Why Standards Matter with Dr. Charlotte Farmer, UL Research Institutes Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
Meet our guest, Dr. Charlotte Farmer
As we round up season one of the Word to the W.I.S.E. podcast, we're joined by an experienced transformational leader, Dr. Charlotte M. Farmer, senior vice president and chief operating officer at UL Research Institutes (formerly Underwriters Laboratories). Dr. Farmer is a major proponent of operational excellence and partnering across government, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations to promote technological innovation and support fundamental and inclusive applied safety science research.
She graduated with the highest distinction in chemical engineering and holds a master's degree in chemical engineering, MBA, and doctorate in engineering. Dr. Farmer is in the Savoy magazine list of 2020’s most influential Black executives in corporate America.
Host: Dr. Charlotte Farmer, an absolute pleasure having you on the Word to the W.I.S.E. podcast.
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: It is my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Host: You have such an inspirational academic business and leadership journey. But if I were to ask you to go back to the very beginning, when did the motivation to really pursue the field of science and engineering really begin?
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: I will have to say as a young girl. I'm one of 10 siblings. And one of my siblings went to school far, far away. She went to school at Vanderbilt University in engineering. It was at that time that I saw that I could strive for something much broader than I was currently experiencing. I may have been 10 years old, and I said, “I want to be like her.” I automatically saw my sister doing amazing things. And I said, “I want that.”
Host: And for women listening to this conversation, it would be important to understand how you became a leading executive of so many large enterprises. Can you please briefly tell the story?
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: What a story. There were multiple pivots. And what I mean by pivots are points in my career when I knew it was clear that I had to reinvent myself, reimagine what was next. Because you often hear this term: what gets you here will not get you there. And my pivots were very painful, actually, and eye-opening. I'm happy to share that vulnerability with your audience. The first pivot was one where I had saved this multibillion-dollar company from closing down, and I was going to receive an award. And I'm going to a boardroom in, in reflection, it was a boardroom, but I didn't know that. I'm going up the stairs to the door, and my hand is almost on the door when this very dignified gentleman comes behind me and said, “You must be lost. Go to the receptionist to get guidance.”
It was at that point, upon reflection, I realized — you just saved the company, and the individual who you saved doesn't perceive you as the person who could be receiving this award. Now, my award came in the mail four weeks later. And I can't even begin to explain how I felt about it other than to say, I channeled those feelings into decisive action. I sought a sponsor. I immediately went into pivot mode and got an MBA. That MBA allowed me to look above — what I called it — that first pivot, my cement ceiling. You hear about a glass ceiling. You can see what's above you, you know it's there, and you're trying to figure out how to get there. A cement ceiling is . . . I didn't even see what was behind that door. And it was obvious to me that I never was going to see what was behind that door and hitting my head against the cement ceiling could only result in a lot of pain.
So that first pivot, it was the first pivot to just reinvent myself, because clearly a chemical engineer with distinction and a graduate degree in chemistry along with saving a company was not going to be enough to grow in this organization. So that was the first pivot. I'll give you a few more because I know we've got a short amount of time. After I graduated from business school and got a really cool degree, I went to Hong Kong and finished my second year. I was chased down by a consulting firm. They literally found me in Hong Kong. Nobody knew my forwarding information, so I felt pretty special, and went to work for that company, ultimately. And then there was 9/11.
Most people, at least in the States, know where they were, and they know what occurred in their lives, when 9/11 occurred. I happened to be at a really high point in my career. At least I felt like I was, and then there was tragedy all around me. A great amount of tragedy, and it was a very personal reflection of what would happen in my life. My husband was living in a different state while I was living in New York — you know, just living the New York fast-paced, life's great dream. And he basically said, “We're not moving our family to New York. It's way too different — too different, too difficult, too, too dangerous, just those three Ds.” So I had to pivot again.
Now, what I didn't tell you is that I had three kids in addition to my marvelous husband, and I had to pivot toward my family this time. That first-period pivot was away from my family in a different country. I'm grasping at the stars in my career. This next pivot was more about how do you embrace your family while doing well and continuing to grow? Booz Allen — and that was the company I was with — gave me the opportunity to completely shift. I literally had to quit one job in our commercial business and hopefully get hired into our technical business that advised the federal government. There was no transfer. I literally lost my job. I was unemployed for six long, painful months while the other part of Booz Allen decided whether they wanted me or not. In this second pivot, I'm very humble. You can think of these as peaks and valleys. I'm definitely in a valley at this point, hoping I can get an opportunity to go to the next company.
