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Board Spotlight: Laurie Cullen, Chair, WTS Foundation

Laurie_Cullen

Each member of WTS Foundation's board of directors is dedicated to the fulfillment of its mission by serving for two-year terms. This month, the Board Spotlight column features Laurie Cullen, WTS Foundation Board Chair, who has been an active member of WTS for 27 years.

WTS:Let’s start with your role at VHB. Can you tell us a little about the firm, and what you do?

LC: VHB is a planning, environmental, engineering design and construction management firm. We provide services to a wide range of clients including all modes of transportation, local, state and federal government agencies, land development companies and entities in the education, healthcare and energy sectors. I’m the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Director. In this role, I am responsible for business development, directing and controlling all aviation business development and marketing for the Mid-Atlantic region of VHB. I am also a senior program manager so I manage high profile, complex environmental planning, airport planning, capital programming and airport operations and management projects for various size airports throughout the US as well as on research projects for the Transportation Research Board (TRB). VHB has been a great fit for me because after having worked at two large engineering firms, I wanted to get back to my roots in environmental planning and permitting as well as have the opportunity to do airport management work again. I will get to do both at VHB. It truly is a dream job for me!

WTS:Does VHB’s culture align with your vision for a gender-diverse workforce?

LC: The people at VHB are the best and brightest I think I have every worked with. On top of their incredible technical abilities, they are very kind, generous people who work hard for charitable organizations conducting fundraisers regularly. They treat each other like family and schedule social events to get to know their colleagues and families better. They invest in their employees with extensive regular training and educational programs. The managers treat their staff with dignity and respect and encourage their personal and professional development. But best of all, I am surrounded by women every day. It’s not unusual for me to be in a meeting with 10 people and 8 of them are women. So I think I have finally landed at a firm that truly supports and advances women in transportation. They walk the walk and talk the talk. I am so blessed.

WTS:Where did you get your start in the industry, and in WTS?

LC:  I got started in transportation in 1989 when I began my career at Massport. This is also where I was first exposed to WTS. I had been working at a small environmental consulting firm in Braintree, MA, when an environmental analyst position opened up. I applied for it, got the job and the rest is history. I worked five years in the Massport’s Environmental Unit doing environmental compliance, planning and permitting then 10 years in the Capital Programs Department managing design and construction at Logan, Hanscom, and Worcester airports. On day two of work, my boss, Robin, said “Come on. We’re going to a luncheon today.”  Imagine my surprise when I walked into a room of 100 or so of some of the most powerful women in transportation in the Boston area. Massport has been a strong supporter of the Boston chapter for as long as I can remember. I immediately became a member and got very active in the chapter because Massport supported it. My connection to WTS began that day and has lasted ever since.

WTS:You are particularly passionate about attracting young women to the industry. What drives that passion?

LC:  I am driven because I want young women to know two things – 1) they can be anything they want to be, and 2) the transportation field is not just for planners and engineers. English, communications, legal, and finance majors can be in the field of transportation if they want to. There’s a place for everyone since transportation touches every aspect of our lives. We need professionals from all disciplines. My career in transportation has been so rewarding and I want to share that with other young women. I want them to know transportation exists and that it’s an option for a future career. I want to reach them as young as I can, like even as early as middle school. It’s never too early. I landed in transportation so accidentally and I’m glad my environmental career led me here. I just wish there was someone like me reaching out to me when I was in middle and high school and college telling me what I tell them now. My path to transportation would have been much faster!

WTS:What has been your experience as it pertains to women in leadership roles and career development?

LC:  I was fortunate that at my first long-term job at Massport—15 years of my career—I was exposed to many women in leadership positions. They were amazing role models. I learned a great deal from them and had many leadership opportunities at Massport. Being a woman never hindered my ability to grow or advance at there. It wasn’t until I went to the private engineering sector that I realized that there were not a lot of women around me anymore and that it’s not as easy to advance when you’re a woman in the private sector.

WTS:So in your experience in the private sector, then, what differences did you observe between your male and female direct supervisors?

LC: As far as bosses go, only two of the 15 bosses in my career have been women. And unfortunately, neither of them were great role models. Neither demonstrated good soft skills when it came to managing people, which is one of the things I think women leaders tend to be exceptionally good at – knowing how to manage and motivate people. But having a less-than-stellar boss can teach valuable lessons in how to manage people, too. So I found other role models in the industry, many of them through WTS, and grew on my own in those situations.

Only a few of my 13 male bosses truly supported me or provided advancement opportunities. But the ones who did really saw the exceptional skills I had and what I was capable of and gave me great professional growth opportunities to manage and do things I didn’t even know I was capable of. Who lets a 30-year-old lead the negotiations for a 50-year lease of a $110 million aircraft fueling system with 32 major airlines at Logan International Airport?  Well, one of the best male bosses I ever had let me! It was the best experience of my career. That’s what we should be doing to help advance women in transportation. We really need men and women alike providing opportunities to women over the course of their careers. Once we can get men and women managers to be gender-blind when it comes to providing growth opportunities and awarding promotions, women will advance at a faster pace and to higher levels faster.

WTS:Why did you feel it was important to join the Board of WTS Foundation?

LC:  This is my chance to pay it forward. WTS has given me so much during my career. The Foundation’s mission of education, research, and scholarship has always been a passion of mine. Since I joined WTS, I have volunteered in positions in various chapters related to scholarships, awards, and student outreach. It only made sense to take that next step from the chapter level and serve the Foundation of the organization that has supported me. I hope at this level I can make a bigger difference in the lives of young women that want a career in transportation.

WTS:Where are the opportunities for the next generation of leaders in this industry?

LC:  I believe the next several generations will have the opportunity to lead this industry at earlier ages and at earlier points in their careers. With programs like our mid-level and executive leadership programs, I believe we are giving women the knowledge, skills, and abilities to get into the “O” suites way earlier than we did. Can you imagine a world where half of the state DOT agencies are led by women? I can. I remember a time in the mid-1990’s at Massport when the new Executive Director promoted several women to department directors so that 11 of 13 directors were women. He might have been a little ahead of his time but he had the right idea. That was a very profitable, productive, happy, and fun time at Massport. It was also a very inspirational time at Massport for a young woman like me in her late twenties. I could see that there was hope for advancement and that being a woman in transportation was no hindrance to my ability to succeed.

WTS:What strategies do you feel will help bring WTS closer to achieving its mission?

LC:  The three elements of the WTS Foundation– education, research and scholarship – are critical to WTS achieving its mission. We need to continue to fund and award scholarships to encourage woman to enter the field of transportation. The cost of an education should not be a barrier to getting into the field. During my term as Foundation chair, I would like to focus on these key areas.

1. We need to develop a sustainable funding strategy for the Foundation so that we can increase the number and amounts of those scholarships, too. 

2. We need to continue to educate women at the various stages of their careers so that they have the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to advance and succeed. The revamp of the mid-level leadership program and the creation of the executive level leadership program were a great start. I’d like us to continue to proliferate these training programs to round out education for all stages of the career cycle.

3. We plan to take deeper dive into research related to women in transportation, including documenting the research currently available regarding successful approaches and techniques that help women advance in their careers, as well as document the career paths of our own members as they continue to engage with WTS and the opportunities membership offers.

 

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