When Women Lead

 March 08, 2019

By Eileen Rose

AECOM understands why balancing for better matters, which is why the company set a goal back in 2015 to double women in leadership positions by 2020. As the firm steadily makes progress toward achieving this, its commitment to women in leadership is having a big impact on the company’s headquarters city of Los Angeles. In fact, four of its top female executives are focusing their formidable business skills on one of the 21st century’s most devastating social problems—homelessness.

These four women share much in common. They lead business divisions and corporate functions at the global infrastructure giant. They are mothers raising young children. And they are volunteer leaders in community service, determined to apply their talents and energy beyond the walls of their organization. That resolution has led each of them on an individual path to a common issue, the growing scourge of homelessness—in the city of angels and around the world.

AECOM-women lead

A complex leadership issue

Kelli Bernard understands the complexities that drive homelessness in Los Angeles better than most. AECOM’s national leader of city initiatives served in the city’s administration for 8 years, most recently as deputy mayor, before joining the company in 2016. She currently chairs the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Commission, a 10-member board that oversees policy and coordinates funding decisions for the $300 million the Authority annually spends on housing and services for the homeless population in greater Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles has the largest un-housed homeless population in the United States,” says Kelli.

“The city has made great strides in addressing the issue, but the numbers of people falling into homelessness each year are rising faster than we have been able house them.”

Homelessness, Kelli notes, is largely a symptom of other issues: housing affordability, employment barriers and low entry-level wages, shortcomings in mental health services and in criminal justice rehabilitation services. “Part of our role on the LAHSA Commission is to work with other government agencies and private groups to ensure these underlying issues are acknowledged and are being addressed,” she says.

It’s a complex leadership issue, but one that Kelli relishes.

“I didn’t come to the challenge of homelessness as an expert,” she says. “It was an issue the mayor asked me to take on as his deputy. I needed to educate myself. And I needed to demonstrate to a team of very bright people who often knew a great deal more than I did that I was committed and willing to learn from them. It was an incredibly valuable experience in my development as a leader. I learned the critical importance of paying attention to a team’s needs, of encouraging them to speak up and keeping them deeply engaged in a demanding goal. “

Kelli’s always been drawn to complicated problem-solving. “The more complex an issue,” she says, “the more engaged I become with it. That’s why I was attracted to AECOM. It’s an organization that excels at solving some of the world’s biggest, thorniest problems. I wanted to be a part of that.”

A lifeline for the homeless

Carla Christofferson’s path to the issue of homelessness began on a farm in North Dakota. 

“Growing up in rural America, I was saved by the book mobile and the librarians who ran it,” says AECOM’s chief legal officer. “They allowed me to borrow as many books as I could carry home and read until their next visit. Their unfailing kindness and encouragement made a huge impact on my life. I recognized then that libraries played a central role in the vitality of a community. I wanted to support their mission.”

For more than 10 years, Carla has served on the board of directors of The Library Foundation of Los Angeles, an independent fundraising organization that partners with 73 Los Angeles Public Library locations to enhance the resources and services they offer the community. Many of those services provide a lifeline for the homeless.

“Being homeless can be a very dehumanizing experience,” says Carla. “You become, in effect, invisible. The public library is a place where everyone is welcome, where everyone is offered respect.” 

“Librarians get to know their visitors,” she says. “They learn, over time, what they need. This has led to the creation of countless programs and services. Summer reading programs, but also programs to feed hungry kids when they come to read. Free Wi-Fi, but also free online homework help. Access to computers, but also to a warm, safe space to use them on a cold day.”

“Working with the Library Foundation has been an eye-opening experience for me in many ways,” notes Carla. “I’ve met people I wouldn’t otherwise have met, visited parts of the city I would never have seen, learned about our city’s rich history, and its many challenges and inequalities. And I’ve witnessed, over and over again, the impact of caring and empathy. It doesn’t take a lot to change the course of someone’s life, but it does take awareness.”

Carla sees a similar theme playing out in the growing numbers of women now reaching for broader leadership roles in their professional lives.

