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'Trailblazer' Jessica Polak leading the way in Niagara

Jessica Polak wasn’t always comfortable being described as a “trailblazer,” but she’s warming up to the idea these days.

Jessica Polak, Vice-President of Operations at OPG’s South Central Operations
Jessica Polak, Vice-President of Operations at OPG’s South Central Operations.

From her beginnings in the steel industry in Nanticoke, to her current position as Vice-President of Operations at OPG’s South Central region, she was often the first female to take on many of her roles.

At first, she didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about.

“I was 25 years old when I first became a supervisor in the blast furnace, a job where there had never been a female in the position at that steel mill,” said Polak. “I was supervising men, who on average were twice my age, and I wasn’t quite as intimidated as I perhaps should’ve been. It didn’t faze me.”

It wasn’t until one of those men started giving her problems that she realized perhaps her gender and age had something to do with it.

“It doesn’t bother me these days, but you do get more attention,” she said. “Your mistakes might stick out a bit more to certain people. Confirmation bias comes into play.”

At a young age, Polak had ambitions of becoming a lawyer. That dream morphed into engineering after a talk with a guidance counsellor in high school.

Polak, third from right, is a natural leader, frequently visiting production staff at the plants to appreciate the work up close.
Polak, third from right, is a natural leader, frequently visiting production staff at the plants to appreciate the work up close.

While studying mechanical engineering and psychology at Western University, she knew she wanted to lead, but the idea of being an entrepreneur was appealing. This led her to pursue an MBA from McMaster University.

It was the concept of leadership, and the idea of positively impacting people around her, that shaped her outlook and future career at OPG.

In her 11 years at the company, she has taken on engineering and leadership roles, first at the former Nanticoke Generating Station, then in Thunder Bay, and now in Niagara, where she oversees operations for 12 of OPG’s hydropower facilities across the South Central region, as well as Nanticoke Solar.

Since the beginning, Polak has always felt at home on the shop floor, dealing with the people who operate and maintain the big equipment.

Her main areas of focus these days are keeping staff safe and setting the team up to successfully execute the region’s work program, including overhauling units at stations like OPG’s Sir Adam Beck Generating Station. It’s her job to help the team succeed and ensure these projects go smoothly without impacting public safety and minimizing impact on operations.

Jessica Polak, Vice-President of Operations at OPG’s South Central Operations, oversees operations for 12 of OPG’s hydropower facilities across the South Central region, as well as Nanticoke Solar.
Polak, left, oversees operations for 12 of OPG’s hydropower facilities across the South Central region, as well as Nanticoke Solar.

Her other big focus is establishing a culture for success through leadership, a part of the job she says continues to drive her out of bed in the morning.

“Engaging with people, making us a better team, seeing people succeed and helping them do well – I love all of that. It’s just rewarding,” she said.

As for the term “trailblazer,” Polak says she embraces the word now.

She speaks to other women about finding a work-life balance while pursuing a meaningful career. And she hopes her own young daughters can grow up to find nothing unusual about seeing women in leadership roles.

“Don’t limit yourself,” Polak said. “Embrace what you want to do and go for it.”

Employee spotlight: Jessica Polak

Position: Vice-President of Operations, South Central Operations
Work location:
Niagara
Years of service: 11 years
Favourite place to visit in Ontario: Driving along the north shore of Lake Superior
Favourite book:
Radical Candor by Kim Scott
Favourite hobbies:
Camping, travelling, scuba diving
Words of wisdom: “Do the things you’re passionate about and you’ll naturally succeed at it.”