They take me in, but because I came from the ivory tower in our commercial business to our federal business, all of that came with me. I was given this test, that nobody else wants in a place that nobody else wants to go, and I was able to transform that tiny little task into an almost a billion-dollar business. I went from that valley to another peak. Well guess what? Here comes my last pivot, and then I'll let this story go. My business is really going well, and I've got another pivot I have to make because my baby, my daughter, wants to go to college, and my career is just taking over, just overshadowing my family once again. And here's my husband. He said, “Look, I raised the boys. Your daughter's 14. She needs her mom. Guess what? Charlotte, you have to make some tough decisions.” So I pivoted again. I went from running my almost billion-dollar business to going to a company that's in systems engineering.
What was enticing was: Charlotte, here are the benefits — your daughter's going to have a mom, she's got to get into a marvelous college because you're going to treat your daughter as if you're treating your clients, which is like they're going to be successful. And while you're taking this sabbatical. I literally looked at this pivot as a sabbatical, a chance to rest, refresh, and stretch myself. I went to the best possible place you could go for systems engineering, and with the intent of getting a Ph.D. while being a great mom. I went to the MITRE corporation. And then again, the universe just will not let me stay mediocre. I have to stretch. I have to grow. I have to make a positive impact. That's why I exist — to make a positive impact on the world. And in my efforts to get her into a military institution — it was West Point — you have to get Congressional approval. So here I go again, I'm hobnobbing with individuals who are going to help us get a Congressional nomination. And in the process, I began advising our nation's leaders. So here we are back at that peak again.
Good news. She gets into school. She graduates. Fast-forward, great career advising at MITRE, making a difference, and convening heads of state, heads of business, heads of academia in ways that make the world safer. And I'm at this next juncture. Another pivot, by the way, building a new capability here at Underwriters Laboratories. Long story short, you have to be humble. You have to be prepared to pivot, and you have to be prepared to change and grow and lean into that pain. Thank you for that.
Host: And just sticking with the whole idea of the cement ceiling and all the pivoting that you had to do. You had degrees in engineering, then you went on to do a master's of business administration. Do you believe you had to try harder because you were a woman and a woman of color?
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: Yes, yes, yes. Oh my gosh. Yes. Why? Not my mom. I told you I had 10 siblings. Guess what? Eight of those are girls — eight girls, two boys. And my mom would always say, to this day, she's 96, and I'm 50 blahblahblah. I'm not going to say much, but she would say, “You know, we've done as God has commanded us. And yet there's . . . there's room to…,” her way of saying, you can be the best that you can possibly be. And yet there's room, there's always room to strive and grow and do better. She would always say, as we were leaving, in addition to that, be the best one there. You have to be 10 times better to be noticed. Because here's the thing, when you walk in a room and you're not saying anything, the way you look, the way you dress, the color of your skin, your gender, they're screaming out things to people, and you're not saying anything. So when you speak, when you engage, when you make an impact, it needs to scream louder than the way you look. That has stuck with me. I show up very subdued. I wear boring clothes and boring colors so that the only thing you hear is the intonation of my voice — the meaning of my narrative, the purpose of my intent, hopefully that's what shines through. And, of course, the outcomes and the results of my actions so that you don't see the person, you just see the results.
It is, it is painful. It is true. I wish I could tell you the world is different, but it just is not. There's this notion of intersectionality. When you think of intersectionality, you think, “Oh, they're just making excuses.” Well, when you live it, you know right away. It's not an excuse. It's real. I challenge anyone listening to search for intersectionality to see what I mean.
Host: And clearly, you've had a lot of life lessons, but did you have a mentor? Someone you looked up to, to inspire you, to be where you are today? And what significant life lessons did that help you learn along the way?
