As a customer delivery and area operations support manager at Duke Energy, Heather Oxendine leads a group of engineers who design improvements that enhance grid reliability and efficiency on the coasts of North and South Carolina.
Her other role, one that spans the entirety of Duke Energy’s seven-state footprint, is to be a voice for modern indigenous people.
“People are surprised to learn how many local tribes there are,” Oxendine said. “So it’s important to demonstrate our culture is thriving; we live and work among you.”
As chair of Forever Indigenous: Resource Support Team (FIRST), an employee resource group, Oxendine helps advocate for and promote cultural awareness.
“When people ask me, ‘Would you be interested in working anywhere else?’ I always say no. Duke Energy has been way too good to me,” she said. “And it’s because I’m able to bring my culture with me to work, to see how diversity is valued here.”
A chance to give back
Oxendine is also active in AISES, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, a nonprofit that wants to increase representation of indigenous people in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
She celebrated the moment when Duke Energy sponsored an AISES conference in Lumberton, N.C., home of the Lumbee tribe, and at the place she earned her engineering degree, Robeson Community College.
“There’s a lot of pride in being able to say, ‘Eighteen years ago I walked through this door, kind of unsure about what my career path would be,'" she said. "Coming back, bringing a name like Duke Energy with me, it felt like my chance to pay it forward."
In addition to its sponsorship, which helped AISES award eight scholarships in 2023, Duke Energy met with prospective job applicants – alongside employers like NASA and Microsoft.
“It’s about inspiring people about a potential career here,” Oxendine said. “And they were surprised to learn what that can look like. It’s not a company made up entirely of lineworkers and engineers. You can be a website developer, a biologist or work in finance.”
Expanding the talent pipeline
To find the most qualified people to fill those roles, Duke Energy recruits from historically Black colleges and universities, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers, as well as AISES and other organizations that support the 600,000-plus Native Americans who live in Duke Energy’s service areas.
This outreach is led by Director of Talent Acquisition and Workforce Development Ron Wages.
“We continue to expand our pipeline of candidates," Wages said, "in order to find the best talent to lead our clean energy transition, while maintaining reliability and affordability for customers."
Partnerships with local and national organizations, managed by Wages' talent acquisition team, ensure that more individuals are aware of the roles and opportunities that exist.
"We want everyone to see Duke Energy as a great place to work,” Wages said. “Here, you can build a phenomenal, longstanding career, provide value to our customers and be instrumental in reaching our net-zero carbon emissions goal by 2050.”
Creating a sense of belonging
Recruiting the best talent is followed by an equally important job of ensuring they stay. At the helm is Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Sharene Pierce.
“When people join us,” Pierce said, “they see a leadership team that’s diverse – women, people of color – which reenforces the feeling, ‘There is a place for you here.’”
In addition to creating a sense of belonging, Pierce said diversity and inclusion drive insight and innovation.
“When we reflect our communities, we gain a deeper understanding of our customers. That insight puts us in a better position to serve them,” she said. “We’re using that to change the way we do business, not just as a company but as an industry.”
Employees are encouraged to share their perspectives by joining one (or more) of Duke Energy’s 10 employee resource groups. ERGs are formed around shared characteristics or life experiences, and membership is open to all employees.
The goal, Pierce said, is to get to know people with different backgrounds to learn what challenges they face and what similarities exist and to understand others’ perspectives.
It’s what motivated Oxendine to launch FIRST in 2021, with help from executive sponsor Dwight Jacobs, senior vice president, supply chain and chief procurement officer. As chair, she organizes speakers and brings employees together for cultural celebrations.
“It’s an opportunity to show people how these parts of me coexist,” Oxendine said. “I am Duke Energy and I am Lumbee Indian. And here’s why I’m better off for it.”
For people like Jacobs, who is also Lumbee but didn’t grow up in a tribal territory, FIRST is a chance to learn more about his own culture.
“As an adult, I’ve gotten curious about what I might have missed,” Jacobs said. “How did my ancestors settle here? Why the tribal name Lumbee? What’s the difference between a Cherokee and Croatan? So, I always tell people, ‘Come be curious. You’ll learn and you’ll be better off for it.’”
What does your future hold?
Interested in building a smarter, cleaner and more resilient energy future? Consider a summer internship at Duke Energy, named to Fortune’s 2023 “World’s Most Admired Companies" list.
Paid internships are open to college students pursuing careers or degrees in engineering (civil, mechanical, environmental, industrial and engineering tech), information technology (IT), project management, project controls, business, operations, cybersecurity, computer science, MBA and more.
Any student interested in a paid Duke Energy internship for summer 2024 should text INTERN2024 to 71729 for more information.