Episode 133: Susan Uthayakumar on Challenging the Status Quo to Forge Your Own Career Path
In this SWE Diverse episode, Heather Doty, FY21 president of SWE, speaks with Susan Uthayakumar, president of the sustainability business division at Schneider Electric. Learn about Susan’s career driving sustainability, efficiency and resiliency in the electronics industry and how, as a woman in leadership, she has intentionally challenged the status quo to forge her own career path.
Susan Uthayakumar is the President of the Sustainability Business Division at Schneider Electric. In this capacity she is responsible for managing the Global Energy Sustainability Services as well as the sustainability consulting organization to deliver climate mitigation action to enterprise customers. Throughout her 16 year tenure with the company, Susan has been instrumental in transforming Schneider Electric to a digital power and automation technology company driving sustainability, efficiency and resiliency. Starting in mergers and acquisitions for North America, Susan went on to lead finance for North America, the low voltage and channel business for Canada and national sales for Canada and was appointed the Canada Country President in 2018. Prior to joining Schneider, Susan led strategy and M&A projects globally with McCain Foods Limited, an international leader in the frozen food industry employing over 20,000 people and operating 57 production facilities in six continents with annual sales of $6 billion. Susan also held various leadership positions with Deloitte, a global advisory firm.
Susan has extensive board experience with both for-profit and industry boards, where she is dedicated to driving reduction in carbon emissions using technological solutions, enhancing electrical grid innovation, safety and operational efficiency. Susan is passionate about developing future business leaders and is a champion of weaving diversity and inclusion (D&I) into the Schneider Electric company fabric through her active membership on the company’s D&I board. Susan is a strong advocate for the UN Women Empowerment Principles and is working to increase diversity and inclusion in the workplace and to increase labor participation among under-represented populations. Susan believes in using her work and her platform to drive impact both in business and in her community, championing innovation, advocating for women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and building the leaders of tomorrow.
Susan has an Executive MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University with a focus on international business practices. In addition, she holds a Master of Accounting (MAcc) and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Waterloo. Susan has also completed the Women’s Senior Leadership Program and Executive Scholar Certification from the Kellogg School of Management and holds the Chartered Accountant (CA) and Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designations.
Heather Doty: Hi, I’m Heather Doty, FY21 president of the Society of Women Engineers. Welcome to SWE’s Diverse podcast series. Please remember to add this podcast to your iTunes, and like or follow us on social media. Visit swe.org for more details. I’m joined today by Susan Uthayakumar, president of the Sustainability Business Division at Schneider Electric. In this capacity, she is responsible for managing the global energy sustainability services, as well as the sustainability consulting organization to deliver climate mitigation action to enterprise customers.
Heather Doty: Throughout her 16 year tenure with the company, Susan has been instrumental in transforming Schneider Electric to a digital power and automation technology company, driving sustainability, efficiency, and resiliency. As a woman in leadership, Susan has intentionally stayed on the front lines of business and has challenged the status quo to forge her own career path by turning challenges into opportunities for growth. Susan believes in using her work and her platform to drive impact both in business and in her community, championing innovation advocating for women in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, and building the leaders of tomorrow. Thanks for joining us, Susan.
Susan Uthayakumar: Well, it’s great to be here, and thank you for having me on the podcast, Heather.
Heather Doty: Absolutely. I’m excited to learn more about you. Can you start by telling us a little about Schneider Electric and your role as the president of the Sustainability Business Division?
Susan Uthayakumar: Sure. So Schneider Electric is a global energy management and automation company. We’ve existed for over 100 years, and our focus is on making sure that we can [inaudible 00:02:35] efficiency to operations as well as sustainability to our clients. We are found in over 160 countries, and we have over 160,000 employees worldwide. And, Heather, we refer to ourselves as the most local of global companies. So we really want to ensure that as we operate in the different countries, we really embrace the local approach to businesses, governments, et cetera, in that we make a difference to our clients and our customers.
