And other words of advice from trailblazer Georgia A. Callahan ’73, M ’77
By Amanda Childers
Photography by Ashley Jones
& Craig Mahaffey ’98
Seize every opportunity. That’s one of Georgia A. Callahan’s tried-and-true pieces of advice for women in business. And it’s a mantra that the now-retired Chevron executive has followed from her very first job.
Originally from Millville, New Jersey, Callahan came to Clemson as a first-year student in 1969, majoring in English and working her way through college at local restaurant Pixie and Bill’s. She stayed at Clemson to pursue a master’s in regional and city planning, where she was the first liberal arts major accepted into the program.
One of Callahan’s professors recommended her for a position as the City of Clemson’s first community development director. She took that position and never looked back. Some of her work during that period still benefits the Clemson community today. She implemented a federal government grant to improve neighborhood infrastructure and housing. “I quickly learned that if management is kept informed of progress and issues and develops trust in you, you will be given a great deal of freedom to manage a program,” Callahan recalls. “I also learned the value of presence and inclusion by holding community meetings and just how kind people can be.”
Two years later, Callahan went from local to national government when she was accepted into Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Management Intern Program. She served as an assistant to the deputy administrator for mobile source enforcement in the recently formed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That internship turned into a 12-year career in Washington, D.C., where she progressed through numerous assignments of increasing responsibility at the EPA.
Being part of a newly formed government agency early in her career and working with other young professionals taught Callahan to appreciate the value of positive, creative collaborative relationships.
“The department was in the early days of implementing requirements under the Clean Air Act of 1970. It was an incredible opportunity to work in an organization that had real and significant impact on improving air quality across the nation,” she says.
In 1990, Callahan joined Texaco as the environmental adviser in corporate planning and economics at their headquarters in White Plains, New York. For the next decade, she rose through the ranks of legislative and regulatory affairs, eventually becoming general manager of global policy and strategy. In 2000, she was appointed vice president of environment and health at Texaco. When Texaco merged with Chevron in 2001, becoming the world’s fourth-largest producer of oil and natural gas, Callahan moved to San Ramon, California, as general manager for environment and climate change of the newly formed company. Callahan held that position until she retired in 2014.
Throughout her career, Callahan made sure that she encouraged other women coming up through the industry ranks. Gemma Heddle, manager of Air and Greenhouse Gas Technical Experts at Chevron, shares, “It was through Chevron’s sponsorship of a climate research program at MIT that I first met Georgia. She was not only instrumental in getting me hired into Chevron, but she also served as a mentor and role model. As an engineer who had studied and worked in very male-dominated environments early on, Georgia was the first female leader for whom it was a case of ‘I want to be just like her!’ Even today at Chevron, I and many other women leaders who were guided by Georgia can recite most of her ‘rules,’ and we will still often ask ourselves, ‘What would Georgia do?’”
GEORGIA’S RULE NO. 1
“When I look back, there were so many times I could have said, ‘No, I’m comfortable with the way things are. No, that is going to be more difficult. It’s going to take more time. I will have to learn new things.’ But you should do it. It will give you a more rewarding career.”
As a retired executive, Callahan has reconnected with her alma mater through the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities’ women’s leadership degree program. The partnership is a perfect fit for a woman who trailblazed her way through her career, emerging from the other side as both a benefactor and role model to the next generation of women leaders at Clemson.
Many universities offer a major in women’s and gender studies or a certificate program in leadership, but Clemson is the only university to combine these in an interdisciplinary degree program designed to close the leadership gap for women.
Program director and professor of philosophy Diane Perpich delights in the success of her students, even more in their passion for changing the world for the better.
“Working with these extraordinary students and watching them grow intellectually and as leaders is inspiring,” Perpich says. “They learn to approach challenges as opportunities, and their creativity, hard work and appreciation for one another set a powerful example.”
In October 2022, students in the program had an opportunity to spend time with Callahan when she visited campus on homecoming weekend. During a rooftop reception at the Watt Family Innovation Center, students had an impromptu roundtable session with Callahan and took that opportunity to ask questions and seek advice.
GEORGIA’S RULE NO. 2
“It’s up to you as an individual to determine where your career will take you — how you are going to behave, how you are going to approach people and issues in your workplace. As you’re working through issues and job challenges, stay true to who you are. That will make you more effective and will enable you to have a much more positive, authentic career.”
Emma Sauer serves as vice president of It’s On Us, an initiative that strives to bring awareness, validation and support to survivors of interpersonal violence, including relationship abuse, sexual harassment and stalking. She also serves as the clerk for the student government social justice council, helping advance the well-being, sense of belonging and interests of marginalized students.
A women’s leadership and political science double major from Seneca, South Carolina, Sauer plans to pursue a career in human rights law and political advocacy.
“The women’s leadership program has helped me identify my individualized leadership philosophy,” Sauer says. “I want to bring awareness to problems that most people would rather ignore. My core values of compassion, fairness, equity and the ability to learn drive me to become a leader who strives for positive change in the world, specifically in the realms of social justice.”
Sauer wants to help lift the voices of those who are not being heard. “I hope that people view my leadership as something bigger than me and instead see the positive change I have made for others through my work and leadership,” she says.
Sauer isn’t the only one to find purpose in the women’s leadership program. Meredith McDevitt recalls how the program first caught her eye and has continued to shape her career.
