January 5, 2021

A conversation with Juliet Ellis, Head of Public Sector, Promise, and Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance

Radhika: Please introduce yourself without using your professional title or organization. Who are you?  
Juliet: I am a proud daughter of Jamaicans, a Bay Area resident for 25 years, I am a mom of two boys, a wife, and I like to consider myself a social justice warrior. 
Radhika: You are a great example of a public sector leader who has made a real difference pushing for institutional change from within. Before you make the leap to the private sector, what reflections do you have on what you have been able to achieve from within the public sector? 
Juliet: Prior to joining San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), I had always been curious about the impact that could be achieved within the public sector. And I have been blown away by what has been possible. I came into the sector 12 years ago really wanting to reimagine what a utility could be in the 21st century. I spent a lot of thinking about how a utility could be more dynamic, accountable, visible, authentic, and equity oriented, and I found there is a strong interest in these values from customers and utility employees alike.
Utilities have an amazing breadth of resources that can be leveraged to do good. For example, in San Francisco, SFPUC is one of largest landowners in the region. Partnering with community members to activate SFPUC land for secondary use has provided meaningful access and use of the sites. Another example is how we think about our future workforce as a regional employer. Creating tangible career pathways in the communities where our treatment plants are located, which also happen to be environmental justice communities with higher percentages of unemployment and underemployment, just makes sense. Or, thinking about our large capital programs, we can do so much more when, from the beginning, we have an eye towards leveraging every dollar to have a positive impact on people and place.
Radhika: SFPUC is the first public utility to adopt “good neighbor policies”—what does it mean to be a good neighbor utility? How do those ethos get reflected in your work and the work of your colleagues?
Juliet: Being a good neighbor means affirmatively wanting to add value in the communities in which we operate and serve. It means we want community members to want us to be there because they know we will be a good partner. We want our customers to know we will leverage the resources that we have available to support the priorities they have identified. For us at SFPUC, this means we are taking the time to better understand the communities where we operate. The days of sneaking in the dark of night to replace a pipe are gone. We consider our agency and our employees to be part of the fabric of the community, so the community’s priorities are our priorities.
Radhika: What does “One Water” mean to you? 
Juliet: One Water means breaking down the artificial walls between water and wastewater and understanding that there is one complete water cycle. It means water as a precious resource needs to be understood within that cycle so that it can be managed and protected with its best use in mind.
Radhika: Can you tell us a little bit about your role with the Water Agency Leaders Alliance? What have been the key focuses of that work? 
Juliet: The Water Agency Leaders Alliance, or WALA, was created seven years ago. The thought was that there needed to be a forum where General Managers could build relationships, share and scale strategies, advance an equity agenda, and have a unified voice in Washington DC. It started out being convened by SFPUC, DC Water, and the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, and at first was an informal group of GMs. But since then, it has grown into the more structured group called WALA, though really at its heart the purpose is the same.
The group has focused on sharing and scaling up community benefits work in the sector, and on securing resources to meet the water workforce needs of our sector, with an eye toward employing more people of color and women. In the past nine months, we have focused on issues of affordability and the impact that COVID-19 is having on our customers during this health and economic crisis. I have been staffing WALA since its inception and am moving into the role of Chair of WALA in January.
Radhika: In addition to your 9-to-5, you are an Assistant Professor at Mills College teaching the next generation of public policy leaders. What advice do you share with your students that other young professionals would benefit from? 
Juliet: Throughout the semester we talk a lot about strategy and how that shows up in your day-to-day life. And the importance of being clear about what you are trying to accomplish. Without that clarity, you can waste a lot of time and not get to the goal. I also encourage my students to explore the role the public sector can play as an agent for change. Many people don’t think of the water sector for example, as a place where you can advance social justice or make a difference, so I like to share with them the innovative equity work that utilities are doing across the country in places like Seattle, Atlanta, Buffalo, and Detroit.
Radhika: What is your favorite part of living in the Bay Area? 
Juliet: By far my favorite thing is the friendships I have made over the years. Some of my most favorite people live in the Bay Area.
Radhika: What have you read recently that has influenced your leadership style? Or just rocked your boat? 
Juliet: During shelter-in-place I reread Wuthering Heights, which my 14 year-old was reading for school. It was great to read along with him—and I found an old muni receipt from 1996 that I had used as a bookmark when I read it the first time!
Radhika: What excites you about your move to Promise?
Juliet: At its core Promise is a purpose driven company and that speaks to me. I see the work at Promise as an extension of what I have already been doing to advance social and racial justice, but in tech. The idea that Promise can support government to work better for its residents in the payment space is so needed. Especially during this economic crisis where people are having a hard time staying current on child support payments, or are missing payments on parking tickets, or accruing mounting debt on water bills. Promise provides a payment platform that really works for people who are struggling to pay. After spending the last 12 years working to solve problems in the water utility space, I am thrilled to have another tool that utilities and customers can use.  I’m also excited because Promise stands out as a company that really takes pride in over-delivering to its customers. As a type A, overachiever myself, I’m surrounded by kindred spirits.