“When I joined AECOM in 2015,” she notes, “I was the first woman on the executive leadership team. Now there are four. That kind of visible leadership diversity has a power of its own. And, believe me, we’re not shy. If we see something, we say something.”

Having a voice and the confidence to use it

Mary Finch would agree. AECOM’s chief human resources officer spends most of her working hours building a workplace where all employees feel empowered to speak up.

“We talk a lot in the HR community about “enabling” people to succeed,” says Mary. “I believe that process starts with a voice and the confidence to use it. People need the space and the encouragement to understand and develop their own ambitions, and then the confidence to speak up and act on them. The workplace environment and the leadership that supports that process is critical. That’s empowerment in action. And it creates huge momentum in an organization.”

Two holiday seasons ago, Mary found an opportunity to apply her beliefs to a different kind of challenge. She and 19 other women raised initial funding for a start-up non-profit, Her Story, that builds communities in rural areas of Central America for single mothers and their children who are living below the poverty line often in unsafe environments.

“This was like lighting a match for me,” says Mary of the opportunity. “This is empowerment at its most basic. Helping people survive some of the darkest, most threatening situations that exist in the world today, creating an environment in which they feel safe to act, and then providing tools that can help them thrive.

“The idea that empowerment is strengthened through community also spoke to me,” adds Mary. “It reinforced my strong belief about what is the essence of our HR mission at AECOM. I want everyone at the company, men and women, to feel empowered to express their ambitions openly and to act on them—to drive their personal and professional goals and reach their potential.”

Becoming involved in Her Story was also an opportunity to give her children a very special gift.

“Our family didn’t exchange presents that year,” says Mary. “Instead, we all agreed to use those funds to support Her Story’s launch. It has been a great experience for all of us and in particular for my children to better understand how they can impact a community much broader than their own through kindness and taking action.

On a path to personal stability

AECOM women

Heather Rim works on behalf of a different community in need, one closer to home. AECOM’s chief communications and marketing officer serves as president of the board of directors of the Downtown Women’s Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that supports and empowers women who are experiencing homelessness and those who were formerly homeless. The
organization’s mission is clear-cut: a city with every woman housed and on a path to personal stability.

“Homelessness is one of the great crises of our time,” says Heather, “and the Downtown Women’s Center has a very tangible, direct impact through housing, wellness, employment, and advocacy. Most importantly, we provide a safe haven for women facing a daily battle with despair.”

Heather notes that in the 40 years since the Center opened, the women’s homeless population has grown dramatically in Los Angeles. In response, the organization has increased its fund-
raising, expanded its programming, and now serves more women than ever before in its history.

“I’ve always been drawn to organizations focused on eliminating poverty,” says Heather. “I’m passionate about being an advocate for those without a voice. This is soul-filling work.”

It’s also a tremendous opportunity,” she continues. “Leadership development doesn’t have to be limited to the boundaries of an employer. Serving on a board is one of the greatest experiences you will have in your professional life. You are exposed to all aspects of running an organization. You are encouraged to become involved in operational areas that you may not gain exposure to in your own company role.”

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” says Heather. “You contribute to a purpose that inspires and motivates you. You broaden your experiences and develop new skills. And your employer benefits from the leadership muscle you develop.” 

All four of these women acknowledge the importance of working for an organization that supports their initiatives, both inside and outside company walls. They also understand and embrace the critical role they play as models for their younger colleagues. They are actively working for a world in which their own children can pursue any dream, any goal, unimpeded by false barriers—the “background chatter” as Kelli Bernard puts it—of outdated gender assumptions.

“Our sons and daughters are watching, they are listening,” says Heather Rim. “It’s long past time to silence the chatter and allow them to experience a world in which women simply lead.”

From purpose comes reward

When one's work provides purpose and it helps to forge a #BalanceforBetter in the world, then the reward is appealing - for all. 

Learn more about AECOM's commitment to advance economic opportunity, protect the environment and improve lives through its corporate responsibility platform, Blueprint for a Better World. 

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