Melissa Washington has climbed her way throughout her entire career with a no-nonsense attitude of strength, self-confidence and steady resilience of faith. Her rise from working at an entry-level position in the AT&T call center, broadening her love for accounting and finance at Arthur Andersen to her current role at ComEd Exelon as the senior vice president of external affairs and large customer service — has brought her immense experience and clarity on her professional journey.
Having spent time in Washington, D.C., as Exelon’s VP of corporate affairs, she led the day-to-day outreach to various public policy makers. Prior to that role, she held the position of VP of regulatory policy and strategy, managing ComEd’s relationships with the Illinois Commerce Commission and its staff.
Having grown up in the quiet town of Joliet, just 44 miles southwest of Chicago — the second of four children raised by her working mother — she reflects on her nurturing upbringing.
“My mother raised us, single parent but the typical ‘it takes a village’ mentality. My grandparents were also helpful, so, when my mother would be at work, we would all go over to my grandparents’ house. It was kind of common place that me and my cousins would interact together,” she said.
Being the only girl among her brothers and male cousins, the love and closeness of her family provided a circle of confidence in her upbringing. She credits her mother as the beacon of what a role model should be to a young African-American girl growing up.
“When you think of where you are and what drives you, if I had to sit down and really reflect on it and probably think about the force my mother had on my life, I guess you can say she was my first role model,” Washington said.
“She was very strong and very determined. Even though I probably grew up with very humble beginnings, I can’t remember ever having a time where I didn’t receive what I needed. I’m sure we probably didn’t have much, but I didn’t realize that. Parents back then had a knack for making sure what kids needed the most was love and support, and that’s what I got.”
Throughout her grade school and high school years, Washington excelled academically with teachers noticing her gift for mathematics. As early as her 3rd grade teacher, Ms. Jackson, up to her junior high school teacher, Mrs. Washington, and eventually Ms. Fernando in high school — all encouraged her to live up to her true potential.
“It was always a given that college was in my future. When you go to school and get good grades, it’s a given that the teachers talk to you about it. You live up to those things.”
Graduating from Lewis University, earning her B.A. in Accounting and Finance, she later earned her MBA in the same field at Keller Graduate School of Management of DeVry.
Breaking the Glass Ceiling
Since her interest was in finance investment, it was more challenging to break into the field than she anticipated. The market had slowed down and she decided to work at AT&T once she graduated.
“Now, when I look at my career, the very first job I had in the call center, there was a supervisor, Diana. She basically said, ‘Melissa, you’re different. So, I’m going to support you to move you into something else.’ I moved to working in middle markets as an account manager, and networking led me to meeting someone else, who was in the accounting firm at Arthur Andersen,” she said.
One of the executives at the firm recommended Washington apply for a position at the company, which was considered one of the world’s most prestigious firms during the time.
“I’m a Black female working for this accounting firm. I reached management level before the firm folded, and I was on the track to becoming a partner had I stayed in that place,” she recalls of her experience.
“What I learned when I got into that firm was the number of people who were there with me were groomed to be there. I remembered vowing to myself, with whatever success or experience I received from being in that firm, I would make sure that I shared it with other people.”
Washington keenly understands the importance of corporations looking and investing in a great talent pool of potential executives.
“With those accounting firms, when you go into them, you learn and you get experience. Corporations know the degree and level of experience you receive working in those firms.”
Community and ComEd
In her current role, as one of the top-level senior executives at ComEd Exelon, she steps up taking over former and long-time executive Kevin Brookins’ position as a viable community liaison for the company.
“We realized that we are a partner in the community. It is our responsibility to make sure that there’s a level of civility in those communities, not just because they’re our customer base but also because that’s our employer base as well. Every single one of our employees in almost every community throughout our entire geographic region that we manage,” said Washington.
“This is why we invest in kids and expose them to STEM-stimulated careers. Getting them excited about this type of career in letting them know it’s possible. What I try to do is get out into the community, understand who is in the community and hear firsthand what’s going on.”
With highlighted programs such as CONSTRUCT, Solar Spotlight and the Icebox Derby STEM program, designed to encourage young girls to build interest in STEM-related studies, Washington strongly credits ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore for the company’s progressive vision.
“I have the support base behind me —with Anne, she gets it. When I come, and say, ‘Hey, this is what I see and this is a great opportunity to be supportive in the community and make a difference.’ I receive her encouragement, ‘Okay, sounds great and sounds like the exact right thing to do.’ Sometimes, where it gets challenging, you want to do more than what you really can.”
Over the years, the company has become aggressively more diverse in hiring people of color.
“We acknowledge where we are today being the result of a lot of planning, a lot of work and being deliberate in trying to grow that base where people can look and see not only people who reflect them in the company, but to see people who reflect them in the leadership.”
With a very busy work schedule, Washington takes time to enjoy weekend excursions with her husband, discovering great new restaurants, and bringing it all together through their strong spiritual foundation by attending early Sunday church service.
“We spend time talking about what we learned from our service. We spend time with our parents and then we spend time with each other.”