Patricia Nugent just may be the walking, talking personification of the argument for diversity in the workforce. Nugent joined Dow Solar in Midland, Michigan, U.S., as a mid-career professional transitioning from both a different discipline — her background is in medical technology — and from a divorce that left her to raise her three growing children as a single parent. Her start at Dow was as a contract employee for eight months, using immunochemistry to test for pesticide residue in foods as well as working on radio-immune antibodies for the treatment of cancer.
“It was a lifestyle change,” Nugent says of her start at Dow. “I worked for 10 years as a medical technologist, but once you are divorced and have to get a job on second shift, you make choices. I took a chance at working at one of Dow's research and development labs. I had been involved in helping people get better rather than working for a corporate entity, and 25 years later, I am still here.”
Still there [at Dow], but not without both significant changes and accomplishments along the way. “I got my MBA in 1996. The company was going through a transition, and I decided to learn more about the business side of things,” Nugent recalls. “I moved more into project management and did a Y2K project and a genomics project. The genomics was perfect for me. I knew genomics and chemistry, and could speak computer speak with the computer guys.”
Next up, Nugent worked on a biotech project using soybean oil as an early renewable foam product: polyurethane foam for seat cushions or cars that could be recycled. She was on that project for about three years, at which point the company went through another reorganization. It was at that time Nugent took a role with a group she calls an “incubation area” within Dow, charged with identifying new growth areas for the company. It is from within this group that Nugent got involved in distributed energy opportunities, which led to the creation of Dow Solar's POWERHOUSE roof shingles.
Nugent credits her background and non-work life experiences with informing, influencing and advancing product and business choices. “I was a single parent for five years. That teaches you a lot about patience, and if you are incubating projects in a big company, they want returns really fast, and you have to be able to get the stakeholders involved,” Nugent notes. “Even though you see the big picture in your head of where it goes, you have to explain it to others so they understand. When you are juggling everything in a single-parent household, you learn to communicate well.
“What I love about this is I am more an abstract thinker,” Nugent continues, opining that that may be less than common in most large organizations. “When a project comes in on a white piece of paper, most back away from it,” she says. “I am always looking for projects that are one of a kind, and I love that challenge of not knowing and having to figure out something completely.”
Nugent and Dow are still “completely figuring out” the solar-powered shingles market, specifically trying to drive the cost of photovoltaic generation to $2 per watt and keep it there. The product was launched commercially in partnership with Colorado home builder DR Horton in 2011, and Imagine Homes has announced the shingles will be available in eight Texas communities starting in 2012.
“The energy industry is in tremendous flux right now,” Nugent comments. “One of the consultants I am currently working with is doing a study on the utilities of 2020, and the general conclusion is that everything in the industry is going to change. We have a battery company and I watch the storage area quite a bit. In places like California, where they have time-of-use pricing, a lot will depend on how the package is put together, so storage is very interesting. There will be major changes in distributed energy for residential and small business customers.”
Nugent, though, probably wouldn't have it any other way, as she describes the way Dow's solar shingles project came about. “You want something at an inflection point,” she notes, “where it can get traction from the technology it develops. You don't want an ‘I too’ or ‘me too’ project. We did some studies and found there were electronics companies that were making glass and aluminum products and throwing them up on a house, so we thought, can we do something better? I worked with a really brilliant engineer in the company, and we won a $20 million grant for the Solar America Initiative.”
She also doesn't have to worry about complacency on the personal-life side of the ledger. Nugent's three children have all married and gone on their own, with a perfectly representative, eclectic and diverse mix of career paths — one is a chemical engineer, one a clinical psychologist and another owns a piano studio. She also now has her first grandchild to add to her delight in seeing life — both within and outside her professional career — develop as it will.