Heather Doty: That sounds fantastic. So it’s great to learn about your company there, but can you walk us through your academic and professional accomplishments? Where did you go to school, and how did your studies influence your career path?
Susan Uthayakumar: Sure. So I had a start in my academic in the University of Waterloo, which is based in Canada, and it’s a school that’s really known for engineering, architecture, finance, and I did my undergraduate at Waterloo. And after I did my undergraduate, I went straight into a master’s of finance program, and what this enabled me to have is a really good understanding of liberal arts, a very good understanding of finance, and I’m just naturally good with numbers. And from there, what I did, Heather, is a joined Deloitte and Touche, at that time, in consulting. And I also got my accounting designation, and with that qualifications I started to work on a lot of mergers and acquisitions in the country of Canada. And I really loved it, it’s a very exciting space. And once I did this for about six years, I was asked by a client of mine, McCain Foods, to come and join their corporate development team.
Susan Uthayakumar: So I joined them, and I did some very, very interesting projects in emerging markets like Russia, India, Turkey, so wherever McDonald’s was trying to set up operations, because McCain Foods, which is their manufacturer of french fries, we will make sure that they had the supply that they needed. Again, I really enjoyed that work because it gave me the opportunity to work in different countries, understanding how would you set up operations either through a [inaudible 00:04:57] site or through acquisition. And from there, I decided that I also wanted to work in the largest market globally, and I decided to immigrate myself to the US. There I joined a company called Crowe Capital, which is a boutique M&A firm. Again, I loved the deals that I did, and Schneider Electric at the time had engaged Crowe Capital for diligence work.
Susan Uthayakumar: So I got to know Schneider Electric, and I really liked what I saw in the company. It’s very acquisitive, I was really focused on driving acquisition. So that’s my start into Schneider electric. So that’s the first phase I would say of my career, and then once I joined Schneider, what I realized is that there’s a world outside of mergers and acquisition. So I liked the [inaudible 00:05:49] of the company. I wanted to build additional skillset more on the core of the business, which is on engineering technology. And I did many different positions in Schneider in the US and in Canada.
Susan Uthayakumar: And just previous to stepping into the Sustainability Business Division leadership globally, I was the CEO for Schneider in Canada. And what I have found, Heather, if I can share something based on these experiences, is that the more different positions that I did, the better my knowledge base became, and the better I became at being able to manage the challenges that you would face in a day-to-day basis in business.
Heather Doty: Wow, that’s fantastic. It’s great to hear a little bit about how you got to where you are. So what are your professional goals as a sustainability leader? What changes would you like to see happen over the course of your time in your current position with Schneider Electric?
Susan Uthayakumar: Well, first of all, having a healthy planet and making sure that there’s a sustainable future for the future generations is very important to me personally. So I’m vested in wanting to make a difference as a result of that. And I also believe that the climate change that we face, and the challenge that we face, is a global issue. So it’s not something that one company, one country can solve on its own. So my intention in this role is one to help our clients and customers decarbonize, and to be their digital partner. Because it’s a complex topic, and it’s not something that you can necessarily figure out efficiently on your own.
Susan Uthayakumar: And with the ability that we have within Schneider on energy management, which really leads to energy optimization, and the automation side of our business, which allows us to do and bring in process optimization, we can really help our client decarbonize. On the second element for me is, I mentioned that the climate challenge that we face is a global challenge, I really want to partner with government in policymaking, with the UN for example, in ensuring that we create the awareness on what we need to do in, and how do we make sure that the global warming is limited to [inaudible 00:08:15] degrees that ensures a sustainable planet? So I guess, Heather, I would say we have a lot to do, and I feel that I have a lot to do in this position.
Heather Doty: Absolutely. Well, maybe we can shift gears a little bit from the specifics of your position. I know in your bio we mentioned that you’re an advocate for women in STEM. So I’m curious to hear your perspective on how others in the industry can create more diverse, inclusive environments within their companies and teams.
