Women in Energy: Kari Valley

The Women in Energy series is a joint project between USEA and USAID that was developed out of USEA’s Engendering Utilities Partnership, a program funded by USAID to improve gender policies and gender outcomes at their respective organizations.


Every month we feature a woman who has shown exemplary leadership. The women highlighted come from diverse backgrounds and roles, and they bring with them a unique perspective to gender equality within the energy sector.

1. How have both your education and career path led you to where you are now?

Up through the beginning of graduate school, I always intended to go into the U.S. Foreign Service.  After starting graduate school at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, however, I changed goals as I developed an interest in energy and environmental policy.  After graduating, I began my work in the industry as a Rates Analyst with the Minnesota Department of Commerce where I evaluated and prepared recommendations and testimony on issues related to rate cases, service quality, utility mergers, and certificates of need for new generating plants and transmission lines.  It was then that I developed an interest in the legal role associated with preparing and presenting cases and thereafter went to law school to become a utility attorney.  My stated “dream job” while in law school was to represent the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and I was fortunate to be hired into the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and assigned to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission shortly after passing the bar exam. 

The electric utility business is dynamic, and itself provides innumerable paths of opportunity, on issues related to corporate governance, environmental impacts and compliance, regulation of rates and standards of service, markets, financial management and analysis.  After working for several years advising the regulator, I took a turn on the regulated side at Xcel Energy, learning more of the business dynamics of providing safe, reliable service while meeting the local, state, and federal goals and requirements of the communities served.  And Xcel Energy, as the nation’s #1 wind provider for many years, had itself an aggressive goal of utilizing clean, carbon-free energy resources.  Working to advance those goals across jurisdictions was rewarding in itself, and also provided a path to continue work supporting dynamic changes in the industry at the more global level of a regional transmission organization such as the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (“MISO”). In all cases, what I have valued is the public service element of the work we do.  Safe, reliable, cost-effective and, increasingly important, clean, energy is the foundation for safe, healthy, and stable communities.  Ensuring access to needed resources across 15 states is an important driver in the work that I do. 

Both my prior work as a regulator and as a representative of one of the largest electric utilities in the country provided a good perspective on the issues faced in an evolving energy environment.   Joining the team at MISO provided me with the opportunity to apply the skills learned on the state level in addressing more of the federal side of utility services delivery, while working with the state commissions and various utilities in a 15-state footprint.  I appreciate the opportunity to work with diverse viewpoints and policy perspectives while supporting the organization’s efforts to address the needs of an evolving grid.  My work at the state and utility level has provided a solid foundation for working in the RTO-world. 

Professional and community engagement has been important along the way.  Being involved with the local and broader bar association, presenting at industry events, and volunteering on a non-profit board have helped support a community presence for the organizations I serve.  In particular, as an attorney, it is important to give back to the community.  I am thankful for the opportunity to serve on the Board of Directors for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.  Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services provides free legal aid to low-income clients in 33 counties within the state of Minnesota. 

On a broader level, I appreciate the opportunity to volunteer with the U.S. Energy Association in its work with utility partnerships across the globe.  Although my professional experience is entirely in the U.S. utility space, my interest in international work that prompted the initial goal of entering the U.S. Foreign Service has continued.  Supporting the work of the U.S. Energy Association is a great opportunity to contribute to the international development of clean, reliable and cost-effective energy services throughout the world. 

2. What obstacles have you experienced as a woman pursuing an education and career in the energy industry? What obstacles do women vying for leadership spots face in this sector?

One challenge for me personally has been my quiet nature, a characteristic that, while not necessarily the norm, is not uncommon for professional women.  Earlier in my career, and to some extent still today, I find I do not always speak up unless I am confident I know nearly everything about a topic.  That hesitation can limit valuable contributions to an ongoing dialogue.  It is a difficult internal issue to address but I do try to recognize it and make a point of contributing whenever possible.  I appreciate those that make space for the quiet contributors in a conversation, something I strive to do even as I am a quiet contributor myself.  And I often remind the more outgoing and outspoken members of my team to be mindful of cutting off or interrupting others.  That can limit the value and contributions of those at the table if the opportunity to participate in the conversation is short-circuited.  We all need to be mindful of that tendency.   

