In a town known for setting records, Eugene’s Lane Electric Cooperative has set one of its own with a board that looks like none other in America.

By Ted Case

Lane Electric Cooperative’s board is making history during a tumultuous time in the industry. Photo by Jamie Leiblein

Throughout the years, Eugene’s iconic Hayward Field has been a part of track and field history. This summer at the 2022 World Athletic Championships, Swedish pole vaulter Mondo Duplantis soared 6.21 meters—the equivalent of 20 feet.

It’s an astounding height to clear, yet Duplantis broke his own world record by one centimeter, a testament to how incremental gains can eventually crash through barriers never thought possible.

5 miles away from Hayward Field, Eugene-based Lane Electric Cooperative has set a new milestone with the same approach, albeit with little fanfare or recognition. In an industry and cooperative program historically dominated by men, Lane Electric has systematically broken from tradition.

Today, its 7-member board of directors includes 6 women working with Debi Wilson, the first female general manager in the co-op’s 83-year history.

“Lane Electric has always had women on the board for as long as I have worked here,” Wilson says. “This is part of the legacy of Lane Electric. But to have this kind of majority of women on the board is exceptional.”

Lane’s achievement has caught the attention of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), a trade group representing the nation’s approximately 900 electric cooperatives. While NRECA does not track boards by gender, Pat Mangan, a senior director in governance education, called the current Lane board “unique, historic and monumental.”

Members of the Lane Electric Board of Directors are, from left, Chris Seubert, Paula Brown, Susan Knudsen Obermeyer, Joy Olgyay, Krissi Martes, J. Ingrid Kessler, Kathy Keable and General Manager Debi Wilson. Photo courtesy of Lane Electric

“We didn’t set out to make history,” said J. Ingrid Kessler, a retired veterinarian who ran a successful clinic in Eugene. “Lane’s members just elected outstanding candidates who happened to be women.”

Lane Electric’s changing demographic represents a shift among Oregon’s co-op boards. 30 years ago, there was only one woman electric co-op director in Oregon out of 100 board positions. In 2022, there are now 29, along with four female general managers leading the state’s 18 electric cooperatives.

Lane Electric Board president Susan Knudsen Obermeyer attributes the progress to a group of people who, like her, chose careers dominated by men and were interested in their communities. Knudsen Obermeyer, a career employee with the U.S. Forest Service, encourages other women to get involved, no matter how unconventional the work.

“If there is something passionate you care about, go for it,” she said. “Work your way up and show people you care.”

This summer, the co-op replaced 2 retiring male board members with 2 more women with male-dominated careers: Krissi Martes, a retired police sergeant; and Joy Olgyay, who worked at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Other board members are Kathy Keable, the site manager at HJ Andrews Experimental Forest in Blue River; and Paula Brown, a management consultant who was inspired to run for the board after learning that only 2% of board positions were held by women.

“My objective was to inch up that number and be an example to younger women to lead,” Brown said.

It can be argued that few electric utilities in the country in the past three years have faced as much adversity as Lane Electric, severely testing the co-op’s board and management.

In 2019, a snowstorm laid waste to Lane’s vast 2,600-square-mile territory, leaving more than 10,000 members without power, some for up to two weeks. During Labor Day weekend 2020, Oregon’s devastating Holiday Farm fire—one of the largest in the state’s history—destroyed a significant portion of Lane’s system in the McKenzie River Valley, along with many homes and structures.

Based on that experience, in September 2022 the co-op made a difficult decision during a similar red-flag event to preemptively turn off power to some of their members—a Public Safety Power Shutoff—to protect against ignitions from falling power lines.

On a recent virtual call, the Lane Board of Directors was more inclined to discuss wildfire policy than to reflect on shattering a cooperative glass ceiling. But Chris Seubert, a former telecommunications executive and the lone male on the Lane board, praised his colleagues for being the right kind of board during a tumultuous time.

Board President Susan Knudsen Obermeyer, fifth from left, and other Lane board members encourage female leaders at all levels. Photo courtesy of Lane Electric

“There is more discussion about challenging the status quo,” Seubert said. “It is not easier, but there is a lot more dialogue and active conversations.”

Wilson believes the industry is changing. With a wave of retirements, she notes current leaders, including herself, have a responsibility to the next generation looking to make an impact.

“Whether it is being a CEO or a director, we need to be there to help mentor women and help men understand we can do this,” she said.

While women are in positions of power throughout the co-op, there is still one area that lacks diversity.

“I would love to have a female lineworker,” said Knudsen Obermeyer.

While only 4% of U.S. lineworkers are female, the co-op has remodeled its locker room and included a space for a woman.

Until that day, Lane Electric is content with how far it has come chipping away at history, knowing that progress, like world records, often comes one centimeter at a time.