on and got me interested.”
What do you enjoy most about your work? “I think problem-solving. I really like the troubleshooting aspects of the job, especially being in power systems. There’s always something you can improve and always something that you need to figure out, like why a certain section of line keeps going off. You’ve got to dig in and figure out if you need to change some settings in a relay or if it’s a right-of-way issue or what improvements you can make. It’s very tangible, so you can see the progress you’re making.”
What is a typical day for you, if there is such a thing? “We can either be out in the field or in the office.” On an early February morning, she says, “Today we’re doing storm prep, and we’re in the office quite a bit this week, waiting for the weather to come through. We’re either working on relay settings or reviewing line and looking for improvements in the office. Or we’re going out and doing different reliability things on the line. We’ll go work on relay settings in the field or hanging trip savers or different fuses and coordination studies. So, it’s a good mix.”
What advice would you give young women who want to pursue engineering? “I think that the best thing people can do, not only looking at this field but any field, is find something that they enjoy doing. Engineering is such a broad field; you can do anything you can possibly imagine with an engineering degree. I enjoy power systems and working with line and electricity. There are other electrical engineers who work on artificial limbs and electric vehicles. It’s about finding your niche.”
Melissa Wood, Chief Financial Officer, First Electric Cooperative
Melissa Wood says, “I had never even heard of a cooperative” when she answered a First Electric job ad in the newspaper in 2012. And now, she’s the first woman CFO for one of Arkansas’ largest cooperatives. She is a board member of The National Society of Accountants for Cooperatives.
How did you begin your cooperative career? Says Wood, a New Jersey native who has an undergraduate degree from the University of Central Arkansas and an MBA from Memphis State University, “I relocated (from New Jersey) back to Arkansas after 15 years of Wall Street banking and answered an ad. I guess it was just fate. I started as the Accounting Manager/Controller, and my predecessor helped me accelerate my knowledge of cooperatives and cooperative accounting to be successful in my current role as CFO.”
How is working for a co-op different? “It’s definitely a lot slower-paced, and there are a lot fewer angry people! Everybody gets along; there’s no backstabbing; and it’s not the rat race of everybody striving to do better than the other person. Everybody tries to work together to better the organization. We’re all working together for the ultimate goal, which is to serve our members the best that we can at the lowest cost that we can.”
What do you enjoy most about your job? “The people. I have not met a co-op person who is not a genuinely nice, caring person. From a work standpoint, the co-op world is such a unique breed for accountants because we all have the same chart of accounts. All of the accounting is the same. It’s a uniform system for the entire co-op world, so it makes it really easy to share information. Everyone is willing to lend a hand; I can pick up the phone and call anybody in any state, and they’re going to help me.”
What advice would you give young women pursuing a similar career? “As far as women in accounting, there are a lot more of us these days. And co-ops, especially electric co-ops, are hidden gems; they don’t teach you about co-ops in college. My advice would be, if you ever get an ‘in,’ take it. It’s such a great environment for an accountant; it’s a great industry to be in.”
Three of nine vice presidents of Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC) and Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc. (AECI) are women as well as attorneys. We asked them about their careers.
Sandra Byrd, Vice President of Public Affairs and Member Services
What led you to a career in the electric power industry? “Back when I was in law school (1982-1985), I clerked for a Little Rock law firm that provided legal counsel for gas and electric utility companies. After one summer internship, I was hooked on the major energy issues that the utility industry is responsible for, and I realized the significant impacts that energy makes in our lives, homes and businesses. That internship led to an offer at a law firm, followed by working as in-house counsel at Centerpoint Energy for 12 years. In 1999, I had an opportunity to work in the public sector, which included serving as Executive Director of the Arkansas Public Service Commission (utility regulatory agency), and as Chairman of the Commission for seven years. In 2007, I left the commission and joined the Arkansas Electric Cooperative leadership team, continuing my passion for serving the needs of Arkansans. I have been incredibly blessed to work within an organization that is dedicated to serving all of the cooperative communities across the state.”
What do you love most about your job? “I enjoy being able to assist our distribution cooperatives and their members, whether it’s publishing and delivering the Arkansas Living magazine, offering energy-efficiency services to co-op members, providing statewide communications, assisting our cooperative members with community and youth services and so much more. We have the opportunity to make a positive impact in our members’ cities and towns, and ultimately the entire state. What’s more rewarding than making a difference in the lives and businesses of Arkansans?”
What advice would you give to young women considering a career in this industry? “One of the first things I would encourage them to do is seek out any of the women in their local communities who work within the utility and energy sectors. Ask if you can visit with them sometime, or perhaps schedule lunch. These women will be passionate and committed trailblazers, and they will want to help you because they remember their early years.”
Maria Smedley, Vice President of Human Resources
What led you to a career in the electric power industry? “I started my career as an intern at a Duracell manufacturing facility. The first 10 years of my career, I held human resources positions at manufacturing companies before transitioning to work for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). There, I learned about the electric utility cooperative business model (to provide electricity, at cost) and its mission to provide affordable and reliable electricity, responsibly, to rural and, in many instances, impoverished communities across the United States. Several years later, I accepted the opportunity to relocate to Little Rock, Arkansas, to lead the HR Division.”
What do you enjoy most about your job? “I love that every single day presents new and interesting challenges to address and resolve. Employees are the ‘secret sauce’ for any successful company, and I love that my role is to ensure that employees have the tools, resources and support to achieve the goals of AECC and AECI. Our mission, reliable-affordable-responsible, is easy to support. Electricity is a basic necessity; it is almost impossible to imagine that not so long ago, many areas in rural and impoverished America did not have it. I am proud to work for a company that strives every day to improve the quality of life through providing affordable energy.”
What advice would you give to young women considering a career in this industry? “Never self-eliminate. Pursue your interests. Let your talents, skills and abilities shine brightly. You do not have to be perfect to be qualified.”
Lori L. Burrows, Vice President and General Counsel
What led you to a career in the electric power industry? “I did not plan to be a lawyer, much less work for a utility. But after graduation, a job posting in the attorney general’s office doing environmental and utility work caught my eye, and I was lucky enough to get it. I recognized early on, working alongside subject matter experts in various specialties, I could do the most good by using my legal background to find, or create, real-world solutions that positively affect every person in the state. That challenge is what hooked me on the work within two weeks, and I have never looked back. I loved the industry and the opportunities it has afforded me so much, that — along with nine other industry executives — I helped found an organization in 2013 dedicated to recruiting, maintaining and promoting more women in our industry (ArkansasWomenInPower.org).”
What do you enjoy most about your job? “Almost 17 years later, I still enjoy the variety that my career gives me to positively influence people’s lives. Every day presents a new opportunity to solve an issue with novel thinking or look for ways to truly influence Arkansas’ rural communities for long-term gain. Electricity is an essential public service that the co-ops deliver on a nonprofit basis, and that’s why I am proud to work alongside AECC/AECI employees and member cooperative employees across the state to improve the quality of life for my fellow Arkansans. What I get to do is a privilege.”
What advice would you give to young women considering a career in this industry? “Finding something you love to do, working hard to be good at it, and doing it every day with enthusiasm will return career satisfaction to you tenfold. Along the way, investing in others will ensure your life is all the richer for it.”