Big idea: Create the 21st-century energy ecosystem — and take a big piece of what's expected to be a $100 billion smart-grid market. "My job is like having to put together a 1,000-piece puzzle," says Laura Ipsen, 46, "but I don't have the box top with the picture of what it looks like, and some pieces are missing." Ipsen's first big move came this fall when she teamed up with advanced metering firm Itron to develop the blueprint for utilities to build open, interoperable systems. She also brokered the deal for Cisco to acquire wireless company Arch Rock, to offer utilities a secure network to communicate with smart meters. "We need to create a replicable model for both large and small utilities that will ultimately scale up to our vision of smart, connected communities around the world."
Background: Ipsen spent 14 years handling public policy for Cisco, where she learned the regulatory landscape she'll have to navigate in the energy business. She has met all five living U.S. presidents — almost. "I didn't get to shake Obama's hand, so technically, I don't think it counts," she says. "Let's take him off. I would love to have a conversation with him about his green agenda."
Green epiphany: "My oldest son, who's now 11, was drawing a picture of a polar bear and telling me how they're losing the ice and can't swim from glacier to glacier. Looking at my three children, I thought, What's the world going to be like if we gobble up all the resources? Technology is the one thing that can be a game changer with the environment."
Pot of gold: Cisco CEO John Chambers has been quoted saying that "the team developing smart-grid products has an almost unlimited budget." When Ipsen heard that, her first thought was, Hooray! Her second? "I would like to edit it and take out the 'almost.' I think of it as, If you go over budget, ask for forgiveness later."
First job: At 16, Ipsen was a VIP host for the Kings Dominion amusement park in Doswell, Virginia. "The big rides were the Rebel Yell roller coaster and the Apple Turnover, which was a 360-degree loop coaster. I actually got to operate some of the rides the following summer."
Best advice: "John [Chambers] told me to book twice as much vacation as you need, because you'll end up giving half of it back."
Role models: In her life, Ipsen points to her family's strong women. "My grandmother was a supervisor at a plastics factory. She had a genius mind around math and was tough and sassy. She passed that on to my mother, who got her PhD when she was 58." In the (mostly) boys club of Silicon Valley, Ipsen cites two female tech pioneers. "Carol Bartz at Yahoo is as tough as they get, and I admire her conviction," she says. And Judy Estrin, CEO of JLabs and onetime Cisco CTO. "She's been a personal mentor for me and has a great mind for innovation."
Right brain: "My father, Kent Ipsen, is an artist, a glassblower who studied with Harvey Littleton and Dale Chihuly. I grew up pounding clay on the sidewalk and blowing glass." She cites Rodin's Flight as an inspiration and a glass falcon was the first major piece she made. Today, Ipsen gets her artistic fix "by working on every art project that my kids have," and when time permits, she'll still do some lead-crystal sculpture.
Car lust: "I am in love with the Fisker," Ipsen says of the forthcoming electric sports car created by the designer of the Aston Martin DB9. "I am using every connection I have to meet Henrik Fisker, including our shared Danish background, to get on the list."
Best Cisco perk: Its health care. "I can leave my office, go to the on-campus clinic, see a doctor, and pick up a prescription in an hour," Ipsen says. "There's nowhere else in all of Silicon Valley that I could do that."
Downtime: Running with her 27-year-old niece. "Saturday mornings are a standard date," Ipsen says. "We make our lattes and go for what we call the 'big loop,' a 5- to 6-mile run. It's a great time to laugh, mentor her, and get some exercise."
Political tourism: "I love to watch Jon Stewart, because giving up my political life was a little bit hard," Ipsen says. "With this job, I had to change from reading Politico to Popular Science."
A version of this article appeared in the December 2010/January 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.