Energy Commissioner Sherina Maye Edwards: A Refreshing Color of Change

When most of us think about the energy field, we often identify it with a “Go Green” or “Clean Air” initiative that triggers the shame of not recycling like we should.
But the energy and environmental industry goes far beyond just pulling out the little blue container to separate our paper from plastic. It is a multi-billion dollar industry that has allowed us all on this planet to function and prosper through the necessities of clean water, clean air, electrical and gas from our regional utility providers.

Commissioner Sherina Maye Edwards
Commissioner Sherina Maye Edwards

The Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) plays a major role in keeping utility companies in line with key rules and regulations. The latest have ranged from the recent $66.7 million consumer rate decrease order from ComEd’s Formula Rate Update to investigating the latest acquisition of People’s Gas by WEC on the company’s reported $8 billion gas main line costs in Chicago.
The five-person commission is appointed by the governor and often works closely with energy companies in complying with key policies, legislation and bringing awareness to the various opportunities of career choices within the industry. In February 2013, Sherina Maye Edwards was appointed by Governor Pat Quinn to become one of the five members of the Illinois Commerce Commission and serve a five-year term as the newest commissioner. A corporate attorney, Edwards was the youngest commissioner to be appointed and at 29, had never served in government or worked in the energy field.
In two years of her term, the young attorney has contributed to bringing light to the lack of the diversity within the energy and utilities industry. She has established the Women’s Energy Summit and its offspring, the Chicago Chapter of the Women’s Energy Network, along with colleague and former legal policy advisor Danisha Hall.
Just recently in November, a group of utility executives, contractors and policy makers convened a seminar to discuss the changes and opportunities for minority owners at the Illinois Utility Business Diversity Council Think Tank.
“We have some legislation here that requires the utilities to submit numbers on their diversity spending, diversity procurement and their goals, and whether or not they’ve met those goals,” Edwards says. “Each year, the ICC has a hearing where all of the CEOs give updates on supplier diversity and diversity initiatives within their companies.
“We ask questions about the percentage of African-American and Hispanic employees hired. It’s Chicago, so there are no excuses for a lack of diversity. Questioning the utilities about their diversity practices is something that hasn’t been done before in this format.”
From Across The Pond
Born in Manchester, England, Edwards’ family relocated to Long Island, New York when she was younger due to her father accepting a job offer. Growing up, her love was dance, and she religiously practiced daily and on the weekends under the guidance of her teacher.
“The executive director of my dance center was fabulous. She was actually an AKA from Dartmouth,” Edwards says. “She taught so much, not just about the art of dance, but about being a Black woman and how to be successful. I learned a lot from her. Her name was Vanessa Baird-Streeter.
“There have been a lot of mentors in between, especially at Spelman.” Edwards attended Spelman College, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology, cum lade, and her law degree from Howard University School of Law. Soon after, she received an offer from the prestigious international law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.
“It was an offer I could not turn down,” Edwards said. “I moved here and practiced law for about five years. One day, I was in my office and got a phone call from the governor’s chief of staff. He said there’s a position open and the governor thought I would be a good fit. At that time, I wasn’t familiar with the position and didn’t have a desire to work for the government,” Edwards says.
She was hesitant because she wanted to stay at the firm and continue toward her goal of becoming a partner and practicing finance litigation. But after some deep thought and talking with colleagues about the opportunity, she accepted the offer.
With Chicago being a very competitive field of attorneys, engineers and policy makers, what made her stand out among the pack? Edwards said, “I was told that someone recommended me to the governor because they thought very highly of me and thought I did great work, but didn’t want to be revealed. Until this day, I thought, ‘God, this is the biggest gift that was ever given to me.’ I wish I could thank them. I don’t know what made me stand out.”
Without missing a beat, Commissioner Edwards dived into her new position, learning the ropes by attending various energy and utility driven conferences and seminars. Since she was new, she made use of her skills of networking, research, and team collaboration to learn the industry.
As an attorney and the only African American when she worked at her most recent Chicago law firm, she wasn’t surprised that there was a lack of women in the energy industry, about 13 percent. “I think that I never felt I could slack or I could take some time off; I felt like I had to work. I think that’s been embedded in me,” she says.
Newly married and eight years being a Chicago resident, Edwards has adjusted well and continues to contribute her time to community outreach work. She sits on several boards, including the National Executive Board of Delta Sigma Theta, the Founding Board of Directors of the Great Lakes Academy Charter School, and is a member of both the Leadership Greater Chicago Fellows Class of 2015 and the Lakeshore Chapter of the Links, Inc.
Teaching Energy To Kids
Part of her time is spent volunteering at both Hefferan Elementary and Frazier International Magnet Elementary schools. “I asked ComEd to come out and speak to them about doing an energy program with materials and talking to students about what they do. Every one of those students wake up every day because of electricity, so it’s important for them to understand the importance of energy. That’s how I merge my roles – that’s how I think I’m very successful. I also know I did not get here by myself. It takes a village to raise a child. I was raised with that concept,” Edwards says.
One of her collaborative efforts includes work with Chicago Public Schools on a STEM based program. This allows students to work with the utility companies on a current program called “Think Energy.”
“The program talks about how energy works, how gas and electric works and what it does for them,” Edwards explains. “It’s opening their eyes about what energy is and talks about different energy careers. The career options expands from A-Z. I think that’s important to know about utilities.”
Edwards is looking forward to staying consistent in helping to bring more women and people of color into a field that is still broad but steadily growing in the job market. She feels it all starts with educating young students as early as elementary school.
“I brought a ‘job shadow day’ into the ICC, which had never been done,” Edwards says. “We bring 20 students and we partner them with different people throughout the agency. They’re there the entire day and spend a day-in-the-life in our seat. The second part of the day is a resume and mock interview. We go through their resume and interview them, talking to them about interview skills. It’s been very successful. Some of my best and brightest mentees have come out of the program.”
As she moves through the concrete jungle juggling various hats, Edwards is grateful for the guidance and advice of those that have paved the way before her, such as prominent attorney and U.S. Senate candidate Andrea Zopp.
“Andy Zopp is a huge mentor of mine,” Edwards says. “She took the time to talk with me when I first got into the position. I’ve called her at 11 p.m., I’ve called her at 6 a.m., and asked for her advice and she’s been there. She’s awesome.”
About her career change, Edwards continues, “I didn’t know this industry existed. I had electricity and I had gas, but I never thought about this industry. I would love to stay in the energy industry – I don’t know specifically what that means, but I want to continue to make a great change. I want to continue to learn.
“There is so much going on right now with the modernization plan that we have going. We have the smart grid. It’s such a great time to be in this industry – to keep the wheel going and to be in the middle of it.”

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