On a dare. That’s how Renee Joseph, vice president of Global Customer and Sales Enablement for Johnson Controls (JCI) began her journey into the heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration industry more than 30 years ago. “I’m an artist. I’m a classical pianist," Joseph says. “But it is very difficult to make a living playing the piano.”
Working for a placement director at a local technical college in La Crosse, Wisconsin in the 1980s, Joseph was dared to apply for a position at the Trane company. “He approached me and said there was a position at Trane headquarters,” Joseph recalls. “He said, 'They only hire men, and they only hire engineers. Let’s see if we can get you in!’”
Without any experience or working knowledge of the HVACR industry, Joseph accepted the position of application engineer assistant. “I was basically a gofer,” she says. “I would pull drawings and wiring diagrams and help the engineers get ready to troubleshoot problems with chillers on rooftops or air handlers across the globe.”
She didn’t stay in that position for long. Relying on her intuition and boldness, Joseph was promoted to overseeing the global warranty department, and then the aftermarket parts business, and eventually to leading global strategy and marketing for the company.
“I was very fortunate that the men at the company really took me under their wings. They took me with them to jobs to show me how the equipment worked, and I picked up very quickly. Not technically, but I understood what it was we were really trying to deliver to our customers,” Joseph recalls.
Her coworkers were helpful, but it was Joseph’s ability to recognize where the company needed improvements that ultimately escalated her career path.
“I was handling a lot of warranty issues and realized that the processes in place were not very good. They didn’t track warranty claims or how long it would take to resolve,” she recalls. With each observation, Joseph put together a business case on areas for improvement. She requested meetings with top executives and discussed her suggestions. “That opened up many doors,” she says.
The wandering artist had secured a 20-year success story at Trane, creating her own path every step of the way.
As women often do, Joseph took a step back from her career to be a caregiver in 2000. “I left for about 10 years after my father was diagnosed with cancer, and didn’t plan on returning to work,” Joseph recalls.
After losing both of her parents Joseph needed to fill her time with something productive, and found a calling back to the industry she embraced on a dare many years ago. In 2010, she re-entered the industry accepting a position at JCI in the global warranty department.
“Soon after, I went to an ASHRAE conference and noticed there were so few women there,” she recalls. “I remember walking the show and seeing a booth for Women in HVACR, and thought I should get involved in that.”
The challenges for women in the industry had not changed much from when Joseph was the only woman working in a non-administrative role at Trane. And when she came across Women in HVACR — an organization that works to provide professional avenues to connect with other women growing their careers in the HVACR industry through networking opportunities, mentoring and education — she picked up where she left off 10 years prior.
Joseph introduced herself to the group, got involved, taught a few workshops on personal development and was recently asked to join the board of directors.
She sits on the Outreach and Sponsorship Committee where she hopes to double the number of people applying for scholarships this year. “We have a list of 30 or so colleges and universities that are technical schools that have programs in HVAC,” she says. “We are reaching out to educators to try and get people aware that we have scholarships, and we plan to go out and talk to those schools about the importance of women and what they can do, and how successful they can be.”
It’s about creating awareness and being bold
From the start of her career and up until this point, Joseph has recognized that one of the biggest challenges for women in this industry is to be taken seriously — by others, and introspectively. “We have a lot of things we can offer,” she states.
Joseph plans on meeting with the Girl Scouts of America to reach out to younger girls. She also plans to meet with the creators of Roominate — a construction set created by two women looking to inspire young girls to enter the STEM field — to see if she can get them to include HVAC pieces into their models.
“The sky’s the limit, and you shouldn’t be constrained by anything,” Joseph says to young girls. “Whatever it is you decide you want to do, just do it. Be confident and pursue whatever you see that’s interesting to you. Don’t set any limitations.”
Joseph speaks from experience. She entered an industry that was completely foreign to her and made it her own by taking risks and speaking up.
Today Joseph leads a team that’s responsible for building channel sales capabilities across the globe including playbooks, best practices, Ease of Doing Business technology solutions and sales and customer facing training and loyalty programs critical to JCI's transformation.
That’s a long path traveled, and she’s not done yet.
Joseph has teamed up with 24 other thought leaders at JCI, as part of a STEM Re-entry Task Force initiative driven by the Society of Women Engineers and iRelaunch. Together, under the leadership of Linda Chapin, vice president of human resources at JCI, they have launched the Next Chapter, which offers employment opportunities for women in STEM fields who are returning to the workforce after a two- or more-year break in their careers.
Joseph is hopeful for the future of the industry, and women’s seat at the table. She cautions however, “We have to begin to create a compelling message.”
She doesn’t look at a HVACR system and see a product made of parts, but rather a complete system that impacts the lives of everyone. “We have to really reframe what we are as an industry,” she says. “We impact the lives of people everywhere; where they live, work and play. We make people’s space safe, secure and comfortable.”
Messaging is important if we are to reach and recruit a more inclusive workforce.
As for women who are already in, or considering the industry, Joseph says, “Get comfortable. Be bold. What’s the worst that can happen?”
Joseph’s journey in the industry was unique in many regards. But her challenges echo those of many women.
“As a gender-based group, we have to become more confident and be bold and be risk-takers,” she says. “Don’t be discouraged. If something doesn’t work one way, then regroup. Rally the hill another way. I’ve had to go up some hills several different times to get over them.”
Joseph encourages women in the industry to join the groups that we have available, make connections, and build relationships.
“Tell other people about what you are doing. Be the advocate for what we do in the industry,” she says.