Valerie Jenkinson, CEO of World Water and Wastewater Solutions and chair of Operators Without Borders, shares advice for young female professionals.
Describe your education / training and how it advanced your career.
My journey has been one of a series of turns and twists. I was in school in England training to be a physical education teacher when I got married at the age of 19. Shortly thereafter, my husband and his friend decided that they wanted to leave England. Being a young and married woman, I went along—even though I was enjoying my schooling and had no wish to leave England.
When we finally settled in Canada we had no money, and finishing my education was not a choice. I had to go to work. I stumbled around a few unfulfilling jobs and finally landed a job with one of the largest food companies in the world. I was the first woman ever hired into a sales position in the food industry by a multinational corporation in Canada. I was watched and there were many people who wanted me to fail, but I was determined not to. I went back to school at night, completing a three-year program in two years to get a certificate in business. I then went on to take a three-year diploma course in sales and marketing management at the University of British Columbia from which I graduated as overall top student. At that time, between work and going to school, I didn’t have much of a life.
Tell us more about your work experience.
As the first woman in the food industry, as I mentioned, I was watched very carefully. I do believe I worked a lot harder than my peers who were originally not only all men but also older. However, the hard work paid off, and I was promoted quite rapidly. I became the first female manager in the Canadian food industry.
I was eventually offered a job that was a big promotion which meant moving to Ontario from Vancouver. I initially accepted the position. However, the job had been offered to me by the vice president—not by the person I would have to report to. My new manager, when I met him, was very much against having a young woman take this position and wanted to pigeonhole me. I came home and declined the promotion. Very shortly after, I left to become vice president of a small local company where I stayed for a couple of years. It was very good training because in a large company, there was lots of money. In this small company I learned to be very frugal, which stood me in great stead when I left to start my own company at the age of 27.
I thought that when I started my company that I was pretty smart in having succeeded in all that I had attempted. I found out very quickly that I wasn’t quite as smart as I thought. It was a difficult time to open a company because a year later, a recession hit. Interest rates were around 20%. I owned my office and my house so between paying the mortgages on those and on the business, I was hanging on by my fingertips. I lost money, and it took years to dig myself out. In the meantime, I started a second company, , which grew a lot, so I decided to give up my first company. My new company developed a reputation for high-quality work. I sold that company after 13 years. Throughout this time I was also teaching at the college and university level even though I did not have a degree.
During the time I had my research company, I was asked to work for the British Columbia Water and Waste Association on a research project for them. That led me to helping them with their strategic planning. I befriended industry leaders who asked me to help them write and design some training courses. One thing led to another and I ended up buying one of the largest companies for operator certifications and training in the wastewater industry in Canada. If anybody had told me 30 years ago that I would end up with a background in sewage I would’ve thought they were crazy. But that is how my career has gone. I have been working in the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) industry for over 18 years. Thirteen years ago I received a request from the Canadian Trade Commission to help the Caribbean Water and Sewerage Association with some operator training. I took them up on it and now I live in the Caribbean for approximately six months out of the year.
In 2017, I started a charity, Operators Without Borders, to assist the water utility in Dominica rebuild after the hurricane devastated the island. I now devote over 50% of my time to Operators Without Borders as an unpaid volunteer. We are a Canadian-registered charity and work on disaster rebuilding, capacity building, and training with utilities in the Caribbean.
Why did you choose to work in the WASH field, especially in developing countries?
I have worked in the water industry now for 18 years. When I started Operators Without Borders, it was a natural fit. Back then, I had never heard of WASH, but when I led disaster teams, I learned of its existence and . This work has been a great source of satisfaction.
Did you have a role model who guided you and if so, what is their advice that helped you the most that you still apply today?
As far as mentors or managers are concerned, I did not have many since I started my company at a young age. However, I have learned as much, if not more, from bad managers as I have from good ones. I learned lessons very early about the lack of appreciation and recognition for work being done. I recall times when others, usually males of importance, were given credit for work that I had done. Therefore, I have tried hard to make recognizing the efforts of people part of what I do. I did have a few role models from my school, such as teachers, who instilled in me a work ethic and an attitude of service that has been very valuable and rewarding.
What are the personal characteristics or skills that are vital to becoming a successful leader?
- Always be kind and compassionate, yet firm when you need to be.
- Believe in yourself, even when nobody else does.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare. Put in the work.
- Do your homework and know the facts.
- Be able to communicate well—which includes both speaking well and listening well.
