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Sustainability is the future.
On this week’s episode of Women of Washington, Gigi Schumm welcomed Una Song, a senior adviser at the Energy Department’s Office of Environment, Health, Safety and Security. Before joining DOE, Song worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and several well-known private sector companies including AT&T, Dell and IBM. She’s been a huge champion for the department’s Energy Star program, a joint effort between Energy and the EPA to promote energy efficiency.
Her current role is centered on sustainability and environmental compliance by providing technical assistance to the department’s 47 different sites. She also works with another colleague to provide support for the management programs dealing with endangered and invasive species.
“What I really like about my job is that there isn’t kind of a typical day-to-day, because with technical assistance, you don’t know what questions are going to come,” she said. “The department is actually quite diverse [and] I don’t think people really know that.”
The Energy Department manages over 2 million acres of land — roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park. Song said it is her team’s responsibility to manage the invasive species on that land. She also hopes to develop a repository of resources and best practice examples to help the department in the future.
That includes creating a website that will consolidate the skills and assistance the technical team can provide. Song said this will help the different areas of the agency find someone that can help them much easier, and quicker.
“I need to constantly be learning and I love to problem solve. So anything new, I really love to just dive in and figure out what I can do there,” she said. “So this is a perfect job for me.”
There are many ways for federal agencies to reduce and potentially re-use energy.
In fact, many of the labs associated with the Energy Department are working on initiatives to become certified net zero buildings. In other words, the total amount of energy consumption used by the building is equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site.
Song gave several examples of how an agency can do this:
Update lighting fixtures to more sustainable bulbs
Adding solar panels to buildings, garages and even parking lots to create renewable energy sources
Planting more native, drought-resistant plants that use less water and require less maintenance
Song says her team is part of a federal-wide working group talking about invasive species, and sharing best-practices for sustainability in order to keep up with federal policies. It is their goal to soak in that information, share it with the various Energy Department sites, and make sure they are up to date with the newest policies and procedures.
“Since we manage so much land, it’s an integral part of how we manage the land that we’re responsible for,” she said.
While she spent most of her life in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, Song said she has more of a Western mindset. Before fourth grade, she spent a lot of time in Colorado. She remembers that at one time she wanted to own a ranch with a lot of land and hiking trails.
Her love for nature never changed, even as she relocated to Maryland. Her dad, originally from South Korea, also worked for DOE, first in California, Tennessee and Colorado, then eventually at the headquarters in Washington.
“I say that my dad is the luckiest man alive because we moved from Colorado to D.C. in the Nixon administration, right before a hiring freeze began,” she said. “So my dad got hired the day before the hiring freeze went into effect.”
And it may seem as though she followed in her father’s footsteps, but she said she actually didn’t plan on joining the federal workforce. She wanted to be an entrepreneur, much like her maternal grandfather. That’s one reason why she studied computer programming at Duke University.
Song worked in the private sector for 15 years before she decided to commit herself to energy efficiency. Through several volunteer jobs and working for small energy efficiency associations, she found an opening to join the Energy Star initiative. That is how she ended up at EPA and now the Energy Department.
“I felt like I wanted to do something more for a community. So I … took some time off and I went into business on my own trying to find myself in my 30s. I ended up kind of researching the energy efficiency and renewable energy business and I saw that this has a lot of social benefit …,” she said. “There was a lot of good that comes out of it. So I decided to switch industries.”
She was attracted to the goal of thinking about the future and the way we consume energy.
Song said she’s been lucky to not have many work-life balance challenges. The Energy Department is very accommodating, and does allow telework, as it cuts back on travel time and increases productivity.
But sometimes life can get a little hectic and Song said she’s very efficient and likes to check-off the boxes as she goes. Her colleague asked her once if she ever looked back on all of the work she’d done and appreciated the experience.
“I was like ‘no’, but maybe I should do that,’ she said. “I would tell my [younger] self to just kind of slow down and enjoy the ride a little more more.”
Gigi Schumm welcomes Washington's most ambitious and influential female executives to share their secrets to success. Contact Gigi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to Women of Washington’s audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.