Women in Waste Management : "It’s never too late to reinvent yourself"

Saretta Brown Cartoon web, women in waste management
© Weka/Kellermayr

There are not that many women in solid waste management, but there seem to be even fewer in wastewater management. The reason for that is anybody’s guess. But one of the rare-to-find women in water is Saretta Brown, Vice President of Sales & Marketing at JWC Environmental.

“It’s surely not every girl’s dream to work in the waste management industry. It definitely was not on my radar,” she says with a laugh during our video call. After graduating from university – she has a Bachelor of Arts in Communications with an emphasis on public relations from San Diego State University and a Master’s in Multicultural Education and teaching credentials from National University, San Diego – the now 47 year old was hired by a financial technology company as a change agent. After the strategic plans were created and implemented, she stayed at the company but wasn’t as stimulated. “I mastered the challenge given to me, but financial technology didn’t really speak to my heart,” she explains. Drawing on her marketing and PR background, she decided to set out on her own and in 2010 she founded agency Holler Ink Creative Services to give a voice to people’s brands, be it a non-profit organisation or a large company. “The entrepreneurial side in me loves big ideas,” she says, smiling. Her former employer then became her first client, but from there it was “relentless connections and reaching out to people, starting small,” as she says.

Around the same time, she was also taking part in Toastmasters, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills. After she gave a speech one day, she was approached to become a Dale Carnegie trainer. “It was a bit embarrassing because I didn’t know who that was even though his book How to Win Friends and Influence People is still among the top business books in the world,” she remembers. After reading up on Dale Carnegie and his methodology, she decided to apply for the job. But seeing how many people showed up for the audition, she almost lost her nerve: “My then boyfriend, who is now my husband, gave me a pep talk on the phone and finally I went in. I wouldn’t give up before I even tried,” Saretta says. She was accepted onto the training programme and still works as a trainer today. “JWC generously allows me to take on a client event every now and then.”

Shifting perspectives

Growing up as one of six siblings with huge age differences, she learned at an early age how to communicate with different age levels that weren’t her own. The special dynamic within her family and the support amongst the siblings have also shaped who she is today.

“My family and friends are a great support system. I know I can rely on them when I need them,” the communications pro says. But even though she always knew about the importance of family, it took her a while to see the value of real friendship as well. “I liked having friends but I was very work-focused, which is not a good quality at all,” she says. "I was a great individual contributor getting my work done but I was not a great team contributor.” She eventually realised the importance of teamwork, her Dale Carnegie experience having a huge impact here. “It's never too late to reinvent yourself or shift or change.”

I never let prejudices get to me but rather take them on as a challenge: “I’m more like: ‘I’m going to prove you wrong. Watch out!’”
Saretta Brown

Starting in the wastewater industry

As a Dale Carnegie trainer, Saretta worked with JCW on multiple occasions. When the former head of sales was about to be promoted to become the new president, he wanted her to succeed him. She was intrigued: “I don’t have a technical background or huge experience in the industry. But I know people and I know how to build teams.” She eventually got the job, but shortly after Saretta started at JWC the new president left and was followed by the VP of Operations. So, Saretta Brown also took over sales marketing and the customer service team.

It was an intense time, especially since her mother passed away right when she started in this new industry. “That was scarier than the new job, so I didn’t have time to be scared of the new work environment.” Her family and friends helped her through this hard time.

A woman with fighting spirit

“Before I was hired as a full-time employee, I knew it was a male-dominated space. But I had no idea how male-dominated. At my first trade show I did not see any other woman,” she says. Especially at the beginning, she was confronted with enormous prejudices but Saretta never let them get to her rather she takes it on as a challenge: “I’m more like: ‘I’m going to prove you wrong. Watch out!’” But knowing that not everyone has that same fighting spirit, she feels deeply saddened for other women. “I also recognise there are certain perceptions out there and as a female, I need to work that much harder to ensure people don’t have some of those perceptions about me.”

To support females in the industry, Saretta Brown started to hold a monthly group for female employees, where a woman at the top of her game speaks to JWC. They were from different industries: CEOs, writers and entrepreneurs. After a pandemic-related hiatus, Saretta wants to revive these ‘women in water’ talks again. “I think it’s important for women to have good role models and to learn how to speak up.” For her it is very much about connecting with people: “Some people are shy and keep to themselves. I also want to find out how I can help them so they can open up and feel connected.”

Even in a tough industry, there is no need to be cut-throat, Saretta Brown says: “My boss at a recruitment company showed me that you can balance results and kindness. That was a really beautiful lesson.” One she applies every day.

About Saretta Brown:

Saretta Brown has a Bachelor of Arts in Communications with an emphasis on public relations from San Diego State University and a Master’s in Multicultural Education and teaching credentials from National University, San Diego. She is the founder of PR and communications agency Holler Ink and a certified Dale Carnegie Master Trainer. Since 2018 Saretta has been Vice President of Sales & Marketing at JWC Environmental.