- Be persistent and persevere.
- Take risks but make sure you understand what the risks are and the consequences for those risks.
- Recognize people for their contributions.
- Continue your education. Be a lifelong learner. Be curious.
- Don’t make work just about yourself. Give back. Serve.
Research has shown us that there are numerous benefits from having women in leadership positions. Do you think the same holds true for the urban WASH field?
Research seems to suggest that women bring a different lens to decision-making. We are often more empathetic and compassionate and sometimes more holistic. But when I hire for my company, I always hire the best person for the job regardless of gender. I have mixed feelings about affirmative action programs and quotas, but it is important to not discriminate against anyone because they are a minority. We need to ensure that there are good protocols in place to ensure that minorities are not bullied or harassed.
What have been the most significant challenges and obstacles you’ve faced on your journey, and how did you deal with them?
I honestly do not feel that I have had too many obstacles on my journey. There were times when I certainly was discriminated against; however, there were also many opportunities that I received because I was a woman. I think what helped me most through my career was having confidence in myself. I recognized that there were going to be challenges because I was a woman, but I decided to not let those challenges bother me and take advantage of the opportunities I was given. I always stood up for myself.
When I was a salesperson, I was put into some uncomfortable . I was expected to be nice to everyone even if I was in a vulnerable position. However, I refused to be intimidated and I was always prepared to walk away from situations that were not in my interest. I think that many people are scared that they might lose their job and therefore put up with things they shouldn’t. I have learned that you need the courage to walk away. I have never been afraid to look somebody in the eye and tell them that their behavior was uncalled for and wrong. I found that most of the time the person would back down and apologize.
I am lucky that I was taught from a young age and throughout my educational journey to expect the best of myself and to stand up for myself. I believe that this is what has made me successful. I have now been nominated for Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year twice by my colleagues and customers. This is not because I am more intelligent than others, but because I work extremely hard.
How was your journey different from your male colleagues?
Coming from an era when women were just beginning to break into industries, there was a lot of suspicion. I was lucky that my first manager was very supportive. We were also a very young team. Because I was in sales, we were judged based on results. I was a top producer and had a good relationship with my peers. I also found them to be very supportive when I became a manager.
What’s your advice to a young woman who feels overlooked/passed by/sexually harassed in her career?
If you are overlooked, passed by, or sexually harassed, you have to have the confidence to stand up against these inequalities or harassment. I do recall one boss I worked for who screamed at people in meetings. I thought the behavior was despicable. He did it to me once, and I had a letter of resignation on his desk the next morning. He called me in and apologized. I told him if other people accepted his behavior that was up to them, but I certainly would not. I stayed, and it never happened to me again. Women must be prepared to call out bad behavior. I can think of many times where I’ve called out bad behavior. The person was often genuinely shocked and did not realize how their behavior damaged the situation. Most of the time I got an apology. When I felt that I was overlooked or badly treated, I either worked harder or quit. I think both of those scenarios have helped me.
What has been your experience with male colleagues and what should be men’s roles be in supporting women on their rise?
As I outlined , I have been fortunate that the majority of my male colleagues have been very supportive. When I started my new company, I applied to join the industry association and was turned down. I heard the comment, “We’re not having that woman in here.” I would’ve been the first woman in the association. I persevered and was eventually accepted, but after two meetings I realized it was more of a drinking club and there was very little value to being in the association.
It is reported that many women who have a seat at the table are not listened to and are often afraid to speak up. I have to say that this has never been a problem for me. In fact, one of my weaknesses is that I am sometimes too forceful, but I’ve always had a say in decisions and discussions.
I do think some of the challenges that women face are not unique to our gender. Sometimes age and experience are also a barrier and again self-confidence really helps.
The best thing I did for myself, which I would recommend to anyone, is to take a public speaking course. The first time I had to stand up in front of a group was terrifying, but as I progressed, it became something I really enjoyed. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going to speak in public or not, it is a great asset and will help your self-confidence. It gives a level of assertiveness that I think is invaluable.
What was your experience being both a mother and building a career geared for senior management?
I was 40 when I had my son and was running a company. Being self-employed, there are no benefits, and I was back at work after five days. It was not easy. I remember kindergarten being a very difficult year because it was half days. I would be in my office working away and realizing later that I had to get to the school. I was sometimes the last mother there with the teachers glaring at me. But there were advantages to being my own boss as well. I would carve out time for all my son’s activities and never missed any of his soccer games or other events. I remember when he was very little, I would put “BB” in my calendar every week as an appointment. I would leave the office—my staff thought I was going to a business appointment—but it was actually Baby Bears time at the library with my son. I also remember being in a client meeting and excusing myself to go to the ladies’ room where I pumped breast milk and then headed back into the meeting again.
