AVANGRID Networks’ CEO Shatters Glass Ceiling
“My mother always raised us to feel like we could do anything.” That’s the principle that Catherine Stempien says shaped her personal and professional life.
Today, the West Hartford native proudly serves as the first woman president and CEO of AVANGRID Networks, in an industry long dominated by men.
“I never really knew about the concept of a glass ceiling,” the utility executive told a crowd of more than 260 people at CBIA’s May 19 Annual When Women Lead conference at the Aqua Turf Club.
“I didn’t consider what it was or that I would need to break one.”
Stempien has shattered that glass ceiling.
Education, Sacrifice, Hard Work
Motivation and hard work are important cornerstones in Stempien’s success story.
The mentors and sponsors who pushed her along the way helped open doors to career advancements.
Attending law school at a time where there was a 40:60 women-to-men ratio, Stempien put her best foot forward.
She worked as a paralegal at Shipman & Goodwin early on thanks to a family friend.
From a dream job at a firm in Washington D.C, and an unpredicted move to work as an in-house lawyer when her husband relocated for work, Stempien consistently fought for roles and worked hard to earn her place.
She moved locations and jobs on more than one occasion for her husband, and when the time came, he moved for her.
“It has been a partnership, communication, and willingness to be successful and move back and forth,” Stempien explained.
Along the way, she has formulated a number of lessons she offers to anyone with a strong work ethic and broad aspirations.
Stempien said it is important to be a student in your specific industry, and always strive to learn more.
She says she is grateful for the women and men who advocated for her in her career.
A mentor, Stempien said, can help introduce you to people.
“You have to have a connection, you can’t just create a lasting mentorship,” Stempien explained.
“It’s always important at certain levels to help introduce women, help push them along, help advocate.
“But then there are the special relationships, that really go on for years, where you become a partner in that, and those are the ones that I think are the most valuable.”
Statistically, men often have the confidence to apply for jobs they are not qualified for. Women, on the contrary, won’t apply.
During major jumps in the corporate world, Stempien pushed for jobs she did not feel ready for—and admits she broke down emotionally when she landed them through fear.
Today, those decisions are the reason she broke through the glass ceiling.
Stempien did not always get the support of women mentors during during her career. White men were often her sponsors—not always by choice.
She admits she greatly admired a strong female attorney at her first law firm job—and wanted nothing more than to learn from her.
“I wanted to be her, I wanted her to be my mentor,” Stempien said. “For some reason, the feeling wasn’t mutual.”
Stempien said rather than encourage, the lawyer threatened and belittled her.
Maybe she was too focused on making sure she had the energy to advance her own career, Stampien reflects now.
“This taught me first-hand that we must support other women in our industries, and we must stick together,” Stempien added.
Breaking the Model
When Stempien moved from a large firm to working as in-house counsel in the late 1990s, the company was ironically studying why so many women were leaving law firms to work at in-house jobs.
Despite being raised during a time when women were making strides, at this point, she said advancements had “stalled and sputtered.”
Stempien explained that childcare and eldercare issues were among a number of growing challenges.
“The traditional model of what it took to be successful—having a big booming lower voice, a good golf swing, and maybe connections with a fraternity brother—was causing increased conversations at the time about unconscious bias, division of labor between genders,” Stempien said.
In time, women have been more outspoken, and increasingly hold leadership positions in male-dominated industries.
Unfortunately, the pandemic is bringing flashbacks for Stempien, now a mother of two daughters.
“We’re at a point in time where progress for many women may stall and in fact, slip backwards,” she said.
Stempien challenges women to have “unsavory conversations” with male colleagues, raise children to feel like there are no boundaries, and stand up and testify for women’s rights.
“We’re all in this together,” Stempien said proudly, as a photo with one of her daughters, a recent college graduate, appeared on the screen behind her.
She said women play a significant part in paving the way for future generations of women—and should work to uphold that responsibility.
Stempien has worked her way to becoming a leader in an industry dominated by men, at a company where men make up 75% of the workforce.
AVANGRID’s 11-member management team consists of four women. As she works to empower other women, Stempien applies the concept to her company’s work as well.
“I know at AVANGRID we can be a leader in breaking the glass ceiling in the energy industry,” she said.
Stempien said the company’s strategy is broken down into four values—environmental, social, governance, and financial.
For Stempien, focusing on the financial component is crucial.
“We know that when we focus on making lasting, responsible, and positive impacts on our world, we will deliver strong financial returns for our shareholders and for our communities,” she explained.
Current company investments focus on clean energy transformation, with more renewable and substantial power.
AVANGRID Networks and Renewable businesses invested $3.3 billion in 2021 to build a cleaner, more resilient energy system.
Making a Difference
Since 2015, AVANGRID has invested $2.4 billion in Connecticut alone.
Stempien said the company generates enough clean energy to power roughly two million homes across 22 states through wind, solar, and thermal energy.
“I believe we are making a difference in people’s lives,” Stempien said.
Stempien explained that the company continues to put research and development into new opportunities, studying them in an effort to perfect the processes for when they become more within reach.
The impact she sees everyday on families, and more importantly essential services such as hospitals, keeps her motivated on the toughest days, weeks, and months.
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