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Recognizing Military Veterans Across Utilities: How a Military Background Prepared Rachel Taow to Bring Toughness, Diversity to the Nuclear Field - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

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I am a New York-based freelance journalist interested in energy markets. I write about energy policy, trading markets, and energy management topics. You can see more of my writing...

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To celebrate Veterans Day this upcoming Friday, November 11th, the Energy Central Community Team will be shining a light on the many outstanding utility professionals in our network who also spent time in the military.  This week, we'll be featuring interviews with these veterans sharing how they found their way into the industry. We will also highlight their unique perspectives of the industry and how they are influencing the utility space.  

All the interviews will be collected at this special Veterans Day 2022 topic tag.

To all the veterans in the Energy Central Community, we want to say thank you for your service and we wish you a Happy Veterans Day. 

Your access to Member Features is limited.

 

Army veteran Rachel Taow’s career traversal from linguist to analyst to managing processes for nuclear energy contracts might baffle casual observers.

But her entry to the energy industry is a homecoming of sorts. She has always been interested in the potential and prospects for nuclear energy, says Taow.

In fact, her undergraduate thesis at the Idaho State University was about Iran’s nuclear energy development. Subsequently, she worked on nuclear energy proposals while working as a grant specialist at her alma mater, Idaho State University.

Taow’s responsibilities in her current assignment as Process Modernization Lead at the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN), the Department of Energy’s lab at the Idaho National Laboratory encompass a broad range. Or, as she puts it, they are about working on both “macro” and “micro” levels.

The former entails working with industry stakeholders and the government to develop public-private partnerships for commercialization of nuclear energy. “Commercialization of nuclear energy requires contracting with government agencies and those can be difficult to navigate,” she explains. “I try to make the process easier.” On a more granular level, she assists companies and startups by simplifying the bureaucracy and legalese around the eligibility and requirements for such contracts. 

Her unique two-sided perspective is vital input for crafting regulation in an industry that is on the cusp of change. A recent win the recommendation and adoption of infrastructure legislation passed in 2021 that included a statutory extension of the protection period for data generated in private-public research projects from five years to thirty years.  “Sometimes IP rights are the greatest thing of value to small companies or startups operating in the industry,” she says.  

 

An Education in Mental Toughness

“[Good] grades don’t necessarily make you tough,” says Taow.

She credits her stint in the military for the persistence and mental toughness in her character. “It [the military] really helped me develop coping skills,” she says. Taow joined the military as a Farsi linguist in 1994. In total, she spent nine years as an army intelligence analyst working with various divisions, including the National Security Agency (NSA). She says she is ‘grateful’ to her military family for inculcating positive character traits in her.

Before her military education, Taow was a quitter meaning she would abandon a task when she grew tired or bored of it. “In the military, you can’t do that,” she says. Getting up at 4 a.m. to work on chores is not for everyone but you must still do it. “If you don’t like it, too bad for you.”

The military’s regimented life also taught her time management and the importance of completing tasks on time. In turn, she learned how to act, as opposed to reacting, to circumstances.

For all those habit improvements, however, Taow has still had a bumpy transition to the civilian world.

A military base is a controlled environment. Interactions are based on the order of hierarchy and the emphasis is on routine and process. The civilian world’s chaos was overwhelming for Taow initially.

For example, she had a rough time relocating on her own to San Antonio in Texas immediately after getting her undergraduate degree in Idaho. “You have to do everything on your own and don’t have the military family to rely on,” she says. The conveniences of a military life, which she took for granted, also made themselves apparent in other ways. “You have to buy your own medical insurance!” laughs Taow.

The biggest adjustment for veterans, however, is of finding an aim in life after the military’s daily prescriptions. “The military is very mission-oriented,” Taow points out. Finding a goal in life after a military stint can be difficult. She hasn’t done too badly, however, and has picked up several awards on the way.