One additional obstacle that women working toward leadership positions face are relationships and building those relationships across gender, title and across industry.  The path to increased leadership requires both those in those positions now to build relationships with those “coming up” and those “coming up” to reach out to those in leadership positions.  I have found it helpful to let people know what my interests and career goals are, reaching out to those who can offer perspective and identify potential paths forward, as well as help steer me to the opportunities I am looking for.

Identifying what role you want to play and getting feedback from mentors and colleagues is important for any career path.  One important piece of advice I received along the way was to identify what I wanted to achieve and what was important to me, and to focus on role rather than title.  And while having women leaders with the associated titles is important, equally important is having women leaders in the right role to guide the organization, recognizing that title and role can go hand-in-hand, or perhaps the role you seek may have a title outside of what you were originally contemplating.  A legal professional may aspire to a General Counsel position.  But if that legal professional is primarily interested in the development of efficient markets across seams, she may want to look outside the straight legal path to opportunities on the business side of the enterprise.  That example highlights why exposure to different opportunities is so critical.  It is important to make the range of opportunities and potential opportunities visible to those who may fill them, even if they are currently outside of what might be an expected pool of candidates. 

3. Technology is transforming the traditional utility business model into a more modern interactive grid. Some utilities view this transformation as an opportunity to focus on innovation and diversity, which research has shown to drive better business performance. How is your organization attracting, retaining, and promoting more women into senior management positions to respond to this industry transformation? Is company data on this publicly available?

At MISO, women share a significant number of top positions in the organization at the Board of Directors and executive leadership levels.  But those very visible numbers do not tell the full story, with significant representation by women in the Executive Director, Director and Senior Manager levels. 

MISO supports continued development for all employees and that focus on developing and retaining existing talent is key to growing diversity in leadership.  Many leadership roles in the organization are filled within the organization, including by promoting women up and promoting women across the organization.  Notably, at MISO, women lead business areas related to system planning, resource adequacy, markets, finance, strategy, incident response, and others.  Further, MISO’s focus on broad exposure across business areas and internal talent development supports the continued development of women in the organization.  From my perspective, this focus on the investment in the individual employee is key.  Not expecting the individual to have all of the skills, but the necessary foundation upon which to build those additional skills, will help continue to grow a diverse leadership team.  For example, when I joined MISO, I had an extensive background in state regulatory process and retail service but very little federal experience.  The organization made a significant investment in me to develop the skills needed to meet the current needs and those needs into the future, including not only developing my expertise in federal energy regulatory issues relevant to a transmission organization, but also providing leadership development opportunities to allow me to continue to grow and serve the evolving needs of the organization as an individual, and as a current and future leader. 

Importantly, MISO has clear cultural values that are identified, discussed, and promoted on a continual basis throughout the organization.  Those values include collaboration, creativity, integrity, adaptability, and commitment.  The expectation that every employee exhibits these values contributes to the overall culture that supports attracting and retaining top talent as a whole, and thus retaining and growing diversity in leadership roles.  Knowing what is expected of you and what you can expect of the others you work with is key to creating an inclusive work environment. 

While MISO has been successful in attracting and retaining women leaders, there is more work to be done.  One of our significant efforts aimed at attracting, retaining and promoting women and those with diverse backgrounds is through the MISO internship program.  Through this program, MISO provides a means by which new professionals can see what opportunities exist.  Whether an individual is in engineering, graphic design, policy, or something else, that person may not be aware of what the universe of opportunities is until they see it themselves. There are more and more opportunities at every level and in every space of the organization.  Working in utilities, you see a large variety of necessary and influential roles that include technical expertise in cost-of-service regulation, or corporate compliance and shareholder return, but also graphic design, human resources, organizational management, and others.  The intent of the MISO internship program is to create awareness.  MISO also reaches out to those schools with programs that match with our organization’s needs and that also support a more diverse student population. 

