WEF President: Operators Have Important Skills and Insights of Value to the Organization

Ifetayo Venner sees operators as important participants in the federation and looks for ways to break down barriers to their involvement

WEF President: Operators Have Important Skills and Insights of Value to the Organization

Ifetayo Venner

Ifetayo Venner has come a long way from her childhood in the Caribbean. The time she spent on island beaches kindled a love for water that grew into a prosperous career.

Today, Venner is senior vice president in the water business of the Arcadis environmental consulting firm and president of the Water Environment Federation for 2022-23. As president Venner leads the WEF board of trustees in providing governance, oversight and direction on implementing the federation’s new strategic plan.

That plan includes cultivating a purpose-driven community to solve water challenges sustainably, leading the transformation to the circular water economy, and attracting and developing a diverse and passionate workforce to the water professions. To Venner, that diversity includes more engagement with plant operators as a source of valuable insights and perspectives.

Venner’s water career spans two decades, and for most of that time she has been active in WEF and other industry associations. She has served on the WEF board for five years, including one-year terms as vice president and president-elect.

She holds degrees in environmental engineering from McGill University in Montreal (bachelor’s) and Stanford University (master’s) and an MBA from the University of South Florida. Venner is a member of the Florida Water Environment Association and the Water Environment Association of Texas, both WEF Member Associations.

From the Tampa office of Arcadis, she is responsible for planning, design and startup of municipal wastewater treatment and reuse facilities throughout the U.S. She has been the wastewater service leader since 2016. Venner talked about her career journey and her priorities as WEF president in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: How did you form your attachment to water?

Venner: I’m a product of the Caribbean. I was born in Jamaica and also lived in St. Vincent and Barbados. I did most of my schooling in Barbados but finished in Jamaica. I have family on the different islands and spent a lot of my summers on them as well. My mother is a doctor, and she had a clinic near the beach so I would go to the beach fairly often. That’s how my love affair with water began.

TPO: At that early age, did any mentors steer you toward a career in water?

Venner: Over time I would see the beach eroding, and I would ask questions about it. My mother had a cousin who was a coastal engineer, and she told me to ask him questions. He explained to me why that was happening. One Easter break he took me to where he worked, and I got to meet all the engineers. That’s where I really got interested in water. My mother thought I was maybe going to join Greenpeace. She steered me to the engineering side, noting how much I liked science and solving problems.

TPO: What attracted you to becoming active in WEF?

Venner: A senior colleague at Arcadis said I needed to join AWWA and WEF and should get involved as a way to network and have professional training. I joined the young professionals groups in the Connecticut AWWA section and the New England Water Environment Association. After about five years I moved to Florida, and the same colleague suggested we write a paper together for WEFTEC. It was accepted. I showed up to WEFTEC, looked around and said, “This is amazing. I have to figure out how to get back here every year.”

TPO: How did you move through the ranks at WEF?

Venner: I looked at what committees I could get involved with, and I started with the Municipal Resource Recovery Design Committee. It snowballed from there. I also became engaged in the Program Committee, Sustainability Committee Chair and then the Sustainability Community of Practice director. Along the way, WEF members and staff would engage me in initiatives. When I was almost done with something, someone would say, “You should try this next.” As I was finishing as Community of Practice director, a couple of past presidents encouraged me to apply for the board of trustees.

TPO: What would you say to clean-water operators or engineering colleagues about the benefits of being active in an organization like WEF?

Venner: No. 1 has been the community. I work for an organization where I have access to technical experts, but wastewater treatment is different from place to place. It can be very dynamic, which makes it fun. But a lot of times you have questions. Did this happen elsewhere? Did someone try this piece of equipment or this online analyzer? And through WEF I have a network where I can reach out and ask those questions. It’s a great tool to facilitate knowledge and the advancement of innovation.

TPO: Did your WEF activities help enhance any particular career skills?

