Women in Transportation

Posted on October 18, 2006 by Editorial Staff

Jane Chmielinski
When Jane Chmielinski was a schoolgirl, she dreamed of becoming an English teacher, not the president and CEO of DMJM Harris, one of the nation’s leading public transit consulting firms. Yet strong oral and written communications skills have brought her to where she is today.

“Throughout my career, my ability to vocalize and write about my ideas has been so very important,” she says. “Engineering and consulting involve difficult concepts. Without those skills, I would not have been successful.”

As a journalism graduate, Chmielinski worked in the communications department of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), writing annual reports and conducting background research for environmental permitting. Environmental sciences were in their infancy in the 1970s, and Chmielinski found she had a knack for this new niche.

She moved up the MBTA ranks, eventually managing its environmental affairs department, where she led the permitting and compliance of more than $5 billion in construction projects. Her work with the MBTA landed her a position with the fledgling environmental planning office at DMJM Harris in 1993.

Rising through the ranks, Chmielinski served as senior vice president of corporate development. She was instrumental in the success of such large-scale projects as San Juan, Puerto Rico’s $2.5 billion rail system, Manhattan’s $16 billion Second Avenue subway and the terminal at Ground Zero in New York City.

Last October, Chmielinski assumed her current position in which she sees “the entire depth and breadth of the organization.

“I see things from the 35,000-foot level,” she says. But rather than allowing those heights to go to her head, Chmielinski perceives her vantage point as a means to help her 2,200-plus employees develop their careers.

“I’ve always been blessed to have people in my life who have cared enough to give me good advice or to put my name on the radar screen,” she says. “I’m often asked if there is a glass ceiling in this industry, and I say there’s no glass ceiling, but it’s a very sticky floor. Getting on that radar screen is often the biggest challenge. People can’t see what you’re doing and what you’re capable of doing if you’re not on their radar screen.”

Chmielinski says she delights in recognizing the talents and potential of her employees — someone who is a future leader, another who is technically savvy, another who may be great in marketing. She then gets them on the corporate radar screen.

Chmielinski sees her employees as her biggest asset. “If those assets don’t want to be here, if they don’t want to walk through that door every morning, my assets are severely diminished.”

She puts everything to this test: Is it good for my employees and my clients? “You will always succeed if you judge everything according to those two factors — engage your employees in their work, make sure they want to be here, and deliver quality products to your clients, products that they want.”

Chmielinski waxes poetic when she speaks of the importance of the work she does. “Transportation touches everyone’s life every day,” she says. “There aren’t many industries that can say that.

“Transportation of goods and people is at the heart of any civilization. To be a part of that vital component of every person’s life is exciting.” — HEIDI NYE

Beverly Duffy
Early in her career, Beverly Duffy worked for various engineering companies as a draftsman on electrical, mechanical, civil and architectural projects. She then struck out on her own doing residential design from her home while raising three children. In 1980, Duffy joined internationally-renowned engineering, construction and manufacturing company Morrison Knudsen (MK), where she started out as a draftsman in the civil engineering department in the railroad division. From there, she moved to the engineering department at the locomotive shop.

“I worked alongside the engineers and on the shop floor taking measurements, collecting data and preparing drawings for some of my projects,” Duffy says.

She was then offered the chance to work on the marketing side of things, where she was responsible for conferences, trade shows, special meetings, as well as advertising for the entire railroad division.

After 12 years, Duffy left MK on a voluntary layoff and went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Idaho in education, trades and industry, with an emphasis in drafting technology. After she received her degree, Duffy’s friend, Lin Wildermuth, founder and owner of Lin Industries (LI), a New York-based distribution company serving the rail/transit industry, offered her a position.

Always one to take on new challenges, Duffy left the city she had lived in for 36 years and drove 2,500 miles to Long Island, N.Y., where she began working for LI as a project manager on a large contract for Chicago’s Metra. Ten months after Duffy arrived at LI, Wildermuth was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died 13 months later.

“I had been doing most of the management of the company through the last year of [Lin’s] life, so in December of 1995, I bought the company from her estate,” Duffy says. Wildermuth founded the company, a certified Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) in 1983, starting out as a shock absorber distributor for New York City Transit’s first major overhaul program. The company later diversified into other parts distribution, including windows and various rail truck parts.

“When [Lin] died, one of my goals for LI was to maximize our value to our customers by providing them with as much DBE value as possible,” Duffy says. One way she has worked toward this goal was to open a manufacturing facility in upstate New York at the request of a customer. Meanwhile, the company’s executive offices remain in Long Island. “We took a leap of faith, and we now do distribution and ‘build-to-print’ assembly, which has enhanced our capabilities and our ability to better serve our customers.”

