For Crystal Johnson-Smith, vice president of human resources at Prince George Electric Cooperative, her experience with energy commenced early in her childhood. 

Johnson-Smith recalls discussions with her father about the vast difference of her family’s energy costs and experiences while they were stationed on a military base in Okinawa, Japan. While living on the base, Johnson-Smith says her father would often express his frustration about the high cost of electricity, rolling blackouts, and what the family had to do to conserve energy.

“Our energy bill was often higher than our housing cost,” she says. At that time, she did not realize that her experiences would later pique her curiosity to learn more about the energy industry, while pursuing her true calling as a human resources professional.

Johnson-Smith knew that she was passionate about the men and women who not only keep the lights on, but are also strategic in ensuring the continuity of service within their community. She would learn about the cooperative difference when she joined Prince George Electric Cooperative last year.

“I had no idea about this hidden gem of co-ops,” she says, “and how focused they are on the community.” She is intrigued by the concept of serving members, as compared with customers. PGEC’s members believe their co-op employees have their best interests in mind, she explains. She quickly realized her electric cooperative in Waverly, Va., was part of a national network of more than 900 co-ops, including statewide and national trade associations, providing support, advocacy, and development opportunities.

During a difficult year due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, Johnson-Smith may have been most surprised by the willingness of others in the industry to share experiences, offer advice and discuss challenges. “For many reasons, 2020 is a year I will never forget, and I am proud to have been able to support our essential workers in any way that I can,” she says. 

Johnson-Smith graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a bachelor’s degree focused on human resources management and industrial relations. She spent nearly 14 years at Dominion Energy in a variety of human resources roles.

At Prince George, she’s reinforced her belief that daily accessibility to co-op leadership, including the CEO, allows for open communications and results. “I really enjoy being able to interact with my colleagues and get real-time feedback to keep employees’ morale high,” says Johnson-Smith, who also believes her role is to help co-op employees in their careers. In one conversation, you feel her passion for educating students, veterans, minorities, and individuals with disabilities on the many career paths and benefits cooperatives have to offer.

Electric cooperatives frequently utilize a team approach to solving issues and completing tasks. Just like they did 80-plus years ago, electric co-ops are working together to fill the unmet needs in their rural communities. “We’re fighting hard to make sure our members have the access they need [to high-speed internet],” she notes. She now believes her career path is limitless, and yours can be, too, if you remain willing to learn. “I could not change my experience as a child, but I can try to impact the future, especially in rural communities,” she says