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: Oh, my gosh! Did I have mentors? I mentioned my sister, and I'm not going to say the name of the sister because I have so many. I don't want to. I can't pick favorites. But what I can tell you about mentors, there wasn't just one. I like to say that I have a portfolio of mentors, and I liken it to the president's cabinet or advisers. You know, the most powerful leader in your universe, wherever you are in the world — that president, that prime minister, that leader — has advisers. And I formed what I call my board of trustees, and I've aligned them with my life goals. I have five goals. One about spirituality. I believe there's a larger power beyond who I am — around my intelligence, my intellectual curiosity. I like to grow there and stretch my professionalism, and how I show up, connect, and engage with leaders who are going to help scale and celebrate my mission in the world.
My physicality — I have to be a corporate athlete so I can actually show up. And then the way I impact the world, my social impact. Those are like five areas where I want to holistically make an impact. As you can imagine, I have advisers along each one of those. Mentors along each one. I try to get mentors who — ready for this? — who don't look like me, who are different cultures, different genders. Who stretch me beyond my understanding. Who make me better than I ever thought possible. I stretch for mentors who just might say no. I aim high for my mentors. I aim across for my mentors, and I aim low for my mentors. They come from all angles, all perspectives. My youngest mentor is 19 years old — a hacker, a person who keeps me sharp in the ways of cybersecurity. My oldest mentor is 95. My mom keeps me humble. She focuses me on my spirituality, why I exist to love and to be loved. So I have a range of mentors, and to pick out just one just seems inadequate.
Host: Wow. An entire board of mentors. The reason why I came to the question of mentors — and it's such a fabulous way that you've put it — is because when you look at the state of women in science and engineering degrees, they make up only less than 20 percent of the workforce after excelling academically. There are just so few inspirational stories of leadership and operational excellence like yours. What would it take to change that reality?
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: Whoa! What a question. I'm conflicted. I'm conflicted by the question because I have to wonder if that statistic includes founders/ owners. I always tell my kids, “I really don't want you to be an employee. I really want you to be an employer. I want you to be an owner or founder. I want you to live into what makes you just gleam inside. I want you to thrive, and that isn't always being an employee.” And they look at me and they say, “Mom, but you're a chief operating officer. That's pretty cool.” And I say, “Guess what? I'm still an employee. I'm not the owner. I'm not the founder. I'm an employee. I serve at the pleasure of the CEO who serves at the pleasure of the board.” So I still haven't answered your question. I just wanted to give you some background and context into why I'm going to respond the way I'm responding. Now, having said that, how are we going to get women from 20 percent to a percentage that actually reflects other women in our stakeholder base, the women who are consumers, the women who accept services.
How do we do that?
A couple of ways, maybe more, but I'm only going to highlight two because I know we've got so many more questions to explore together. One way — empower. Empower our women to engage in careers that they typically would not aspire to. How do we empower them? We ensure that anything, anything that would impede them from pursuing a career is mitigated. Now we have to think about those things that impede women from pursuing careers. What are they? Is it access to education? Well, let's have programs that target, unashamedly target, women to get them toward careers that they pursue. Would it be our families? Raising, you know, children? Caring for elderly parents? Let's get assistance. Let's provide childcare. Let's provide elder care. Let's provide flexibility in work experiences. If you're caring for family by day, then perhaps we allow you to have hours that help you engage when you are available to engage. Perhaps we allow jobs that don't necessarily require you to be in an office. You can be remote. I'm sure I have blind spots, and I haven't covered everything. But that first thing is to empower by removing impediments. We have to discover what those impediments are, and we have to mitigate them. Together.
That second thing is the desire. Now this gets very personal, and it gets very personal quickly. There may be women out there who simply do not desire to be in the workforce. So how do you even work with that? I challenge us to accept that if an individual chooses not to be in the workforce, then let's discover what it means for an individual. Maybe we need to re-examine the statistic. During the six months when I wasn't working, I tried to be a stay-at-home mom. I had three kids. That's the workforce. It's hard work. Should we call that work? So maybe we revisit the statistic and we determine what work really means. And then revisit this question because I'm not, I'm not so sure I am [answering how we define work]. I'm scratching my head as I'm answering this second part around desire. Maybe we just respect a percentage of these individuals who choose not to engage in work. I'm doing air quotes — “work” — as the person who put that statistic together defines work. So how do we define work? Scratching my head on that one.
Host: And sticking with the idea of desire. And so if we assume women desire to be counted in, what are the avenues and possibilities available for diverse groups in the arena of safety sciences, research, and standard development?
