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A toaster accident brought Barbara Guthrie to UL, where she pioneered one of its most successful safety programs.
If it weren’t for a grandma’s sage advice – and her great-uncle electrocuting himself after putting a fork in a toaster – Barbara Guthrie might not have found her way to UL.
In the mid-1980s, as she neared graduation from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, she met a UL recruiter at an on-campus job fair. All Guthrie knew about safety science was what she gleaned from a single, one-hour course on workplace safety and OSHA compliance. A job at UL – let alone a career – seemed far-fetched until grandma tipped the scales.
“I’ll always remember that it was my beloved grandma who encouraged me to take the job by saying, ‘UL is a good company that does good work,’ while also comically tossing out an anecdote about grandpa’s brother shocking himself,” Guthrie says with an audible smile. “I took her advice – as I always did – and 33 years later, it was still the right decision for me, and I’ve never looked back.”
As Vice President and Chief Public Safety Officer, Guthrie proclaims herself the guardian, protector and promoter of UL’s commitment to its global public safety mission. She is trusted by her colleagues to help determine whether a new initiative aligns with UL’s mission, as she’s always asking, “Is this an area where we really want to attach the UL name?” Guthrie is also the site manager for the 138-acre Northbrook, Ill., campus that serves as the company’s North American headquarters and houses 1,700 employees.
“I’ve always been a ‘raise your hand and go for it’ person when an opportunity presents itself, which has provided me experiences I might not have had otherwise,” Guthrie explains. “It’s never been about climbing the career ladder, but more about wanting to learn and try new things.”
This approach to life fits with Guthrie’s belief that, while you should embrace destiny, it doesn’t mean you can’t help plot your own path. Destiny brought UL to her college campus, and destiny set her upon a life and career she equates to a game of “Chutes and Ladders” – the popular children’s board game where players sometimes luck out and advance or experience setbacks on the road to the finish line.
Her first assignment at UL was with 413M Electrical, the division that tested small electrics. Since then, she’s had her hand in everything from marketing to consumer affairs to international operations, and along the way earned an MBA through UL’s tuition reimbursement program, taking night classes at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
After Guthrie had tumbled down a few life “chutes,” a “ladder” of new opportunity landed in her lap, and she relocated to Denmark to serve as director of UL’s European operations, a position she held for three years. She worried initially about the perception of a newly single mom raising two young boys and running a business in a market new to her, but then she found inspiration in the thought that she was settling into a country ruled by a queen.
The opportunity and the people of Denmark welcomed and embraced her and she, in turn, celebrated the “ladder” moving her in a positive, upward direction. Just as this ladder had helped her move along, she later faced another personal “chute,” a breast cancer diagnosis. With the help of her family, Guthrie approached this personal challenge with the same technical mindset and rigorous passion with which she has tackled professional ones—battling and beating the illness.
More recently, Guthrie championed and launched Safety Smart® — a global educational program developed in partnership with The Walt Disney Company. Designed to improve children’s awareness and understanding of safety, health and environmental issues, it is driven by the guiding principle that unintentional injuries are avoidable and preventable through better personal choices.
Since its inception, Safety Smart has reached millions of children, teens, young adults and parents in more than 25 countries. It’s no wonder Guthrie looks humbly upon the program – one she calls “Barb’s baby” – as her proudest moment at UL.
“When I visit our other offices around the world, people always convey a sense of gratitude for their experience with Safety Smart, and I’m left speechless,” Guthrie notes. “It’s incredible that I was given an opportunity to do something that remains relevant to this day and is giving children the knowledge to make better, wiser choices about their own safety.”
Guthrie also passionately promotes and celebrates women pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) educations and career paths. She understands what it’s like, as she says, “to be a woman in what some might consider a man’s field,” and it’s a topic she has had the opportunity to speak about at industry events in the United States, Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar, to name a few.
Even with all the recognition that she has received through industry speaking invitations, it’s the less formal moments that motivate Guthrie each day – the feeling in her heart and her gut that, in some way, she’s helped others. Whether it’s UL’s contributions to safer smoke alarms and hoverboards or an email from someone sharing what her words meant to him, it’s the opportunity to make a difference that has fueled Guthrie’s storied career at UL.
“That’s what keeps me going. Those are the moments I’ll look back on,” Guthrie adds. “Of all the chutes and ladders, that’s what makes it worth it.”
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