Kelly Becker: 'To get more women into technical degrees, you start early'
Kelly Becker, the woman in charge of Schneider Electric Ireland, tells Gabrielle Monaghan about its ambitions for growth and what she's learnt from working in a male-dominated field
In the late 1990s, a fresh-faced Kelly Becker moved from her parents' home in New Orleans to Fort Worth to study advertising and public relations at Texas Christian University, where she joined the Pi Beta Phi sorority to make friends.
Tuition and fees were - and are - steep at TCU. Kelly's education was paid for by a mix of a scholarship, a part-time job, help from her parents and student loans.
By the time she graduated, her student loans were so high that Kelly embarked on a quest to find the highest-paid job she could get, regardless of whether it was in her field of study.
The sales job Kelly clinched, at building management systems company TAC, became the first step in a career that would lead the non-engineer to become the first woman to run the Irish division of Schneider Electric, one of the world's biggest suppliers of power equipment and automation services.
TAC was acquired by the French conglomerate in 2003, when Kelly was learning the ropes of selling the firm's energy conservation projects to school districts and universities in the American south.
The Belfast office of Schneider has 17 employees out of a total of 382 staff on the island.
Across the UK and Ireland, it has nine manufacturing facilities and two distribution centres, and a total of 2,261 points of sale.
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Kelly says: "As a naïve 22-year-old, I knew I was taking a sales job but I wasn't entirely sure what I'd be selling.
"But I began to understand what a chiller is, what a cooler is, what an air-conditioning unit is, what a boiler is, what efficient lighting is. And Schneider had a strong eight-month development programme I took part in.
"As I got to meet customers, I relied really heavily on the engineers who designed the projects. When you're starting your career and 95% of your customers are male, it is what it is. I was never afraid to ask for help and never afraid to be humble and say, 'I don't know that, but I would like some help in learning that'.
"In my entire career, I have never been in a room where I was the only woman and where I asked for help and the men didn't help me."
Now she is among the women who make up 30% of the top executive roles worldwide, reporting directly to Schneider Electric's CEO Jean-Pascal Tricoire.
Before taking up the role of country president of Schneider Electric Ireland in April, Becker spent 10 years in Chicago, having worked her way up to vice-president of the industrial giant's power solutions division in the US.
There, 63% of her leadership team were women, and Kelly believes that diversity in gender, race and experience gave her team the type of fresh perspectives that helped drive growth.
She is ambitious for diversity and expansion generating similar growth in Ireland, a country she only stepped foot in for the first time last January.
During a dark, wet reconnaissance mission to find a home within commuting distance of Schneider Electric Ireland's headquarters in Maynooth, Co Kildare, the American was "shocked at how expensive it is to live here and how expensive it is to get quality housing".
She has been tasked with advancing the Fortune Global 500 company's business in Ireland, alongside the senior management team of Schneider Electric UK & Ireland, a group that turned over €2bn in the 2018 financial year with a total of 4,300 employees in the UK and Ireland.
Schneider Electric first entered the Irish market in 1977, selling electrical control and switchgear products.
After Digital shut its Galway plant in 1994, electronics company American Power Conversion (APC) set up its European headquarters at the former factory, initially manufacturing high volumes of electronic products.
In 2007, Schneider Electric acquired APC and set up a critical power and cooling services business unit.
Schneider Electric has undergone a series of transformations since it was founded in 19th century France as an iron and steel company.
It divested from steel and shipbuilding during the 1980s and 1990s, and set out on an acquisition spree of makers of electrical circuit breakers, switchgear and transformers, so it could concentrate on the electric power industry.
In 2010, the company began refocusing on software, critical power and smart grid applications through strategic acquisitions, and has been shifting toward the automation of energy and buildings management.
The emergence of the digital economy created opportunities for Internet of Things-enabled platforms so, in 2016, Schneider Electric introduced an IoT-enabled version of its EcoStruxure architecture and platform for data centres, industry, buildings and infrastructure.
Of the €25.7bn Schneider Electric generated in revenue in 2018, 76% came from energy management.
The company now employs around 137,000 people in 100 countries.
In her new role, Kelly is stepping up the delivery of EcoStruxure products and software to the Irish market, targeting data centres, healthcare operations, smart homes, offices and other areas.
"Anywhere you see a building, Schneider has a presence," she says. "With hospitals, we don't just provide the electrical infrastructure that keeps them up and running, but our secure power group, APC in Galway, delivers the products for the kind of back-up power you need for critical systems.
"We also manufacture the software and products that run a hospital's air-conditioning systems and the access control systems.
"When it comes to energy efficiency and energy management, Schneider makes products that help organisations manage and reduce their energy footprint, whether it's a school, a hospital or other buildings."
However, a "huge" part of Schneider Electric's business is now data centres, as Ireland continues to position itself as a concentrated hotspot for sites that multinational tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook use for the remote storage, processing and distribution of large amounts of information.
There are 54 data centres in Ireland, with the climate often offering free cooling for servers, thereby negating the need for air-conditioning to stop them overheating, which keeps electricity bills in check.
Kelly says the presence of a "substantial number of data centres" in Ireland is "influencing the building that's going on in other parts of Europe".
"Ireland is the hub of the European headquarters of large technology companies, so a lot of the buying decisions are made in Ireland and they influence the rest of Europe," she says.
But data centres are not without their detractors, with climate activists and engineers claiming they are increasing Irish demand for electricity powered by fossil fuels, at a time when the planet urgently needs to slash carbon emissions.
Indeed, data centres use between 3% and 4% of the world's power, according to a report by Savills.
"The companies either owning or running data centres are all very aware of the need to drive energy efficiencies into what they are doing," says Kelly, pointing to Amazon as an example.
Not only do Schneider Electric's products and services help those operators reduce their energy use, but the French company's CEO vowed in September to make the group carbon-neutral by 2025, five years ahead of schedule.
However, Ireland needs to play its part by decarbonising its electricity generation, Kelly says.
"We have a presence in wind in Schneider globally and we think that it is one of the renewable paths that would be interesting for Ireland, both onshore and offshore," she says.
"One of the questions I've been asking since I came here eight months ago is, 'there's such tremendous growth in Ireland and it's such a fun and exciting place to be right now, but what does the energy situation look like for the long run?' It's clearly got to be accelerated.
"There is a tremendous opportunity for Ireland to quite quickly take a leadership position to move forward because so many of the companies operating here see the importance of it. Schneider supplies the electrical equipment that can help drive some of the wind turbine components.
"As it becomes more feasible in Ireland, then I would expect we would engage in the wind market as a supplier."
In the meantime, Kelly is keen that the next generation of female leaders at engineering companies won't be the only women in the room; she mentors female engineering and computing students at TU Dublin.
"To drive more women into technical degrees, you really have to start when they are five," Kelly says.
"I recently heard my sister tell my five-year-old niece in the car that 'Kelly works with a lot of men'. My niece said, 'but women can do anything'!
"She clearly hears that all the time, at school and from my sister. That wasn't even a conversation when I was five."