Among the seven individuals who will be honored at YWCA Spokane’s 35th annual Women of Achievement luncheon Thursday is Avista engineer Heather Rosentrater.
She isn’t the event’s featured speaker.
But if she were, “I would share the challenges I have faced balancing a career in a male-dominated industry while also school shopping, making lunches and doing laundry. I’d try to give others confidence by reminding them that they’re not alone.”
Rosentrater joined Avista during her sophomore year at Gonzaga University.
Less than two decades later, she became one of the private utility’s 12 vice presidents.
When asked the key to her success, she replied, “Having an optimistic, open-minded approach to learning and leadership.”
During a recent interview, Rosentrater discussed robots, Rhodes Scholars and role models.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Rosentrater: In Millwood. I still live there, as does most of my direct family.
S-R: What high school did you attend?
Rosentrater: West Valley.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class?
Rosentrater: I absolutely loved math. I also played softball, was a cheerleader and volunteered.
S-R: What kind of volunteering?
Rosentrater: The National Honor Society would do baby-food drives. I also tutored younger students – females particularly – in math.
S-R: Do you recall your introduction to technology?
Rosentrater: In third grade, my science project was a robot. We went to Radio Shack for a motor and switches. I used construction paper for the face, yarn for hair and made wheels out of wood.
S-R: What was your robot’s function?
Rosentrater: I envisioned it doing my chores. (laugh) When I finished it, though, about all it could do was deliver a pen across the room to my sister. But it was a good learning experience.
S-R: What was your first job?
Rosentrater: Waitressing at my parents’ restaurant, the Corner Door café in Millwood.
S-R: What career did you envision?
Rosentrater: I hoped to go into the medical field – biomedical engineering – but the first time I toured a hospital, I fainted. So I transferred to electrical engineering.
S-R: What caused you to faint?
Rosentrater: We were in the basement – not even around patients – looking at an incubator that had broken. And as our professor explained how it worked, I started going fuzzy and clammy, and woke up on the floor with all my classmates looking down at me.
S-R: Where did you attend college?
Rosentrater: I spent my freshman year at Boston University, then transferred to Gonzaga when I switched to electrical engineering.
S-R: What was the gender ratio in your engineering classes?
Rosentrater: Very lopsided toward male students.
S-R: Did anyone suggest you might not be cut out for electrical engineering?
Rosentrater: I actually got lots of support. There were a few discouraging comments, but I mostly disregarded them because I didn’t believe others were aware of how they came across.
S-R: Was there a particular moment or event that changed the direction of your life?
Rosentrater: The summer before my sophomore year I was waitressing at my parents’ restaurant when one of our regulars was having lunch with a guy starting a subsidiary for Avista. The utility guy was complaining that his student helper was leaving to go back to school, and the regular – who knew me – said, “The waitress here is an engineer, was high school valedictorian and is a Rhodes Scholar.” (laugh) I wasn’t a Rhodes Scholar. But afterward, the utility guy came up, gave me his card and invited me to tour his lab. That’s how I got my start at Avista 21 years ago.
S-R: Have you had mentors?
Rosentrater: The person who gave me his business card became a mentor during the seven years I was at Avista Labs. I’ve also had other mentors at the utility who challenged me with responsibilities I didn’t think I could handle. Their having confidence in me – giving me opportunities to fail and learn in a safe way – made all the difference.
S-R: Have you ever really screwed up?
Rosentrater: (laugh) Several times.
S-R: What was the takeaway?
Rosentrater: That what matters is you learn from those screw-ups.
S-R: How long did you waitress?
Rosentrater: All through high school and into college.
S-R: Did anything you learned waitressing transfer to this job?
Rosentrater: Yes, the importance of customer service, and not taking things personally. Everybody has their own issues, and their not being nice to you may have nothing to do with you.
S-R: What do you recall about your early years with Avista?
Rosentrater: When I started, I assumed a utility that had been around more than a century was probably somewhat stodgy and conventional, without much innovation. And in some ways, that perception was reinforced. But as I got to know people, I realized Avista’s principles were very much aligned with my own in terms of trustworthiness, collaboration and innovation. Constantly taking advantage of new technology has allowed us to do things in much more creative ways.
S-R: Do you remember coming home one day and saying, “I think my bosses see leadership ability in me”?
Rosentrater: Yes. I expected to spend my career as an engineer because I really enjoyed designing things. I remember going into one of my first annual reviews very nervous about what sort of feedback I might get. And my manager asked, “Have you ever thought about leadership?” That just threw me. I had never envisioned myself in a technical leadership role, partly because I’d never reported to a female manager. In fact, I didn’t have one female professor in college.
S-R: How would you characterize your leadership style?
Rosentrater: Very collaborative. Every day, I attempt to support my team where I’m needed.
S-R: What’s the best leadership advice you ever got?
Rosentrater: Never stop learning.
S-R: What’s a typical work week for you?
Rosentrater: Probably 50 to 60 hours.
S-R: How much of that time is spent managing, as opposed to engineering?
Rosentrater: Although I don’t do much hands-on design anymore, I use my engineering experience and education daily to influence department strategies and the questions I ask.
S-R: How has the utility industry evolved during the past two decades?
Rosentrater: The technologies and capabilities of our system are vastly different than when I came in. We have so many more tools to support our customers in terms of energy efficiency, reliability and resiliency.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Rosentrater: The people.
S-R: What do you like least?
Rosentrater: Really early morning meetings.
S-R: How have you impacted Avista’s energy delivery?
Rosentrater: I’ve encouraged a culture of asking “How might we?” instead of focusing on why something won’t work. For instance, while other utilities may see solar technology as a threat, we choose to look at it as an opportunity.
S-R: What about your job makes you most proud?
Rosentrater: Being a role model for creating diversity on our leadership team.
S-R: What’s been the biggest surprise?
Rosentrater: How much influence my decisions have on the organization and individuals.
S-R: What has the job taught you about yourself?
Rosentrater: Things don’t always turn out the way I want them to, but as long as I do my best, I’m doing a good job.
S-R: Avista is in the process of being acquired by Canadian-based Hydro One. How might that affect your job?
Rosentrater: I think it will create a lot of opportunities – more reference points for sharing best practices and getting candid input from a similar organization.
S-R: Will Avista customers notice a difference?
Rosentrater: I don’t expect them to, other than changes for the good.
S-R: Looking back over your career, is there anything you would do differently?
Rosentrater: I wish I’d taken more time off when I had my kids. I came back to work pretty quickly.
S-R: How much time did you take off?
Rosentrater: With my last one nine years ago, I took six weeks. But I routinely popped in here.
S-R: A Google engineer made news recently when he argued that the low number of women in tech roles and leadership positions was the result of biological differences. How would you explain the disparity?
Rosentrater: There are physiological difference between men and women, but those differences don’t explain the gender imbalances in math, science and engineering. That’s based more on history, unconscious biases and the lack of role models.
S-R: If something breaks in your house, who fixes it?
Rosentrater: When our dryer broke recently, I was so excited. I got out my voltmeter, Googled the error code I was getting, figured out it was the door sensor and was able to fix it. That was the highlight of my month.
S-R: What does your husband do?
Rosentrater: Eric was a lineman, and now he’s in human resources.
S-R: What’s the career outlook in your field?
Rosentrater: I think it’s incredible.
S-R: Who’s best suited for engineering?
Rosentrater: Someone who likes to solve problems, wants to make a difference and isn’t afraid to question assumptions.
S-R: Would you encourage your two daughters to consider engineering careers?
Rosentrater: I do every day.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.