Susan Uthayakumar: So one of the principle that I adhere to, and one of the core principles of Schneider, is that we are a diverse and inclusive company. And saying this is easy, but really driving this where everyone that’s within the company has a right to voice their opinion, and those opinions are heard and accounted for, is something that you have to drive intentionally. So what we’re doing within our own companies, we have this philosophy of 50, 40, 30. And what that is is that in order to ensure that we have gender balance, in order to ensure that we have the right representation of different ethnicity and things that make an organization diverse, we have this program where by 50% of our hires will have to look at what are the diversity that we want to bring into our organization. And then 40% of those hires need to be in the frontline, meaning that customer facing roles should also show that diversity.
Susan Uthayakumar: And then the last part is the 30%, which is to ensure that the 1000 leaders of Schneider, the top leaders of Schneider, also represent that diversity. So this is what we do [inaudible 00:10:03] of the company. And then personally, I feel that, again, making sure diversity and inclusiveness is embraced is something that everyone has to solve for. So I feel that I can add a lot of value by being an advocate externally, encouraging our peer companies in the industry to embrace it, and then also speak to how we have done it, because it hasn’t been an easy journey. There are a number of things that we had to drive purposefully, whether it’s an inclusive family policy, whether it’s what does the workforce of the future look like? And I feel that by sharing this, we can enable better adoption by others in the industry and in our ecosystem.
Heather Doty: Absolutely. Great advice there. So for you personally, what sorts of obstacles have you faced, if any, as a woman in an engineering organization, and how did you overcome them?
Susan Uthayakumar: It’s a great question, Heather. So I have to tell you, first of all, I am not an engineer who has been in an engineering and technical company for the last 16 years. And the first obstacle, which is an obstacle I would say is a personal obstacle, so anything in life is something that could be learned, and anything in life I feel is if you approach it with a common sense of what that principle is, is figurable. So the first obstacle I had to overcome is for myself saying, “Okay, you have the ability to lead an engineering or a technical organization.” So I learned very quickly to dive in deep. If it’s something that I didn’t understand, I learned to ask the question, so that I can understand the issue, I understand the solution. And I also learned that over time knowledge is built, so that was the first thing.
Susan Uthayakumar: The second thing that I would highlight, perhaps, Heather, is that, as you may anticipate, this is a field that where we don’t have equal representation. So you have to learn to ensure that you have a spot at the table, meaning that if you come across behavior where you’re not included, and there are times when my voice wasn’t being heard, you have to learn to say, “Well, that’s a challenge that I have to solve myself.” What another person does is one thing, how you react to it, and how you allow it to continue is it’s your own opportunity. And I’ve kind of embraced it to say that, “No one has the right to really determine what my contribution is going to be, and it’s something that I’m going to determine for myself.”
Heather Doty: Absolutely. Well, shifting gears again from the work-life to maybe other things, it can be difficult as a working woman, especially one in leadership, to find a healthy work-life balance or integration. So what do you personally do to unwind, to disconnect from your professional responsibilities?
Susan Uthayakumar: Okay. So I love traveling, and I’m a firm believer that in order to be innovative in your workplace, and in order to be productive, you actually have to step back and allow yourself some time to think and experience other things. So I’ve always been drawn to traveling, and I pretty much traveled across the world, I would say. That’s a huge interest of mine. The other thing that it’s enabled me to do is I run a global organization, I’ve spoken to diversity, it’s allowed me to experience it myself.
Susan Uthayakumar: Then there are other things that I would highlight, I would say that somebody gave me advice once that they said to me, “In order to ensure that you’re successful, you have to kind of look at four elements of your life. The first one is, ‘What are you doing every day to learn?’ Because when you learn, you’re inspired, you are bettering yourself.” So I make sure that, of course you can do this every day, but as I’m progressing in my career throughout the year, I give myself opportunities to learn, either by doing something differently, by exposing myself to people that have better or different knowledge base than I do. So it’s a priority for me.