With her drafting days behind her, a majority of Duffy’s day-to-day responsibilities are spent on the marketing and sales aspect of the business, meeting with customers, making sales calls and traveling to discuss potential projects. Although her job appears to be quite a contrast from her original vocation, Duffy says her drafting ability has served her well. “The ability to read blueprints, to visualize spatially and to understand what my customer is saying in engineering terminology has been a tremendous plus,” she says.

In addition to her LI duties, Duffy values her involvement with the American Public Transportation Association, where she is on the board of directors and also participates on its Business Member Board of Governors and various other association committees. “I think it’s very rewarding as a small business and as a DBE, because we need a voice in this very large industry.”

Outside of work, Duffy continues to use her creativity by remodeling her Long Island home of six years in Farmingdale. Whale watching is another much-loved hobby, which has taken her to Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Boston. — JANNA STARCIC

Gale Ellsworth
Growing up in Fairhope, Ala., a small town on the Gulf of Mexico, Gale C. Ellsworth knew she was “at the bottom of the map. “I always wanted to go up,” Ellsworth says. And that she did.

As the president and CEO of Trailways Transportation System, one of the largest and most respected organizations of transportation operators in the country, Ellsworth has certainly “gone up.”

As a young girl, she never saw herself working in the industry, though she and her brothers were regular Trailways customers, catching buses in Mobile, Ala., and traveling to New Orleans and Jackson, Miss., to visit relatives.

As a young woman, Ellsworth and her Navy husband traveled widely, though the beauty of Washington, D.C., impressed her the most. While there, Ellsworth worked at the Washington Credit Center, where she provided participating stores with customer approval numbers — her first experience in making tough financial decisions.

Following a divorce, she received her degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, then returned to Washington as the vice president of marketing for Quality Hotels.

From there, she landed successive positions as the first-ever marketing director for the National Society of Fundraising Executives and the CEO of the Association for Women in Communications and its philanthropic arm, the Vanguard Foundation.

“The society needed someone to turn it around,” she says. “In three years, I took it out of debt and increased membership from 450 to 2,000.”

Ellsworth spied an ad in the foundation’s newsletter for Trailways, and in 1997, she became its first female CEO.

“Trailways has lots of female owners,” she says, “but from day one, it has always been male-driven, male-managed and male-dominated, a lot of father-son businesses, passed down one generation to the next. To have the courage, faith and confidence to hire a woman was a significant action on the board’s part.”

Ellsworth faced the task of turning Trailways around, as it was still reeling from Greyhound’s takeover of its largest operator in the late 1980s. That move had “cut us off at the knees,” she says.

“My job was to keep the brand alive and to find ways to work together with Greyhound, as we had in the past,” she says. “When I came on board, our remaining 23 members were schedule-route operators. I rebuilt Trailways through charter and tour operations.”

Today, the organization has 72 member operators, all of whom are certified for Department of Defense transportation. “My biggest satisfaction is knowing that our operators have regained their sense of pride. Trailways has not been purchased and gone away. It’s wonderful to receive a call from an operator who says he got some business because of the Trailways name.”

Ellsworth points to her ability to work well with volunteers — “the board of directors is all volunteer-based” — as well as her talents in marketing, finances and risk-taking as keys to leading Trailways through a difficult time.

“I’ve sweated the payroll in every organization I’ve been in,” she says. “It’s important to always realize that my cash comes from their cash.”

She says the reward comes when “you see something grow because of your hard work. If I left Trailways tomorrow, my successor wouldn’t have to worry about not being financially stable and not having enough members. I have taken care of that for him” — or, should the board wish to take a chance on another woman — for her. — HEIDI NYE

Donna Kelsay
It isn’t every day that a schoolteacher jumps into the driver’s seat of a transit bus, but Donna Kelsay, GM and CEO of San Joaquin (Calif.) Regional Transit District (RTD), did just that.

After 10 years in education, Kelsay, a single parent with six children, went to work as a bus operator for the Sacramento (Calif.) Regional Transit District (SRTD), as a means of supplementing her income.

“I never expected to be in transit. I had no clue,” she says.

After a few months on the job, she applied for a position with the agency’s light rail project “start-up” team, where she served as transportation supervisor. From the beginning, Kelsay was involved in every aspect of the project — from signaling and track testing and acceptance testing of the new light rail vehicles to writing the operating procedures that would be followed by the operators she helped train.

“It was a great introduction to transit and a great experience for me,” she says. “I just wanted to learn as much as I could about public transit because I am passionate about public transportation.”

Kelsay stayed with the SRTD for 14 years, working in various positions, including operations support, engineering and construction, and facilities management. During her tenure, she attended the Mineta Institute of Transportation Studies at San Jose (Calif.) State University, where she ultimately earned a master’s degree in transportation management.

