Empowering: Women’s utility professionals group nears its century mark

WiNUP members gather at their most recent national conference.
WiNUP members gather at their most recent national conference.

Janet Rehberg, director of cooperative development at Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, began her electrical industry career as an engineer with AEP, designing the underground electrical systems for new housing developments. She advanced her career through several different positions and a cross-country move before a friend told her about an opening with Buckeye Power, Ohio’s generation and transmission cooperative that provides power to its member cooperatives and nearly 400,000 consumer-members.

Janet has never looked back. “I feel like I found my niche,” she says. “I love everything the co-ops stand for. I love the people here, I love what I do, and I love working with the cooperatives.”

Holly Huffman, communication support specialist at Indiana Electric Cooperatives (IEC), began her career in public relations. She worked for an agency for a while, as well as in the real estate industry, before a position opened up in the marketing department at Wabash Valley Power Alliance. “I didn’t know anything about the industry or what cooperatives were,” she says. “I just knew the electric company kept the lights on.” After eight years, she transitioned to her role at IEC, where she works with member cooperatives to produce content for Indiana’s cooperative-member magazine. She also writes articles, manages social media, keeps the website updated, and more.

Engineering and public relations are two fields that don’t usually have much overlap. Although their careers began very differently, Rehberg and Huffman’s paths converge through WiNUP, the Women’s International Network of Utility Professionals. The organization brings together women in the utility industry, whether they be engineers, editors, accountants, IT specialists, or writers. WiNUP empowers and encourages women through three missions: professional development, networking and mentoring, and recognition and visibility. Regardless of how different their day-to-day working lives might be, the women share a common goal.

“Empowering women since 1923”

The organization originated in 1923, when seven women from New York attended the annual meeting of the Society for Electrical Development. In a sea of male colleagues, they came together and found common ground in their shared experience of being women working in the electricity industry. They soon formed the Electrical Women’s Round Table, with a mission to provide growth and development to their members.

Over the years, the organization grew, spreading to other states and spawning new chapters. In 1999, the organization evolved into its current form and name. As a whole, the organization has over 600 members, and Ohio boasts the largest chapter enrollment at over 150 women. The success of the Ohio chapter is in no small part a result of Rehberg’s efforts. When she moved to Ohio and joined the local chapter, membership was stagnant at about 40 participants. When she became chapter chair, her goal was to double the membership in the first year. When she accomplished that, she set herself a goal to double the membership again — and succeeded.

Chapters hold monthly meetings where they bring in industry experts to talk about utilities and affiliated companies in order to expand knowledge beyond current roles and into the rest of the industry. They also hold workshops that fulfill their missions, such as teaching about building a personal brand, tips for avoiding toxic workplaces, and practicing mindfulness techniques. Members network while learning improv or line dancing. They give back to their community through service projects, including holding clothing drives for disadvantaged men and women who are reentering the workforce, and planting flags on the Ohio Statehouse lawn to honor the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001.

Each year, one of the chapters hosts the annual conference, offering valuable sessions and networking opportunities to attendees. As WiNUP’s international president in 2019, Huffman introduced a new event for last year’s conference in Denver — a session for new members to meet each other and get acclimated to the larger event, making sure that they get the most out of their conference experience. “It’s about putting your leadership skills to the test, networking, and learning from others,” she says.

Future leaders

When Rehberg became international president of WiNUP in 2014, she asked the membership to vote to make STEM education for girls their national philanthropic platform. Now each chapter contributes in some way to STEM education. For example, the Columbus chapter held a speed networking event where girls presented their STEM projects to WiNUP members, moving from one group to the next every time the bell rang. WiNUP members have also gone to elementary schools to talk about their careers and have taught young women about dressing professionally and interviewing techniques. “We’re developing our future energy leaders,” Rehberg says.

One of the most important parts of WiNUP is the mentoring program. Women are thoughtfully paired with executives in their field or outside of their field, depending on their skills and the direction they want for their career. Later in their careers, Rehberg says, they’ll become mentors themselves. “They get help to grow, then help develop others and give back.”

Rebecca Seum is associate editor of Ohio Cooperative Living.