With tensions running high at the U.S. border, and tempers running hot on all sides of the immigration debate, it is easy to lose sight of what the United States still means to those around the globe facing dire circumstances who dream of living in a country where they can reach their full potential.
Finding Refuge in America
Geisha Williams, CEO of PG&E Corporation, understands this dream better than most. At age five, she fled Cuba with her parents as a refugee after her father was held as a political prisoner for two years for opposing the Communist regime. They made it to the United States in 1967, and with no money and few resources, began to piece together a life in Minnesota. 51 years later, Williams has made her mark on the corporate world, and has shattered glass ceilings and redefined what a Latina refugee can accomplish in America.
Like many immigrants who arrive in the United States as children, Geisha is quick to acknowledge her parents’ tireless labor to provide for her and ensure she would never need to experience the persecution and turmoil they endured in Cuba. In an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow for the channel’s Boss Files series, she said, “My parents really are the embodiment of the American Dream. My dad worked several jobs at a time, my mom did piece work at home. Just to sort of make a living for me.” Her parents saved enough to buy a grocery store in New Jersey, where Geisha worked as a cashier after school, and soon they opened a second location in Florida, where she became the first in her family to earn a college degree after attending the University of Miami for engineering.
“Why Not You?”
At the start of her career, Geisha never envisioned herself as the multimillionaire CEO of a prominent energy corporation. Upon completing her degree, she landed an internship with a local power company that set her on the path to her career at PG&E. As a young woman, she was satisfied to simply have a job. When her mentor asked about her plans, she replied, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’d like to be a manager or a supervisor someday,” but her horizons were broadened by her mentor asking her a simple question that changed her outlook forever: “Geisha, somebody has to run this company someday. Why not you?”
At the time, very few women became CEOs, let alone Latina immigrant women, but Geisha had the same engineering degree as her male, American-born counterparts, and she realized that there was no reason why she could not reach the same heights. Her passion for the energy industry is genuine, and she recognizes its importance in a nation like the United States, which has a long tradition of spearheading innovation in energy production in ways that change global standards. Williams finds satisfaction in the interpersonal aspects of her industry and enjoys serving communities that welcomed her and her family, enabling her success; “I fell in love with the field of energy and electricity. It’s the silent enabler. It’s what powers America. What powers commerce. I fell in love with the culture of this industry, very service-oriented, very much focused on the community, and I just loved it.”
Her passion paid off, and within a decade of joining PG&E to oversee electrical operations, she became the company’s President & CEO, making her the first immigrant Latina CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Even during her meteoric rise to the top, Geisha remained humble, citing her mentor’s positive influence and his belief that she could subvert expectations and not only measure up to, but rise above, her peers.
Supporting Renewable Energy & a Sustainable Future
During her year as PG&E’s CEO, Geisha Williams has made tremendous strides towards normalizing renewable, sustainable energy in her industry. While many similar corporations are mired in profitable, but unsustainable fossil fuels, PG&E obtains about 70% of its energy from greenhouse-gas-free sources, including natural gas. She plans to take this even further, reducing PG&E’s environmental footprint drastically by focusing on solar and wind power to exceed California’s 50% renewables target by 2030. PG&E is leading by example; creating energy production methods that cause minimal damage to the planet, helping to secure a cleaner, better future for all Americans.
Immigrants: the U.S.’s “Secret Weapon”
As an immigrant and political refugee, Geisha Williams embodies the possibilities available in the United States that do not exist in many other nations. Williams is a lifelong advocate for immigrants, stating that they bring “energy, innovation, creativity, and that hunger for advancement and for betterment,” and that they are the United States’ “secret weapon.” She believes every immigrant deserves the same opportunities she enjoyed and is a supporter of DACA. Although she recognizes the importance of national security, she hopes lawmakers will acknowledge immigrants’ contributions to the United States while passing legislation.
“Find a way,” Williams says. “I have to believe that there’s a way that we can do both: Maintain being an immigrant-friendly nation, and at the same time, have our national security goals met.” Leaving everything behind to make a life in an unfamiliar country takes the exact kind of enterprising courage that defines the American dream. Although not every immigrant child will grow up to enjoy Geisha’s success, they deserve the opportunity to try.