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Women in STEM: Meet EWEB's servant leader and maker of tough decisions

August 14, 2023 Molly Babcock, EWEB Communications

A white woman stands on top of a generation tower strapped into a safety harness overlooking trees

Karen Kelley, EWEB’s chief operations officer, describes herself as a “servant leader.” She offers support and mentoring to the four division managers, who cover water operations, electric operations, power generation and support services. She advances EWEB’s strategic goals by keeping staff supported and focused.

For over 100 years, EWEB has been a vital part of the Eugene-Springfield area. It serves over about 200,000 people across 236 square miles. Decisions at EWEB are influential, but they’re not always easy.

By the time a problem reaches Karen, it probably isn’t an easy one to solve. When other operational staff members can’t agree, the decision goes to her.  And at the end of the day, Karen is often the backstop for big decisions, taking responsibility for the tough and sometimes unpopular choices.

“When people can’t agree or just need extra support, I listen to and consider all of the different viewpoints and make the final call,” Kelley said. “Somebody has to do it. That’s one of the reasons my position is important.”

This is a big job, but Karen was well-prepared. She has over 20 years of experience in public health and drinking water in Oregon. After graduating from Oregon State University with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Health and Safety in 1995, she landed a job with Linn County’s environmental health department.

Karen remembers her first days at Linn County. Her mentor explained that years ago, she was required to wear a skirt in the field. They laughed about the incident, but it got Karen thinking about all the women who paved the way for her career.

While working for Linn County, Karen also earned her Environmental Health Specialist registration. She learned about many kinds of environmental issues and realized her passion was with water.

“Protecting drinking water is vital to public health. Bad water can affect so many people at once. Utility jobs are important for keeping people safe and healthy, and that’s what keeps me motivated,” Karen said.

After that, she worked for the Oregon Health Authority, where she managed drinking water regulation and source protection for half the state. After 15 years, Karen wanted to get closer to the actual work of a utility. She took a job as the water superintendent at the City of Albany in 2014, managing two water treatment plants, water distribution and a small power generation facility.

In 2019, Kelley landed a job as EWEB’s water operations manager and was promoted to chief operations officer in August 2021. Kelley’s favorite part about working at EWEB is the commitment of her teammates.

“The team takes so much pride in their work,” Kelley said. “You really see it during an emergency. I have a bird’s-eye view on the organization, and it’s inspiring to see everybody come together to solve a problem.”

Although Kelley has held high-ranking positions in her field for years, she wasn’t always treated the same as her male counterparts. Her advice to other women is not to take things personally, but also to never let things slide.

“If somebody is being unfair, I’ll call it out. I hear a lot of women saying they have to brush it under the rug and act like it's not a big deal. I don't believe that. I think calling out disrespect is the best way to pave the way for the next woman,” Kelley said.

Her story serves as a model for other women.

"Women must believe in themselves, so we can set an example of what's possible for women to achieve and continue to pave the way for those that follow," Kelley said.