Cheri Warren, Vice President of Asset Management at National Grid, is fascinated by the potential of the power grid to change the way people live their lives. As head of the company’s smart grid initiative – called Utility of the Future – she said, “We are on the precipice of transformation and I’m really proud to be a part of that.”
Her passion for the energy space grew out of her early interest in engineering in high school and college. She explained that her Girl Scout troop leader was an Air Force recruiter and encouraged her to apply for an Air Force ROTC scholarship so she afford college. Even though the scholarship was delayed, because this was the ’80’s and a computer glitch declared her “legally dead” for a few months, she never wavered. she recalled. “Going to school would make all the difference in the world.”
Warren dreamed of joining NASA’s space shuttle program, so she studied electrical engineering for her bachelor’s degree and then followed that with a master’s degree in engineering. But, after injuring her knee while training for a marathon, she realized she would have to seek a new path. Nevertheless, her engineering background gave her a boost, she said. “Having that advantage helped a lot as I continued throughout my career.”
After landing an internship at GE, Warren found herself fascinated with the utilities industry, particularly the power industry. “I got really lucky,” she said. “I got a job at PTI [Power Technologies International], which is now owned by Siemens, and by my second summer I was redesigning how to protect the power system from lightning strikes.”
She worked in electric distribution consulting in the early ’90s and then moved into information systems for a few years then back to T&D studies before joining a management consulting firm. After 9/11, Warren’s interest in the power grid was further invigorated. “I decided to work for National Grid and I’ve never looked back,” she said.
Today, as National Grid’s Vice President of Asset Management, Warren is responsible for all of the company’s electric transmission and distribution assets where she and her team invest about $1 billion each year on behalf of customers, as well as the company’s smart grid activities. “The smart grid is transforming the industry. It will mean a better grid that allows people to live their lives in different ways,” Warren explained. “The grid we have today is 125 years old. I have a line that Edison himself built and it’s still alive today. Clearly it’s time for innovation.”
She is also enjoying the people-management part of her job. “The people development aspect is incredible to me right now. There’s a point in your career where you go from mentee to mentor, and then you’re a mentor with a capital M,” Warren explained. “One of my top lieutenants was trying to make the next step and become VP for a few years, and I’m proud to say he was promoted in January.”
Warren is also a member of the industry group IEEE and is on it’s board of directors. She got involved with IEEE as a student, but really ramped up her involvement back when she worked for PTI on the advice of her boss at the time. It has enabled her to publish papers and, in 2007, she was awarded the group’s Excellence in Power Distribution Award. “It’s a group that is changing the way we do what we do. It’s phenomenal,” she said.
Women in Energy
Warren believes one of the key hurdles for women in energy is simply that there aren’t many of them there. “I think probably the biggest challenge is the low numbers.”
“At my first job, I was one of the first female engineers in the whole company, and when I started the guys didn’t know whether to open the door for me, or listen to me, or hope I would go away,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s better today. Now I’ve got a whole row of women sitting across from me. I do think the low numbers inhibit us, but we are gaining traction.”
Women bring a different and useful perspective to the conversation she said, particularly at a time when the grid is transforming. “This is a great place to be, and a great time to be here. Women have a different perspective in how energy will be used in society. Generally speaking, women are the ones who pay the bills in their households.”
“Women are going to play a real role in this industry more than ever. Not only is it great for engineers, but also there’s the communications piece that speaks to the heart as well as the mind.”
She encouraged junior people in the engineering industry to work on their communications skills. In fact, she says she wishes that had learned earlier about the importance of presentation. “Presentation matters,” she explained. “No matter what great idea you come up with, if you find it hard to communicate it, then it will be hard to move that idea forward.”
“As engineers, we don’t always think about that. But if you can learn to speak and make a power point presentation that explains what you are talking about, you will be so far ahead of the curve.”
Warren praised National Grid’s efforts to attract and retain women. “There is a lot that we do here,” she said, mentioning the company’s women’s in network and mentoring programs.
“We have a couple of women on our board of directors and they do a lot for women in the company, especially the senior women,” she continued. National Grid’s senior management has also made gender diversity a concern. “Both our CEO and our US president really care and want women to be part of the company. Having that support at the top is incredibly important.”
In Her Personal Time
Outside work, Warren enjoys traveling with her husband. “We made it to our seventh continent two years ago.”
She also enjoys photography and has written children’s books. “We try to give back through our work,” she said. She also spends time on environmental issues. “We try to send a message about why sustainability is so darn important.”