 

Searching For Diversity in a ‘Sea of White Balding Men’ 

When Taow arrived for a training course at Fort Lewis, WA in 1998, a male platoon sergeant and training instructor told her that he didn’t think women belonged in the military. “And certainly not in HIS platoon, he told me, “she says. The military’s male chauvinistic attitude is not news and Taow experienced her fair share of it during her service.

Her civilian career has brought similar challenges, albeit in a different context.

At a recent industry conference for nuclear energy, Taow was one of the only women in the room. She was confronted by a “sea of white, balding men”, she says. Her initial reaction was one of shock. Her time working in male-dominated environments in the army helped her navigate the room.

Given her experiences, Taow has become a proponent of bringing in more female veterans into the clean energy and nuclear industry. She wants more women in the STEM industry. “I did not have the guidance or knowledge to pursue a STEM career but I’d like more female veterans to think about it,” she says. To that end, she intends to set up a scholarship for women to pursue in nuclear energy with her latest award for women in clean energy at her alma mater. 

Diversity brings new voices to the table and spurs research into new directions, she says. The experiences of female veterans are especially unique because their workplaces are dominated by men and, on occasion, they have to work in extenuating circumstances, she says.

For example, they must report for deployments after giving birth. They are also targets of sexism and sexual assault in the military. Their experiences dealing with and adjusting to such circumstances can help make workplace policies more inclusive.

Taow counsels female veterans to take full advantage of perks related to education, such as the GI Bill, offered by the military. “That was a huge benefit,” she says of the assistance offered by the military in paying her undergraduate tuition and living expenses. She also highlights the Yellow Ribbon Program that helps pay for graduate school tuition at out-of-state or foreign schools not covered by the post 9/11 GI Bill. “I was unaware of this benefit and missed my opportunity to take advantage of it,” she says.

 

Making A Career in Nuclear

Female veterans who take the plunge into nuclear have a lot to look forward to, says Taow. Nuclear energy fell out of favor in the United States after the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 and remained a polarizing issue for the next three decades.

But things have changed in the last decade.

“There’s been a renaissance in nuclear energy in the last few years,” says Taow and points out that nuclear energy produces less radiation as compared to any other major energy source. Many countries have bracketed nuclear into the green energy sector, meaning veterans aspiring to a career in the industry have bright prospects. In fact, a study earlier this year found that the nuclear industry will have the best paying jobs in the clean energy sector.

Taow is paving the way for that future by clearing misconceptions about the industry. For example, she says all the waste produced by nuclear energy plants in the United States can fit into a football field. “It [the waste] is very containable and it can be recycled i.e., put to work again in the facility,” she explains, adding that one of her jobs is to combat anxiety about the industry with facts.

Discussions
Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Nov 8, 2022

What a great story.  Some of my favorites from this interview: 

 

An Education in Mental Toughness

“[Good] grades don’t necessarily make you tough,” says Taow.

She credits her stint in the military for the persistence and mental toughness in her character.

 

Love the "If you don't like it, too bad for you." 

Before her military education, Taow was a quitter meaning she would abandon a task when she grew tired or bored of it. “In the military, you can’t do that,” she says. Getting up at 4 a.m. to work on chores is not for everyone but you must still do it. “If you don’t like it, too bad for you.”

 

And the title of this section gave me a giggle

Searching For Diversity in a ‘Sea of White Balding Men’ 

When Taow arrived for a training course at Fort Lewis, WA in 1998, a male platoon sergeant and training instructor told her that he didn’t think women belonged in the military. “

 

Thank you, Rachel, for your service! 

 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 8, 2022

When Taow arrived for a training course at Fort Lewis, WA in 1998, a male platoon sergeant and training instructor told her that he didn’t think women belonged in the military. “And certainly not in HIS platoon, he told me, “she says. The military’s male chauvinistic attitude is not news and Taow experienced her fair share of it during her service.

Wow, this is uncomfortable to hear, but inspiring that you pushed through and made it known this space was for you, too. And with the utility industry often tilting male as well, it seems to prepare you to break into this space regardless of the lack of diversity there at the time as well. Thanks for sharing!

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