It is okay for men to have a career, work hard, and have a family, but not for women. It’s a constant tug-of-war and it was very hard to deal with this. I was lucky that my son’s father was very involved in his upbringing. Working for a large corporation, he was able to take parental leave which I could not. He also worked fewer hours and cooked for the family.
It really is a juggling act and it is very hard to not feel guilty. We do the best we can. Having good childcare and a good school makes a big difference. I would not have wanted to give up either, although it would have been nice to have been home more when my son was young.
What are organizational responsibilities that would work to make this balancing easier for women? That is, if a woman gets to a position of influence, what are the programs/projects that she should be championing to make advancement easier for all women?
The workplace needs to be more supportive of mothers, especially those who are single and exhausted by the constant balancing act. There should be flexible work hours and the opportunity to work one or two days a week from home (COVID has shown us it can be done). There also needs to be equal opportunity and pay.
I do think that women in corporate environments may have it harder than I did since I was an entrepreneur. Despite sometimes getting up at 5 a.m. to begin my day, I feel that I have been very lucky in my career.
How do you manage stress? Are there specific coping strategies that you use?
Exercise has always been my go-to for stress relief. Coming home and going for a good run or working out, or even expending energy on the dance floor always relieves my stress. I’m also an animal lover, so walking and playing with dogs is a stress reliever for me as well. I am still trying to get into meditation and mindfulness but sometimes find that it has the opposite effect, and I get more anxious than Zen. I am also one who enjoys conversation, and especially in COVID times, connecting with family and friends and talking and laughing is a great antidote. We really don’t hear enough laughter in our lives.
What are some ways you manage time?
When I was younger, I religiously followed a time management system using priority sequencing. Running two companies, being a mother, and being on various boards without doing so would have been a disaster. Eventually prioritization and focusing on getting the top priorities done daily became ingrained. But even now, if I get really busy, I set up a To Do list and my ABC priorities to keep me on track. I also find not getting caught up with time wasters is very important. When busy, I watch very little television, and I don’t get caught up in the social media whirlpool.
How do you balance work and your personal life?
Time management and setting priorities. I’ve gotten better at balancing both over the years. It also helps to be financially independent and be able to choose projects and turn down work I don’t enjoy. There were times early on when I was struggling financially, especially during the recession, and was not sure if I could make it, but I persevered. It is now remarkable to me how things have turned out so well. I have criteria now for work:
- It must be work I enjoy and be good for the community and society.
- I will volunteer, but if I am working in developed countries, I must be paid appropriately for my skills and experience.
- I must work with a good team.
- It must be fun work.
What are some of your greatest accomplishments (whether personally or professionally)?
Looking back over the last 45 years, my greatest accomplishment was developing personal relationships that are genuine and last. I have won a number of awards over my career and they all give me great pleasure. But as the ego subsides somewhat with age (but not completely, I have to admit), I find myself fortunate for the lasting friendships I have made. Having set up the charity Operators Without Borders feels like a culmination of all that has gone before. Giving back is not just something nice to do, but has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I am lucky that my career has given me the financial capabilities to do this.
Do you have any personal or professional goals that you are currently trying to achieve?
Oh yes. I have many personal and professional goals. I still consider myself a work-in-progress and still enroll in many courses to both try and understand more and to become a better person. My biggest goal now is not with my professional company but with my charity. I want to see the charity grow so that we can deliver as many programs and bring as much help as is needed to water utilities in developing countries. This takes two forms. First is raising enough money for operations so that we can deploy more people in disasters, and second, gaining acceptance from the people who might need help. One of the difficult things has been getting people to ask for help and making them realize we have no ulterior motive.
What are some activities you participate in outside of work? What do you like to do for fun?
I am very active. I played netball internationally, played tennis at a B level and was a competitive runner in my age category, running everything from track and 5K races to marathons. I also love to read, attend rock and opera concerts, and watch movies.
Do you have any other advice or any other information you would like to share with young women trying to work within the WASH field?
I probably learned more from these activities than I did from work. Although sometimes time-consuming, this type of work gives you exposure to skills you might never learn at work and will help you expand your network.