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The Road Less Travelled: An interview with Megan Livak
Kristen McGillivray, Western Canada Water
First up for our interview series is Megan Livak. Megan is currently the Manager of Association Engagement at the Water Environment Federation (WEF). She graduated with a degree in Psychology from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. I’ve known Megan for a couple of years and finally had the chance to meet her in person at the AWWA/WEF YP Summit in Nashville earlier this year. One thing that has always struck me about Megan is her energy – you feel her passion and that she truly cares about everyone around her.
My career path has been anything but linear. I began my college career as a Biology/Pre-Med major and decided that by my junior year, I did not want to attend medical school. I graduated from Lafayette College in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and began working for Van Cleef Engineering Associates, a multi-disciplinary, civil engineering firm based in Hillsborough, NJ, as their New Business Development Coordinator. I can honestly say, I never thought I’d wind up working for an engineering firm, especially with my background, but the opportunity presented itself and I took it.
Q. What sparked your interest to pursue a career in the water industry? Can you describe a moment where you realized this was the field you wanted to work in?
A. I like to say that I just “fell” into the water industry. I worked at Van Cleef for 9 years and during my time there, was introduced to the water industry through the NJWEA, one of WEF’s 75 Member Associations.
I joined the NJWEA and became involved with WEF in 2014 when my company had been an exhibitor at the NJWEA John J. Lagrosa Annual Conference for many years, and my manager sent me to man the booth that year. One of my friends who worked for our electrical subconsultant came by and asked me to attend the YP Meeting that afternoon with her. So, I went and signed up to be a part of the committee. I became very involved with various Young Professionals subcommittees and events and was elected Co-Chair and then Chair of the NJWEA Young Professionals in May of 2015. That year, the NJWEA sent me to the Utility Management Conference’s YP Summit in Austin, Texas.
The 2015 YP Summit was absolutely the turning point in my career. Up until that point, I wasn’t sure what I truly wanted to do with my life. I was enjoying doing the Marketing and Business Development for my consulting civil engineering firm, but there was something missing. I’m the kind of person that feels deeply and exudes passion in everything I do. I believe in making a difference and inspiring others to come together to be that change. So, what better industry to be in then the water industry, where I can work with passionate people that want to make a difference in the world. I think the coolest thing about this story is that I went from YP Summit attendee to managing the exact event that made me want to be in this industry!
Working in Water
Q. What excites you most about working in the water industry?
A. I absolutely love that I have the power to make a difference and have an impact on so many people around the globe. I work with the Students and Young Professionals, who are the future leaders of the industry and I am excited to have the opportunity to groom the next generation of water leadership. Being a YP myself, I know how important mentorship and leadership is, especially after being the NJWEA YP Chair. I want to be able to share my association knowledge and my passion for the water industry and build a place for students and YP’s to join, stay engaged, and grow in preparation for taking on leadership roles. I have the opportunity to be a mentor and create a safe place as well as a place of value for the SYP’s to come and seek guidance and advice and grow into the next generation of water leaders.
I think I bring a unique perspective to my position. I understand MA’s because I started out at the MA Level. WEF has offered me a chance to become a leader; to take on leadership roles not only within my MA, but now as a WEF Staffer. It’s offered me resources, professional development opportunities, and mentorship opportunities to help me grow as a leader, an employee, and an individual. I am so excited to have this new opportunity as the new Student and YP Manager to mentor the Students and YP’s, to share my experience from an MA level, and to continue the process of grooming and integrating the next generation of leaders.
Q. What does an average (or not so average) day look like for you?
A. Every day is different, and I love it that way. One day I may be in the office, and the next day, I could be helping to build a bioswale, attending a WEFMAX meeting, speaking at a YP Summit, helping an MA create a Water Palooza event at their Annual Conference, or engaging with SYP’s at the DC Water Week Policy Fly-In. I am constantly on the move, meeting and working with not just Students and YP’s, but members and water professionals all over the world. I’m not sure if you know this, but I REALLY love my job!
