While women executives are told to ‘lean in,’ Detroit energy CEO Carla Walker-Miller chose a different method: Making the mainstream reach out and bring her in, on her own terms.
arla Walker-Miller’s success story is the daydream of every corporate worker tired of a career restricted by indifferent bosses and glass ceilings. Having spent 18 years in corporate America, Walker-Miller stepped out on her own to become the CEO and president of Walker-Miller Energy Services, an energy consultant and auditor under contract for DTE Energy.
“I was totally unprepared for the gamesmanship, the competition, all the things that were corporate America in the ’80s – a true shark tank,” she says. “And while I had as much success as I could facilitate, it was swimming upstream the entire time.”
Walker-Miller Energy Services is the only energy business owned by a woman of color in the city. The firm focuses on making buildings more energy efficient in order to save the owners money and help the environment. The company is also planning the city’s first net-zero energy office space, to be completed in 2017.
Getting there was no small feat. She started the company in 2000, right before the 2002 recession. The company survived, but Walker-Miller says the struggle hasn’t ended.
“Most people don’t talk about how hard it is – because entrepreneurship is so sexy right now! – but most of the entrepreneurs we know are struggling financially,” she says. “Everybody looks good, but there’s a lot of pain in the entrepreneurial community. A person who’s talking about stepping out needs to be prepared for a struggle, even with all the support out there right now.”
Even more pronounced is the struggle to be taken seriously as a woman and as a woman of color, something Walker-Miller says she also had to strive for despite her career accomplishments.
“As people, we interface with people who are like us, even as businesspeople. When we’re looking to fill a position, if we are not intentional about seeking something different than what we always seek, then we get the same thing over and over again,” she says.
Women have been told they need to “lean in” to make their presence known and climb the corporate ladder, but Walker-Miller offers a much-needed addition to the lexicon: “lean out.”
“‘Lean out’ isn’t only to small businesses,” she says, “It’s even more to the traditional white male executive, who can gain access to an entire world of knowledge and experiences that will enhance his operation. We can only ‘lean in’ so far until they ‘lean out’ to bring us in – we can’t just go in.”
Walker-Miller says she did a great deal of “leaning out” to get to this point.
“It’s not the way it should be, but one of the main things that small businesses need is access to the people in the companies who are making major decisions about how and where they spend their money,” she says. “That access comes with a price.”
For example, she says, a few years ago she began to buy tickets to networking events in places she had previously found difficult to make connections.
“We can only pursue the business that we know about. If we’re not in the right room, then we’re limited to what comes to us organically. We have to put ourselves out there in environments that are not particularly comfortable to gain access,” she says.
Because Walker-Miller knows the challenges that come with being a woman of color in the energy field, she goes out of her way to make opportunities for others like herself possible.
“The experience for a black woman is unique,” she says. “Over time, one builds a exterior that allows her to march on, to engage every day, in spite of the doubts, external and internal and the obstacles. Over time, one learns that if success is the goal, this is just part of it. The struggle is just part of it.”
Though she grew up in the South, Walker-Miller says she has found a new home in Detroit and has been working to better the city around her.
“This is where I was meant to be,” she says. “I resisted Detroit the first few years I was here, because I loved Atlanta. Then I found myself starting to defend everything that is Detroit. I live in the city, I love the city and I will do anything I can to help support Detroit. It’s in my blood.”
Part of her support for Detroit comes from her intentionally hiring people from the city and people who have been long-term unemployed, while pushing other businesses to do the same.
“I just want to encourage people in the neighborhoods to really veer outside and come downtown and come to Midtown,” she says. “There are people coming to Detroit from all over the country to be a part of it, so I want people from the neighborhoods to come in and be part of it as well. They deserve it. They deserve every good thing that Detroit has to offer.”
AMANDA RAHN IS A BLAC DETROIT INTERN.