Valero’s Hannah Zunker Thriving in a Challenging Environment

Workforce |  5 min. read

In an industry that thrives on challenges, diverse problem-solving, collaboration and teamwork, hard hats must fit a changing workforce – men, women, millennials and seasoned veterans alike. All of them increasingly skilled at producing the incredible energy and products that power our world. But not every potential contributor – women, in particular – may fully realize the exciting (and high-paying) careers that await them.

One way to spread the word? Share their stories. As part of an ongoing series, AFPM takes a look at some of the exceptional women making a difference in today’s fuels and petrochemical industry.

What do you call a Strategic Planner for a Fortune 50 company, who also helps lead that company’s charitable work with the local United Way, who grew up on a farm in Texas, who runs an organization to empower young women (on the side) … and oh, who is learning to be a winemaker (also on the side)?

You call her Hannah Zunker, Valero employee.

Valero is a world-class producer of fuels and petrochemical products – with enough in-house excellence to reach #24 on the Fortune 50 list. As a strategic planner and public policy shaper for a competitive energy company, Hannah learns as much in a day as she imparts. She starts each day by paying attention – surveying news outlets, industry reports and other resources to find out what’s happening in the world, in the refining industry, in business, and in politics – and then figure out what it means for Valero’s future.

If you think that sounds like pretty interesting work, Hannah would agree with you.  But for her company, it’s also essential to keeping the company competitive in a volatile market and prepared for whatever happens next.

When the daily work of her employer is providing the world with the fuel to get us where we need to go, that’s a big responsibility. But Hannah’s job is to forget about that for a moment, and think about what the future may bring:

  • Will society soon be living closer to work (and drive less) or farther away (and drive more)?
  • Will self-driving cars take over?
  • Will online shopping mean even more deliveries by truck, or will drone deliveries expand into the mainstream?
  • To keep moving toward cleaner air, what will fuels of the future look like?
  • Can you really make a profitable business by converting used cooking oil into renewable diesel?

Thinking about the future while doing the day-to-day work is what keeps a Fortune 50 company, a Fortune 50 company.  So, Hannah’s crystal ball is pretty important.

But looking into the future wasn’t always her life.  “I was born in Abilene, Texas – and I grew up on a ranch, with cows, horses and chickens. It was a great learning experience and a wonderful way to grow up, but college wasn’t discussed much.”

With higher education and a broader world view, however, her future began to take shape – but not in the way she first thought it would. Her first “real job” with Valero, in fact, wasn’t behind a desk. She was out in the field – a lot – with Valero’s pipeline group on a measurement team, making sure the amount of petroleum flowing through the pipes was accurate and good to go.

For a young woman with no direct experience in the oil business, looking to make a difference in an industry that struggles with an “old school” reputation, Hannah was a little concerned. Turns out, there was very little truth to that negative reputation.

“It was not an issue at all,” she said. “It turned out that what mattered to the guys on my team was that I knew my stuff – not my age or my gender.”

It also didn’t hurt that Hannah happens to be really good at whatever she is doing (not to mention a degree in Chemistry that brought ‘street cred’ and a ton of value to her team). Valero colleagues welcomed Hannah without hesitation, and fully supported her learning curve. Along the way, she learned the power of having amazing teachers (aka “mentors.”)

“I’ve had managers in my career here, who I would also call mentors — mostly men, actually — who were generous in sharing what they knew, and who made sure that we got full credit for the work we did.  In fact, when we did good work, it felt like they were almost bragging on our behalf!  And that means a lot, especially when you’re starting a new job or a new assignment.”

Now, if you’re wondering how Hannah joined Valero in the first place, don’t expect a straight path. She actually entered college with a dream of dentistry. She liked the science of it, but when she got her first experience of, well, blood – that was the end of that.

So, she did what many students do and decided to pivot. She earned a degree in chemistry and then, at the suggestion of an early mentor, one of her professors, chased her MBA. The program required students to complete an internship – and months later, Valero’s Marketing and Supply team was her home for the summer.

Why Valero? Well, turns out the best companies don’t just promise a challenging career. They also care about employees’ overall health and wellness. That means a lot at any age. “I was just another struggling grad student – and Valero’s internship not only paid well, it came with health insurance. Most of all, I liked the feel of the company.”

That “feeling” was an exceptional work culture that really spoke to her, she said. Valero was a place where a young career professional could start out and move up with hard work, unflinching dedication and an aptitude to learn – fast.  At Valero, Hannah learned that the best employers look out for their teams, and take care of one another. A place where – as she soon found out – the CEO of the company is just as liable to stop by your desk as any peer or mentor would be. Just to hear how it’s going.

Six years in, Hannah has stayed at Valero because that same sense of family at work was also true outside the office:  When she hits the gym with her work mates; when she and her colleagues give time to support Valero’s many United Way campaigns and volunteer efforts in San Antonio; and when she coaxes co-workers to support her side project, Florecer Femme, an organization dedicated to helping empower young women. Fast forward a bit, and Hannah’s energy for good has led this still-growing professional to the Executive Board of United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County. All at the ripe age of 29.

Hannah says she’s grateful to a company that took a chance on her, that welcomed her, gave her respect and the opportunity to build a challenging, rewarding career. Exactly what she tells young women who ask if the fuels and petrochemical industry might be a place for them, too.

“Women should absolutely consider this industry. I know Valero, and companies like ours, are looking to hire women of all ages and interests. There are opportunities across this industry – in engineering and other technical fields, and on the business side, too.

“This is an amazing industry. What we do is connected to so much of what goes on in the world – in almost every area of life. The products our industry provide make a difference to all of us, to how we live our lives every day. “

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