In a world dominated by men, girls need as many exceptional, female role models as possible to look up to. One such woman is Judi Kovacs, the Vice President of Environmental Health and Safety, and Corporate Supplier Social Responsibility Programs at NBCUniversal. Kovacs is also the former President of Soroptimist of Chino Valley. Soroptimist International is a nonprofit organization for professional women that aims to improve the lives of women and girls in local communities around the world. Their main focus is giving young women education and resources that can help them be successful. Through this organization, Kovacs has helped the community immensely and has inspired many young women, including myself.

Kovacs started as an undergraduate at UCLA, double majoring in Biology and Kinesiology pre-med; she intended to work as a doctor or another type of healthcare practitioner. However, during her last year, she took the first environmental science class the university ever offered, “Chemistry of Air Pollution,” and her career path quickly changed from healthcare to environmental regulation. When I interviewed her, Kovacs stated:

“…upon taking that class, I had an epiphany. I instantly knew I wanted to make a difference in the world with my knowledge of science to address the cause of pollution and work to prevent it. During those days, there was no talk or awareness within the scientific community of environmental pollutants and the resultant deleterious effects. Conversation about such matters was exclusive to fringe “hippie” groups that were becoming increasingly unfashionable in the early 80’s and being increasingly replaced by a more conforming culture among the young. It was thought to be un-American and counter culture to speak ‘ill’ of the manufacturing industries that won the wars, put men on the moon, two cars in everyone’s garage, and brought freedom to women by providing time saving machines to every household. Technology and progress was liberating to entire families and unleashed the potential of many via the new found freedoms. Society did not make the connection of the progress they loved, to the true cost of uncontrolled pollution, which they believed was an inevitable byproduct.”

Upon graduation, she enrolled into the only master’s program in environmental and occupational health that existed on the west coast at Cal State Northridge. She was recruited by her first employer, Hughes Aircraft, a large aerospace manufacturer in Southern California; her first job was an industrial hygienist, where she would assess the physical and chemical hazards in the manufacturing plant and create methods to control or eliminate those hazards. Around that time, California was passing many new environmental and occupational health and safety laws and since then, the results have dramatically improved the safety and sustainability of materials and practices of different companies, as well as improved pollution regulation. Over the years she worked towards obtaining professional certification in industrial hygiene and related fields. Her 30-year career eventually advanced into chemical waste management and consulting, leading into her current position at NBCUniversal, where she was worked for 12 years. She began by leading the environmental health and safety program for the company. However, six years ago, Kovacs decided to develop and oversee compliance with labor, as well environmental and occupational health and safety standards, within factories that manufactured branded products for the company.

Kovacs also had to overcome various obstacles as a woman in the workforce:

“In the 1980s, the biggest challenge that faced me was juggling family obligations of being a wife, mother of two young children, and a career woman among a sea of men at work who did not have the same struggles, because they had wives at home taking care of it all for them. I felt that I had to appear to everyone that it all looked easy, so that the men at work would not judge me for making the choices I made. I feel that it was a trail-blazing time for women in the workplace who were not ‘working just for the money’, but truly loved the job and the satisfaction that a career brought to them personally. If you watched Mad Men, you get the general vibe of what the world was like. While that show depicted an ad agency in NYC in the late 60’s and early 70’s, in a manufacturing plant environment, those demographics and mentality of that era lasted through the 1990s.”

Kovacs first read about Soroptimist in the local newspaper and was intrigued by the unique name of the organization. She met a member at her daughter’s friend’s Halloween party, and the Soroptimist encouraged her to check out one of the local clubs. The mission of women empowering other women and girls through education and awareness appealed to Kovacs greatly. No one had helped her attain her goals and achieve what she has today, even though she wished she had had the support. When she chose both her career and her family, many stay-at-home moms in the community criticized her decision. Kovacs believes that Soroptimist women are very like-minded.

“They dared do what I have done, and live the values that are uplifting to the spirit. These women are tirelessly leading in the community. They are not full of bravado, or stories, or medals, and they are not bragging in the beer hall. They are simply getting on with it, and getting it done. I respect that and am very glad to be among them,” she said.

As a member of Soroptimist, one of the biggest challenges she faces is trying to find time to do more for the club and the community; after all, she works full time, has family obligations, and tries to fit in some time for hobbies. She has been president of the Chino Hills club twice. The first time was especially difficult because she felt that she was not organized and “fumbling through it.” The second time around, however, went much more smoothly. For Kovacs, the challenge of the position is to focus on actions that must be executed on the daily basis, whether they are quick or time-consuming.

One of her proudest achievements for the club has been starting the Dream It, Be It program at the continuation high school in the Chino Valley School district. Through this program, the girls are in classes consisting of seven sessions which explore self-esteem, interests, career-mapping, and self-awareness. These classes have received very positive feedback; many girls said that the program made them believe in themselves for the first time enough to be able to chart their own futures. Another significant achievement the Chino Hills club had was when it funded a well water installation in Guatemala to bring clean water to a community that before only had access to water that was miles away. They combined the new well with training for the local women and girls on hygiene and related topics.

“I am inspired by the organization and especially the stories from the women and girls about how we changed their lives. This continues to touch my heart and motivates me. I am also inspired by the friendships that I have formed within the organization, and that nourishes my soul. While being a career women is no longer an anomaly as it once was, it is great to have a group of women who have so much in common and it makes being with other Soroptimist club members very comfortable and easy. I have no regrets about Soroptimist or anything really. Life is full of challenges. How we rise to the occasion to meet those challenges can define us and it is how we grow. Embracing personal growth, having a good attitude, and being kind to others along the way is my path. I believe this leads to not having regrets. If I have done my best while being my best self, that is all that is expected of me,” Kovacs said.

Her main goal for Soroptimist is to grow the membership and create a long-lasting community of driven women, especially with the local club in Chino Hills. Kovacs believes that women should join the organization because it will give them the opportunity to make a difference directly and they will form strong friendships and community through Soroptimist. She also has extensive advice for young, working women and college students:

“Dream big, and set goals that outlines the steps that you will need to take to achieve the goals that lead to the big dream. Dreaming is not enough. There is no such thing as instant success in 99 percent of us. In order to get to the top of the mountain, you must go up one-step- at-a-time, so focus on those steps…Do not let a man derail your dream and your path. If he truly loves you, he will hang with your plan…You can have a degree, career, husband/SO, kids all at the same time. The insanity of parallel and competing interest will make you better at multitasking and drive you to focus during the time you allot for each endeavor. It will make you grow as a person. Stop trying to be perfect…Don’t compare yourself to some rare ideal. I do not think women leaders of our day obsess over being perfect. They are driven by not external forces and what people think, but what is inside. Listen to your mother, respect what she says, she is the only person in the world that will love you unconditionally no matter what you do or who you are. Having said that, keep the good that comes out of her mouth, and lose the rest. Chart your own path without seeking her constant approval.”