From intern to CEO: Paul Lau takes the reins at SMUD
October 07, 2020Paul Lau ’84 (Electrical Engineering) was at Sacramento State preparing for dental school, but he also knew how to code. That knowledge landed him an internship in 1982 with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which provides electricity to the region.
That internship changed the course of his career.
Having already decided against dentistry, Lau was inspired to switch his major to Electrical Engineering.
Now, 38 years after walking through SMUD’s door as an intern, he has been named its chief executive officer. He officially took the reins of the community-owned utility on Oct. 3.
“When I worked for SMUD (in college), at the time I didn’t think I was going to be here 30 years,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, you know, it’s a good summer job … a good job to help me pay the bills.’ ”
Lau calls himself an example of the “American success story.” Born in Hong Kong, he moved with his mother and stepfather to Nigeria when he was 9, then to Sacramento at age 12. One of his sisters already lived here, and his parents believed they all would have a better life in the United States.
Barely speaking English, he attended Valley Vista Junior High and Norte Del Rio High School. His sisters were nurses, so when it came time for college, he similarly targeted the medical fields and settled on dentistry.
Lau initially planned to attend UC Riverside after graduating from high school in 1979. But his sister was at Sacramento State and encouraged him to stay local. Upon touring the campus, he was struck by the diversity of its student body.
“There was a very big international presence of students from Hong Kong,” he said. “So when I walked on campus, I really felt, for lack of a better term, ‘Oh, this is a place I want to be at.’ ”
He became heavily involved in campus life, playing on the ping pong and table tennis team, working the games room, and serving as vice president for the Chinese Student Association.
Through his first two years, his eyes remained set on dentistry. Then he volunteered in a dental clinic at UC Davis Medical Center and realized he hated it. A classmate from a Physics course connected him to the SMUD internship, which led him to switch his major.
The Electrical Engineering courses, Lau said, were practical and designed to prepare students to hit the ground running once their careers began.
“The classes are very hands-on, the homework projects were pretty much like what you would do coming out in the industry and working in an electric utility or any one of those research companies,” he said.
Remarkably, Lau is not the only Electrical Engineering alum to be promoted recently to the head of a major utility company. In June, Caroline Winn ’85 was named CEO of San Diego Gas & Electric.
Their success is no surprise to Mahyar Zarghami, Electrical and Electronic Engineering chair, who oversees the top-ranked program.
“Sac State is proud to have established a strong program in the area of Electrical and Electronic Engineering,” he said. “Our EEE program is known for its reputable scholarship in fields such as power and energy systems and engineering. Paul and Caroline are wonderful examples of our distinguished alumni.”
Over the course of nearly four decades, Lau has served in several capacities at SMUD, including assistant general manager of Customer, Distribution and Technology; assistant general manager of Power Supply and Grid Operations; and most recently as chief grid strategy and operations officer.
As CEO, he will lead the nation’s sixth-largest community-owned electric utility, which provides power for Sacramento County and parts of Placer and Yolo counties.
“SMUD has always given me the opportunity and encouraged me to leave my comfort zone, to try different jobs,” Lau said. “It sounds like a very long time, 38 years. It didn’t feel long because I was always able to change jobs, learn new challenges and then get promoted into different areas.”
Lau said he relishes having a job where his work has an impact on the future of the community and where the company values – he points to its community focus and emphasis on renewable energy – are ones he shares.
They are values he can trace to his time as a Hornet.
“Working hard, giving back to the community, always serving the community, and always thinking about, long term, how can you actually help our community grow and make sure the community stays vibrant?” he said. “That’s, to me, what I learned from Sac State.”