She was living in Pennsylvania and decided to press pause on her education. She needed a job, and her dad knew someone who offered to help — the security guard at a local power plant in Pennsylvania.
She had the technical skills necessary for the job — she spent her childhood working on cars with her dad — and she passed the requisite tests.
“And the next thing I knew, I was an operator at a coal-burning power plant,” says Colleen, now the senior vice president and director of professional engineering services with HDR, an architecture and engineering firm headquartered in Omaha, Neb., and a speaker at HERWorld Energy Forum in Houston on March 8.
She was the plant’s first female employee, and throughout her career, she’s grown accustomed to being one of very few women in the industry. As a result, she’s become deeply committed to supporting mentorship among women in energy — first on the board of the Society of Women Engineers and now on the board of Lean In Energy, the nonprofit Pink Petro created in partnership with Sheryl Sandberg’s global Lean In organization to provide mentorship opportunities to women across the industry.
“This is an industry that has given me so much, and I’ve been lucky to have great male mentors. But I want women to have the choice of female mentors, too,” she says. “These are tough cookies. These are strong women, and they need those role models to look up to. You have to see her to be her.”
Colleen spent four years working for the plant. In that time, she also finished her engineering degree. That allowed her to move into an engineering position, designing power plants and building combined-cycle, gas-powered power plants with what is now Worley Parsons.
The job put her out in the field, solving problems on site. After a few years, she earned a site assignment as resident engineer building two coal-burning power plants in South Carolina.
“It was the most incredible experience of my life,” she recalls. “It taught me a lot about being an engineer, but it also taught me a lot about being a person.”
It also taught her to stand up — not to the men who comprised the majority of her colleagues, but to the handful of female pipe fitters and welders who had a habit of ridiculing her day after day.
“It was really cold one day, and I didn’t have my jacket with me. I found this pink hoodie. This was really vibrant pink. So I was walking around, and these women said, ‘Oh honey, this is a construction site. We don’t wear pink on a construction site.’ And I said, ‘Sweetie, I’m management. I can wear whatever I want.’ And that was the day I learned to speak up,” Colleen recalls.
The guys on her crew cheered for her — and started buying her pink everything to show their support.
“Now pink is kind of my signature color,” she says.
Once that project wrapped, Colleen went to work for Bechtel Power in Frederick, Md., managing the firm’s water treatment engineering group.
“I got to see the power industry around the world. I built projects in Russia and South America and India,” she recalls. “It was challenging but I learned a lot from it.”
More than five years ago now, Colleen left Bechtel and joined HDR, starting in the firm’s power sector and eventually landing a promotion to manage all the private sector technical resources and a team of 1,200.
“The power industry is in a time of dramatic change. We’re shutting down all of the coal-fired power plants. We stopped building nuclear power plants. We’re in the middle of a renewables renaissance,” Colleen says.
“Honestly, I think it’s a lot of the women helping push that change forward,” she adds. “Women want to do good. Inherently in our brains when we choose careers, we want to do something that we can be proud of, that can improve the world in some way.”