Venner: The WEF committees are essentially where I learned my leadership skills in a lower-risk setting before I had to apply them in my real job. I don’t think I would have advanced as far without that experience. It has also been valuable just being able to interact with my peers and my clients in a relaxed environment. In my experience at WEF, people in the water sector are very collaborative. Where water is the mission they are driven to make the water sector better.

TPO: How do you envision an expanded role for operators in WEF?

Venner: A lot of our committees now are heavily consultant- and engineer-based. We’re striving to make sure that operators are better represented, because we value their voices. We need to break down the barriers to their ability to participate, or even wanting to participate. We want more operator representation on our committees and in the WEFTEC program beyond the Operations Challenge. Stephen Sanders, who is director of the environmental training center at the State University of New York Morrisville, is a member of our board, and I hope he helps break down some of those barriers.

TPO: Do those barriers include the ability to get time off and reimbursement for travel?

Venner: Yes. When it comes time to decide who goes to this or that conference, it’s usually the senior folks. When we engage with operators, that connection to the sector outside of their daily jobs really advances their careers and improves their job performance. But it can be hard for them to communicate that justification to their supervisors. We’re very interested in knowing what things would help facilitate their participation.

TPO: What other professional roles do you see as important to carrying out WEF’s mission?

Venner: We’ve been looking at how to get manufacturers more engaged with our programs and committees. Communications folks are also critical as we talk about telling our stories.

TPO: What went into the creation of the WEF strategic plan?

Venner: Over a period of four months we conducted surveys and focus groups with our members and various stakeholders. We talked to leaders in the water sector and in some cases people outside the sector but connected to water. We asked why they were WEF members, why they engaged with us, what they needed from us, and where they thought the water sector was going.

TPO: What would you say is the key component of the strategic plan?

Venner: To be successful in any of the things we’re doing, we need to be more visible and vocal, both within and outside our water community. In our three-year outcome statement we talk about amplifying the stories of water and growing, strengthening and diversifying the water community. The idea behind that is telling our stories. As an industry where a lot of our infrastructure is hidden, we have also been a bit hidden, and that has hampered us in terms of being able to attract the investment and the workforce we need.

TPO: How would you rate the importance of drawing people into the water sector?

Venner: Our first goal is around attracting and developing a diverse and passionate water workforce. Part of that is raising public awareness through storytelling so that people can see water as a viable and great career. It also includes reducing barriers to the entry and retention of folks within water, and making sure once they are here that WEF is providing opportunities for them to connect with each other. Professional education is a huge component — making sure they are growing in their careers and have the tools necessary to do the important work they do for their communities.

TPO: What specifically is meant by reducing barriers to entry into the water workforce? 

Venner: Many people aren’t even aware that the water sector exists as an option, and that’s especially so among some of our under-represented groups. Our InFLOW program, for example, is designed to actively reach out and bring those people to WEFTEC so they can become aware of all the various career options and make connections.

TPO: Do diversity, equity and inclusion remain as priorities?

Venner: Yes. We formed a workforce DE&I task force in 2018 and then a board DE&I committee in 2020. We’ve been investing in DE&I over the last four years and continue to view that as key. We want our WEF communities and committees to reflect the diversity of the water workforce. Coming into this industry as a minority, I showed up to my first conference, looked around and thought, “This does not reflect me or the people I grew up with. If I’m not seeing folks like me in the higher positions, do I have a shot at getting to that level?” We want to make WEF more inclusive and accessible to folks from different backgrounds.

TPO: Is the recovery and reuse of resources still a major focus?

Venner: Yes. We have a goal around making the transformation to a circular water economy. That means conserving the resources we have, but also recognizing that in wastewater we have valuable resources to recover and reuse. We want to lead that transformation by helping to put innovation into practice, and by forging partnerships with industries that rely on the products in wastewater, such as agricultural, food and beverage, oil and gas.

TPO: What does the plan say about changes within WEF itself?

Venner: We are focused on how we can do better as an organization in cultivating community. When we talked to our members, we heard time and again that what they love about WEF is the community we foster, and that they get to connect with people outside of their jobs. We want to improve our member experience, delivering content and programming in innovative and exciting ways.


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