“I remember reading the curriculum online with my mom as a senior in high school, and I knew it was something I had to be a part of,” McDevitt says. “I knew I wanted a career where I could make positive change for women, but I was not expecting all the opportunities this program provided me to grow as a person and a working professional.”
After graduating, McDevitt went home to Michigan to earn her master’s degree but has since returned to Clemson as the assistant director for student leadership education and development in the Division of Student Affairs. She’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education leadership.
“It is a privilege to be back at Clemson and support students through their own leadership journeys,” McDevitt says. “The women’s leadership program has provided me with the most supportive community of peers and mentors, challenged my way of thinking and problem-solving, and inspired my career in supporting student leadership development.”
Emma Sauer (left) “I want to bring awareness to problems that most people would rather ignore.” Caroline Avinger (right) “I have become a far more empathetic leader, pushing for positive change that benefits everyone, not just a select group.”
GEORGIA’S RULE NO. 3
“Hire the best people possible, but they shouldn’t be like you because you already have you. It’s better to look for others that bring in different opinions and come from different backgrounds. They will bring something new to the table.”
A political science and women’s leadership studies double major, Caroline Avinger currently serves on the student government senate as chair of the inclusion and equity committee.
She attributes her ability to be effective in this role to women’s leadership classes and professors: “The program has pushed me to seriously reflect on the kind of leader I am and the kind of leader I want to become.”
After graduation in 2024, Avinger plans to go to law school and focus on her interests in cross-cultural communication and diplomacy. Through the women’s leadership program, she has learned that awareness of others’ experiences throughout history is essential in today’s political and social environments and informs our own understanding of how to move through the world.
She explains, “Through this program, I have become a far more empathetic leader, pushing for positive change that benefits everyone, not just a select group.”
GEORGIA’S RULE NO. 4
“That advice worked for me many, many times. It’s easy to get provoked, but if you get provoked, it can turn into a disagreement or an altercation where nothing is accomplished.”
Payton Lang (left) “Being able to come to the table with unique ideas and a fully developed plan has helped me earn the chance to show what I am capable of and be respected as a professional early on.” Meredith McDevitt (right) “I knew I wanted a career where I could make positive change for women.”
Payton Lang ’20 wasted no time jumpstarting her career in public policy, moving to Washington, D.C., during the COVID-19 pandemic and working as an aide to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.
“Being a Clemson graduate got me into the room to meet the right people,” the political science and women’s leadership double major says. “The skills I learned as a women’s leadership major helped me turn those conversations into meaningful connections and fruitful opportunities.”
Lang, a native of Lexington, South Carolina, recently returned to her home state to serve as the communications manager at the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.
“In a workplace where I am the youngest in a mid-level position, being able to come to the table with unique ideas and a fully developed plan has helped me earn the chance to show what I am capable of and be respected as a professional early on,” she says.
Lang traveled to Ahmedabad, India, as part of the women’s leadership program, in what she calls a defining experience that pushed her personally and professionally. “We studied the Self-Employed Women’s Association and experienced life through a completely different lens to understand how creative women’s leadership can make an unbelievable difference in people’s lives,” she says. Upon returning to campus, she participated in a Creative Inquiry case study, using what she had learned in classes and experiences in India.
“We applied leadership models to everyday situations, understanding how a less traditional path can amplify the impact of leadership,” Lang says.
GEORGIA’S RULE NO. 5
“It will come. And sometimes when you least expect it. So be ready for it, embrace it and adapt to that change.”
Madison Hough is a women’s leadership and business management double major who chose Clemson specifically for the women’s leadership program. Hough says, “While I knew a business major would give me a practical understanding of the business world, I wanted a liberal arts background that could help me consider the world from a broader perspective.”
She says that the people in the program confirmed her choice: “The women’s leadership program is truly a family. The students, professors and even our alumni are constantly working together to make the school and the world a better place. The professors are willing to take time out of their day to call or text their students and discuss anything from current classwork to career plans. I have had numerous conversations with them about what I want my future to look like, and they have actively taken steps to help me succeed.”
GEORGIA’S RULE NO. 6
“That is how I figured out my path forward. I would make a mistake, learn from it and not repeat it. Remember, if you change jobs, those mistakes are left behind, so you can have a fresh start!”
These students are just a handful of the many who have been supported and encouraged by the women’s leadership program. And Callahan is making sure that continues.
Recently, Callahan pledged a gift to the program that will create an endowed professorship and an unrestricted endowment for excellence, both of which will bear her name.
“I believe in this program. I believe in the students,” she says. “I believe Diane Perpich is a visionary leader. These funds will help her explore, expand and enhance that vision.”
The goal, she says, is “to help the University develop a world-class women’s leadership program.”
Callahan believes the impact of funding a program in its early stages helps it move forward more quickly and attracts other donors to share in the vision and possibilities. “That’s the right time to invest,” she says.
She also wanted to give back to the place that gave so much to her when she was first starting out. “I waited tables while I was an undergraduate, so I was able to complete my degree with very little debt,” she says. “Then I was the first liberal arts major to be accepted into the regional planning program. And the very first community development director for the City of Clemson. So, for me, it all started right here in Clemson.”
Callahan’s roundtable discussion with students on campus was symbolic of something more, a bigger picture of how women have redefined leadership in America — and continue to do so. Callahan knows what it takes to get a seat at the table, and she is committed to securing those seats for the next generation of women, helping give them the tools to be successful.
And to seize every opportunity.
Amanda Childers is a senior development writer in Marketing and Communications.