Few can pinpoint the exact moment the trajectory of their life changed forever.
Tami Watkins has a framed photo of the occasion in her office at Pepco.
“It’s a picture of me and my dad on Capitol Hill,” Watkins says. “When I was 9 years old, my father took us all on a trip to Washington, D.C., completely out of the blue. We were touring the monuments and I remember being so much in awe of the city and the process. Even as a 9-year-old kid, I remember thinking, ‘Everything I do in my life is manufactured here.’”
Since that day, working in local government, politics, and policymaking has been Watkins’ biggest dream.
Today, as the Government & Public Affairs Manager for Pepco, Watkins manages the expectations and needs of both her employers and the more than 894,000 energy customers they serve.
She is happy to say, her dream has come true.
Beginning the Balancing Act
Watkins grew up in Southern West Virginia, where her world was “very far removed from the District of Columbia,” despite the relative proximity.
She enrolled at Shephard University because it was just close enough to the city. There, she studied English and history.
“I knew one of the things that many great historians had in common was that they were very good writers,” she says. “And I always had an eye for history, policy, and politics. So, I got as close to Washington as I could, while still staying in West Virginia.”
From Shephard, she pursued a master’s degree in public administration at West Virginia University.
“I originally went to WVU to study law and public administration-slash-policy,” she says. “It turned out I didn’t really want to be a lawyer, but I remained interested in the policy process.”
While at WVU, she was awarded a housing and urban development fellowship, which opened the door to collaborations with several local policymakers.
“I was able to work on a lot of critical housing policy needs,” she explains. “I was developing a lot of metrics and programs for the state for reduced housing costs, housing assistance, emergency grants, and tenant-related policy matters. I was working in the nuts and bolts of policy.”
During grad school, Watkins interned on Capitol Hill, worked constituent services, and volunteered for political campaigns.
“All of that was opening my eyes to how government and policy work, but also those sorts of higher aspirations of what it could be,” she says.
She also received some lasting, and unexpected, advice.
Watkins was eager to make a mark, literally and figuratively, when she showed up for one of her first municipal jobs for the city of Morgantown, West Virginia,
“I was young, I was new. I wanted to be dynamic,” she says. “I had my notebook. Anytime anyone would speak to me, I was just imbedded in my notebook, writing everything down.”
Jeff Mikorski, then Morgantown’s city manager, came between Watkins and the ruled lines of her notepad.
“He stopped me after a very important public works meeting and said, ‘Don’t write this down. Just listen.’”
Just listen. The comment seemed nebulous at the time, Watkins recalls, but it was through the experience of working with Mikorski afterward that she realized its incredible value.
“Documentation is very important,” she says. “It’s very important for communicating. But it really all begins with listening – and signaling to the person you are communicating with that you are taking in what they are saying. There is so much going on in communication. Having awareness around that is so important.”
Listening – truly listening – has served Watkins well to this day.
The Road to Responsiveness
One of Watkins’ earliest gigs was working as a cable franchise administrator for the town of Leesburg in Loudoun County, Virginia, which soon segued into a full-time telecommunications position for Comcast.
Watkins joined the team during a time of significant transition, as cable companies began to abandon analog signals in favor of full digital conversion.
“It was an interesting time in the telecommunications space,” she says. “The technology was changing, the infrastructure was changing, construction was changing. And as a result, I took a shine to housing and infrastructure-related policy, which I had studied at WVU.”
Watkins was fascinated by the correlation between federal and private structural investments and how they influenced the way policy was drafted and laws were written.
Then came the crash of 2009. Watkins found herself looking for yet another role where she could exercise her substantial skills.
She found the opportunity with the business management consultants at Deloitte in Washington, D.C.
Again, times they were changing.
“It was the start of the Obama administration,” Watkins says. “An influx of stimulus dollars was running through federal agencies, and Deloitte was one of the firms that helped manage a lot of the big projects relative to the stimulus.”
Watkins found herself immersed in transformational leadership projects with the Post Office, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and even the Cash for Clunkers initiative.
“I was working on teams that were developing metrics and evaluating program goals and informing the policy that went right alongside all of it.”
Watkins earned her Senior Consultancy while collaborating on President Obama’s high-speed rail project. She traveled to California and Florida and various cities to research just what would it take to position the United States for its first-class intermodal transportation service.
History and ambitions being what they were, however, the project ultimately fell through. But the experience continues to inform Watkins’ work and life.
“My work at Deloitte really galvanized my interest in the connection between policy and infrastructure,” she says.
