CEO asked herself: ‘Why not me?’

CEO asked herself: ‘Why not me?’
© Greg Nash

Geisha Williams, the first Latina CEO of a Fortune 200 company, had to deal with some culture shock when she came to the United States in 1967. 

A Cuban refugee whose family fled to the U.S. when she was 5, Williams bounced between schools as her parents opened small shops in New Jersey before eventually settling in Florida.

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By Williams’s own retelling, her family’s emigration from Cuba didn’t exactly preview the career path she would follow today.

“Being the first person from my family to get a college education, being a refugee, not really having a family that knew anything about corporate America ... I came out of college not particularly thinking that I could be CEO, or even [an] officer,” she said. “My intentions were pretty modest.”

Today, she serves as president and CEO of the PG&E Corporation, the parent company of Pacific Gas and Electric, a $35.2 billion, 23,000-employee firm that provides electricity and natural gas service to about 16 million people in California. 

On June 14, she’s being honored by the Republican Main Street Partnership in Washington, D.C., with the group’s Women2Women Inspiration Award commemorating her “pioneering” promotion to chief executive.

She lists among her goals not only helping her adopted state of California overhaul its energy system, but also diversifying the upper echelon of corporate leadership. 

“What I see with the utility industry is, more and more, we’re taking up this belief that our workforce, our leadership ranks, our board should be reflective of the community that we serve,” Williams told The Hill. 

“I think that’s healthy. I think it’s right, and I think that we’re really making a lot of progress in that regard.”

Williams started her energy industry career right out of college, working for Florida Power & Light Co. A higher-up pulled her aside one day and asked her a fateful question, one she still uses as an anecdote today. 

Asked about her “pretty modest” career goals, her mentor told her: “Hey, somebody’s got to run this company someday. Why not you?” 

“It was like a lightening bolt. It was like, really? Someone like me could run this company?” Williams said.  

“It did become a bit of a credo and something that has really guided me my entire career, and even sometimes on a personal level. Why not me, why can’t I do this?”

The energy sector — even Power & Light’s boardroom — lacked diversity at the time, Williams said. But she dove into the background of the company’s leadership and worked to develop an engineering and energy-sector skill set that she could use to climb her industry’s ranks.  

In 2007, Williams joined PG&E and worked her way through the company’s corporate structure. She held two positions overseeing energy delivery and electric operations before the company’s board elevated her to CEO this March.

Williams said she hopes to use her position to help expand diversity at her company while also overhauling PG&E’s energy generation in the face of climate change.

PG&E has launched a workforce-training project called “Power Pathway” to develop young energy industry talent with an eye toward veterans, women and underserved communities in California. The program aims to place its participants in company jobs. 

Williams considers it an example of the sector thinking about diversifying its future as older generations retire.

Latino business leaders say PG&E and Williams are notable for their focus on hiring diversity. 

“In my experience working with CEOs, she’s kind of a breath of fresh air,” said Hector Barreto, the chairman of the Latino Coalition and the former administrator of the Small Business Administration.

Williams is “very dynamic and visionary, but she’s also conscientious, she really cares a lot about the communities she is serving,” he said.

Javier Palomarez, the CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said PG&E “outperforms” national corporations in terms of contract work with minority-owned businesses in California.

“She’s also been instrumental in illustrating a very rare sense of accountability in that they contract with minority and women and veteran companies,” he said. “This is the kind of leadership that we all look for in all corporations.”

PG&E is looking outward as well as inward.

Thanks to internal maneuvering and strict California environmental regulations, the company is aiming to produce 55 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2031. And it is about four years ahead of schedule, Williams said.

When PG&E announced last year that it would close its last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, by 2025, the company committed to replacing its generation capacity with 100 percent carbon-free power. 

The company has taken a progressive approach to energy policy: It supported the Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration carbon rule for the power sector, and the Paris climate deal. Williams said PG&E will follow the lead set by California regulators and the company’s customers. 

“We have, here in California, among the most ambitious climate goals in the country,” she said. “It’s not just our political leaders or our regulators that really wants these things. The people of California really like innovation. … When you understand your customer base, you have to provide them with what they want.”

Williams has applied her “why not you?” message to climate change and sustainability as well. With the federal government, under President Trump, increasingly ignoring climate change in energy policy decisions, Williams said states and companies would have to take up the initiative.

“We think that PG&E and California, obviously, are right at the center of the challenge and we think we can play a pretty significant role,” Williams said. 

“We think that we are in a really great position to make that future a reality with the actions that we’re taking.”