Q. What advice would you give to someone interested in working in water? What experience should they try pick up?
A. DO IT! Water is the most valuable resource we have on this planet, and we need smart and fiercely passionate people to make sure it is preserved.
INVEST IN YOURSELF. I know there can be hurdles, especially if you are a young professional or new to your job, or you don’t have the funds or PTO to attend various events. Make the time to get involved. Be creative. Let your employer know about WEF or other professional organizations in the industry, and the resources these organizations offer, especially regarding professional development opportunities. Your employer may sponsor you, so don’t be afraid to ask. It not only benefits you, but also gives your employer exposure to the industry. For example, my employer would allow me to attend the NJWEA conference and various NJWEA sponsored events, including executive committee meetings, but never sponsored me for national events like WEFTEC. I knew if I wanted to advance in my career, that I needed to attend these types of events. So, I made my way to WEFTEC on my own dime. I budgeted, used my vacation days, cashed in my airline points to book a roundtrip flight and stayed in an AirBnB with 2 other friends. I looked at it as both an investment in myself and my career.
Misconceptions about the Water Industry
I think a huge misconception about the water industry, and one that I believed for a long time, is that it’s a limited field. That it just involves engineers and vendors. Yes, they are a huge part of our industry, but there are so many other ways to be involved in water. There are New Business Development and Marketing/Sales Professionals, Operators, Scientists, Biologists, Academics, Utility Managers, Water Policy Advocates, among so many others. There is a place for you. Don’t be afraid to explore the endless possibilities. I know for me, I wasn’t an engineer or operator and didn’t have a specific skill set that put me directly into the industry. So, when this opportunity with WEF presented itself, I knew that I had to take the leap.
Q. It’s hard to talk about mistakes but they help us learn. What’s your best advice for handling a mistake?
A. I don’t ever see a “fail” or “mistake”. I see a learning experience and an opportunity to do and be better and to grow. It’s all about the journey, not the destination. If you made an error, own up to it. Honesty is the best policy, and integrity goes a long way. Instead of taking it to heart, ask yourself how you can improve moving forward.
Q. Did you ever experience any uncertainty that this was the right career path for you?
A. Absolutely, because I didn’t have a specific skill that put me in this industry, I honestly wondered if I could succeed without having more of a technical background. Boy, was I wrong. Like I said earlier, there are so many ways to be in this industry and sometimes, you just need to get creative like I did when I took the position at WEF. I knew my strengths and was able to use my previous experiences and MA experience to enhance not only my position but add value to the industry.
Q. Do you have a mentor? How important do you think mentorship is?
A. I do, and I think it’s important to have multiple mentors. I’ve chosen some great mentors both in and out of the industry, who all lead by example. They have challenged me to step out of my comfort zone, work hard regardless of the task, communicate effectively, and take things as they come. Nothing is ever a fail, just a learning experience. My goal is to share my experiences and knowledge with the future of the industry and continue to grow as a leader and a mentor myself.
Q. What accomplishment or project are you most proud of?
A. My greatest accomplishment would be qualifying for the 2017 USA Triathlon National Team and representing Team USA at the 2017 ITU World Championship Grand Final in Rotterdam, Netherlands. I am a lifetime athlete and my goal ever since I was a fiery 7-year-old swimmer had always been to represent the USA at the Olympics or an International race. Triathlon gave me a second chance to reach that goal, and after twenty-three years of hard work, determination and adaptation, my dream came true in 2017.
It certainly wasn’t easy, but nothing good comes easy. My path has been full of the unexpected twists and turns, but I was able to adapt, try new things and keep my eye on that ultimate end goal of qualifying for Team USA, 23 years in the making. It’s been about adapting and listening to my body, believing that anything is possible, and remembering WHY I do this. I’ve never been so proud or humbled to represent myself, my family, my beautiful country and the sport of triathlon.
Megan is a USA Triathlon Ambassador, and recently wrote an article for the blog. Click the links below to learn more about her!