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: So assuming they do desire, okay, you got me there. Okay. You got me. So now I'm dealing with women who definitely do desire, who really want it. Now, ask me that question again.
Host: So, if they do desire and want it, what are the avenues and possibilities available for them in the arena of safety sciences, research, and standards development because it is a pretty large and wide area?
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: Wow. It's a huge area. This is a fun question because it invites everyone — anyone and everyone. If you are interested in being in standards, it assumes that you are aware of the applications of those standards. Okay. Now, if we're thinking about the application of the standards, then that opens up a window into every aspect of our lives when you think about Underwriters Laboratories. As I was doing my research to get my position, I read something that said Underwriters Laboratories insignia where we, test, inspect and certify products before they go into market, into our homes. It said, don't quote me on it. I'm doing the danger myself here, as many as 90 times — nine zero. Now that number, I'm just going to say, air quotes, “90 times.” A lot of times, just say . . . a lot of times — in your home, in your workplace, in your car. If you're flying, you might just see that emblem, that certificate. It basically means — if you are at least aware of how that standard will be used to ensure the safety of devices in your workplace, in your place of play, in your place of matriculation; if you're aware, that's the first thing.
The second thing is understanding. So now you need to understand how standards are created. If you can understand cooperation, collaboration, ensuring consistency across processes, you can; most people can. Then guess what? Welcome to the table — a broad audience that understands the application of standards and how they ensure that our products are safe. Bring it in a little bit more to understand the processes, the core processes necessary in establishing standards, and then bring it in a little bit more. There is science. There is technology. Perhaps having an understanding, having an education that allows you to ask complex questions, or simple questions, but certainly allowing you to explore your intellectual curiosity around the specifics for any given standard. If you've got that as a proclivity, come to the table. Awareness, understanding, intellectual curiosity. What you've probably heard me not say is you haven't heard me say, “Get an engineering degree.” You didn't hear me say, “Get a computer science degree.” You didn't hear me say that you need to be a rocket scientist. What you heard me say is intellectual curiosity. A person with a legal degree could come to the table. A person with a history degree could come to the table. A person who is very comfortable with large amounts of data and understands analytics and synthesis — Welcome. Welcome to the table. I want to ensure that I answer this question in a way that no one feels excluded. Everyone feels like they have an opportunity to engage. If you see a position out there around our standards and engagement, I want you to go for it. I want you to reach out to me in whatever avenue you see, me and social media, because there is an opportunity to engage.
Host: Interesting. So it's that intellectual curiosity, that's really going to count women and other diverse groups in, but what is an important factor in developing truly global standards? How can countries be on the same level playing field when it comes to standards and the mission to be unified and more inclusive?
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: Yes. Yes. Yes. So the word, in and of itself, means commonality. It implies, it implies commonality. It implies repeatability. It implies consistency. It implies trust and implies all of these things. And you might think that as an engineer with a Ph.D., a doctorate degree in engineering, I would give you a very scientific answer. Instead, I'm going to give you an answer that is perhaps more difficult to even achieve. When we attempt standards across our planet, it means that we have to open ourselves up to appreciate the cultures that will be impacted by the standard. What works in one nation may not work in another nation for very obvious reasons. And these could be blind spots to us. So what I say as the answer is opening ourselves up to listen and to learn before taking action. That is the most important thing that we can do as humans. To listen, to learn and then internalize and process and determine what the standard will mean for the culture that it's in. What are the implications of it? That's the critical thinking part. So these are the things that are very important: being open to listening and learning, and then taking what you've learned, your sensing, and apply the critical thinking. To then have a standard that is robust across multiple cultures, that is the most important part. The collaboration piece. When we create standards, and I say “we,” I mean, not just Underwriters Laboratories. I mean any organization that is in the business of designing standards. It is imperative to ensure that bias is not in the standard. That it's. That it's a consensus approach. Thus listen, learn critical thinking, open collaboration for consensus approach to building standards. That's the real value.
Host: And how important is it to keep the conversation going on why standards matter so much in the field of science and engineering, especially across gender and other diversities across the globe?
