A self-described Army Brat who moved around a lot growing up, Air Force veteran Teri Poulton and her three teenage children have planted roots in Houston, Texas, where she serves as the Director of Veteran outreach for BP, Inc.
We recently caught up Poulton to talk about her career in the Air Force, and her current work at BP.
Q. So, how did you end up moving from a 20-year career in the Air Force to working for BP?One of my assignments in the Air Force was in the Pentagon, working for Secretary (Robert Gates), whose spokesperson was Geoff Morrell (Morrell served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs). When Secretary Gates retired, Geoff moved to BP to serve as the head of the company’s U.S. communications.
Geoff was looking for people to help him build a very professional communication’s team — a really kind of dynamic and go-getter organization. At the time, Geoff was an important part of my network, working to help me find a career to transition to life after the Air Force.
At one point or another, Geoff said, ‘Well, why don’t you come to BP?” I wasn’t that interested because I didn’t know much about the industry. I honestly wanted a job where my role was to help change the world. The more I thought about it I began to realize just how important energy is to national security — it’s pretty tough to fight and win a war if you don’t have access to energy.
I learned the company had a strong culture and that it showed great character and concern in how it responded to the 2010 oil spill. I also found out that the BP has a long history of providing generous support to the community.
All of those factors fit into my “change the world” mentality, and so that’s a long way of explaining how I came into BP in a communications role.
Q. And you had been a pilot in the Air Force?Yes, but most pilots in the Air Force also have other jobs. Mine typically revolved around some kind of communications engagement work.
Q. You’re also a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. What was that like?I don’t know, because I kind of had my head down working hard for four years! But seriously, it was a beautiful place and a great experience. I was attracted to the pioneering aspect of being in the so-called “newer service.” It was very rigorous and the course load was extremely heavy. It was inspiring and challenging to not only focus on academics but just as importantly on leadership and developing people who are being prepared to serve our country.
Q. And you were at the Academy at an interesting time?Yes, I was at the Academy when the first airstrikes in Operation Desert Shield were launched. That was an incredible time to be a cadet. It was at the end of the Cold War and there decades of peace since the end of the Vietnam War. Now, you’re at a school that is preparing you for a potential war, if it ever happens.
It had been so long since we had been in a big war, so it wasn’t on anyone’s minds. But then the airstrikes occurred, and you’re there at the Academy, knowing that you’re a future leader in the Air Force while bombers are going in and striking another country.
At that point, you comprehend just how serious the work you’re doing actually is. When I graduated, we were already at war, and when I retired from the Air Force, basically, the fighting had never stopped.
I have been involved in and supported every single conflict that’s happened since Desert Shield, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo - you name it.
I deployed to some pretty great places like England, where we launched to help support the conflict in Kosovo. I also supported Afghanistan off a beautiful tropical island called Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indiana Ocean. I was also in Saudi Arabia and in Qatar, which is kind of our big hub now.
That story reminds us that we’ve been at war for 25 years; it hasn’t stopped. That’s all part of the reason why it’s vital to understand the importance of energy.
Q. Was it tough transitioning from being a pilot into the private sector?It actually was not that hard. There were a number of things that came together in my life and career at the right time. I was ready for a move to put myself and my kids first.
I do miss a lot about the Air Force, but it was a smooth and positive transition. It was a great experience that prepared me for this part of my life, in surprising ways, but it was not that tough of a decision.
Q. Tell us about your family.We live in Houston, but I call Tampa, Florida home. My dad was a career Army aviator, so we moved around quite a bit. But Tampa is where I went to high school, and my parents are in that area now.
Now, I have three children, all teenagers ages 16, 15 and 13. When I got out of the Air Force, I really just felt like it was a good time to be more present in their lives. So when we were deciding where to live and what job to take, we took a very passionate view of what our priorities were. The first was one was not to move again. I wanted to let the kids finish high school in one place, to have a great school system, and I wanteda job that was rewarding enough to just enjoy our time until the kids go to college.
BP in Houston ended up being the intersection of all of those. I have no ties to Texas or Houston, but the job offer was great, the learning and development opportunities wonderful, and the local schools are amazing.
Q. And when you’re not with you kids or working hard, what do you like to do in Houston?I’m a baseball maniac; I love baseball. So tonight you can be sure my TV will be on and I’ll be watching the Houston Astros!
Q. In Houston, you’re also active in the Lone Star Vets Association?What I learned after moving to Houston is how incredibly welcoming the city is for veterans. The city is well-equipped to bring in veterans and military families. There is a very well-coordinated and collaborative effort between non-profits, city and county governments and the VA.
The Lone Star Vets Association is part of that. I just joined the board last summer, and they’ve been around for five years.
Everyone truly works toward the goal of making Houston the best home town for veterans. Houston, in my option, is a national model.
Q. So how did you come into your current role at BP?Only a few months after arriving at BP, I saw an opportunity for BP for the company to really align ourselves better with veterans in the U.S. The company already was supporting veterans, but I thought we could do it in a more coordinated way.
Further, our value system and culture align well with veterans. Both BP and veterans put safety first — not a single person can be employed at BP without knowing safety is absolutely paramount.
In addition, the issue of American energy security and energy independence is a goal that pretty much every veteran can get behind.
And, we also knew that BP was looking to grow the veteran population within our workforce.
For all those reasons, and many more, I wrote a white paper and said, “Hey, we need to create a veteran outreach program.” The company, to their credit, agreed and carved out this space, put me in the job, and from there we established ourselves.
Q. And how did you get involved with Vets4Energy?When API (the American Petroleum Institute) announced the Veterans Energy Pipeline project, I asked to be connected with the person at API responsible for it so that BP could help with it. We want to make it as strong as possible, and we want to be able to help attract as many veterans as we can to the industry.
So we started brainstorming: What are the ways that we can help each other, not only for the energy pipeline, but on policy?
Veterans can be a powerful resource in policy making, because as a population, we tend to be more politically active. We vote reliably, and to a greater extent than non-veterans. We’ve also been in careers that allow us to genuinely understand the impact of energy policy.
Some veterans don’t know it instinctively, but it’s not hard to connect the dots for us to realize how energy independence can be a complete game-changer for people making decisions about national security.
Q. What do you say to veterans in terms of why they should join the energy industry?Again, I think it’s just a cool mission to be part of. I think working toward American energy independence is a motivator; it’s a great goal to promote and push forward.
I also think that culturally and skill-wise it’s an excellent fit. It doesn’t take a whole lot for a vet to catch on, and to become integrated into the teamwork machine that is the oil and gas industry.
It also is an industry where you can do well financially for your family. You can work hard and make a great living all while working toward this great goal. And there are so many opportunities to advance. I think it is a natural fit.