Pat Avery has made it a goal to break as many barriers in her lifetime as she can — and in her 30-plus year career she had done what many aspire to do.
The Atlanta, Ga., native, who’s been in Texas longer than she was in the Peach State, broke racial and gender barriers, smashing stereotypes and shattering the proverbial glass ceiling while paving the way for others to follow.
Through her career she has served as an employee relations representative for Mobil and moved up the corporate ladder. She became the first woman and first minority manager of employee relations at Mobil’s Chemical Specialty Division in Beaumont in 1991, the first woman and first minority manager of employee relations at Mobil’s Mining and Minerals Company in Pasadena in 1993 and manager of human resources at Mobil’s Polyethylene Plant in Beaumont in 1996.
Moving on, she joined TOTAL’s Petrochemical’s & Refining USA Port Arthur Refinery in March 1998 and served as the administrative manager and human resource and communication manager.
She managed the refinery’s human resources department, payroll, training, labor relations, community, government and public affairs activities, security, finance, purchasing and warehousing departments.
Before she could settle into retirement she joined Griffith Moseley Johnson & Associates in early 2013 as the vice president, global business development where she represented numerous petrochemicals and refining industry clients.
She tried to retire again and actually turned down a number of jobs, that is until she was asked to come to the Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce as president and CEO and for this, she didn’t hesitate.
She entered the current phase of her long career in March 2019 and totally enjoys it.
Where it began
Avery attended an all African-American high school and one day her guidance counselor Carol Cash — who became a mentor — told her “the world does not look like this. You need to stretch yourself. Your need to think about going somewhere to challenge yourself to be able to compete with all people.”
“When it came down to picking colleges she helped me, and one of the colleges we picked out was Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, which is like a 180 degree difference from my world,” Avery said recently from her office at the Chamber of Commerce.
“I accepted, and they gave me more money than anybody else. When you’re poor and a minority, you have to figure out everything by yourself. I had to figure out the financial aid packet by myself. None of my parents or anybody in my family knew anything about college. I had to do all that.”
And when it came time to leave for college she went alone.
“We couldn’t afford for my family to go to college. That meant I had to get on a plane by myself — at 18 years old to go to a place where I knew no one and a place I had never been before and it was really hard,” she said.
And while her story may seem a bit sad at this point — a young woman leaving the comforts and familiarity of home to travel across country to a college with a minority of African Americans — she has different feelings on the topic.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.
Avery earned her undergraduates degree in biology in 1978 and even taught on a wildlife trail, but something was missing.
Then it finally dawned on her — she wanted to go into industrial relations. She reconnected with Donald V. Adams, PhD, at Drake, who guided her through her next educational journey, a master’s in public administration, and beyond.
Avery came to Texas for the first time in 1988 when she was hired at Mobil in Houston. At that time Mobil had four sites.
“They told me when I was in Houston they had hired me to send a message to Beaumont, and that message is that women and minorities were going to be part of this organization,” she said.
She worked in Houston for 20 months, then moved up the ladder and was sent to New York for 22 months.
“Then they said, ready or not here you go, to Beaumont,” she said.
But Beaumont was not ready, and this was 1991.
“A lot of people ask me which barrier was harder to break, and I really believe being a woman was harder than being an African American,” she said.
The petrochemical plants at that time were male-dominated. When Avery came on board in Beaumont, there may have been one female operator, there were administrative assistants and maybe one or two female lab employees.
Avery continued to move up the career ladder to human resources manager at the Beaumont facility, saying it was hard.
“But you know it’s amazing when you get older and you look at things differently,” she said. “Back then I wondered is it my race? Is it my gender? I didn’t know but as I look back at it now, it was all about gaining credibility and having them recognize you had something of value to bring to the table.”
But did this issue bother her?
“You have to remember that I was completely alone,” she said, adding sometimes you can see what seems like a small town mentality and if you are not from that area you may be treated a little differently until people trust you or you have built your credibility,” Avery said.