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: Why standards matter so much? You would think that I would give an Underwriters Laboratories answer and that would show bias because it's my job. Of course, I'm going to say standards matter so much because I'm in the business of standards. But I'm actually going to give you a response from another part of my life when I was responsible for transportation security for our nation — moving millions of people every day, moving commerce across the globe safely and securely. In that position, while it was certainly advising on transportation security impacting our globe, it was incumbent upon us to have standards because a standard is a common language. It allows all of us who speak millions of languages with even more dialects to come together in one perspective. We all converge on one perspective. It is a common point of understanding and behaving and designing and innovating. It brings us together as one. Now, why is that so important?
Why is it so important for us as a globe to converge as one on any given topic? Well, for safety, for security, for sustainability. In these cases, as humans, we divorce ourselves from all of those other things that I call noise, and we focus in on that one signal of humanity. And not many people would think of, okay, Charlotte, you're stretching it. You're going from humanity to standards. Okay. Scratch your head on that. But bear with me, bear with me here. If we all converge on the power of one: one view that will keep us safe, secure and sustainable. Let me give you an example: I'm going through an airport. I'm picking just one mode of transportation. I could pick rails. I could pick road. I could pick submarines. I could pick ships. I could pick any other mode of transportation. I just happened to pick air travel. Let's say I'm going on a trip. And I'm going to drive. I then get out of my car and park in a parking lot. I walk from the parking lot to the front of the airport. Then I go into the airport, go through security and get on the plane. Guess what? There may have been hundreds of standards from the time I got out of my car to the time I got on the plane, [standards] that govern the way technology engages for my security.
What do I mean by that? There are sensors that detect things about the way I look, the way I engage. There might be cameras. There might be video. You know, I've put my hands up, and I'm going through the sensor that checks for metal and those sensors need a way to communicate. A standard is used to ensure that they have one language. These electronics can’t communicate without the standard, the video can't talk to the screen that I just walked through to determine if I'm dangerous or not. All of these electronic gizmos, if you will, have one standard that drives the way they communicate. And that keeps me safe. Okay, I'm getting boring. I'm getting nerdy. I went from humanity to standards to gizmos — that's a bit much. Pull me back in.
Host: That's a very powerful and yet grounded explanation of the power of why standards matter. But if we were to get closing on the key lessons, you know, what would you say are two or three key leadership lessons that you've learned in your scientific and business career that you would like to pass on to listeners of this conversation?
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: Hmm, two or three leadership lessons. Number one, humility. Do not take yourself too seriously. That's the first one. The reason I say that one — is . . . if you're going to live, you're going to fail — unless you're just hiding somewhere and you're not trying very hard or you're not stretching very far. Chances are you're gonna fail. So just, just be humble, be willing to, to fail. I always tell people — if you haven't failed in your goal, you just haven't set any stretch goals. I'm one of those people who embraces individuals who tell me that they've tried, they’ve failed, and they persevere. The first one is — be humble and just have a sense of humor. That should be adequate enough for you to be okay with failing.
The second thing is perseverance. I guarantee you, most of us have been rejected in some form or fashion. I've tried for jobs. I didn't get them. My feelings were hurt. And I'm grateful that I didn't get some of those jobs because I ended up where I am now. It is a blessing that I didn't get [them]. I'm so happy I didn't get some of those jobs. Rejection was the best thing that ever happened to me. I mean, I survived 9/11 because someone didn't give me an interview. Because I didn't get that interview, I didn't go to New York on that day. I went someplace else. Thank goodness for rejection. Perseverance — that's the second one. Don't take yourself too seriously. Persevere.
And then the third one is be inclusive, be respectful. You're going to get advice from lots of people. Listen to the person who is four levels below you. What they have to say matters. It perhaps matters as much as your colleagues. I open my door to any and everyone. Oftentimes that can be tough because there are a lot of people on the other side of that door. The thing is, I listen to anyone and everyone who has a perspective so that I can use my critical thinking, weigh it, assess it, and consider it in the way I engage. So be humble, persevere, and be open to other perspectives.
Host: Listen, and I would say anyone who's listening to this podcast needs to listen to it right till the end. Because you've given us a lot to think about, Dr. Charlotte Farmer. Thank you for taking out so much time to speak to us on the the Word to the W.I.S.E. podcast.
Dr. Charlotte Farmer: Thank you for having me. I’m honored.
Editor's note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.
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