Serena McIlwain Reflects on Journey toward an Environmental Career
What sparked your interest in environmental protection?
My interest was sparked through intellectual curiosity and my personal journey to do the right thing on a daily basis, while enjoying life’s perks. I was curious about how my everyday actions were impacting the environment. I wanted to understand how agricultural practices were contributing to increasing greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. I absolutely loved my gas-powered car’s ability to go fast, but I didn’t think about its emissions and impact to the environment. The more I learned about the negative effects of producing and/or using the things I loved, the guiltier I felt about using them. I started believing that I was a part of the problem and was doing nothing to be a part of the solution.
So about 10 years ago, I made a commitment to myself to start taking baby steps to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. I wanted to learn how I could personally change my lifestyle by reducing my reliance on materials and products that cause stress and harm to our environment. The first step I took was reducing my consumption of meat, as a measure to reduce the overwhelming consumer demand for meat. A few years later, I applied for a position at the U.S. EPA so that I was closer to the mission of protecting and improving our environment. While most of my duties are related to operations, I feel strongly that I am contributing to environmental protection by ensuring that the resources are available for the mission-related tasks required of our agency.
What past jobs prepared you best for your current agency role?
Working as the Assistant Regional Administrator for EPA Region 9 in San Francisco, and also serving as the Performance Improvement Officer and Director of Continuous Improvement at EPA Headquarters, prepared me for my current position as Undersecretary for the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA).
What are your top priorities?
My top priority is setting up our agency to run smoothly, efficiently, and effectively. My goal is to reform antiquated processes and inefficiencies so that our Boards, Departments, and Offices (BDOs) can spend their time and resources protecting Californians, and our wildlands and waterways, from environmental harm. Eliminating inefficiencies allows us to be more agile and to continue in our role as world leaders in environmental protection. Another top priority is transforming our agency to be performance and results driven. We have a new strategic plan and a new performance management system for monitoring, accountability, and excellence.
What’s your proudest agency accomplishment?
In the year and a half that I’ve been at CalEPA, we have improved operations and we have already saved the agency several million dollars by combining resources across our BDOs.
How would you describe your management style?
I lead the agency by allowing senior executives to be creative in meeting the goals of our agency. I don’t micromanage or hover over them. I believe in setting the vision and direction from the top and then giving the managers, supervisors, and employees autonomy to deliver results. I am only involved when asked for advice and/or strategies.
Where’s the first place you’ll travel when the pandemic is over?
Without a doubt, Paris! My children surprised me recently with a birthday present that will send me to Paris, post-pandemic. It’s a place I have never been but have wanted to visit for the past 10 years. I cannot wait to get there!