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Change Agent: Beverley Swaim-Staley, On a Mission to Attract Women and Minorities to Transportation

March 4, 2013 04:13 PM

By Victor Greto

Beverley Swaim-Staley was flying from Montreal to Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) on September 11, 2001. She never made it.

Instead, her plane was diverted to Rochester, N.Y., where she rented a car and drove the remaining 360 miles to BWI, and, as its first woman director, led one of the busiest airports in the United States through one of the country’s worst tragedies.

“We spent the week at the airport, securing it, shutting it down, and focusing on all of the law enforcement at the airport, from the FAA and the FBI to the local police,” she said.  “We spent hours making sure we were aware of the different risks and elements of what was occurring and communicating to the airlines that were waiting to begin operations again.”

Her airport became one of only a handful to first open again. “We were actually selected as the pilot airport in the country and spent the next nine months working on the new procedures that became the TSA procedures. It was stressful and challenging, but exciting.”

This was only one of the more interesting weeks in the working life of Swaim-Staley, 56, a West Virginia native who rose through the ranks of Maryland state government to become, in 2009, the state’s first woman director of the Department of Transportation. She retired last year as the department’s chief to take on the job of President/CEO of the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, where her job is to turn the iconic Washington Union Station in Washington DC into a “world-class multimodal transportation center, tourist destination, and economic and community development generator.”

Born in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia–10 miles from the state she was destined to work in most of her life–and the oldest of three children, Beverley’s parents never finished high school. But she did, and at the age of 16, after her family moved to Hagerstown, Md., she headed off to college.

What separated Beverley from many of the other students was her budding passion for politics and current events. “I was of the generation that heard Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ inaugural call,” she says. Her parents were among the few in her small town to subscribe to the Washington Post, and she’s never stopped getting it. Even during high school, she says, she wanted to serve in government. “The 1960s was a time when public service was made to be attractive, an era when if you felt you wanted to give back working for government was a good way to do it.”

After a brief stint at a college in Nashville, where she learned she wasn’t into chemistry enough to be a doctor, she switched her major to political science at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Upon graduation, she worked for Washington County in Maryland, at first running a job services program, and then, after she graduated, worked full time running a workshop program for young people.

But an internship with the Maryland state legislature’s bipartisan Department of Fiscal Services when she was a senior in college had turned her on to public policy. But to get a full-time job there, she needed a Master’s degree in contemporary government, which she earned at night at Hood while working for the county. Soon after she got the degree, she began work as a budget analyst on environmental and natural resource issues in 1983 for the legislature in Annapolis.

She says she was very conscious of the fact that she was only one of a few women working there. “I was fortunate,” she says, “because there was a sub-committee chair there that was a woman, Nancy Kopp, now the state treasurer in Maryland. She was probably one of the first subcommittee and committee chairs and she was a great mentor.”

Swaim-Staley was so good with numbers and fiscal management, that she began working on the state’s transportation portfolio by 1988 and in 1993 became chief financial officer for the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) until 1998. This surprised her. “I frequently joke that I never would have imagined I was analytical,” she says. “But public policy and budgets go inextricably together. I learned that it always is ‘Follow the money,’ and in transportation, unless you can figure out how to get the dollars, you can’t build much infrastructure. That’s where the policy side meets the practical side. You have to know how to make things happen.”

And you also have to ground yourself in the reality of being a woman. When she became deputy secretary of MDOT in 2001 (while also directing BWI), she became even more aware. “I was the first women as deputy,” she says. “All the administrators who reported to me were men.” She felt fine, she says, because then-MDOT director, John Porcari (now U.S. deputy secretary of transportation) had faith in her.

“As a woman, I am conscious of coming up through the ranks, frequently in the minority, and I hope that has made me willing to make sure that all the voices at the table are heard,” she says. “It’s made mentoring important to me, to help others come up through the ranks. I’ve had opportunities to fill positions and do everything we can to be inclusive to make the extra effort to reach out all the places we need to attract a diverse workforce.”

An election pushed her out of the deputy job between 2003 and 2007, when she worked as director of the office of management and budget for Montgomery County. But another election propelled Porcari and herself back into their former MDOT roles. When Porcari left to become deputy secretary at USDOT in 2009, Swaim-Staley became Maryland’s first woman director.

During her tenure there, she says she’s most proud of the legislative and programmatic changes she was instrumental in making for Maryland’s Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) program. The refocused program is now a model with the right tools to effect and measure actual achievement of minority participation in state transportation contracts.  Swaim-Staley is also proud of the completion of an inter-county connector, the major new roadway in Maryland, negotiating the first public-private partnership for the port of Baltimore, and leasing out the state’s major restaurants and fuel services along the interstate.

On leaving Maryland she says, “It seems like every five years or so I’m looking for a new challenge and I felt like I had accomplished everything I needed to do.” It has been bittersweet, especially when she notes that there has been slippage in the past few years of women in executive positions. “When I became a secretary, there may have been 10 DOTs headed by women, and now it’s back down to five. Elections, and people, move on. Clearly, for the past 20 years women have been in the minority in the fields that would take them to DOT – engineering for example – and that is changing. But it’s going to take 10 to15 years for the young women in college to be at a place where you’ll see that change in leadership positions.”

Swaim-Staley says that the industry must mentor and retain women who enter the field.

“We have to reach out to women at the college level to attract them if they want to be architects and engineers,” she says. “I don’t know if young people view the public sector as desirable as I did when I grew up. We have to get the word out; there are incredible opportunities to make a difference, even early in your career. There are a lot of positive messages to get out.”



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