Kelsay says working in nearly every aspect of public transportation afforded her the breadth of experience necessary to move on and take a position as assistant general manager of RTD. Her experience was put to the test early on. Just nine months after Kelsay came on board, the general manager and CEO who hired her died unexpectedly from an aneurysm. The board appointed her acting CEO immediately. Kelsay found herself, once again, in the driver’s seat.

“I remember telling my family, ‘This is not what I signed up for … I like being close to the top but not where the buck stops,’” she says.

Fortunately, Kelsay’s enthusiasm and love for public transit enabled her to steer RTD in the right direction, and her goals are being realized now through the enactment of what she refers to as a strategic plan. This vision, adorned on almost every wall in RTD’s organization, is what she says makes her the most proud.

“Our strategic plan starts with our employees as our top priority. My opinion is that unless we take care of our employees, we can’t take care of our customers,” she says.

Through collaborative efforts involving “task teams” representing all of the employees in the company — from bus cleaners to executives — Kelsay is able to respond to concerns from every level when making important decisions. She considers this the reason why her organization has become so much more efficient and offers its riders what she calls, “the very best product possible.”

Kelsay’s agency recently led a successful hybrid bus procurement consortium and will soon complete RTD’s new downtown transit center, a project that has been in development for the past 20 years.

Kelsay prides herself and her organization on the goals they set. Part of her mission is to be the transportation of choice for the residents that the agency serves.

“It is very rewarding to hear the stories of the people who tell us that we make a difference in their lives, and it’s very rewarding to see that we’re also making a difference in the lives of our employees,” she says.

Kelsay doesn’t limit RTD’s achievements to just that. Her new goal is to receive the American Public Transportation Association’s Transit Agency of the Year Award, which she says has been part of the agency’s strategic plan from the get-go. — CAMELLA LOBO

Katherine Lapp
Katherine Lapp, executive director of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), began her working life as a lawyer. For the first 10 years of her career, she worked in an appellate court for a chief judge, handling some major cases of state and national significance. “It was a great opportunity for a young lawyer to learn how policy decisions are made and how the law interacts with the facts that are presented in any case,” Lapp says.

When the judge moved on to become deputy mayor for public safety under then-New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Lapp became his chief of staff and counsel. “It was a great experience to see how decisions being made by City Hall impacted the lives of everyday New Yorkers,” she says. For the next four years, Lapp primarily worked in the areas of law enforcement and public safety.

In 1994, Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor, and Lapp was chosen to be part of his cabinet as criminal justice coordinator for the city. “I worked with the police department and all the criminal justice agencies to make sure that the entire ‘system’ was working at its optimum level, so that the mayor could do what he needed to do to bring down crime,” she says.

It was at this same time that Lapp had her first interaction with the MTA beyond taking the subway. As part of the mayor’s new policing strategy, Lapp was charged with merging MTA’s police force (approximately 4,000 officers) with that of the New York City Police Department (NYPD). “Right now, crime in the New York City subways is at its lowest levels,” she says. Lapp continued to work closely with the MTA to make sure its operational issues were considered and addressed by the NYPD.

Five years later, Lapp went to the state level to work for New York Gov. George Pataki as his state director of criminal justice, overseeing the state police and prison system. Shortly after 9/11, Pataki sent Lapp to work with the MTA’s chairman and executive director to discuss the issue of potential terrorist activity on the system. “[We needed] to look at the entire infrastructure and see what potential vulnerabilities existed and how to deal with them,” Lapp says.

At the end of 2001, MTA’s executive director position became available, and Lapp was asked to take it. Clearly, she accepted. In addition to dealing with security in her new position, the agency’s financial issues take up the lion’s share of her time. The agency’s challenge is the same as many others — how to fund the needs of the agency and how to get the political leaders and elected officials to provide the necessary funding, she says. Lapp draws from her legal training to make her case for transit as “compelling as possible to get people to listen.

“Although the financial issues are not over with, I think we have tackled most of them,” Lapp says.

Due to past disinvestment in the system, it has taken almost 30 years to get the situation to where it is today. “We are at record ridership, our on-time performance is at peak levels and we are now poised for the first time to start expansion,” Lapp says. Two major projects in the works include the Eastside Access project, which will bring the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central Station, and the new Second Avenue Subway, the first new subway line of note within the last 75 years.

Commenting on what she finds most rewarding about her work, Lapp says it’s when she rides on the subway or a bus and overhears passengers, which she says are usually tourists or displaced New Yorkers, commenting on how the system has changed for the better.

In her free time, Lapp likes to “hang out and relax.” She also enjoys playing golf, despite “not being very good at it,” she says with a laugh. — JANNA STARCIC

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