Our blogs honoring some of the notable women at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for Women’s History Month shift downstate this week with Vanessa Ulmer, senior project manager of the Policy Development team in NYSERDA’s New York City office.
Vanessa began her policy analysis and advocacy career in Washington, D.C. where she worked at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think-tank. She majored in policy analysis and management at Cornell University, and then received her Master’s Degree in public affairs from Princeton University.
Feeling that she would have more impact on a state and local policy level, she shifted her career.
What attracted you to the career you have now?
I find the public policy field incredibly satisfying because it requires honing your communication and analytical skills – thinking about the political, economic, behavioral and normative aspects of policy problems – while working to do some good for society. Environmental issues are particularly important to me. I recognize that the lifestyle and conveniences that I enjoy have significant environmental and climate impacts, which I’d like to help address. I’m proud to work at NYSERDA because I believe in our work to catalyze clean and efficient energy solutions, and I believe in our core values of objectivity, public service, partnership, and innovation.
What has been your greatest career accomplishment to date?
Two years after Hurricane Katrina, I facilitated a Food Policy Advisory Committee in New Orleans that successfully advocated for recovery funds to be used to establish a grant and loan facility to provide financing to grocery stores and other fresh food retail outlets that open or expand in neighborhoods where there’s limited access to healthy food. I also assisted the New Orleans recovery office to competitively select a Community Development Financial Institution that brought matching funds and the capacity necessary to implement this financing program, which is serving New Orleans today. I’m hesitant to claim this as “my” accomplishment since many people worked together to make it happen – which is one of the reasons the experience was so rewarding.
What kind of leader do you want to be?
When the leader is the busiest person in the room and yet is able to be fully present to help their team or colleague engage with whatever issue is at hand – that’s the leader who I want to become.
What is the biggest challenge facing women in your field, and how can they rise above it?
In the public policy field, we need more women to run for public office. Survey research suggests that for a variety of reasons, women are substantially less likely than men to report the ambition to seek elected office. One factor is that women are less likely than men to self-assess themselves as “qualified” to run for office, even when they have comparable professional experience and accomplishments. Even though very few of us are ever going to run for office, I offer this observation because in professional life more broadly, women often hold back from seeking a “stretch” assignment or a promotion because we question whether we are qualified. Let’s seek those challenges and develop our potential.
What is one piece of advice you’d give a young woman looking to get in to a similar profession?
I find it’s helpful to periodically review job postings that you are not yet qualified for; pay attention to the requested skills and experience and think about how you can develop these capabilities in your current position, or through activities outside of work. This may be a helpful way to encourage yourself to identify and speak up for interesting assignments; of course, also work hard to meet or exceed expectations for your core responsibilities.
March is also nutrition month and caffeine awareness month. What is one food or drink that gives you that boost to get through the day?
I can’t miss breakfast – typically oatmeal with nuts and raisins.