Forte Connect
Women of Leadership Profiles

In 20+ Years at Dow, Two Women Leaders Improve the World

Karen S. Carter and Jane Palmieri have many similarities – both have worked at Dow for close to 25 years in a variety of roles, currently serving in senior leadership positions; both attribute their drive for excellence to their upbringing; and both have chosen to stay at Dow because their strong sense of purpose aligns with one of the company’s essential values: to positively impact our world.  But the differences between Karen (Dow’s Chief Inclusion Officer) and Jane (Business President of Dow Polyurethanes and Chlor-Alkali & Vinyl) illustrate that successful career paths can take many shapes.

Impacting communities and driving cultural change

How would you describe your current role, and what is your objective?

KAREN: My job is to ensure that Dow has the best team to deliver unprecedented financial results, enabled by an inclusive environment and diverse workforce. I want everyone – potential and existing employees – to have an equal opportunity to succeed. Inclusion and diversity is not a program or initiative – it is integrated into Dow’s business, policies, and behaviors.

JANE: As business president of Dow’s second largest portfolio – Polyurethanes and Chlor-Alkali and Vinyl – I am responsible for developing and executing against the strategy. This includes sales, marketing, supply chains, operations, and innovation. I also have geographic oversight of the Asia Pacific region for the entire company. My objective is to bring chemistry-enabled solutions to our customers. Polyurethanes, chlor-alkali and vinyl are chemical products used for a host of end products – for example, in the furniture, automotive, and construction industries.

What do you like best about what you do?

KAREN: My previous jobs have been in business, marketing, and sales, and I am still a business leader because at Dow, inclusion is a business imperative. This is perhaps the most challenging role I have had in terms of driving change within a culture, but I have a passion for people and haven’t felt this fulfilled in 24 years.

JANE: The most gratifying part of my role is the ability to influence decisions that matter to real people and communities. I also love building things – strategies, teams, alignment, and momentum.

Sitting at the leadership table and having a voice

How do you quantify your responsibility, such as the number of people you manage directly or indirectly, as an example? Do you work on or with any executive leadership teams?

KAREN: There are 10 people on the inclusion team who work around the world. We purposefully designed the office to be small because our goal is to embed inclusion into the way we operate.

JANE: I manage an $11 billion portfolio, which includes 54 assets (manufacturing/production sites). We produce tens of thousands of unique products. I have 15 direct reports, but there are 3700 employees in my business. Karen and I are very much seated at the table of senior leadership to make sure we are balancing the good of the organization with our business scopes. We have a voice and are taken seriously in terms of our input.

Drawing on resilient upbringings to achieve success

Jane – you studied mechanical engineering, and Karen – you studied marketing. Are your current roles what you envisioned when you were a child or when you first got out of college?

JANE: For me, it is always about impact – not the title, the power, or the budget. I love being able to say, “The team, the community, etc. are in a better place because of an impact we made.”

KAREN: When I was young I didn’t dream about a specific job, I dreamt about the impact I wanted to make. I asked myself, “How many people can I help? What is the difference I want to make in the world?”

If success is defined as bringing something unique to the table, what assets/strength(s) do you think have set you apart in your career? What drives you to perform in a high-level role?

KAREN: I come from a single parent family. My father died when I was 12, and my mother often worked two jobs to support me and my sisters. I started working at 14 and worked my way through college. This is what drives me and my hunger to succeed. I have the biggest opportunity to make a difference for our people, and they have the opportunity to make a difference for our customers and our company.

JANE: I attribute my drive to my upbringing. My father was one of nine children of a Russian-born farmer who settled in Michigan. I am happy when I go to bed exhausted from working. As far as attributes, I am a creative yet pragmatic problem solver. As a kid, I loved the challenge of building forts and other structures. That has been helpful to my business career – it’s given me problem solving skills. I have a reputation for getting people comfortable doing the uncomfortable – getting people to rally around a vision and in the boat rowing in the same direction. 

Is there a particular experience or decision that made a tremendous impact on your career and perhaps led you in a different direction than what you initially envisioned?

JANE: When I started my career at General Motors, I was in very deep technical roles, designing vehicles and testing reliability. A couple of years after I came to Dow, I was offered a pure commercial role. I thought it was a “check the box” role, but I quickly realized that I really appreciated and enjoyed the larger impact of combining technical and commercial roles.