Susan Uthayakumar: The second thing is inspiration, and inspiration could be anything that inspires you. It could be a movie, it could be reading, it could be talking to someone that’s inspirational. So I make sure that I give myself an opportunity to come across things that do inspire me. Music inspires me, traveling inspires me, talking to knowledgeable people inspires me, so I do that. The third element for me is, of course, as you are progressing in your career, and as you’re taking larger leadership position, you always have challenges. And you have to be able to speak to those challenges with a support structure that you trust and that supports you. So I’m very lucky to have family and friends that are there for me. And that really helps me manage what I would say is a pretty tough workload.
Susan Uthayakumar: And the last thing that I would say is that you have to make sure you’re healthy and you’re balanced in terms of how you’re taking care of yourself, your wellbeing. And I make sure that I build some time for walks or things where I kind of decompress, and I have a chance to play through things in my mind, and just kind of focus on things that are important to me. So I know that was a very long answer, Heather, but these are the four elements that I have focused on for the better part of the last 15 years.
Heather Doty: Well, that’s fantastic. And I love that you were sharing that it was kind of advice that was given to you, which kind of leads into the next question I was going to ask you is, if you could give any one piece of advice to current engineers who are looking at maybe moving up the leadership ranks, what would that be?
Susan Uthayakumar: Yeah. So the first thing I would say is that I think engineering is a great field. It’s a field where you’re solving problems, and you’re solving problems using technology, and you’re solving problems using innovation. So one, I think stepping back and recognizing what it is that you can… How you can contribute in this discipline is really important. The second thing I would say is representation is important. So my ask of students, women that are studying to be engineers, please keep pushing the envelope, because it’s important for the next generation to see you leading in this space.
Susan Uthayakumar: And if I could share one more thing, I think a lot of times engineers by nature, they are focused on solving a technical problem. If you can couple that with the ability to communicate, and allow others that are not technical to understand what it is that you’re doing, you could be very successful, and you can really make an impact. So focus on your communication skills and your change management skills.
Heather Doty: Absolutely. Those have been super critical in my own career, so I completely agree with that. So after folks have listened to you, I’m sure that there are some people who might be interested in a career at Schneider Electric. How can they get in touch if that’s the case?
Susan Uthayakumar: Perfect. So I mentioned earlier that we’re in 160 countries. So if you just Google “Schneider Electric,” you will come across the HR organization and whom contact in your country. So there’s a very easy way of getting connected to us. We have positions as interns, as fresh out graduates, and of course also as experienced talent that we’re looking for, and we’re always looking for talent. The other thing that I would like to mention is that we have an initiative that we call Go Green in the City, it’s a global competition that we run, and anyone that’s going to a university in any country can participate.
Susan Uthayakumar: And the intent of this initiative is for two people from a country in any of the universities to come together and to propose an idea that would better society, that would bring action towards climate change, that would bring in efficiency, solve hunger, whatever it may be, that’s innovative. And if you participate to this, then there’s, first of all, a national competition, then global competition. And we bring the top 10 candidates together. We provide a lot of coaching, and we also bring in the winners into our organization wherever they want to join us in the world. So it’s a great opportunity to contribute to society. It’s a great opportunity to bring the young generation into solving problems that we have, that will enable a sustainable future. And it’s a great opportunity to get to know Schneider.
Heather Doty: That sounds fantastic. Susan, thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today. I’m sure that lots of folks appreciated your words of wisdom, the advice you’ve both received and what you had to give. And probably some people are really interested in that program you just told us about.
Susan Uthayakumar: Great. Very happy to be here, Heather, and it was a pleasure to speak with you.
Heather Doty: Likewise. I’m Heather Doty for all of us at SWE, thanks for listening.
Check out more SWE Diverse podcasts:
- APAHM 2021 – Past SWE President Gloria Montano on Assimilation and Self-Acceptance
- Smita Tharoor on Addressing Unconscious Bias in Our Professional and Personal Lives
- Åsa Cervone on Embracing Curiosity to Encourage Inclusion
- Carla Boragno on Taking Risks in Order to Grow
- Dr. Sue Black on Defying the Odds to Succeed in Tech
- Susan Ferguson on Helping Solve Global Gender Issues