Welcome to the first in a soon-to-be semi-regular feature of the WIE Blog: Interviews of Women in Environment. Starting us off is Heather Brunelle. Heather has over 18 years of experience working at Portland-based environmental consulting firms. This year, Heather started her own consulting firm, Brunelle Environmental Consulting LLC . She was also invited to participate in an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) technical work group which is considering revisions to the state’s ecological risk guidance.
Heather is a founding member of WIE. In fact, she helped draft the non-profit’s mission statement and served as WIE’s first president of the board (2010-2012). Since that time, Heather has stayed involved in WIE in various capacities, including treasurer of the board and as a mentor. Naturally, she was an easy choice for the WIE Blog’s first interviewee.
RM: What has been your experience with WIE?
HB: What I love about WIE is the diversity of professionals who are attending WIE events. It is a great mix of women at different stages of their careers, including experienced professionals and industry leaders, as well as students just entering the field. Everyone is welcome and everyone mixes in the conversation. WIE promotes a welcoming environment for women to meet and support each other. I just think that’s really exciting.
I have connected with some wonderful people during my time at WIE. I want to talk about Krista Koehl’s contributions to WIE. Krista was on the original steering committee and board and was involved with WIE before she passed away in 2013. She was somebody who was very confident and involved… she was inspiring to so many of us in the community.
(WIE’s professional development series was named in memoriam of Krista Koehl)
RM: You recently started your own business, what is that like?
HB: It’s been good. It’s nice to build on the support of the professional community here in Portland. Starting my firm has meant evaluating my personal strengths and weaknesses. Being an entrepreneur requires a person to be extroverted and to be able to promote your abilities. This is a struggle for me. I’ve always been a worker, not a seller. Now I have to be a seller and what I am selling is myself. I want to give a shout out to the audiobook Brag!: The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It by Peggy Klaus. I have been listening to it and it has helped me with this.
RM: Should women see each other as competition or comrades in the workplace?
HB: Especially if you are both working at the same work pace, it should never be competition. Actually, something that I’ve struggled with is I am [not competitive about] anything! Ha. I think it’s good to bring out each other’s strengths. [Knowing your own strengths] can be difficult. For me, and a lot of people, it’s easy to be in a place of self-judgment rather than self-promotion. I am better at giving positive feedback than tooting my own horn. Women need to help build each other up. We already live in a competitive environment, so work towards building a stronger team. As co-workers, you have a common purpose to achieve positive outcomes.
RM: Is there a glass ceiling for women working in the environmental field?
I don’t want to acknowledge there is a glass ceiling preventing advancement. In Portland, there are amazing examples of women who have had tremendous amounts of success. The glass ceiling may be more internal than external. The limitation might be the inner voice that is discrediting you. This inner voice may have been influenced by feedback received from others during past events, which can be a cultural influence. Friends, colleagues, and family might help you break your inner glass ceiling so that you grow and be successful.
We, as women, need to be better advocates for ourselves. We need to be assertive, have our voice heard, and stand up for our ethics. We as WIE members can help each other with this.
RM: What do you think is the most important lesson you have learned in your professional career?
HB: One thing critical to success is communication. Be able to articulate your ideas and express confidence in the information you are verbalizing. The one way to build this skill is through practice, like joining a Toastmasters group.
In communications, sometimes less is “more”. Don’t make it unnecessarily complicated, focus on communicating the information well and understanding the audience. Always be polite to the audience and focus on positive communication. When presenting, share the critical message first then add your supporting points after - don’t make [the audience] wait for the most important part.
I like to paint watercolors of nature. Once I was talking to a homeowner who had contamination on his property. I started describing a conceptual site model out loud to help him understand what was happening with the contamination. The [home owner] turned to me and said, “What you are describing, it’s like an artist painting the picture in my head!” That’s why I like volunteering teaching art. Making art helps change the way you see the world. Observational skills are heightened. These observational skills helped me to visualize and communicate my work in the environmental field.
RM: What do you do to break the ice at networking events?
HB: I like to hear about what others do. To break the ice I introduce myself and then start asking questions. [I ask] “Tell me about yourself?”, “What do you do?”, and “why are [you] excited to be at the event?” I especially try to look out for women who are by themselves, approach and engage them, then introduce them to people I know. This approach is in part because I am more of an introvert than extrovert, though also because it is really fun to get to know and support others at WIE events.
I met Heather earlier this year when I was assigned to her WIE mentoring group. One of the first things I noticed upon meeting Heather is her depth of knowledge in the environmental field. Within the first few minutes of sitting in the mentoring group and hearing about the depth of her experience, I was already thinking, “Wow, I hit the jackpot when I was assigned this mentor.” The second thing I noticed is how kind she is. A great example of this is that during this very interview, I mentioned to Heather I was in the process of moving. A few hours later I received an email from Heather offering to help me move. SHE. OFFERED. TO. HELP. ME. MOVE. (For readers who do not move as much as I do, please take a moment to remember how terrible it is to move. About 1/3 of the way into any move, I am overtaken with the urge to lay down flat on the floor (a la Mindy Kaling ) and watch the ceiling fan oscillate in a wide-eyed state of existential crisis. On top of that, having to help people move is literally the worst part about having friends. Yet, Heather was more than happy to offer up her Sunday to help me – it seriously does not get any nicer than that!). These two traits shine through in Heather’s answers to the interview questions.
Many thanks to Heather for taking the time to sit down with me and answer these questions! For WIE members, you now know one more friendly face in the crowd at WIE networking events. Please continue the conversation: If you have questions that you would like the next interviewee to be asked or have suggests for the next blog post please comment or email me at Rachel.M.McDermott@gmail.com