The higher calling in a career

From building cars to fuel cells, LAS alumna Susan Brennan takes a stand for women and sustainability

Susan Brennan, chief operations officer at Bloom Energy Corporation, has built upon her career success to introduce more women to male-dominated industries. (Photo courtesy of Bloom Energy Corporation.)
Susan Brennan, chief operations officer at Bloom Energy Corporation, has built upon her career success to introduce more women to male-dominated industries. (Photo courtesy of Bloom Energy Corporation.)

Susan Brennan grew up in Granite City, Illinois, and remembers crossing the Mississippi River to go from her grandmother’s house to St. Louis, pinching her nose shut with her two fingers the entire time.

“It was a steel town and a wonderful place to grow up. The people and the values. The great parks, great schools, and the hard, hard working people,” she said. “But it smells like hydrogen sulfide.”

This is one of the reasons that Brennan (BS, ’85, microbiology) has developed a passion for environmental sustainability, something she works on everyday as chief operations officer at Bloom Energy Corporation, a Silicon Valley company that creates sustainable, on-site electric power systems based on solid oxide fuel cell technology.  

“From a young age, I always believed you could have jobs and a sustainable environment. So Bloom is my vision imagined,” Brennan said.

At Bloom Energy, Brennan handles many duties but ultimately oversees projects from the time a sales order is made until the project is complete. She secures strategic material, runs factories, procures and secures parts, and manages business strategy.

Brennan’s accomplishments were recognized this year by Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management, and Education (AWESOME), an organization focused on advancing women’s leadership in supply chain operations. Brennan was awarded the Legendary Leadership Award for her own success, as well as her commitment to bringing women into the male-dominated industry of management and supply chain. Prior to working for Bloom Energy, Brennan had a successful career in the auto-industry, another largely male-dominated field.

“I’m very honored. I’ve been doing this a long time. Some things change, some things don’t. And the need to get more women into manufacturing and technology doesn’t change,” she said.

While Brennan enjoyed her microbiology degree at Illinois, and while she was aided throughout her career by the technical skills she built while earning the degree, she decided that working in research laboratories wasn’t something she wanted to do for her entire life. This decision came about after some soul-searching, as family history had led Brennan to the field in the first place.  Brennan’s father passed away from a congenital heart issue at age 29, when Brennan was five years old, and her grandfather passed away at age 39. These tragedies led Brennan to study gene expression after graduation from U of I.

“I loved the process, I loved the challenge, and at 20, I didn’t want other kids to go through what I had gone through, losing a parent tragically,” Brennan said.

However, after four years spent in the lab, she knew that this line of work wasn’t for her and went on to get her MBA from the University of Nebraska.

“I knew there were better ways for me to contribute to the world,” Brennan recalled.

It was this realization that eventually catapulted Brennan from lab work to entering management and supply chain in the auto industry.

“A philosophy I have is the worst thing you can do is fail and go back to doing what you were doing before, and the best thing you can do is be successful,” she said.

Brennan found success working at Douglas & Lomason Company, an auto parts supplier. Under her leadership, Douglas & Lomason built a components plant and won the coveted Job 1 Award from Ford within six months, something that had never been done in the auto industry at the time. While at Nissan, Brennan helped launch the Nissan Leaf in 2010, an electric car that remains one of the most popular on the market today.

“We launched five vehicles within 18 months, which had never been done in the automotive industry,” Brennan said. “I was able to bring the Nissan Leaf to the North American market. I was very fortunate to be able to do what most people aren’t as fortunate to do.”

However, her time in these work environments didn’t come without challenges.

“I was excluded in an interesting way and there was clearly a lot of bias,” Brennan recalled. “I had to work three times as hard to get half the amount of credit.”

Brennan began a group nine years ago called the Southern Automotive Women’s Forum aimed at scholarship and professional development. The group has given $250,000 in scholarships the past eight years, but it also serves as a safe place for women in the auto industry to grow, connect, and develop professionally.

Now, Brennan often speaks to young girls in middle school and high school to encourage them to go into STEM fields. Ten years ago, a popular study determined that most young girls experience an unfavorable view of women in STEM. So when speaking to young girls, Brennan does what she can to combat negative stereotypes of women in traditionally male-dominated fields.

While Brennan said that she would have enjoyed concluding her career at Nissan, the 51 year-old revamped her life to move to Silicon Valley to pursue the work in sustainability that had been in her mind ever since childhood.

“Sustainability was one of the considerations coming to Bloom, and I’ve been so fortunate in my career to be able to work on this passion,” she said. “I’ve been able to bring in the skills I built in the auto industry, and the skills I have that I never used in the auto industry. I use my right brain, and my left brain. Learning is an absolute must. You can’t ever stop learning.”

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Samantha Jones Toal