Paying back—or paying forward to those who are there now and in the future—is really important.”
Although no one in her family had ever graduated from college, at age 12, Colleen Connor knew she wanted to be a lawyer; at 15, an environmental lawyer; and at 18, an environmental lawyer working globally. "Without knowing a lot about what it meant, I knew what I wanted to be," she says.
Her clear-eyed vision bore results. Today, at General Electric Co., America's second-largest multinational, she is environment, health and safety (EHS) manager and counsel for its Power & Water business. That puts her squarely in the middle of the action on such environmentally crucial approaches as renewable energy technologies, energy conservation, and water desalinization and reuse, as well as workplace safety issues. "It allows me to be a part of the solution in the long-term," she says. "For those of us in industry who are environmentalists at heart, power and water is a great place to be."
She was key in driving the environmental compliance results in GE's water business to an all-time high in all metrics and in putting strict U.S. health and safety rules into place at 50 GE factories in 30 countries. When she saw that a daycare center in a Brazilian factory that GE was acquiring shared a wall with a dangerous metals-processing unit, she ordered the center moved; a month later, in a flash fire, the former center burned down. "GE has always been a place where I didn't have to prove the value of EHS to the management," she says. "Everyone is ready to go-I just have to show them how to get there."
Vermont Law School gave her the first introduction to GE, during a Semester in Practice and a summer internship. "VLS changed who I am and opened lots of doors for me," she says. She chose it in 1982 for its "intimate community" (her dorm floor at Michigan State had more students than her entire VLS class) and its supportive culture. "I never felt I was competing with a fellow classmate for a grade or opportunity or exposure-we were all in this together," she says.
After graduating in 1985, she worked for the EPA in Manhattan on clean water and asbestos issues and for a law firm in New Jersey that handled industrial property transfers. "I realized that where I would fit best, be happiest, and do the most good would be to work for a corporation with an environmental conscience," she says. In 1993, she made a phone call to GE and was hired in two weeks to lead the group that handled the environmental aspects of buying and selling industrial properties. In 2005, she became manager and counsel of EHS for GE's Water & Process Technologies, and as of this September, she heads EHS for both power and water, managing a 300-person staff.
Amid business travel to 30 countries, she has carved out time for VLS, serving on the alumni board six years and becoming a trustee this year. "I feel that paying back-or paying forward to those who are there now and in the future-is really important," she says. She brings with her an industry-savvy perspective and a special concern: "We have a duty to keep the tuition down so folks can afford to go to law school and can afford to do jobs they want to afterward that aren't necessarily well paid."Colleen lives in Fairfield, Connecticut, with her husband, Brian Kelahan, a New Haven high school teacher. Their three sons, ages 18 to 23, are environmentally astute, but, she sighs, "They still use more water bottles than I'd like!"