Recognize the pattern
Q: Can you start by sharing your name, title, and where you’re located?
I’m Dhruti Patel, the Director and Practice Lead of Real Estate ESG at Blue Dot Capital, based out of New York, but I work remotely from Chicago.
Q: How long would you say you’ve been in the energy industry?
I started as a structural engineer for the energy industry, then pivoted from the power generation side to the consumer side, and it’s been a 10-year journey.
Q: What motivated that pivot?
I thought I wanted to be a structural engineer, but I realized that was not my passion. Then, there were the challenges that come from being a female engineer working for a company that designs and builds power plants; it was not a future I wanted to be a part of. The company at the time was downsizing; I wasn’t happy there, so we parted ways, and I started looking at other opportunities in the energy sector that more aligned with my passions.
Q: Was it easy to find that kind of role then?
No, it really wasn’t. I was moving closer to the business side of energy because I wanted to talk to people about the impact of their energy decisions. It was a challenge to make that shift, given that I wasn’t around many engineers who had successfully done so. Eventually, through conversations with people in the startup world and smaller companies, I realized there were opportunities to move away from the technical side of energy engineering toward discussions around long-term planning and procurement strategies. Those conversations that focused on making strategic decisions excited me more.
Q: What keeps you working in energy? What keeps you engaged these days?
I recognize a need for more awareness about energy’s role in our lives. When working with clients trying to decarbonize their operations, the conversations often start with the basics. There’s a real lack of understanding of how our energy system functions and how that intersects with other priorities. I still use a lot of my energy engineering knowledge when working with clients today. There are so many opportunities to connect with people interested in being stewards of the environment and walking them through how energy can be a part of the picture.
Q: Can you share with us a time when you had to navigate injustice or unfair treatment because you are a person of color?
Unfortunately, it’s a pattern of behavior I’ve experienced time and time again. Energy professionals are trying to make a difference and improve systemic conditions, which can make some people uncomfortable, especially if it means questioning the status quo. I’ve been called names simply for asking questions. There’s an unspoken expectation that you will fall into line if you are a person of color in energy. You won’t ask questions; you won’t provide ideas; you won’t rock the boat. If you choose not to fall into line, you receive pushback.
It’s unclear whether people recognize how biased their interactions can be. I’ve wondered if people see how differently they react to who is often the only woman of color on the team. Standing out from the rest of your organization makes you a target and leaves you vulnerable. Suddenly, you’re being called names and publicly attacked while everyone on your team is unaffected. I’ve noticed having to justify my role on a team or my presence in a meeting more than others. I end up overexplaining my credentials to be heard. Your experience within an organization can never compare to your white peers.
Finding allies in your network and organization is important, but the challenge becomes discerning who your real allies are. People you thought you could rely on end up justifying behavior you know would be unacceptable for you to display. Excuses or explanations are made up for what you know is unjust. Ultimately, the message is that we, as people of color, have to bear the brunt of bad behavior while maintaining a level of professionalism not expected of others.
Q: Where have you found the support you needed to persist in the face of these extra challenges?
You need to build a network if you are a person of color because that is where your experiences will be validated. For example, it was helpful to hear from others that I was right in standing my ground in certain circumstances or that my understanding of a situation was not off base. Another thing a network helped me realize is that being the only person of color in a room can be a strength. Once you let go of the idea that you don’t belong and own the perspective you bring to rooms that desperately need it, you feel powerful. Embrace what makes you different and use that fuel to stand up for what you believe in. At the end of the day, whether it feels like it or not, more people will say you are doing a good job than not; more people will recognize your value than not.
Q: What do you think leaders in energy can do to prevent these challenges from arising?
First, I encourage leaders to take concerns and complaints raised by their employees seriously. People who go to human resources or their manager to express concern about discrimination or unfair treatment deserve support. Do not excuse inappropriate behavior regardless of who that person is. I’ve had the frustrating experience of approaching HR with definitive proof of mistreatment and seeing no action taken. I even approached the company’s Vice President and asked him what would have happened if the roles were reversed. He told me that I would have been likely fired. That moment solidified that certain things protect you in this industry no matter how unprofessional you are; in this case, it was this person’s relationships with clients and the profits he brought into the company.
It is unacceptable for disrespect and intolerance to be part of organizational cultures. Leaders must go beyond small Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs that occasionally run employee spotlights. The industry has been very comfortable raising awareness about specific issues but has yet to embrace the internal transformative action required for systemic change. This is a collective issue within the industry; we should move forward with that in mind.
Q: What message do you have for professionals of color experiencing some of these systemic cultural challenges?
It is very easy and tempting to fester in your anger when you experience microaggressions or your tenure at an organization was cut short due to sexism or racism. Process your anger and learn to let it go because the longer you stay in that mental headspace, the unhappier you become and the farther you get from the good work you know you can be doing. The work we are all doing requires a great deal of optimism and hope. The climate crisis and pursuing a just transition require our biggest and boldest ideas rooted in optimism and hope. So hold onto that, and don’t let anyone take that from you.
Secondly, build a diverse network that allows you to have open and honest conversations. Ensure you are making your voice heard in several arenas outside your organization. Ask for mentorship and seek out mentees as well. You never know what you can share that will impact another person and vice versa. Conversations with individuals you might not have otherwise met are crucial for building a sense of belonging and understanding in this industry.