In honor of Black History Month, DTE’s employee resource group REACH (Respecting Ethnic and Cultural Heritage) celebrated their sixth annual Trailblazers award ceremony recognizing three DTE employees for their exceptional leadership and mentorship in blazing a path for others to follow. Cornelia Butler is a 2022 Trailblazer awardee, recognized for her accomplished work to help connect Black students, community members, and employees to learning, development, and growth opportunities in STEM.

Cornelia Butler is the director of Emergency Preparedness and Restoration, responsible for oversight, strategic direction, and leadership of the emergency management and storm business continuity programs. Previously, she was manager of the Distribution Operation Performance Center, leading the Continuous Improvement group, known as the Synergy team. The group uses a variety of engineering disciplines to improve productivity, quality output, and process design. Throughout her career, Cornelia has excelled in various other positions, including gas storage planner, revenue and consumption forecaster, and expert witness in Gas Operations.

Cornelia has a passion for building engaged teams and ensuring people on her team are recognized for their exceptional work through job rotations, career progressions, and early leadership opportunities. She recently made a mark for her exceptional work to refocus DO’s recruiting strategy to hire more diverse engineers. Understanding that more than 85% of our company’s entry-level engineers are co-ops or summer interns and more than 50% of every college degreed African American graduate from a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), Cornelia saw an opportunity to build relationships with HBCUs and attract co-op and summer interns to DTE.

Starting in 2020, Cornelia spearheaded recruiting and partnership building with two HBCUs. With the support of Denise Sampson, Terrell Lockhart, Charles Fowlkes, Rita Lucaj, and many others, the team hired 26 co-ops and summer students from six HBCUs, and from the pool of 26 students, hired two full-time engineers in DO.

“Cornelia has the knack to drive a highly engaged, successful team and ensure that everyone on the team has a sense of belonging,” said Denise Sampson, manager, Distribution Operations. “She is the epitome of a great leader. I have learned so much from her, including how to be persistent and resilient when managing complex projects and when navigating my career. Cornelia is intentional about developing personal relationships and lifts others as she climbs.”

Another colleague, Rita Lucaj, director, Human Resources, added, “Cornelia is always willing to do the hard thing, take risks and go down a path that isn’t already there. Her passion for opening doors and developing people coming behind her is contagious and leaves a lasting impact in DO.”

We asked Cornelia a few questions about what it means to be a trailblazer, who has positively impacted her life, and what wisdom she has to impart to others.

What does being a trailblazer mean to you?

First and foremost, it’s an honor to even be considered a trailblazer, and one for which I am grateful. It means a lot that many have recognized my passion, and my contribution to the work, around the issues of equity and diversity here at DTE. It also means that there are now opportunities for others to follow, replicate and improve.

Tell us about the first person who inspired you and what they said or did to inspire you?

My inspiration is and will always be my mother. My mother was a trailblazer in her own right. At the age of nine, she worked washing and ironing people’s clothes, and from there she waited tables at a small diner. Despite being denied her dream to apply to nursing school because of lack of access and unfair employment practices, she persevered to eventually earned her Licensed Practical Nurse. She continued her education graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree. She was valedictorian of her nursing school class on her way to becoming a registered nurse. 

My mother’s colleagues, including physicians, always shared how smart, goal-focused, and caring my mother was during the 30+ years that she worked as an RN at the state’s leader in emergency medicines and trauma care, Detroit Receiving Hospital.

I marveled at her elegance, grace, tenacity, perseverance, and intelligence as I grew up on the lower east side of Detroit. My mother always said, “Do something with today’s time. One way or another it will pass, so take advantage of the time availed to you.” She is an example of a leader and a trailblazer that I follow to this day, and her words of wisdom continue to spur me on.

What advice would you give others, who might follow in your footsteps?

If you see gaps in processes, have concerns about various actions or programs, ask pertinent questions and if you can, fix it! Don’t wait for others to do it. Take the opportunity to improve and know, that here at DTE, you will not be alone. 

Want to learn more about how DTE is working to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace? Read more about our efforts here