We’re thrilled to introduce you to a brand new feature from S&S that spotlights women in utilities who are making a difference. The S&S Inclusion & Diversity Team reached out to two members of our customer base to discuss how they got into the industry, the struggles they have faced and overcome, and most importantly, how they continue to make a difference and be successful members of their organization.
We are pleased to introduce Alicia Holmes and Alisha Devezin from Azusa Light & Water in Azusa, CA. Below is the transcript of our conversation with these two people who we affectionately nicknamed “The Alisha's/Alicia's.” The conversation outlines some of their challenges, some of their successes, and where they feel the industry is headed, specifically in the area of inclusion & diversity.
S&S I&D Team: Good Morning Alicia & Alisha – First, thank you for taking time out of your day to chat with us. We know how busy you are, so we greatly appreciate your joining us. As we discussed, we are kicking off a “Customer Spotlight” series that focuses on women in utilities and aims to look at the industry through a more diverse lens. For those who will be reading this interview, can you each introduce yourself and your respective roles with Azusa Light & Water?
Alicia Holmes: My name is Alicia Holmes, and my role at Azusa Light & Water is the Assistant General Manager. I oversee the utility’s customer care business functions, information systems, technological and efficiency improvements, utility billing, call center, cashiering, collections, revenue record keeping & reporting, and field services & meter reading. I have 21 years in the municipal government utility sector.
Alisha Devezin: My name is Alisha Devezin, I currently work for Azusa Light & Water in the role of Customer Care and Operations Supervisor. I oversee ALW’s utility billing and customer service call center. I have eight years of experience working within the government utility sector.
I&D: It’s no secret this industry has been predominately male-centric, so how did you both get into the utility space?
AH: I have always been very passionate about Business and Finance, so when I started my undergraduate degree at 17, I knew what my major would be. When it was time for me to obtain career-focused work experience, I began looking in the public sector after my aunt, who worked for our local school district, encouraged me to do so. I ultimately entered the utility space in 2001, working for the City of Corona. I started as a mail clerk with the City of Corona, and over my 10-year career with the city, I worked my way up to Customer Service Representative I, Customer Service Representative II, Senior Customer Service Representative, Utility Billing Technician, and finally Accountant/Grants Administrator.
The manager that I had during this time was a very strong, intelligent, and well-educated woman who truly inspired me. Watching her proved that there were no limitations to what I would be able to accomplish in this industry if I set my mind to it. I joined Azusa Light & Water in 2011 as an Administrative Analyst and worked very diligently to become the Customer Care Operations Supervisor, and now, Assistant General Manager of the utility.
AD: In my case, when I entered the utility space in 2014, I was offered a position for a Customer Service Representative II at Burbank Water and Power. After thoroughly researching the utility sector, I became interested in various components such as the technological requirements utilized to maintain a utility’s infrastructure, customer service, financial impacts, and conservation.
I&D: It’s clear you have taken different paths to get to where you are today. What challenges do you each feel you faced throughout your journey?
AH: I have always known that being a woman and a minority requires me to work twice as hard as anyone else. There were many instances where I competed for jobs that I was more than qualified for but was overlooked as a candidate in favor of people who had less experience and education than I have. At times it has been really disheartening and discouraging, but in the end, it has only made me stronger, and driven my ambition even further. The utility space is a very competitive industry and every job that I have had over the last 21 years, I obtained through my strong work ethic and wealth of experience.
AD: I personally have faced many challenges that have also made me stronger as an individual. The primary challenges I’ve faced are being an African American woman within the millennial demographic age group, and being accepted in an executive leadership capacity. I have worked in a male-dominated environment and have been fortunate enough to work with great individuals who have supported me and pushed me to succeed in my career. That has given me the determination and belief in myself necessary to progress my career to a leadership role. Historically, many government entities would hire and promote employees within an organization that has served the city for years or even decades. I began overcoming such challenges by building prominent relationships with colleagues and other individuals within the utility field, allowing me to further my knowledge and career opportunities. Upon accepting the Customer Care and Operations Supervisor position at ALW, I realized that certain challenges I experienced encouraged me to work harder and to retain and acquire additional knowledge, increased skillsets, and drive. All of my experiences have fast-tracked my career and motivated me to reach my career goals.
I&D: As female leaders with Azusa Light & Water, what are some of the most critical skills you feel these challenges have allowed you each to develop that have made you successful in your roles today?
AH: Being the only African American, the only woman, and the youngest member of the executive management team within my utility has not been easy. There have been times in meetings when I have literally felt unseen and unheard, which was extremely frustrating. However, this has pushed me to strengthen my leadership skills and become more comfortable with being assertive in order to make it clear to my counterparts that I am their equal and that I have earned my seat at this table.
AD: As a female leader with Azusa Light & Water, I have also developed assertiveness, as well as patience, time management, and, most importantly, the ability to adapt my team to being an agent of change by preparing them for business process changes and technological enhancements. The utility industry changes fast and I’ve recognized that I need to have the vision to know what to do next and the capacity to encourage my team to join me on the ever-changing journey.
I&D: Now, hypothetically, you are given the keys to Mayor Gonzales’ office for the day and can create and implement any new policy for the city or society specific to Inclusion & Diversity. What policy do you pass into law?
AH: I would establish a policy that would detail the city’s commitment to ensuring an equitable, diverse and inclusive workplace. I would ensure that that policy was structured to help those that are not in the minority obtain a clearer, and much better understanding of what their co-workers face on a daily basis.
AD: If I were given the keys to Mayor Gonzales’ office for the day I would implement a new policy that provides a childcare assistance program, allows employees to take time off for a variety of religious holidays, and establishes a mental health vacation bank allowance.
I&D: We are incredibly fortunate to hear from both of you, these are some great ideas. As we wrap up, is there anything else that you want to share with your peers across the industry?
AH: Continue to strive for greatness and be a beacon to those that may follow in your path.
AD: Let every day be a new opportunity for your personal and professional growth. Strive to never give up on your goals and never let failure be an option. If your plan doesn’t work, change the plan, but never change your goal. Work hard and stay positive all the time, knowing that your hard work will positively impact your organization.
I&D: We want to thank you both again for taking some time to chat with us today. We believe we are all in a position to influence change based on the biases we see related to race, gender, and education every day. We feel its about education and choice – people choose how to act or react in certain situations. Is there a final message you want to leave readers with that will challenge them to look inward and evaluate their own biases?
AH: I will end my message with a quote from Nelson Mandela, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
AD: A final message I want to share is to never settle for a career you are not passionate about. The utility industry has various business units associated with different departments, and you must find your professional strengths. Working for a utility requires many skills and roles, which is why every individual in the field should recognize and embrace uniqueness. Being a woman in general, sometimes on a team of all men, means that you will have a unique voice, and it’s essential to embrace it. Never hesitate to voice your ideas or opinions, as they could lead to a positive change.