Women Business Owners: Pushing the Industry Forward

Women business owners in the transportation industry are pushing the WTS International mission forward and are challenging the assumptions about who can thrive in this industry.

As an organization, WTS International seeks to support their efforts by bringing awareness to DBE companies, connecting women through the Women Business Owners Roundtable (the Roundtable), and by offering women’s leadership training.

Odessa L. Phillip, PE, understands the power of WTS in helping her build her company and community. “From our first contract to our most recent contract, people from my WTS network have supported us through our growth,” Phillip said. “Not only has WTS given me access to a strong professional network of women and men in Baltimore and beyond, but I have also gained lifelong friends whom I turn to for personal and professional guidance.”

Now the President and CEO, and Founder of Assedo Consulting, LLC., Phillip first got involved with WTS as a member of WTS-Baltimore when she was selected to participate in the WTS International Chapter Leadership Program. “I was at a turning point in my career, and the program encouraged us to take a hard look at how we could take charge of our own professional destinies,” Phillip shared, “I met my professional mentor during that program and ultimately decided to leap into entrepreneurship which had until then only been an idea lurking in the corner of my mind.”

The WTS spirit of uplifting one another and encouraging each other to fulfill one’s potential is embodied no better than by Susan VanBenshoten, who currently serves as the President and CEO of Fitzgerald and Halliday, Inc (FHI). Founded by Ruth Fitzgerald in 1987, VanBenshoten became part owner in 2005 and took over as president and CEO in 2010. The succession from one female owner to another was no coincidence, “FHI wanted to provide this same opportunity to upcoming women leaders at the company and created generational ownership and leadership succession model that has been very successful,” VanBenshoten shared.  

As a champion and leader of the Women Business Owners Roundtable, she has made it a priority to explore topics that are rarely covered in other transportation industry forums. “I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had wonderful women mentors, and WTS has been the source of many of them, however, most mentoring is focused on technical and project delivery skills or universal leadership skills rather than business decision making and other business skills,” VanBenshoten said. “The roundtable is a unique opportunity to focus on those skills and strategies that help entrepreneurs tackle specific small- to medium-sized business challenges.”

Bridgette Beato has served as the CEO, Owner, and Principal of Lumenor Consulting Group since 2007. As a Director-at-Large of the WTS International Board and Chair of the DBE Committee, she offers a unique perspective to WTS leadership on the challenges small business owners face.

“Juggling the balance of work-life, acting as a mentor and advocate to those trying to achieve their goals or start out in their own, and delivering in an industry that gravitates towards men can feel like it takes twice the effort to build the relationships and gain the trust,” Beato said.

All three business owners acknowledged the financial barriers women business owners faced, “Women business owners historically are less likely to receive funding and have to find ways to manage cash flow in an industry that can be very slow to pay.” Beato continued, “You are not paid until the prime is paid, but you have no control over when they actually submit the invoice. This can cause challenges for many small business owners.”

Despite mentors, a supportive network, and peer insights, running a business is not easy. “Owning a service-based business in the transportation industry where funding can severely fluctuate depending on the authorization of transportation bills, can at times be really challenging,” Phillip said. VanBenshoten concurs and emphasizes at the Roundtable the importance of “Leadership that is not afraid to take risks that might have highly personal financial impacts.”

In addition, the challenges of being a small business can come from competing amongst larger firms under the assumption that ‘bigger is better.’ “Money talks and big firms have deeper pockets,” VanBenshoten observed, “But the smarts and nimbleness of a business owner is so often overlooked and rarely valued.” Phillip thinks women must “learn how to be business owners first, transportation professionals second, and then balance the needs of our clients and our ability to do the right thing,” in order to thrive. “None of these are easy but, when done correctly, it is all worth it!”

At the International level, Sara Stickler, Executive Director of WTS International, has prioritized supporting women entrepreneurs. In 2020, the Board of Directors, under Stickler’s leadership, formed the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Committee (DBE Committee) to research, learn, and support DBE and women entrepreneurs.

“We are working to remove the obstacles for women to become entrepreneurs in the transportation industry and to better support existing business owners,” Stickler stated. “Some of that work is about eliminating stereotypes about what an owner looks like, but much of it is providing guidance and best practices for the technical, legal, financial, and business challenges that are a part of entrepreneurship.”

For transportation to be diverse, inclusive, accessible to all people, we must make being a woman business owner accessible first.