Forward Thinkers: Susie Carrillo - The Modern Professional Woman

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It is 2007 and the Imperial County Film Commission, a solid contributor to the area’s economic development and marketing efforts, is foundering. In the wake of the departure of its executive director, its board of directors dissolves amid the leadership vacuum and competing interests.

One woman alone stays the course, acting as a kind of concierge, making arrangements for film crews, taking late-night calls to provide them on-site assistance and planning for the day when the organization will get back on course. All the work is volunteer, done in between a busy full-time job and family commitments. That woman, Susie Carrillo, admits that while that time was hectic, it was not unusual in her life and really not beyond the effort people should put forth for their community.

“I think I get that from my mother,” says the El Centro native. “She would always volunteer at the church. People would ask, ‘Can you help?’ and she would say, ‘Sure.’ There’s less fortunate people so if you can help them, you should.” Energetic, confident and stylish, Carrillo well fits the mold of a modern professional woman. As the strategic business coordinator for the Imperial Irrigation District Energy Division, she is in the vortex of a burgeoning renewable energy industry, the geothermal-, solar- and wind-generated electricity many believe will permanently bolster Imperial County’s often tepid economy.

“I’m assisting with the negotiation of power contracts and the finalization of power and natural gas contracts,” she explains in an easy manner that contrasts with the complexities of the electric power industry. “I also meet with interested parties that want to sell IID power. I am one of two first points of contact within the energy department for them to give us their proposal.”

Imperial County has always had the land, sun, wind and subterranean geothermal heat to generate energy; it just was not always financially viable to develop and sell. Increasing urban power demands, a greater interest in clean, renewable energy, and a state requirement that utilities get a fixed percentage of their electric power from renewable sources changed that. Now Imperial County literally is a hot commodity. Once almost unknown outside of the farm industry and off-road enthusiasts — even within California — the county, spurred by the efforts of IID, county government and the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp. is drawing national and international attention.

Carrillo describes her job as almost a shadow world where electric power deals, large and small, are made that will affect people’s every-day lives, and yet few know about the industry and how it works — until the lights go out. The roving blackouts that plagued California in the early 2000s and some major blackouts back east drew some attention, but it is often fleeting.

Carrillo got her start in business as a secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Brawley after graduating from Central Union High School in 1978. Seeing federal cutbacks looming she moved to IID in 1988 and originally worked at the grass carp hatchery and then in its public affairs office.

“All we dealt with in public affairs was water issues,” Carrillo recalls of the days when water was the district’s most-known service.

Rates low and service reliable, the electric power division rarely made headlines. In reorganization six years ago Carrillo was transferred to the energy department.

“In public affairs I dealt with the public, so they felt I would be a good fit in energy contracts. This is a totally different world,” she says of the electric power side of the utility.

Carrillo concedes she is sometimes surprised to realize she is in such an important job at such an important time. Yet she’s not shy about her background, not shy about saying she earned her position and not shy about just having turned 50.

“I learned on the job,” she explains, recalling that she never attended college and relies on vast experience in the utility industry as well as some key mentors.

“I learned so much from Ron Fiske,” she says of a former supervisor from when she first started in the energy department. “He made the transition easier, and he’d teach us how to negotiate. I would see him in action negotiating and be amazed as to how he would get the important points across.”

While her work ethic has taken her far, her advice for younger people is to get a college degree.

“Times have changed. Before it was ‘Here you go,’” Carrillo says, and you would pretty much train yourself along the way. But now, there are very few jobs around here which don’t require a degree. To this day, my current boss is still bugging me to get a degree.”

Tracing her work ethic, she does not have to go far: “My father (Bert Pereda) is a construction supervisor for Granite Construction and at age 82 is still working. I try to get him to retire, but he keeps saying, ‘Next year, next year, next year.’ If he doesn’t work, what’s he going to do? He’s never stayed at home. What would my mother do? She doesn’t want him home all the time. It’s funny but people tell me I am just like him – a workaholic!”

Her father has survived cancer and a quadruple bypass. Resiliency must run in the family.  During an interview in early November, Carrillo reveals she’s just a few weeks removed from gall bladder surgery. If it changed anything, she’s eating better (no choice) and trying to cut down on stress.

“Once you turn 50, you need to cut back,” she smiles.

But not much. Carrillo is the current president of the new Film Commission board and a member of the American Cancer Society El Centro Relay for Life committee and was its chairperson for the 2010 relay. The Film Commission survived after Carrillo worked with the Imperial Valley Joint Chambers of Commerce to hire a film commissioner. That person, Charla Teeters, also oversees United Desert Gateways, a joint Yuma-Imperial Valley effort to promote local off-roading.

“Charla has done such a wonderful job. She is close to getting her film commission credentials so I know we made the right choice in hiring her,” Carrillo says.

When Carrillo was still doing the volunteer yeoman’s job of keeping the Film Commission afloat, well, those were crazy days.

“I would get calls at night and have to go out to the filming site. Or, if they needed something ... I remember I was called out because one of their water trucks was stolen during the night. So we had to call the sheriff, and luckily it was found a few miles out of town. I wasn’t getting paid, but I got to learn about the film industry and how they put a production together. When you see them filming, you’re wondering why they are there. Then when you see the video, you understand. It was fun.”

Carrillo got to meet her share of celebrities, including country music singer Gary Allen and former professional wrestler and current action film hero The Rock.

“I wasn’t into wrestling, and everybody was saying ‘You met The Rock?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah,’” Carrillo laughs. “I didn’t even know he was who we were going to go see. It was funny to find out how many women were upset that I didn’t invite them out.”

If there’s a sensitive side of this driven woman, it involves her only child, son Michael, a federal employee. “While I can’t divulge his location publicly, I say, ‘Don’t tell me anything. But if I text you, you better answer. No stories. Just text me back,’” Carrillo says. “We have a very close relationship and, believe me, there is truth to the saying ‘no matter how old your children get, they are still your babies.’”

With Michael coming up for a transfer in January, she is relieved that he has decided to move closer to home. “I won’t worry as much.”

Her immediate future will continue to be busy. She has just returned from a geothermal conference in Sacramento, and alternative energy companies are lining up to do business in Imperial County.

“I hope this all brings in more jobs,” she adds.

Taking a moment, Carrillo mulls what retirement might be like some day, and it seems she just cannot envision it.

“I’m the type that can’t just sit there,” she concludes about her life. “I enjoy the things I do. I don’t do them for the credit or for thanks. I do it because I enjoy it.”

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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