In addition, MISO has several employee resource groups aimed at supporting and promoting the diversity within the organization, including a Women’s Resource Group, with the focus on connecting and supporting women professionals in MISO, EmPower, an employee resource group with the goal of creating a more culturally-aware organization by providing insight, advice and recommendations on African-American workplace, workforce and community subjects, as well as a Global Citizens Group to recognize and support the diverse international experiences of our employees and advance our workplace, and others.  

4. What changes in the sector at large do you think have launched more women into leadership positions?

Perhaps the recognition that a more diverse leadership team leads to improved business results, as well as the identification of barriers that may limit women from advancing into leadership roles and taking steps to remove and reduce those barriers, are the primary changes that I have witnessed that open the door to more opportunities for women leaders.  Also, there is recognition that it is difficult to attract a diverse workforce when an organization’s leadership does not reflect the diversity it espouses to embrace.  An organization must evaluate and reflect on what the organization looks like, and must be consistently moving forward and making progress, to ensure that the organizational leadership reflects the diversity present in our workforce at all levels of the organization.

In addition to looking inward at our organization and whether we are representative of our communities, is also important to look externally at whether our business partners reflect the diversity we espouse to support.  Organizations and businesses can support increased diversity by not only developing a diverse talent pool internally but requiring external business partners to do the same.  

We also need to ensure that industry events, such as conference presentations, panels, and similar events, reflect the diversity of professionals in the industry.  It is incumbent on us all to identify that as a priority as again, seeing diverse individuals in the vast array of leadership roles is fundamental to increasing the pipeline of qualified diverse candidates going forward. 

Also, as noted above, seeing more and more women in the roles will lead to more and more women being in the roles!  I recall walking into meeting with a former Minnesota Public Utilities Commissioner when I was representing the agency as an Assistant Attorney General.  This particular Commissioner had been Minnesota’s first woman Administrative Law Judge early in her career and worked on several high-impact, high-profile cases in the state.  As I walked into her office with two other women Assistant Attorneys General representing the agency, she remarked on what a change it was to see three women as the legal representatives for the agency.  Of these three women, one herself became an Administrative Law Judge and now is a judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and the other is a partner at a major national law firm working on significant cases related to energy resource development across the country, and I now manage half of the regulatory side of the law department for a transmission organization spanning a 15-state footprint.  Every step forward matters and creates new opportunities for other women leaders.

5. What are some untapped actions the energy and electricity sector could focus on to accelerate change, increase diversity, and foster a better gender balance in the boardroom?

The MISO Board and leadership are continuing to improve how the organization reflects the diversity of talent in this space.  Our Board of Directors includes leaders from the highest levels of industry, both within the utility industry and others.  Of nine independent board members, five are women and women chair half of the committees of the MISO Board of Directors.  In addition, women hold four of eleven executive positions with the organization. 

Recognizing talent and building and promoting that talent pool is key.  Not all great leaders and board members come to the organization with the complete skillset.  By recognizing those with the capability and fundamental attributes you need, and providing the tools needed to serve in the intended function, may be the path to getting the talent an organization is looking for.  Relationships are key in this regard.  Historically, representation at the top of organizations reflected the relationships built in small circles that did not always include women or those with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.  Today, we are able to recognize not just how to foster inclusion, but how to avoid exclusion.   We need to foster relationships with those not always within our immediate circle, and make sure we are providing development opportunities for those with the interest and ability to serve in a leadership role in the future.  I encourage all industry professionals to continue to engage with a variety of professional, educational, and other organizations to connect with talented, diverse professionals and support the continued expansion of opportunities in the energy field.

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