Mentorship Makes the Difference

Growing up on a small farming town in New Zealand with a passion for building things, I knew I wanted to become an engineer. This interest was encouraged by my high school physics teacher Mr. Rex Millar. But it wasn’t until I selected modeling power system networks at University of Canterbury, Christchurch for my Ph.D. studies I that I was introduced to the IEEE Power and Energy Society (PES). Thanks to this connection, the Power Apparatus and Systems journal and the Power Industry Computer Application (PICA) Conference Proceedings became my lifeline to the rest of the power engineering world. I wrote to the authors of PES journals, which brought me to the University of Saskatchewan on a post-doctoral fellowship.

My early mentors shaped my future in ways I couldn’t have predicted and IEEE has been my family away from New Zealand ever since. In retrospect, I’m very grateful for those mentors who helped me along the way. As I pursued my Ph.D., I was fortunate to work with Dr. John Undrill another fellow “Kiwi” and graduate of University of Canterbury. During your Ph.D. it can feel as though you are wandering in the wilderness without a compass, and the competitive nature of Ph.D. programs only exacerbates the stress. I was fortunate to have such a strong mentor at this formative stage in my life and career – and as a result, settled on a practical set of computer network analysis problems for completing my thesis. Dr. Undrill subsequently pioneered some of the major power grid simulation programs used by the industry today – and had it not been for this relationship, I may very well have missed an entry point into the electric power engineering field.

Ever since, mentorship has been a constant presence throughout my career.  I’ve been on both sides of the ledger – as a mentee and a mentor – but I never stay on one side for very long. Through many transitions, from student to professional, from entrepreneur to volunteer, I’ve realized that mentorship is cyclical and the roles are fluid. By committing to share knowledge with others, and accepting wisdom in return, mentor relationships can flourish in unexpected places.

While I was confident as a newly-graduated Ph.D., I knew that I still had much to learn from other mentors. I continued to seek out luminaries in the field, which led to a meeting with Dr. Neal Stanton and Mr. Norris Peterson at the 1973 PICA Conference in Minneapolis. Neal offered me a position with Systems Control in Palo Alto the next year.

These mentors shaped me beyond academics. They taught me aspects of their business, and I learned how to apply core values – hard work, honesty and integrity – to a business setting. This relationship flourished, and in 1979 we launched Energy Systems Computer Applications (ESCA). This grew into the world’s largest supplier of Energy Management and Market Management Systems and was recently acquired by General Electric Corporation.

In 1990 I launched Incremental Systems Corporation (IncSys). IncSys and PowerData have focused on training power system operators world-wide with a highly realistic power system simulator. This has led to training assignments in Iraq, Jordan, Ireland, Brazil and Kenya as well as throughout North America. Our Power4Vets program with the IncSys Academy has recruited, trained and placed over 200 US Military Veterans as power system operators throughout North America. The IncSys Academy uses an on-line Digital Virtual Instructor and has been one of the most satisfying outcomes of our work. We are now applying the Digital Virtual Instructor to capture and transfer knowledge in Smart Villages.

Despite this successful foray into the business world, I continued to value my mentors as much as ever – and actively sought out more. PES helped me connect with my most recent and impactful mentor Ray Larsen, Co-founder and Chair of IEEE Smart Village.

By now, it’s clear that I’ve benefitted from good mentors on a professional level. But I’ve been careful not to compartmentalize opportunities to learn. My personal experiences have presented many lessons which I’ve applied to my work as well. My son’s experiences in training as a helicopter pilot first in the US Marine Corps and now the U.S. Coast Guard taught me much about leadership and serving others first. I admire their camaraderie and dedication, and I’ve worked to instill this ethos within IEEE Smart Village.

At its core, IEEE Smart Village works to foster mentorship-based relationships all around the world. By drawing on the IEEE extended family, we’re bringing together specialists from all walks of life, each contributing their own experiences and best practices. As a result of this teamwork, all involved are better off. Most importantly, the circle of mentorship extends to our partners in the field, who reciprocate with even greater insights as we share with them. Working across oceans and cultures, the grassroots models our partners use to cultivate teamwork, work efficiently, and utilize relationships with people of excellence, in local government, academia, and industry to transform lives in their communities reveals many lessons for the future.

As a mentor myself, I take care to convey a few core principles: the importance of a clear mission, described with passion that inspires others to help make it a reality. I am forever learning to be a good listener, creatively solve problems, manage conflicts, and balance my weaknesses with others’ strengths. I’ve also learned that fostering fruitful mentor relationships across nations and cultures — as IEEE Smart Village’s work does every day — takes patience. These skills will serve everyone in a mentoring role well, no matter the context.

Africa's next generation of Smart Village Entrepreneurs - Power Africa 2016 Livingston, Zambia

Africa’s next generation of Smart Village Entrepreneurs – Power Africa 2016 Livingston, Zambia

The 2016 PowerAfrica Conference in Livingston Zambia where we engaged 28 potential Smart Village Entrepreneurs from 18 different African Countries is an example of how IEEE can help individuals reach out and connect with each other.

This is my final newsletter as VP of New Initiatives for the Power and Energy Society. I want to thank Wanda Reder for introducing me to the IEEE Global Humanitarian Challenge in 2009. This led to an auspicious meeting with Ray Larsen former President of NPSS and the founding of IEEE Community Solutions Initiative which is now IEEE Smart Village. The support that IEEE Smart Village has had from past and present NPSS and PES Presidents, members of the NPSS and PES Governing Boards and IEEE Foundation staff has been outstanding. Across IEEE, the Smart Village team is on track toward our goal of helping a billion people live by the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The true heroes and mentors of IEEE Smart Village are our entrepreneurs working in the field. Thank you to Michelle Lacourciere (Haiti), Mou Riiny (South Sudan), Ifeanyi Orajaka (Nigeria), Martin Niboh (Cameroon), Jude Number (Cameroon), Likonge Makai (Zambia) and Paras Loomba (Ladakh India) who have led the way and are now mentoring our next generation of Smart Village Entrepreneurs.  I am especially grateful to my wife and co-business owner Stella Podmore and all the employees at IncSys and PowerData for their support along the way.

Mentorship only flourishes when there are positive motivations for getting involved. At its core, our work is humanitarian – and the way we’re helping people is by making real connections. We’re not tourists or charity workers; rather, we’re laying the groundwork for enduring relationships that enable transformational change. I’ve come a long way from the farming town in New Zealand, and this journey has been a success because of the mentors I’ve encountered along the way. Ultimately, these connections make all the difference.

This article first appeared in the November 2016 IEEE PES Newsletter.