I have learned to make unapologetic choices. So often people harbor guilt because they either leave work early or stay late. Guilt is an unproductive drain of your batteries. My mantra is “leave the guilt behind” – liberate that energy to use it more productively. – Jane

KAREN: In my first P&L job, it was rare to have a female or a woman of color in the Plastics business. At that time, Plastics was one of our biggest product portfolios, and it was a significant responsibility because my job impacted the profitability of the entire company.

In that role, I once received an average rating when I felt I deserved more.  I believed I had hit it out of the park that year and had met or exceeded all my financial targets. I was expecting a great rating in my review, but instead I got an average rating. At a certain point during my review, my leader stopped for a moment and said: “If you just want me to give you the top rating – I can do that. But I’m giving you an average rating because I know that, given your capabilities and skills, you can do more. I know how good you are and you did well, but you weren’t great. But if you do these things” – and he listed the steps I needed to take – “you will get the top rating next year.”

He rated me based on my performance, but he coached me based on my capability. And then he provided me with a path to help me get the best rating possible through delivering my best performance. And the next year – when I delivered my best – he lived up to his promise. He was courageous enough to give me real feedback.

When we talk about equal opportunity, it is also about equal feedback and coaching which is critical for development.

I really stretched for that role, and I enjoy the jobs that move me past my comfort zone because that is when I am growing the most.

Stretching through global experiences and responsibilities

Have any current or previous positions been global in nature? If so, please describe your experiences and what you have learned from being in a global setting.

KAREN: One of the best things about Dow is you don’t have to live outside the US to have a global experience. Many of our leaders have global responsibilities. When I lived in Shanghai, I was the general manager for Asia Pacific’s building and construction business. From a career perspective, it was amazing, but even more from a personal perspective. Growth and comfort cannot co-exist, and my husband and I stretched ourselves. As an expat, I was sent there to change myself, not teach the locals.

We chose to live in a building with local people. I had to learn to communicate with people who don’t speak the same language and have a different culture. Never in two years did I see anyone who looked like me. As a result, I have more empathy and understanding. If you have an opportunity to live and work outside your home country, DO IT. I am a better business leader, but I’m also a better person.

I don’t use the word balance; instead talk about choices.  For example, in life there are crystal and rubber balls. If you drop crystal, it shatters, but if you drop rubber it bounces back. You choose your personal priorities and which ones are okay to miss vs. which ones are non-negotiables. I don’t want to be done living when I am done working so I have to invest in my personal life. I own the consequences of my choices. – Karen

JANE: I have been responsible for activities in other countries. Unlike Karen, I was not in a position to relocate internationally because of family obligations, but I think it is great thing to do. If you don’t live in another country but have responsibilities there, you have to invest the time to learn and understand the culture. You have to get on a plane and meet people face-to-face, particularly early on to establish credibility and get to know people. No matter how good technology gets, don’t let it be a reason not to engage face-to-face.

Making the world a better place via the chemical industry

What is it about the chemicals industry that interests you? From a functional perspective, what makes your specific role fulfilling for you? 

KAREN: My decision has more to do with the company than the industry. I choose to stay at Dow to help the company solve some of the world’s biggest challenges – food scarcity, sustainability, plastic waste. Dow is one of the major manufacturers of plastic. Along with some peer companies, we are helping to address that issue through technology and through encouraging different human behaviors. My core values match those of the company, and the industry’s technology and solutions make the world a better place.

JANE: I didn’t choose the chemical industry. They found me, and I am thrilled that they did. I was in automotive, and Dow recruited me to work in their auto division. I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about the chemical industry – my decision was more about the type of work, the company, and its core values. We have a real problem attracting people to the chemical industry because there is a misperception about what it is. I don’t think of myself as working in the chemical industry; we have amazing chemical-enabled platforms for solving problems. The passion and interest for the chemical industry is about the ability to change lives and advance human progress.

Developing camaraderie and solidarity with other women 

Jane – I see from your bio that you have been involved with SWE and Girl Scouts. At Dow, are you involved in any diversity and inclusion work that you’d like to mention?  Why is diversity and inclusion important?

JANE: I love the inclusion focus we have at Dow right now, and I spend time with younger employees to ensure we learn from each other. Certain trends – for example, women sometimes lack confidence and don’t always raise their hands for opportunities – require more support for women. I am also passionate about learning from my female counterparts at Dow. I didn’t have a lot of female executive role models, and it is important to have camaraderie and solidarity.

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