And, so, when Pepco extended an offer, Watkins hit the ground running.
A Perfect Storm
As with every other professional move Watkins had made, the leap to Pepco was accompanied by big industry changes – and a fair share of stormy weather.
Snowmageddon – the northeastern blizzard that dropped upwards of 35 inches of snow on the Mid-Atlantic – was only recently in the rearview. On the horizon: a subsequent derecho that would leave millions without power.
It was a perfect storm of conditions, particularly for the new recruit at the power company.
As the storms subsided outdoors, another was brewing inside the halls of news stations and power providers.
“Immediately following the derecho, the question was raised. I think the headline in The Washington Post was, ‘Why Can’t Pepco Keep the Lights On?’” Watkins recalls.
Striving to achieve the metrics that meant a better company was Watkins’ first trial by fire.
“That was challenging in my role because there’s balancing the company’s needs versus the customers’ needs,” she says. “You’re talking about a financial space, having the resources financially to improve the system – and then you’re talking about a communications space. How do you share with customers why you’re removing trees, why you’re doing construction, why you’re burying facilities underground? It’s that sort of push and pull.”
Still, Watkins says Pepco came along at exactly the right time.
“I had always seen myself after telecommunications transitioning into a utility space, be it gas, electric, or water,” she says. “Pepco was the perfect marriage of my interests, my background, and my experience. And part of that journey was helping the company move toward first quartile performance, and going through a merger with a larger entity (Exelon), to being one of the most reliable utility transmission and distribution companies in the nation.”
It’s Not Easy Being Green – But It’s Not Impossible, Either
On her very first day at the new office, pun-loving vandals had spray painted the insult “PEP-COAL” on the headquarters’ entrance; a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Pepco was a giant, fossil-fuel-burning company.
Watkins is proud to say that her efforts at Pepco have robbed prospective graffiti artists of their sting.
“That’s the next frontier – the greening of the grid,” she says. “The next challenge is being the company that leads in this space because we can. And we have to.”
Watkins takes great pride in working for Pepco-Exelon for that reason precisely.
“We’ve had the benefit of working with entities in Maryland – in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties – helping them to achieve their climate goals,” Watkins says. “We stepped up and owned our role early, taking action to transform our operations and provide tools and resources to help our customers and communities achieve their goals. We’ve been in the space of recognizing our responsibility and working to address climate change. It is fundamental in our delivery of service to our customers. That’s the energy future that we’re all going to be a part of, and I’m very proud to be part of a company that sees itself very much as a leader in the solution.”
The American Dream
Early in her career, Watkins sat on several boards, including Habitat for Humanity (“one of the best resources that we have in this space”), which spoke to her roots in housing and urban development and the American Dream of homeownership.
Throughout her career, she has continued to advocate for issues surrounding housing and affordability, which took on new meaning over the last two years.
“As a utility company, being able to support people staying in their homes throughout the pandemic was so important. Most people don’t think of a utility company as being in that space. But whether advocating for additional funds for emergency fuel support or for more resources for customers who need assistance for paying their bills – it’s all part of keeping people in their homes, and I’m very fortunate to work for a company that sees it that way, as well.”
Pepco also has a robust local workforce, she adds. Many of the same men and women who work for the company live in the surrounding communities, including D.C. and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
“If you’re wondering about motivations for energy efficiency and resiliency and reliable services, well – we’re customers, too,” she says. “Our experience is aligned with our customers in that way in working to meet those needs and address those concerns.”
Life as a Transplant Marylander
“I’m a West Virginian in my heart until I die,” says Watkins. “I am definitely a transplant Marylander.”
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t consider the state home.
As a Greenbelt resident, Watkins says it’s a privilege to address “humble” issues, such as making certain the streetlights are operational and that customers receive notifications about upcoming construction work.
When she’s not collaborating with elected and business constituencies on initiatives, she draws her own power by surrounding herself with family. A newlywed, Watkins is also a mom of two boys – Kaden, 11, and stepson Ethan, 12.
“I’m a very family-oriented girl, and spending time with them is paramount for me,” she says. “I know it sounds hackneyed, but the pandemic has just driven that home all the more. We are avid hikers and outdoor people. I enjoy planning vacations. At some point when the world is sane, I look forward to resuming travel again.”
And when the time comes, perhaps a trip to Washington, D.C. and Capitol Hill?
“I hope my boys will feel the same way about government and policy and process that I do, but right now, they really like Fortnite,” she laughs. “What they really love is when mom occasionally takes them to a fancy event, and they can have unlimited cookies. To them, that’s what policy work is.”