“I didn’t have the African American community. I didn’t have the white community. I was completely alone and it was very hard. My husband was still in New York and our careers were both on a trajectory of success, and all I did was work at that time, trying to become credible in the organization. It was hard. As a matter of fact, after 14 months I felt like a failure. I really did.”
Credibility & confidence
At one point a plant manager from Beaumont invited her to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration voluntary protection ceremony and the manager, Jim Willis, gave the most beautiful words about her work.
And that, she said, gave her confidence.
She made several other moves in her career and soon began to work with the union, but this relationship took a bit to form.
By the time she left there, there was trust. Not complete trust but there was trust and it was a completely different plant going from union being hostile to management to working very closely with management — this is the relationship she is proud of.
This liaison task, communicator, is what she does well.
“I’m blue collar. I grew up; well I wouldn’t even call it blue collar. I’d call it no collar,” she said. “You’d think like people in blue collar, so it was easy to see the facade of what they’re saying and what was actually in their hearts.”
By the time she got to TOTAL she no longer felt race or gender were issues. She had gained enough credibility to not be concerned about those things.
Avery made it through some unpleasant encounters but used those as stepping-stones.
“You have to get yourself included because sometimes the lack of inclusion is a form of discrimination,” she said.
She looked back to a time when her boss would leave after work and was followed, shortly thereafter, by her male coworkers. Avery worked hard and stayed late every night to improve herself.
“There were my white friends, all friends that played golf with the boss, and that was kind of a thing and you see the pattern of behavior when the boss leaves and five minutes later they’re out the door,” she said.
So one day she said something to her boss about her job performance and got the distinct impression he was telling her that they played golf, which she didn’t.
So she learned to play golf.
Advise to others
“My advise (to other African Americans) is to leave your comfort zone,” she said. “You can’t grow unless you stretch yourself. The other thing I would say to African Americans is sometimes it’s not all about race, there can be other factors like being a female. And sometimes it is about race and if it is, one of the things I had to do, in a manner that is non-threatening in a non-confrontational way, is to subtly share those thoughts by not calling someone a racist or anything like that but simply saying ‘can I tell you how your actions are making me feel?’”
By using this type of dialogue, Avery is dealing with feelings or behavior as opposed to the confrontation.
She has promised herself she will never stop trying to change what someone thinks of her until her last breath.
“If I know someone has a hatred for me because of the color of my skin, to my last breath I would still try to get them to see the individual, not the race” she said. “And you become so unsuccessful the minute you let anger take over because then you can’t be strategic in how you deal with a person’s actions.”
The good part of this, she said, is that during her career she has changed a lot of people’s perceptions about African Americans, “not everybody but a lot of people,” she said.
Avery has an ease about herself, fitting in with whatever crowd she may encounter, from blue collar workers to the suit-and-tie executives and everyone in between.
Her former professor called her a phenomenal, talented human being.
“This is an unstoppable person in terms of high standards, high expectations and the fulfillment of any responsibility she was given,” Adams said, adding he has nothing but the highest respect for her.
Avery’s mother, now deceased, was her first role model and one who had a hand in her developing a strong work ethic.
In the book “Just So you Know: Spicy Wisdom for Young Christian Women,” by Karen Bourdier, Avery penned a page called Tenacious! which was dedicated to her mother whom she lost in 2008.
She tells of how her mother worked for $15 per week at a laundry when Avery was about 6. Her mother had the courage to take the Postal Service Clerk’s test — a detailed test with lots of memorization. She studied and studied and did not pass the test at least twice. Avery chalked it up to nerves because her mother had a photographic memory.
Her mother eventually passed the test and their lives were changed drastically. They weren’t middle class but they felt rich considering where they started.
“How mother handled this situation taught me a great life lesson, never give up, always have a positive attitude; and when you fall down, put yourself back in the race and work harder than anyone else,” Avery said in the book.
This, she said, was her first lesson in developing a strong work ethic.